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The Nation: Peter Dunne, Tau Henare and Richard Prosser

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Peter Dunne, Tau Henare and Richard Prosser
Former United Future leader Peter Dunne and former New Zealand First MPs Tau Henare and Richard Prosser all believe NZ First leader Winston Peters has already decided what to do in parliament, before coalition negotiations have even begun. Dunne said he would go with National, Prosser says Labour and the Greens - Henare says he will stay on the cross benches.

Prosser says he was not privy to conversations before the election, when senior NZ First members compared their policy with Labour’s and National’s. He say Peters has been consulting with a small group of people, and he won’t be swayed by what his supporters want.

Dunne says Labour would be best to stand aside and wait until NZ First-National negotiations fail, then pick up a better deal.

Lisa Owen: As the polls predicted, the election results have left Winston Peters in the box seat, and he appears to be loving every minute of it. He says the negotiations proper with National and Labour won't take until after the special votes are counted and made public next weekend. But the first steps are underway, so what can we expect? Joining me now are former New Zealand First MPs Tau Henare and Richard Prosser and former United Future leader Peter Dunne. Good morning to you all. Tau, if I can start with you. You were there in 1996. So how are things different this time round, do you think?
Tau Henare: Oh, I think there's a smaller team, for starters. Back in '96, there was 17 MPs. I think this one should be pretty easy. I think Winston's already made his mind up. He plays his cards very, very— Actually, he doesn't play his cards close to his chest. He plays them within his chest.
So nobody else knows?
Henare: No, nobody else knows. He's made up his mind. He'll go through the process. What he's doing now, I believe, is he's just having a look at the public reaction about where it's going to go.
Okay. Well, Richard Prosser, at the press conference this week Winston Peters said that his team had gone through National and Labour's manifestos during the campaign and already looked at where the policies lined up and didn't line up. Were you part of that? Were you aware that that had gone on?
Richard Prosser: No, that was happening upstairs. So that was being done by one or two key people, and that was actually quite a long time prior to the campaign proper starting that all those were being lined up against each other.
To see who had the best match, so to speak?
Prosser: So that everyone knew what page everybody else was on and where things could go.
Was there a conclusion drawn at that time or one that was verbalised?
Prosser: Not verbalised, no. I'd certainly go along with what Tau's just said — the game will have been played inside Winston's mind over quite a long period of time, and all the permutations of possible outcomes and the different roads leading off from them, he will have been contemplating. So it's like a long game looking forward to, you know, what final outcome we do get and which of those roads is going to lead to the best outcome.
So, Peter Dunne, Winston Peters has said he's going to act in the nation's best interest. Do you believe that he's that responsible?
Peter Dunne: No, I don't. I think he will act in what he sees to be a) his own best interests, and b) New Zealand First's best interests. And to some extent, that's understandable, but I don't think it's justifiable.
So what is in his best interest and the party's best interest? If those are things that are going to drive him.
Dunne: I'm not sure, to be perfectly honest how he might judge that, because I can see plusses and minuses about coalescing with either of the major parties. The experience — and, you know, he and I can both testify to this — overall, has not been a good one for minor parties. They tend to get swept up in the whole process. But I think the issue that New Zealanders are concerned about is not so much the time that it's taking to form a government, but just the charade we seem to be going through — the press conferences and the non-events and everything else. They simply want to get on and see where things stand so we can start to move ahead as a country.
Do you agree with these two — that he's probably already made his mind up?
Dunne: I think he probably has, and I think that probably just highlights the farce of what's happening at the moment, actually.
Henare: That's right. I mean, you have a look at the press conference that he held in the Beehive the other day. Why would you hold a press conference when you've got nothing to say?
Well, why do you think he held it?
Henare: Well, because it's all about theatre. It's all about, you know, King Lear jumping up and... You know, it's a game — well, personally — to Winston, and he loves the theatre of it. I mean, if you've got nothing to say, close your door. Don't talk to people. You know?
Okay. Well, the leaders from the two major parties have not called him. As far as we know, there's been no direct contact made. Are they pussyfooting around him, Peter Dunne? Pick up the phone and make a call.
Dunne: Well, I think they are. I think that part of the problem we've got at the moment is everyone's sitting, waiting to see what Winston does. He has 7.5% of the vote. He's going to be a critical part of the next government, but he's not going to be the next government. The next government will be led by either Bill English or Jacinda Ardern. And I think both of those need to stop the pussyfooting and step up to the plate and start to exercise a bit of leadership here, actually. Otherwise, we're going to end up in this game where it's, 'We can't say this,' or, 'We can't do that, because we might offend Winston,' which is not the way you form a viable government.
