Of coalitions and kings

Colin Espiner has promised to eat his blog post if the Maori Party does a deal with National. I think he's right, and here's why...

With Labour's announcement last weekend that it would be making no more major spending promises, the refreshing policy focus of this campaign came to an abrupt end. The media stuttered and stalled briefly then, in fear of running out of things to say, started talking about coalitions. (Until Lockwood Smith kindly offered himself up as the clown of the week. But that's another story).

Amidst the coalition speculation, one journalist bravely took a stand. Colin Espiner – a journalist whose work has stood out this year since we returned from the US – said what I've been saying for months.

The political landscape, he wrote in his On the House blog, "means National needs to get very close to 50% of the party vote to have any hope of forming a government. The maths is cruel, but there you have it. The polls mean very little against the reality of MMP".

For all the talk of National sleep-walking to victory, it's always been a closer race than the media has reported for the simple reason that National does not, and has never had, the coalition options of Labour. And to be honest, I've never really figured out why journalists haven't made that clearer to their audiences.

There seems to be an underlying assumption that because National will get the most votes, it is in the box seat when it comes to negotiating wih other parties. That's only partly true. National will be able to argue that is has the "will of the people" behind its efforts to form a government. But practically speaking, it's not as if the governor-general will give John Key the first crack at forming a government. As Dr Jon Johansson says, "the convention is very loose". The governor-general only has to be convinced that a viable governing arrangement has been made, and is likely to keep his nose well out of it for as long as possible. The dynamic of the negotiations will be shaped by the commitments already made, and with the Greens and Progressives lined up on Labour's side and Act on National's, it's an open book. National has ruled out New Zealand First, but New Zealand First has not ruled out National. Which raises the question – unlikely, but possible all the same – whether National's front bench roll John Key if it meant getting Winston on-side and forming a government?

So, with all these questions swirling round, why did Espiner choose this week to point out National's difficulties? He came to his conclusion after a conversation with Dr Pita Sharples. The Maori Party remains the likely king-maker come November 9, and the party's co-leader gave Espiner every indication that he'd rather enter a coalition with Labour than with National. I've interviewed Sharples as well. Only a couple of times admittedly, but enough to get a sense of his instincts. He's a natural interventionist and progressive. There's nothing conservative about him.

Espiner points to the Maori seats issue, the Brash years and all the other reasons so many Maori have so many doubts about National, before nailing it:

To be honest, it’s about whanau. It’s about history. It’s about links between Maori and Labour that go back 100 years. This stuff matters to Maori. At the end of the day, Maori simply won’t wear a coalition with National. Sharples knows this, even if no one’s told Tariana Turia.

Espiner then gets endearingly over-excited.

I’ll go further. I’ll say this: the Maori Party will not go into a coalition government with National. If I’m proved wrong after the election, I’ll print out this blog and eat it, live on webcam.

He adds the caveat that he's not ruling out the Maori Party offering supply and confidence or abstaining from government, but reckons they're unlikely scenarios. Me too. Sharples and Turia want to be at the Cabinet table. They want change now.

The point is that Maori Party supporters have a gut affiliation with Labour. The party plans to hold hui after the election to consult with its supporters before settling on any coalition deal. It's hard to imagine the majority at those hui won't be pro-Labour. If the Maori Party goes against that expression of will, it's heading out on a limb for three years, and if the political wind changes for any reason, it could quickly be blown from its perch.

Sharples knew that three years ago when I interviewed him for a Listener cover story. He told me,

“If your people tell you to do something, you do it. Finish. Or sign off. You can’t represent your people, then turn your back on them.”

As my high school history teacher taught me to say, "the evidence suggests" that the Maori Party's 'we might go with National' line is 90 percent negotiating bluff.

And yet. There's a nagging doubt that's stopped me being quite as 'I'll eat my hat' about all this as Espiner. As Martyn Bradbury has pointed out on Pundit, Turia is conservative, and it's her party after all. She took the risk of leaving Labour, she founded it, so maybe she over-rides Sharples.

Then there's the very real possibility that a Labour-Greens-New Zealand First-Progressives-United Future-Maori Party coalition could be too much for even Helen Clark's and Michael Cullen's formidable political management skills. Even if you take out New Zealand First, just thinking about the political complexity of keeping every one of those parties happy makes your temples throb and your toes go numb.

Finally, there's the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Here's what Sharples told me just three years ago:

“We’ve been around to the doors and we’ve talked to people. We thought the bruising over the foreshore was a big bruising, and we knew. And we were counting on it. That’s why I stood. I’ve got to help these Maori who are hurting over this last, ultimate snub by the government.”

At another point in our conversation, on the beach at Okahu Bay, he added, "You have no idea how hurt they are. They are so hurt".

He was genuinely furious with what Labour – Labour! – had done. Their "last, ultimate snub". And in three weeks he may have the power to throw that snub back in their faces.

So, if National can offer Maori the repeal of that Act... And if Turia's personal anger with Clark – which was strong, make no bones about it – is still smoldering... If the Maori Party decides a coalition of many colours is just too risky...

It's those thoughts that stop me short. Colin, I think you're probably right. I'm delighted that a political editor has finally said the words out loud. But excuse me if I don't join you in promising to eat my post.