During the dim, distant past of New Zealand’s recent election campaign, soon-to-be-former prime minister Bill English grumbled that the “stardust” that was falling thick and fast on new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern would settle.
Well, it just has – in such quantities that some time next week Ardern will be sworn in as the 40th - and second youngest - prime minister of Aotearoa/New Zealand.
From stardust to PM
It is quite some denouement to an extraordinary period in New Zealand’s political history. A little under three months ago, Ardern was the deputy leader of a Labour Party that was polling in minor party territory. From deputy leader of a struggling opposition party to prime minister in under three months – that’s stardust on an industrial scale.
For Winston Peters, too, who is likely to become the next deputy prime minister (for the second time), it is a spectacular return to form. Three times Peters has been the veto player in the government formation process. On each occasion he has kept everyone guessing, including, it appears, members of his own caucus.
So, here’s what we know. The new government will comprise a formal coalition between Labour and NZF (the first executive coalition we’ve had on this side of the ditch since 2005). As a minority administration, it will govern with support on confidence and supply from the Greens.
NZF will hold four cabinet positions and an additional slot outside of cabinet. This means that just over half of its caucus will be in the political executive. The Greens, too, will – for the first time in their history – have ministerial portfolios: three outside of Cabinet and one parliamentary under-secretary.
But there’s plenty we don’t yet know. We’re not sure who will occupy which portfolios (although we’re fairly sure Peters will be the deputy prime minister). Neither will we know the nature of the policy detail (if any) in the executive agreement and its associated confidence and supply document until next week.
Few rules to form a government
The last time NZF was in formal coalition – ironically, with the National Party in 1996 – there was an awful lot of devil in that detail. Since then, New Zealand governments have moved away from policy-prescriptive agreements to arrangements that emphasise procedural certainty and clarity. However, the attention that has clearly been paid to matters of policy in the negotiations over the last three weeks suggests we may see a swing back to a greater emphasis on policy substance.
Once the dust – wherever it happens to have come from – has settled on today’s momentous events, a number of features of this election will merit careful reflection.
In particular, questions will certainly be asked of the way in which New Zealand governments are formed. Almost alone amongst mature parliamentary democracies, there are few or no formal rules governing the process. Apart from the constitutional requirement that the government is formed by the party or parties able to demonstrate to the governor-general that they command the confidence of parliament, there is little formal guidance and few restrictions on the process.
That goes a long way to explaining why it has taken a few days short of four weeks to form this government and why, for the first time under the mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system in New Zealand, the incoming government will not be led by the party that won the largest number of seats in the election. All of this is perfectly constitutional, but disconcerting for some New Zealanders nonetheless.
Expect big, boisterous opposition
What next? National will be furious. Expect some talk over the next couple of days of the “moral authority” the party had to govern, given that it won a clear plurality of parliamentary seats. While the constitution recognises no such thing, National certainly had political precedence on its side.
National will ride that wave of righteous anger – internally at least, if not outwardly for public consumption – for some time to come. Hell hath no fury and so forth. And if the Labour/NZF/Green governing bloc starts fraying at the edges, then National’s claim to “moral authority” will start to look a little less imaginary.
But this might not have been a bad election for National to lose. The party can now move on from the Key years, start generating fresh ideas and begin bringing through some of its younger talent as it remakes itself as a conservative force. Moreover, National will comprise a big, boisterous opposition. The parliamentary conventions and rules governing the allocation of questions in the house, speaking time and membership on select committee positions mean that it will be able to make life very challenging for the new administration.
Human face of capitalism
And what of the new government? For Labour, NZF and Greens – which between them represent 50.5% of those who cast party votes in the election (against National’s 44.4%) – this is the chance to effect change following nine years of orthodox neoliberal government from National.
Peters’ claim when announcing his decision that he wanted to be part of a government that would restore ‘capitalism with a human face’ falls far short of a clarion call for the destruction of neoliberalism. It does, however, signal a significant change in policy direction. For those New Zealanders on the wrong side of the ledger when it comes to our dire performance in health, housing, productivity, wage and salary growth, poverty and so on, that change can’t come soon enough.
This, then, will be a legacy government, one that represents a generational shift in thinking away from the priorities of the baby boomers towards the concerns of the millennials. The irony that such a thing has been brought about by a man on the other side of 70 won’t be lost on anyone. “Let’s do this” was Ardern’s campaign slogan. Now we get to see how New Zealand’s political odd couple go.
Authors: Richard Shaw, Professor of Politics, Massey University