A very MMP election... & a manicured mandate

After a wee holiday, some thoughts on how the new government should play its hand... and reflections on some good decisions that laid the ground for the 'coalition of losers'

In case you've been wondering, yes, I've been away for a bit. Taking Winston Peters at his word, I felt comfortable planning a holiday in the US from October 13. Well, that'll learn me! I got to watch him announce New Zealand First's choice of coalition partner sitting up in bed in Los Angeles.

I can accurately say that the day New Zealand got a new government in 2017, I was in Fantasyland. [Insert joke or witty political insight here].

Coming back to New Zealand and starting to pick up work that has nothing to do with politics I feel oddly detached from what is a remarkable political swing for this country. A genuine moment of history. That's not to say that from a distance some things have stood out and some thoughts are eager to burrow the surface of the page.

I know this had been tossed around and around in the past month, but given I have been fretting about how New Zealanders will deal with this eventuality for more than five years, I feel compelled to say I have no problem with a 'coalition of losers'. If you can cobble together enough votes to command a majority in the House, you can govern. 

It's interesting to look back at that 2012 post - during that brief moment when the David Shearer-led Labour Party looked vaguely viable - and my prediction that the leader of the party which came second heading off to see the Governor-General would 'cause a huge commotion'. As it turned out, not so much.

Back in 2008, the soon-to-be Prime Minister John Key said:

"All of the last four MMP elections have reflected that the largest party formed the government and I think that just reflects the will of the people. It's called democracy."

It turns out, democracy works just as well if the largest party doesn't lead the government. And while I have fretted for years that the media may not have done enough in advance to prepare people for this prospect, New Zealanders - if a little surprised in some quarters - seem to be largely accepting.

Why? Several reasons. For one, this is the third time New Zealand First has held the balance of power, and while he went for the largest party the other two times, it didn't seem too radical for many that a party that had fulfilled that role before should be able to go either way. The period of time taken to negotiate the government - while frustratingly longer than Peters had promised and pockmarked with one or two bizarre and unwise outbursts - was actually a decent and sensible length. To his credit, Peters made clear he was considering both sides with thorough care and consideration, and so (rants aside) voters felt the process was sound.

To journalists' credit, their coverage of negotiations - while also prone to a few wild stories to fill the empty days - showed that, especially after the special votes were counted, that New Zealand First had a genuine choice. While the meaningless words 'moral mandate' may have been used a bit more than I would have liked, the reportage made it clear to New Zealanders that whichever party Peters announced was a viable and democratic option.

The fact the National and Labour-Green bloc could be presented that way is significant and has perhaps not been acknowledged as much as it could be. Labour especially copped an immense amount of flak for signing its Memorandum of Understanding with the Greens. And the Greens almost as much. 

Critics said under MMP each party should be trying to maximise its vote, not doing deals in advance. Labour shouldn't shackle itself and should commit to being a broad church that keeps the Greens in their place, some said. The Greens should leverage themselves out of their left-wing ghetto, others said.

All reasonable points. But they missed the key purpose of that MoU and why it was so important. That MoU allowed New Zealanders to get used to thinking of Labour and the Greens as a bloc. While they bickered and often missed opportunities to really look like a government-in-waiting, it still had the underlying effect of presenting the pair as an alterantive government.

The pay-off for the MoU was through those negotiations. It's now. The prize is people being able to talk about National and the Labour-Greens bloc being neck-and-neck and not being spooked or unnerved by it. And New Zealand First being able to choose that pairing in the knowledge voters would not punish them for some wacky, destablisising move.The leaders who gambled on signing that deal deserve credit for seeing the need and taking the risk.

What that allowed was a change of government without crisis. New Zealand hasn't seen that since I was in nappies. You'd arguably have to go back to Norm Kirk in 1972, when the government changed hands without some sense of drama disaster overshadowing the vote. Some might say 1975, but Kirk's death and the oil crisis might suggest otherwise.

Either way, since then the fourth Labour government came in at a time when the New Zealand economy was on its knees and nearly unable to pay its way. The fourth National government had the BNZ crisis and then nurtured that sense of crisis further with its Mother of All Budgets. The fifth Labour government, under Helen Clark, won in 1999 after the collapse of the first MMP coalition and Jenny Shipley's patch-up job. Finally, John Key took over as the Global Financial Crisis was turning the world upside down.

Drama, drama. Yet this change of government is a more moderate and manicured affair. It's neat and tidy. There's no great demand for change from the electorate, no crisis to face down, no party imploding or knife to be withdrawn from anyone's back.

The result could have gone either way. For once, the electorate really did allow 'the kingmaker' to choose. New Zealand First had a clear mandate to go either way. While voters opened the door, it's Winston and co who turned this into 'a change election'.

Labour has started with vigour and purpose. It seems to be appreciating its rare opportunity to start governing on the front foot and without drama. The initial 100 day policies are, unsurprisingly, the most popular ones. Pike River, banning foreign buyers, extending paid parental leave, planting trees and promising money to the regions. But the other gnarly bits are there too.

The practical problems of what to replace National Standards with, how to build those 100,000 houses, how to cut suicides and what to add to the Reserve Bank's priorities all loom large. Which is why Labour has to proceed carefully.

The preparation of recent years means New Zealanders seem to have accepted that 2017 has now become a change election. But the risk of over-reach is a clear and present danger. While Labour and co will want to hit the ground running, it will need to settle into a steady pace. Too fast and it could easily trip.

It needs to keep thinking carefully about the mandate it has received. One look across the House at the size of the Opposition should be enough to keep it pausing for thought. It has won a mandate to govern and to act decisively. But that does not amount to a red stamp for even a small revolution. So Jacinda Ardern and her new ministers should proceed with caution and remember that voter support needs to be earnt day by day, not just every three years.