Henare: And while he's doing that, or while they are doing that, while they are sitting back waiting for him to move, his members can slag the government off. I mean, I've seen a report from Ron Mark about some issue. I mean, it's phony. And, quite frankly, there's a couple of things over this process. Why the hell, in 2017, do we have to wait two weeks? That's not Winston's fault; that's the Electoral Commission's fault.
And, I mean, he has raised that, but you actually think that that's a genuine criticism?
Henare: Oh, it is.
Henare: Why is it that in two weeks, you and I can't talk to each other and sort out a deal, and whatever happens after the specials are counted, we just push button A.
Prosser: Well, I mean, the reality on that is that they might not have spoken directly leader to leader, but chiefs of staff will certainly have been talking for quite some time.
Henare: Yeah, but this is not North Korea and America. This is little, old New Zealand where, basically, pollies know each other. And we should be able to ring each other and say, 'Hey, let's get it on. Let's talk, hey?
Prosser: Well, yeah, but, I mean, effectively they are doing that, because we've got high-ranking staff members talking to each other. Then at the end of—
Henare: They're not elected.
Prosser: Yes, but whatever the outcome is, it's still a mouthpiece. Whatever the outcome is, if they haven't spoken directly, then you've got deniability in there.
Dunne: I've been through five of these negotiations.
Yes, you have.
Dunne: And in every instance — both with Helen Clark and with John Key — the first communication was a direct conversation between Clark and me or Key and me on election night, followed up by a conversation the following day to set up the process. Nothing else was different in the sense that we still had specials to wait for and all of those sorts of things.
So why aren't those leaders doing that? What do they fear?
Dunne: Well, that's my question. I think they fear rebuff.
Peter Dunne has raised, and so has Tau Henare, this idea that Winston’s got 7.5% of the vote. So let’s talk a little bit about what that should buy him – what that entitles him to. In your mind, does that entitle you to a shared Prime Ministership?
Prosser: I think everything is on the table, but—
Seriously? You think-?
Prosser: If you start looking at percentages and how the components work, that’s probably more First Past the Post thinking. If in the MMP environment, when we’re talking about coalitions of one form or another, be they formal coalitions, where you’ve got from both sides or many sides in the Cabinet, whatever it is, it’s a bringing together of parties that have delivered members into the Parliament and have formed a Government out of them. So in terms of component bits, that’s probably proportionally less important. The proportionality of the Parliament stays the same; the make-up of the Government then has to be determined by who’s prepared to work with who and…
Okay. So to be clear, you think that the Prime Ministership, the deputy Prime Ministership, Cabinet numbers, Cabinet positions, policy costs – all on the table for a grab-bag – doesn’t matter if you only got 7.5%. Whatever you can leverage is what you can leverage.
Prosser: Yes, absolutely. That’s the—
Henare: You can’t walk into a place with 7.5%. If the country wanted you as Prime Minister, New Zealand First would have got 46%, 47%, but they didn’t.
Yeah, but winning is a binary thing. You’re either in or you’re out.
Dunne: Yeah, but you can’t—
The cost of being in is whatever he wants.
Dunne: But I agree with Tau. This whole exercise works on, as Richard said, people coming together and forming combinations. But at the same time, tails cannot wag the dogs, and at 7.5%, it’s a tail, and it can’t actually wag a bigger dog. It can be part of the dog, it can make the dog function effective, but it can’t be the tail that wags—That’s where the public will draw the line.
Henare: You know what the tail does to a dog? It balances it, and that’s what the small party should do unless you’re a Rottweiler and you’ve had your tail chopped off.
But you say ‘balance’. Okay, where is the balance? Is deputy Prime Minister—Is that fair game, Peter Dunne?
Dunne: It depends on the nature of the agreement that’s reached. If they reached a formal coalition, then that is fair game. If they go for a confidence and supply, then clearly a different set of arrangements.
Do you think Cabinet ministers should be proportionate to what your vote is?
Dunne: Well, again, if you’ve negotiated that type of arrangement, yes. But if you’re going to start from a position of saying, ‘Let’s divvy up the spoils before we’ve even decided what this Government’s going to stand for in terms of policy and direction, then I think you’re sowing the seeds of your own destruction very early.
Okay, I want to get an idea of what you think he’ll be bothered by – some quick answers. Will he be bothered that National’s a fourth-term Government? Richard?
Prosser: Yes, he will be. Yep.
He will?
Prosser: That will be a concern.
What about that Jacinda Ardern has never been a minister, never in Government?
Dunne: I think that will be an issue too. But he may see that to his advantage.
Okay, so a clean slate. What about bad blood, Tau Henare? Does that matter to him?
