Labour and Greens surge in post election poll

Three weeks into her first term as Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern can smile at the poll gods, who yesterday signalled that Labour and the Greens would be able to govern alone if elected today.

Perhaps the public are finding the sour grapes of National and A.C.T. too much to swallow, so they are relishing the more pleasant ones on offer from the Greens, New Zealand First and Labour. For the last few weeks, National has been relentlessly attacking Ms Ardern and her new Government – be it on taxation, Pike River or their first days in Parliament as the new Government.

This is realistic. Normally the public are happy to give a new Government a few months to settle in, during which time mistakes are simply considered part of the settling process. A new Oppositions’ initial attacks are usually not that effective as its M.P.’s will be still smarting at the election loss and – if it was a big one – they might well be looking for a new leader. During this time the new opposition parties can normally just bide their time, look at what they did wrong in the election.

And that is what makes this situation interesting. National only lost the election because New Zealand First leader Winston Peters had to make a choice – prop up a Government out of ideas and out of touch with the socio-economic needs of New Zealanders. The risk here is that would perhaps tear N.Z. First apart whilst ensuring National and A.C.T copped a right thrashing in 2020.

I can understand how National M.P.’s and their supporters might be bitter. They had the numbers to clearly form a coalition without A.C.T if Mr Peters had come on board. But this was a Government ignoring concerns that Labour and the Greens were able to capitalize on about housing, about mental health, about education and welfare among a host of others. Those concerns were being ratcheted up to deafening levels. The other point is that National should be well aware by now that there is an unwritten rule in Parliament that only a truly exceptional Government survives to have a fourth term.

The alternative was the one that Mr Peters choose: to support a new untested combination in Jacinda Ardern and Green Party leader James Shaw. Whilst untested and the Greens barely starting to recover from Metiria Turei’s gamble, Ms Ardern clearly had the charisma, the attentiveness to public opinion and a few ideas on addressing what the public sees as major issues.

The agenda is ambitious. And new expenditure plans are being announced at regular intervals. People on the centre right want to know where the money is going to come from, but seem to forget that under National and A.C.T. we borrowed tens of billions of dollars and nary a word got said by these critics then. The Government has announced details of its tax committee just like what was promised when Ms Ardern first mentioned it. Steven Joyce’s attacks on their expenditure are those of a man with sour grapes who does not want to admit he is wrong.

But the polling gods seem to approve of the plans laid out so far, or Labour and the Greens would not have achieved the support they did in the recent poll.


A turbulent fortnight for Jacinda

It is true that the last fortnight has been a rather turbulent one for Jacinda Ardern.

Barely two weeks into the job and maiden speeches still being made in Parliament, the National Party attack machine is already humming in the background. The transition from the Beehive to the offices of the Opposition were never going to be easy for National, and it is shown by the bitterness of some of the attacks being launched by their supporters. Accusations of already trying to mislead Parliament; of announcing financial measures that were not covered in the election campaign; of trying to erode the previous Government.

It is not just National that is attacking though. Stuff media have been printing articles suggesting that the old and the wealthy have good reason to “hate Labour”. They have rushed head long into printing articles suggesting Ms Ardern and her Government are trying to overturn our strong relationship with Australia.

Normally a new Government, unless in time of crisis where decisive action is needed quickly, has a time to settle in where the media generally accept that a well oiled Government coming cold from so many years on the Opposition benches will take a few months to fully find its feet. During this time articles and coverage tend to speculate about what is going to happen rather than suggesting something negative is already in progress.

Ms Ardern on one hand seems to be keen to get off to a flying start, whilst her colleagues are stumbling through their first days like they are still half asleep or hung over from the victory party. The first day in Parliament when a new speaker was supposed to be elected turned into a farce when Chris Hipkins could not do the simple job of ensuring there were enough Labour/Green/New Zealand First M.P.’s in Parliament to elect a new speaker. In the end Mr Hipkins and colleague Grant Robertson were seen hastily trying to stitch up a deal with National where in return for them having more seats on Parliamentary Select Committees, they would support the Governments choice of Trevor Mallard as the new Speaker of the House.

