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Q+A: Jim Bolger interviewed by Jessica Mutch

Greens fail to understand MMP says former PM

Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger, who has first-hand experience of negotiating with Winston Peters, appeared on TVNZ 1’s Q+A programme this morning.

He successfully formed a coalition government with New Zealand First under the first MMP election in 1996 and described the leader as “tough” to negotiate with. “Policy will be hugely important, but clearly, there has to be some chemistry, some synergies between the parties who are doing the negotiations.”

Mr Bolger also isn’t ruling out the possibility of a blue/green coalition. “From my perspective, a party like the Greens who campaigned they want to influence the country’s environmental approach on a whole range of issues and some issues of poverty – then why not talk to both sides? Why presume that you only can talk to one side? I think they fail to understand MMP if they do that.”

Asked for his prediction on what Winston Peters will do, Mr Bolger says, “Winston said he won’t discuss anything until after the 7th of October and have a decision on the 12th of October – that suggests, in fact, he is not looking for a coalition, moving into a coalition but in fact is looking at sitting on the crossbenches and having influence from that position.”

Q + A
Episode 30
Interviewed by Jessica Mutch

JESSICA Jim Bolger has been in the unique position of having to negotiate a coalition with Winston Peters before. He thrashed out the first agreement under MMP in 1996 and joins me now live. Thank you very much for your time this morning.

JIM Good morning.

JESSICA I want to start off by asking you – what’s it like to negotiate with Winston Peters? Can you give us an insight?

JIM Well, any negotiation requires that the parties respect each other, respect the different positions that people bring to the table and work your way forward to find common accord – find the issues that you can reach agreement on, put to one side those issues where there is no possibility of agreement – because the whole concept of MMP is to have a multi-party parliament, therefore multi-party government. That requires compromise. That requires listening to the other side. That requires both sides to accept that some policies they campaigned on are unlikely to be implemented.

JESSICA Is it about relationships, primarily, for Mr Peters? Or is it a mix of relationships and policy?

JIM Well, both, of course, and all negotiations will be. Policy will be hugely important, but clearly, there has to be some chemistry, some synergies between the parties who are doing the negotiations, and that is important, but don’t underestimate the importance of policies.

JESSICA When you were negotiating with him, did you do a lot of that yourself? Is it important for him to have that leader-to-leader contact?

JIM Chief-to-chief – yes, of course. And while some of the negotiations were done by others and ministers to senior members in the New Zealand First team, the ultimate decision-making is done by the leaders.

JESSICA We get a taste of what Winston Peters is like on the other side with the media. Behind closed doors, what’s he like to negotiate with?

JIM Tough, as you would expect. He’s got his positions, and anybody else you deal with would have their positions. So you just have to expect that it will take a little while and move forward on that basis. But the main thing, I think, is to be able to listen carefully to the nuances of where the openings might be. I negotiated an awful lot of trade union disputes in my time as minister of labour, so perhaps I had a little experience in picking up where the way forward is. You’re looking for how you make progress forward rather than just re-litigating campaign arguments. I mean, you have to move way beyond just the campaign. You’re not out there taking potshots at each other. You’re actually looking for a solution, and that’s the most important thing. You’re looking for a solution.

JESSICA What advice have you given to Mr English? Have you spoken to him about this?

JIM I had a brief chat with Bill English, but not in any way like this. We just had a brief chat. I congratulated him on an outstanding election result. I wished him well and suggested – as I’ve suggested publicly last Monday – that, of course, the other party we could be talking about is the Green party. If they were to step up, they’ve got exactly the same capacity to influence the outcome as New Zealand First. And what I’m really hoping is that the Green party will step up and accept that opportunity – or I would term it ‘responsibility’. If they’re in the political mix and campaigned to have an influence on the government, then they should, as another small party, talk to both sides.

JESSICA Did you talk to Mr English about that in your phone conversation? And what was his response?

JIM Well, the National party’s made clear their position with the deputy prime minister, Paula Bennett, saying a couple of days ago that they would be open to a discussion with the Green party.

JESSICA But did he say anything to you in that phone conversation?

JIM No. We didn’t move into that space at all, and I didn’t intend to enter that space at all. But I have spoken publicly on it, and I think there is an obligation. From my perspective, a party like the Greens who campaigned they want to influence the country’s environmental approach on a whole range of issues and some issues of poverty – then why not talk to both sides? Why presume that you only can talk to one side? I think they fail to understand MMP if they do that. See, the interesting thing, coincidentally— We borrowed or took on board the German system of proportional representation, mixed-member proportional. Coincidentally, Germany had an election the day after our election. There is no debate in Germany that the Green party in Germany will join the centre-right Angela Merkel party, and that’ll continue forward. So we seem to have, as it’s portrayed – I don’t know whether this is true or not – as portrayed, a Green party in New Zealand which is really a left party in disguise, and I think that is a loss to New Zealand if that’s true.

JESSICA Isn’t it dangerous for the Greens, though? I mean, look what happened to the Maori party this time. If you go into government, you can lose your identity.