Henare: If there was bad blood, there wouldn’t have been a coalition between National and New Zealand First in ’96.
Does he really care about the specials? Is that genuine concern?
Dunne: No, I think that’s a convenience. The specials aren’t going to significantly alter the results. Well, manipulate it around at the edges, but after the specials, National will still be the largest party, New Zealand First will still be about 7.5%.
Prosser: Yeah, but it may change the balance of the size of a particular majority, given that there is some public concern about—
So you think he might use it as an out clause to go with Labour and Greens if the balance is more even after the special votes?
Prosser: Well, yeah, for a lot of people, it is a concern that if the difference between the two biggest parties is smaller, then in terms of public perception, it’s more easy to justify going with one that’s, say, 54% versus 56%, as opposed to them being further apart.
Henare: At the moment, there’s 11% difference between National and Labour.
Dunne: The magic figure is 61.
Henare: Exactly.
Dunne: And in most combinations, even if you’re saying National is going to drop a couple or whatever, a Government is going to be formed with about a minimum of 63 seats, maybe more. So I don’t think the stability issue is quite as critical, because you’re going to have a Government with a comfortable majority in terms of passing its Budget and major matters in the house.
Peter Dunne, is there a case for Labour and National to work as a cartel, if you like, to kind of price-fix, in essence, to get together and say, ‘Okay, the shared Prime Ministership – neither of us will give that away; neither of us will give away the deputy’s position, and we will limit Cabinet positions to proportionality. Is there an opportunity to do that? Will that be acceptable behaviour?
Dunne: I think that’s some wishful thinking, frankly. I don’t think that’s going to happen, given the culture of the two main parties. The idea of a grand coalition or even some coalition negotiation establishment rules – I just think we’re a long way from getting to that point. What could happen, and I thought for a while may well be what’s happening, will be for the Labour Party, as the second party in the Parliament, to say, ‘We’ll stand back and let National and New Zealand First have first dibs, and if that works out, fair enough. If it doesn’t, then we are ready – cos this is quite a strong position to be in – we are ready, then, to step into the breach and put something together.’ But I don’t think that’s going to happen either. They seem content on this ‘worst of all worlds’ outcome of parallel negotiations, where they each get played off.
Okay, Richard Prosser – do you think there is a likelihood that Winston Peters will actually sit on the crossbenches and vote issue by issue? Do you think that that is actually something that’s in his mind?
Prosser: Oh, it’s certainly a possibility, yeah.
It’s a possibility, but—
Prosser: In the end, it will come down to policy concessions and how much of policy is out there that was promoted through the campaign can be implemented. And if that’s the best way of doing it, then that’s the best way of doing it.
Henare: His whole MO is about immigration, foreign ownership and regional development. I mean, therein lies the key for either Jacinda or Bill to get their heads around. What can they offer in those particular areas, to Winston? I mean, if it was me, I’d be sitting in the crossbenches, and I’d be saying, ‘You can have confidence and supply in terms of stability, but these are the concessions that we want.’ I wouldn’t worry too much about ministerial portfolios.
Okay. Richard, who is he listening to? Because there’s been talk about the fact that his lawyer and confidante friend Brian Henry has been on the scene; Shane Jones is in there. Who does he listen to?
Prosser: The people who will be playing the biggest part, other than Winston in terms of formulating the approach to the negotiations, will be people outside the party who most of the party have never heard of. That’s just the reality of it.
Prosser: Well…
Henare: Hobson’s Pledge?
Prosser: (CHUCKLES) No, there will be a few names that actually—there will be people that I don’t know either. I’ve seen people around, I’ve seen faces. There’s a chap, Paul Karag, who I met, for the first time a couple of weeks ago, who is, as it turns out, is a long-time trusted confidante. So there will be people like that who, certainly none of the party membership, and probably almost none of the current caucus, will have anything to do with. But they’ll be people that he’s known for a long time and have certain skills and who he trusts.
So when he talks about consulting the party faithful, not going to happen?
Prosser: Well, I think he stated earlier there’s a process that will happen where it will be a bit like the debating chamber in Parliament. It’s a necessary part of the process, but actually it doesn’t affect the outcome.
Okay. We’re out of time, but I just want to know – Peter Dunne, do you think that National and Labour should both walk away from this if you think it’s the train wreck that you’ve been predicting?
Dunne: Well, I think there could well come a time where one or other says, ‘We don’t want to be part of it. You wear the rap and the consequences.’
Put you on the spot. Who’s he going with?
Prosser: I’m still picking he’ll go left if he can.
Dunne: I think he’ll go National.
Henare: Crossbenches.
Okay, there you go, across the full spectrum.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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