Dunne Speaks: National's Search for a Partner
The National Party’s delight earlier in the week at revelations that consideration was being given to the establishment of a “blue-green” party that could be a partner at future elections was as understandable as it was premature. It was understandable because National currently has no viable potential support partner, should it be in a position to form a government after the next election. But it was also premature (unless National is attempting to be deviously coy with the voting public and discussions are far more advanced than it is letting on – a move in itself that carries a considerable risk of backfiring) as the history of attempting to form “blue-green” parties offers not much encouragement. In 1996, three prominent environmentalists, Sir Rob Fenwick, Gary Taylor and Stephen Rainbow attempted to do so, and their efforts were a dismal failure that did not last much beyond that election. Yet, unlike the current situation, they had the apparent advantage of well-known and credible names, with very strong environmental credentials, that bridged the political spectrum from left to right at that time, but it was still not enough.
Some have speculated that for a new party to succeed it needs a distinctive cause. While that is true, it is not necessarily enough of itself. The cause has to have relevance at the time. UnitedFuture is a good example - its cause was standing up for the values of middle class New Zealand, including blue-green environmentalism. Its spectacular success in 2002 was due to a combination of anxiety that the then Labour-led Government needed some restraint on what was feared to be a looming assault on a range of middle class values, and a lack of confidence that the National Party would be any better in standing up for their interests. Once the feared assault was averted the need for UnitedFuture’s moderate restraint steadily evaporated. While its message continued to be generally well received, it was just seen as less and less important to vote for it, especially after the Key Government’s pragmatism stole back the centre ground for National.
The putative “blue-green” party faces exactly the same problem – there will be those who will like its message, although it currently seems unlikely there will be enough of them sufficiently energised to vote for it to give the support it needs to be successful. While many environmentally concerned middle class voters find the Green Party’s approach to social and economic policy far too left wing, they are less agitated than they might otherwise be because they can hold their noses and let the neo-Luddites of New Zealand First keep them in check. While that situation remains, it will be difficult for the “blue-green” party to get traction of its own. All of which brings National backs to its primary challenge for the next election – making sure New Zealand First is out of Parliament altogether.
There is also the delicious irony of National‘s excitement at the prospect of such a party emerging occurring the same week that it blamed previous support partners, UnitedFuture and Act, for the current housing crisis because they would let it gut the Resource Management Act the way it wanted. National’s approach then was all or nothing – I well recall their Minister telling me he was only prepared to negotiate about the RMA if I gave him an assurance in advance that we would reach an agreement. On another occasion, that same Minister told me he was unwilling to talk further because he suspected (correctly) that I was also consulting with Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the architect of the RMA, and he did not want that. Yet, all the while, right up to the eleventh hour, UnitedFuture and Act were putting up separate proposals to the Government for possible changes to streamline the way the RMA operated, and to remove perceived procedural roadblocks. UnitedFuture even suggested bringing the provision of affordable housing into the objectives of the RMA but that was rejected because we would not agree to National’s planned watering down of the RMA’s principles and objectives. It is hard to see how a “blue-green” party would have fared any different in those circumstances.
National’s understandable current focus is on how it can get the numbers to form a Government after the next election. Even if it is able to do that, through the advent of a “blue-green” party or some other combination, it will not succeed long-term until it comes to appreciate that while getting the numbers is one thing, working constructively with partners and acknowledging their successes, rather than using them as the whipping boy every time it does not get all its own way, is something else altogether.