Peter Dunne Address to Rotary Club of Mangere - 29 Oct 2013
EMBARGOED AGAINST DELIVERY
HON PETER DUNNE
MP FOR OHARIU
ADDRESS TO ROTARY CLUB OF MĀNGERE
HOLIDAY INN AIRPORT, 2 ASCOT ROAD, AIRPORT OAKS, MANUKAU
ON TUESDAY 29 OCTOBER 2013 AT 7:00 PM
We are about 12 months from the next General Election.
Tonight, therefore, I want to offer some thoughts on the current political landscape, and how things might play out over the next year.
As a political scientist, I am acutely aware that the game of political predictions is a risky one.
But, as a practising politician of more than a few years’ standing, I am very mindful of the fact that the real test of politics is to make bold predictions about the course of future events, and then to be able to explain with equal boldness why they did not occur.
So, with those caveats, let me proceed.
My starting point is to refer to the recent German federal election.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats emerged as the largest party grouping, but tantalisingly short of an overall majority.
Her long time allies, the previously liberal Free Democrats, who in recent years though have become more like ACT on steroids, just failed to cross the 5% threshold for the first time ever, so are out of the Bundestag altogether.
This means that despite being the largest choice by far of voters, Chancellor Merkel now has to negotiate either a grand coalition with the main Opposition party, the Social Democrats, or, less likely, reach an agreement with two smaller even more left wing parties, the Greens and the Left Party.
The extent to which she is able to continue to pursue the mix of policies that the largest group of German voters clearly wanted is now questionable, and likely to be significantly compromised by the types of coalition arrangements able to be negotiated.
All of which makes the salutary point that all this uncertainty could have been avoided had the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats co-operated a little more closely before the election to maximise their political advantage, so that the current coalition could have remained in office.
The German lesson should not be lost on New Zealand political parties in the lead-up to the next election.
Although National’s performance in a number of areas has been less than stellar in the last couple of years, and while Labour may present a more cohesive challenge than previously, the steadily improving economy and the Prime Minister’s mana still mean next year’s election is National’s to lose.
That assertion comes with a number of qualifications, the principal one being whether National will be able to secure the support of a majority in the next Parliament to form a government.
There still seem to be some in the National Party who cling to the faint hope they will gain an outright majority in their own right, and so will not have to worry about coalition partners or support arrangements.
Well, let me quash that fantasy right now.
It is simply not going to happen under a proportional representation system – National’s 2011 result was probably its high water mark, and it is likely to be all downhill from here.
Even under First Past the Post, there were only two modern occasions where a government secured more than 50% of the popular vote, in a two party system.
They were Labour’s 1938 triumph on the back of the Social Security legislation, and National’s 1951 landslide following the waterfront industrial dispute.
An important point about both results is that they were for a second term, so to that extent, National’s 2011 result was probably the MMP equivalent.
So, even though it is likely to remain the largest party in Parliament after the election, National will need partners to remain in government, and here is where the game gets interesting.
The commentariat, skilled in the observation of politics although few if any have ever dared dabble in the art itself, have decided, nay decreed, that National’s post 2014 support can come from only two possible sources – New Zealand First or the Conservatives.
But are equally preposterous suggestions, for reasons which I am happy to explain.
Let me start with the Conservatives.
This scenario relies on National gifting an electorate seat to Colin Craig in the hope that he both wins the seat and gets about 3% to 4% of the party vote, equivalent to about 4 to 5 MPs.
There are two problems with that strategy.
First, Mr Craig has no track record as an elected Member, for anything, so the notion of gifting him an electorate seat, as opposed to endorsing his candidacy for a seat he already holds, is extremely risky, even assuming such a seat could be found.
While voters tolerate parties endorsing a candidate from another party when that candidate is the sitting MP for that seat, and is therefore a known quantity, it is far less certain they would go along with the far more crude idea of simply imposing a candidate from elsewhere upon them.
The second problem is the nature of the MPs to likely come in under the Conservative banner, assuming the electorate strategy was successful.
They are extremely right wing, religiously based moralists, far out of step with the urbanely liberal Mr Key and his National Party.
The conflict between the relaxed, ever pragmatic Prime Minister and these doctrinaire, inflexible, inexperienced extremists who would see the Prime Minister’s authority as secondary to that of a higher power who was never wrong, would be immediate and impossible to mediate.
The National Party should simply put this crazy notion out of its misery at the outset, by making it clear that a vote for the Conservatives is a wasted vote for obscurity.
So what about New Zealand First?
The problem here is not that it has no experience – the problem is the experience itself.
In many senses, Mr Peters is New Zealand’s most consistent and predictable politician – put him in a government, and the one thing we know for certain is that he will not last the term.
He was fired by Jim Bolger in 1991, Jenny Shipley in 1998, and suspended and not reinstated by Helen Clark in 2008.
The Prime Minister has many skills, but I think it highly unlikely that he could succeed in running an effective government involving Mr Peters and New Zealand First when his three predecessors have been unable to do so.
Mr Key should back the instincts he showed correctly in 2008 and 2011, and rule him out altogether.
The alternative is utterly predictable – a government that will not last its term, and, as Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark will attest, a government that will be dragged down to defeat by the association.
John Key has always made it clear he has big aspirations for New Zealand.
Working with either the Conservatives or New Zealand First would ensure that those aspirations would not be achieved.
So, what are the alternatives?