JIM Well, that’s a, I have to say, pathetic argument, if you want my blunt assessment, because why are you there if you’re not going to go into government and do something? Why parade up and down the country about your ambitions and your goals and your hopes and aspirations, and then say, ‘We won’t go into government’? ‘So we’ll just be a talk shop. We’ll just prattle on and do nothing about it.’ So you have to go into government if you’re going to influence the outcomes. I’m very sorry what happened to the Maori party. I’m not quite sure what the Maori voters were thinking about, but they made their decision. But the Green party has an opportunity of either becoming an influential voice for the causes they hold dear, which I think most New Zealanders hold dear. New Zealanders want a clean green country – all of us. But then to say, ‘Oh, we’re too nervous to go into a government with the National party because maybe somebody will object.’ Well, if you’re frightened of somebody objecting, then don’t go into public life.

JESSICA Given your expertise negotiating with Winston Peters, the Greens would be a far easier option, wouldn’t they?

JIM May not be. They have some areas where I’m sure the discussion and debate would be quite tense in the sense of finding the way forward. But the broad parameters of what the Green party are arguing for, as I interpret it, is climate change, of course. Well, New Zealand has signed up to the Paris Accord on that. Can we go faster? Well, let’s discuss that. Should we enshrine something in legislation? Again, that’s an open discussion. People want clean waterways and rivers. Well, New Zealand farmers, with no thanks or any money from anybody else, have built a fence from here to New York to fence off the waterways of New Zealand. Is there more that can be done? Always, always.

JESSICA Would it be arguably a more stable government? Winston Peters doesn’t have a great track record of staying in negotiations and coalition deals the full term.

JIM Well, I think, to be fair to Winston – that Winston negotiated a coalition agreement in ’96 with me as the leader of the National party. And the National party, 15 months later, decided they wanted a new leader, and that’s when it became unstable. I’ll be totally fair that when Winston was in government with me when I was prime minister, he had the senior position of treasurer as well as deputy prime minister. That was very stable. We had no difficulties. There were no arguments. We moved forward as, I think, a very coherent government.

JESSICA Did he ask to be prime minister when you were negotiating? And what do you think he’ll want this time?

JIM No. No, he didn’t ask to be prime minister, and of course, nobody other than the leading party in the coalition will be put up to prime minister. I would think that’s a nonsensical argument that somehow the small party’s going to become prime minister. So that’s not going to happen. I don’t know what Winston might want in coalition government. Of course, Winston could easily decide to sit on the crossbenches. And if we are to take his timeline – which Winston said he won’t discuss anything until after the 7th of October and have a decision on the 12th of October – that suggests, in fact, he is not looking for a coalition, moving into a coalition but in fact is looking at sitting on the crossbenches and having influence from that position, which he unquestionably would have, and giving confident supply on matters to the larger party, which is the National party, and then they’d have to negotiate various matters during the course of the year.

JESSICA Why do you think you were successful negotiating with Winston Peters?

JIM I’m a good negotiator.

JESSICA What’s your secret? Give us an insight.

JIM I’ve done a lot of it, and I could get in. And despite Winston and I having had many disagreements in the past, we were able to put those behind. You have to put a lot of things behind you if you’re going to move forward. That’s in all walks of life. And so we put those things behind us. We said, ‘What is it we want to achieve for New Zealand? What have we in common in terms of goals between the respective parties? Is there a sufficient level of respect?’ All of those things, we were able to yes to and move forward. And I have to say, I think if I’d have remained as prime minister, that coalition government would’ve lasted a the full three years quite comfortably.

JESSICA We’re now in the state of a caretaker government. How long, do you think, we should be like this, where there are obviously restrictions of what can be done. Do you think the public appetite for these negotiations is quite short-lived?

JIM Well, we shouldn’t panic. We, the public, elected to have a mixed-member proportional system. Germany, to go back to the comparison, is very interesting. We’re both in the same boat. They’re talking three or four months. And the German economy, the largest in Europe, probably the third-largest in the world, nobody’s saying it’s all going to fall apart or anything. Caretaker governments can do all the things that are necessary; they can’t bring in a new initiative, but they can do all the things that are necessary to run the country. Halfway through the negotiations back in ’96, I adjourned for a while, went across, as the Prime Minister, to the APEC leaders’ meeting in Manila for two or three days, and then came back again. So the country should have no concerns that all sorts of terrible things will happen during the caretaker period. Because they won’t. There is sufficient authority within the caretaker government to manage all things that are necessary to be managed, other than brand-new policies. And you don’t bring those in every day. So, relax. If Germany, this huge German economy, can contemplate three of four months – and nobody’s getting excited; nobody’s questioning the authority of Angela Merkel; I just say thank goodness she got back, in terms of Europe and the world – and move forward. So let’s take away some of the fear out of this and get on on a sensible basis.

JESSICA That’s a nice place to leave it. Thank you very much for your time and your insight this morning. Really appreciate it.

The link to the interview.

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1.
Repeated Sunday evening at around 11:35pm. Streamed live at www.tvnz.co.nz
Thanks to the support from NZ On Air.
Q+A is also on Facebook: here and on Twitter

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