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Rankin on Thursday - A Government of the Centre?

There are times I worry about Winston; Peters that is, not that notorious party hopper Churchill. Every time he says "MMP" I sense another percentage point of anti-MMP sentiment. And when he talks about watertight coalition documents and talks of compulsory retirement savings and compulsory military or community service, I shudder.

Yet Winston Peters is only a threat to good government in New Zealand if the election result is evenly balanced and the major parties insist on trying to build governments of the left or of the right rather than of the centre.

Peters' latest position, of standing aside and letting the other parties sort out which of them will be in government, is sensible and responsible. Peters does not have to be a king or queen maker; he is easily circumvented. He was thrust in that position in 1996 solely because the other parties were unwilling to form (or unable to conceive of forming) the government of the centre that the New Zealand voters asked for.

Our political imaginations remain constrained by the binomial language of the FPP "winner takes all" adversarial system that we dumped (thank God) in 1993. How can we have just one "leader of the opposition" in a multi-party parliament? We talk about the "balance of power", a "hung parliament", "propping up" the enemy, and the "tail wagging the dog". In doing so, we demonise Winston, simply because of the perception that he has or will have more power than he has earned. In fact, Winston only has additional power if other parties cede it to him.

On Sunday an Act Party strategist was reported as saying (Sunday Star-Times): "Under First Past the Post you just slug the other bastards, but MMP is different". Yet even our more responsible media - as in Radio New Zealand's Morning Report on Monday - struggle to accept that the adversarial FPP system is no more. They forever fret about things like the balance of power.

Our media are even less able than politicians to see that an election which yields no clear result to the left or to the right should lead to a government that is neither of the left nor of the right; a government that must be made from parties of both left and right. If there is no clear preference for the left or the right, it will mean that we - collectively though not individually - want to be governed by Labour AND National working towards shared goals. More than anything, our voters want good political behaviour, which means the major parties working (and being seen to be working) in a collegial rather than an adversarial way.

We all accept that if a majority of voters vote for the left-leaning parties (as they did in 1993), then we should have a government of the left (something we haven't had since 1972). Likewise, we all (or at least all the democrats among us) accept that if a majority of voters vote for the parties of the right, then we'll have a government of the right. We just get our brains in a bit of a twist when neither the left nor the right are given a mandate to govern.

All Winston Peters does is increase the probability that neither left nor right will prevail. His presence is a constant reminder of our failure to even imagine a government of the centre. We commonly call this situation a "hung parliament" with a small party (such as NZ First) holding "the balance of power". It is in fact a "vacuum of power" created by the major parties' refusal to operate consensually.

In the event of a vote neither for the left nor the right, what we should have is either a formal or a de facto 'grand coalition'. Such a government could not take the politics out of our parliament, as the 1940-43 grand coalition showed. A LabNat government need not blur the identities of Labour and National.
Compromise imposed by the arithmetic of the ballot is not the same as a party giving up its principles. A LabNat government of the centre would be something completely different from a Labour-Alliance or a National-Act government, despite being made up of Labour and National. On the tax issue, we would expect a LabNat government of the centre to average the two parties' tax policies, which would mean neither tax cuts nor tax increases.

The formation of a LabNat government of the centre would not mean an inability to implement controversial legislation. Nor would it mean an inability to pursue a vision of, say, a knowledge economy, or a superannuation accord. After all, the 1989 Reserve Bank Act and the 1991 Child Support Act, while controversial, were supported by both parties. Both have views about the future of the New Zealand economy that can be easily reconciled. We can have a government of the centre that can ignore Winston's hobbyhorses.

Given the depth of its adversarial culture, Labour will initially refuse to form a formal coalition with National if National has a few more MPs than Labour but not enough to form a coalition with Act. That does not matter. A de facto grand coalition will form if National can gain Labour's tacit support on confidence. After a few months, Labour would prefer to come to a more formal arrangement with National (that would be designed to last about 2 years) in order to prevent National negotiating legislation with other parties.

If Labour gets a few more seats than National, then it is most likely that Helen Clark will be asked by the Governor General to form a government. Within a few months, Labour would find that it is much more practical to negotiate a legislative programme with National than to put up with bickering between the Alliance and NZ First.

New Zealand's political culture favours fixed term parliaments. We don't like parties that only oppose, and who try to "collapse the scrum" as a means of forcing an early election. While our current electoral legislation allows for early elections (unlike Norway's for example), we expect our politicians to work it out without a fuss, to respect the election result, and to go full term.
Winston Peters may end up saving MMP in a way that he doesn't intend. He may just get National and Labour doing what we want them to do; cooperate to shut him out of the government loop.

The "Peters problem" is a psychosomatic problem of pre-electoral tension and of media beat-ups. Another election result like that of 1996 will not spell the death of MMP (as Colin James suggests in the Herald of 3 November). Peters is only a problem when Labour and National find it less difficult to cooperate with him than to cooperate with each other. Of course, if that is the case, Peters is not the problem at all.

ends

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