Jacinda Ardern can finally rid her coalition of Winston Peters and New Zealand First

LABOUR’S decision to go into coalition with New Zealand First in 2017 may have been necessary to form a government, but it would clearly limit Jacinda Ardern’s progressive policy plans.

Winston Peters’ party managed to secure several concessions from Labour during coalition talks, including a ban on foreign ownership and securing an upcoming vote on legalising euthanasia.

Peters – who also played kingmaker when forming a confidence-and-supply agreement with Labour in 1999 – may be facing a return to oblivion in this month’s elections, however.

The latest polls suggested Labour would earn 59 seats – well up from the 46 they gained in the 2017 election, and more crucially, enough to rid themselves of New Zealand First. They would still be two short of an absolute majority, however.

Both political theory and empirical reality suggest ruling governments generally don’t hold up at the polls – a key example being the UK Labour Party’s falling vote in 2001 and 2005 after storming into a landslide 1997 victory.

But Jacinda Ardern has navigated New Zealand through a multitude of difficult periods during her tenure – and that, according to Professor Robert Patman of the University of Otago, is why her vote has not only held up, but increased – even during a pandemic.

“It is important to recognise why Ardern has established a strong lead in the polls,” he told Redaction Politics.

“Most Kiwis recognise that the Ardern leadership has, in the space of two years, had to deal with virtually unprecedented crises – the worst terrorist atrocity in New Zealand’s history at Christchurch in March 2019 when a White Supremacist murdered 51 New Zealanders, and the worst global pandemic since 1918 in the form of Covid-19.

“In both cases, Ardern has demonstrated a decision-making style that has won a great deal of respect nationally and internationally.

“In both of these crises, the NZ Prime Minister has combined the ability to show empathy with a capacity to take decisive action.”

With Judith Collin’s National Party still lingering on a projected 43 seats, it is tough to envision how she could feasibly form a government.

It means that – bar an absolute political gaffe between now and October 17 – that the Labour leader will still be top Kiwi after polling day. And she could rule without the populist tendencies of Winston Peters, whose party is polling at just two percent.

Professor Patman admitted that while polls will likely narrow over the new few weeks, “Ardern’s Labour party would seem to have a significant polling lead over the major opposition party.”

“Nevertheless, for any political party to win outright under New Zealand’s MMP electoral system of proportional representation, it would need 48-49 per cent per cent share of the popular vote. That is a hard ‘ask’.”

Had the election been held in July, before the Covid resurgence in Auckland, Labour would be on track to exceed 61 seats, polling suggested.

However, effective criticism from ‘Crusher Collins’ during electoral debates has potentially robbed Ardern of the chance to govern alone.

Professor Patman added: “More likely, Labour will need a minor party coalition partner and I think, if Labour continues to poll well, a Labour-Green party coalition could not be discounted.”

Ardern would naturally prefer a coalition with the more progressive Green Party, and, while not governing with an absolute majority, a centre-left coalition will allow her to build a more forward-thinking platform.

“If the Labour party no longer needs the support of NZ First, I think we can anticipate a more progressive social policy at home and perhaps a more forward-leaning, independent foreign policy,” Professor Patman said.

“Winston Peters, the Foreign Minister, has had links with the Brexit camp in the UK and that affinity is not shared by the Labour leadership as a whole which is firmly committed to upholding an international rules-based order.

“At the same time, Jacinda Ardern must be conscious that she has become one of the most popular leaders in the world and if comfortably re-elected she may believe she can pursue a higher profile foreign policy.”

Robert Patman is professor of politics and director of international studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. You can find his latest book, New Zealand and the World, here. For Professor Patman’s videos on New Zealand politics, you can find his Youtube channel here.

Featured Image: Governor-General of New Zealand @WikimediaCommons

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