Again, if you believe the commentariat, there are none.
According to them, National’s current partners – the Māori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture – are today no more than political funerals waiting for the celebrant to turn up.
While each of those parties has experienced some difficulties during this term – and I will make mention of UnitedFuture’s situation momentarily – the reality is that they all have worked well with the National-led government since 2008, and, while they have had their disagreements, have each been able to achieve significant aspects of their individual programmes, as well as contribute to the progression of stable government overall.
And therein lies the key to resolving the dilemma of the formation of the next government – if National is prepared to recognise it.
It is simply this.
Each of those parties represents differing segments of the political market.
While none of them, including National, will have the support to corner the market alone, taken together they each have sufficient common ground to bring their support bases to the same place to form a coherent government.
But, and it is a mighty big but, this will not happen by accident.
National will not be able to form a future government if it just leaves it all to chance.
Remember what I said about Germany.
National needs to be working actively now, alongside and with its support partners to ensure that our respective political opportunities are maximised in the lead-up to the next election.
I need to say this bluntly – it will not be enough to just wish all this might happen, and then lament afterwards how the opportunity was lost.
Now, you may say this is all very well, but how could John Key possibly contemplate renewing his partnership with UnitedFuture, given the events that led to my resignation as a Minister nearly five months ago?
While I am not going to comment on the particular circumstances, I will observe that the Henry inquiry has now been shown to have grossly exceeded its authority by taking no account of natural justice and accepted rights to privacy.
It reached no firm conclusions, but relied instead on voyeuristic innuendo and inferences to do its dirty work.
Of far more significance than this shoddy and shameful exercise are the Prime Minister’s own comments.
In mid-August, barely two months after I resigned, he told TV3:
“In the four and a half years that I worked with Peter as a Minister in our Government he was very effective and he was very good. Now there were reasons why … he decided to step down. That doesn’t mean one day in the future he couldn’t come back …”
He made similar comments both in Parliament and to the media last week.
So I take the Prime Minister at his word.
After all, UnitedFuture has been the most reliable confidence and supply partner of all for both the last two National and Labour-led governments, and in the process has been able to implement many of our key policies.
As a liberal democratic party, with an inherently centrist disposition, we have enabled good government to proceed, while also being a useful anchor of moderation when governments have sought to step too far outside the boundaries of common sense.
Our approach has been consistently positive – we prefer to work with other parties on the issues we have in common, rather than waste our time grandstanding and making a lot of useless noise about the things we disagree over that are never going to happen anyway.
If not being one of Parliament’s empty cans has penalised us, I am prepared to accept that penalty, as I would far rather work constructively and achieve outcomes, than make a lot of noise, and be remembered for nothing else.
Let me now turn to the other side of the ledger.
It is by no means impossible that Labour could be in a position to form a government after the election next year, but that would come with its own set of problems.
Labour’s most obvious coalition partner is the Greens.
The problem here, though, is that both parties literally hate each other.
Labour deeply resents the Greens’ insufferable self-righteousness, and being constantly outflanked on some of the areas it sees as its natural territory that only it is entitled to have a view upon – for example, poverty and social policy.
It openly scoffs at the pretensions of the Greens’ leadership for senior Ministerial roles in the economic area.
For the Greens, they loathe Labour as fair weather friends who see everything through the prism of how it benefits the Labour Party rather than serves the interests of the country or the people they seek to represent.
(Having been a support partner for Labour for six years, I have some sympathy with that viewpoint.)
But needs must, and if the two parties are in a position to form a government, they will.
And in that context it is worth noting that the Labour/Alliance Government formed with similar lingering animosities back in 1999 survived reasonably well until 2002 when the Alliance imploded.
So, a Labour/Greens Government would most likely survive, assuming it had a stable majority in the House.
And that is where New Zealand First may rear its head again.
All of the problems I referred to earlier apply equally in the case of its working with Labour – but there is an additional one.
Mr Peters’ ego is such that he cannot conceive playing second fiddle to anyone, let alone third fiddle as would be required in this case.
Add to that his deep hostility to the Greens – remember it was he who ruled them out of government in 2005, not me as popular mythology would have it – and his record of having been dismissed from every government he has served in, and the mix becomes highly unstable and volatile.
The alternative that New Zealand First would “eschew the baubles of office” and sit on the cross-benches and vote on an issue by issue basis is even more scary and unacceptable.
That would effectively leave every major issue up to their judgement, and Mr Peters could be expected to play his role of master puppeteer in such circumstances in the most self-serving of ways.
In fact, Labour would be well advised to follow National’s lead and rule out New Zealand First altogether, in the interests of credibility and certainty.
So, where else might a Labour/Greens Government turn if it is short of a majority.
The Māori and Mana Parties are obvious possibilities, with Mana the more likely option, especially if it wins additional seats.
UnitedFuture could be another option – given the fact that I have had more experience of working with Labour than anyone else in Parliament – but that would require major policy shifts the coalition would be unlikely to make.
For a start, Labour would need to abandon its plans for a capital gains tax, higher taxes for higher income earners, abolition of the Families Commission and opposition to the establishment of the Game Animal Council.
So, there it is.
A finely balanced contest lies ahead.
The election is National’s to lose, but the prize of forming the next government will most likely go to the major party that learns the lessons of the German elections and nurtures its credible partners from this point onwards, and not just over a cup of tea in the last two weeks of the campaign.
It is going to be a fascinating year ahead.