As you may or may not remember, there was a general election in New Zealand last month. The outcome (which is dissected in more detail here) left the National Party looking set for a fourth term in office, as the largest party and only requiring a confidence-and-supply agreement with New Zealand First and their enigmatic septuagenarian leader Winston Peters.
The plucky Labour Party campaign led by new leader Jacinda Ardern had slightly run out of steam as the vote edged closer. Although the 46 seats secured was a huge achievement, it left Ardern having to court the populist Peters while keeping the Green Party on side to have any chance of forming a government.
Peters (pictured above) is renowned for somewhat erratic behaviour. He started out as a National MP, first elected in 1978, before subsequently breaking with the party to form NZ First in 1993. Just three years later Peters found himself as kingmaker in parliament, and so decided that in order to mull over whether to support Labour or his old party he should go out fishing. On that occasion he chose to prop up a National government, part of the reason so many considered Bill English to have the edge over Ardern in negotiations with Peters.
There were to be no impromptu days out on the boat for Peters this year, however. Negotiations lasted 26 days before he could finally decide as to which party would gain his support. Peters called a press conference to announce his decision and while his speech was ongoing it became clear that he had yet to inform either of the would-be-PMs of his decision. In the end, Peters announced that it would not be the highly experienced former Finance Minister to whom NZ First’s cart would be tied, but the 37 year old Ardern, leader for just 80 days, and her Labour Party.
So, what had produced this dramatic decision? For a casual, British, observer of politics this coalition would seem to be like Jeremy Corbyn emerging from a general election having become PM after a deal with UKIP. This comparison falls apart when one looks a bit closer and realises that Labour, like NZ First, promised a cut to immigration in their manifesto – in fact it was a refusal to slash immigration as much as Peters desired that led to English coming out of talks without a deal. NZ First also joined with Labour in calling for more house-building across New Zealand, and ran a campaign calling for a change to the status quo of National government, making it politically inconvenient to then prop English up.
Ardern has also paid a high price for power. NZ First will get four ministerial posts within cabinet, with Peters expected to become Foreign Minister and Deputy- Prime Minister. Defence and Education are also expected to be given to NZ First MPs, along with a newly created super-department for economic development.
The deal between Labour and NZ First also only takes the coalition to 55 out of 120 seats. In order to govern they will rely on a further confidence-and-supply agreement with the Green Party. Leader James Shaw has said he’s ‘very confident’ that Green delegates will give the go-ahead to the deal, despite concerns over how the Greens will co-operate with NZ First given their ideological differences. The Greens have never before been in government, and the agreement proposed by Ardern (below) would see them get three junior ministerial posts in the new government.
Ardern will need to keep both her newfound bedfellows on side at all times, as she will face probably the strongest opposition in the history of the shaky isles. Whether Bill English stays on as National leader remains to be seen, but whoever does lead the party will have a rump of 56 MPs and the support of 44% of New Zealanders, and they will be ready to cause problems for the government whenever they can.
New Zealand has never had a one-term government, but they have also never had a government as delicately pieced together as the one which will be led by Ardern. Thus far she has aced every test she’s faced as leader, bringing a party that was seen as being on the brink of a crushing defeat just three months ago into government for the first time since 2008. Now New Zealand will see if she has the ability to manage two separate governing partners with the slimmest of majorities.
After a year of shocks and surprises in Kiwi politics, Ardern will be hoping for plain sailing as she embarks on her first term as PM.