So far the Greens have already clashed with Labour. Today the James Shaw led Greens wished to get a Parihaka Day on 05 November instead of Guy Fawkes. Just the day after giving her maiden speech, Green M.P. Golriz Ghahraman suggested horse trading in the form of a Parihaka Day might be necessary in order to get New Zealand First’s “waka hopping” legislation over the line.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has had a good fortnight with suggestions he might lead a New Zealand delegation to North Korea in an attempt to defuse the crisis. He has come to Ms Arderns defence on at at least one occasion in Parliament.

Speed wobbles from trying to start off strongly when one has not even fully found their feet are a certainty. The new Government needs to be careful not to end flat on its face.

Big foreign policy issues to confront Labour

One issue for me will be seeing how far the Government is willing to bend to the Chinese authorities when it comes to the prickly issue of human rights and the Chinese Government. As an Amnesty International member with the local Christchurch chapter, we have a Prisoner of Conscience who we have been working to get out of a Chinese prison. Her crime was to support womens rights and support peaceful human rights activism in Hong Kong. What will Ms Ardern get Mr Peters to do when the next delegation of Chinese Government officials touches down. Are they going to allow Green Party M.P.’s to protest near the officials, or will the nervous security detail be allowed to protest?

New Minister of Defence, Ron Mark is well known for his criticism of expensive Defence Force purchases, and will be wanting to cast an eye over the finer detail of future expenditure, before taking it to Cabinet for approval. Unlike the Treasurer Grant Robertson, Mr Mark will be aware that the $15-20 billion expenditure plan for the next 15-20 years is actually not loaded with significant new expenditure, with much of it allocated to upgrading existing capacities rather than bringing in new capacities.

As someone with his own thoughts on Defence issues, I will be interested to see what happens. A major concern for me is how or whether the alleged war crimes in Afghanistan will be subject to the appropriate scrutiny. Or will, as a result of being in coalition and having to do deals with parties they do not see eye to eye with, the Greens let the issue slide.

Perhaps the biggest issues at the moment are what Labour will do about the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. New Zealand First and the Greens want to kill it outright. New Zealand First tried twice to pass legislation through Parliament to stop it. Labour, however, has to present a moderate face and has a tricky choice to make. Does it appease its supporter base and that of its Government coalition partners and kill the deal, at the risk of jeopardizing a separate deal with Japan at the same time, or does it allow some sort of watered down version of a very unpopular deal to go through?

The T.P.P.A. is seen by the right as some sort of trade holy grail. But there is something inherently suspicious about such a huge deal. 6,000 pages of details – is anyone actually ever going to be fully conversant in it and does it really take that much paper to outline the terms of something that is supposed to reduce trade barriers? At least I thought that is what “free trade agreement” is supposed to do.

Perhaps if there is anywhere New Zealand can help on the world stage it is showing support for the Iran deal, North Korean sanctions and United Nations reform.The former two are tied together loosely as the Iran deal is a sign that “rogue nations” can be brought to heel. And if the Trump Administration is blocked from walking away from the Iran deal, it will show North Korea that the “cowboy” administration is being stood up to by its own people. If Iran stays the path, it will show that negotiated solutions still have their use.

It looks like the Labour Government and its allies are going to hit the ground running. Ms Ardern might be an internationalist, but she is one of the Helen Clark mould and has a sense of pragmatism that will soon find itself tested.

Labour-New Zealand First-Green coalition deals signed

Today the Labour, Green and New Zealand First parties signed their coalition agreement documents, formalizing the Government for the next three years. Along with the signing ceremony, conducted in front of media, the portfolio allocation was also announced.

So, who got what?

Not surprisingly, the key portfolio’s such as Health, Education, Social Welfare and Justice – the exception was Foreign Affairs – have been retained by Labour. Details of the Labour ministerial portfolio allocation will be made public on Wednesday. It is however known that Prime Minister-designate Jacinda Ardern is going to retain the S.I.S. role as well as the childrens portfolio. The only certainty is that Grant Robertson will become the new Treasurer and that David Parker will probably pick up the Attorney General role.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has been awarded the Foreign Affairs portfolio. This might have been in part an acknowledgement of the work he did in holding it during the last term of the Helen Clark led Labour Government in 2005-2008. His Deputy Leader, Ron Mark picked up the Defence portfolio, whilst Tracey Martin got the Associate Education Minister portfolio.

The Greens have also been allocated ministerial portfolios outside of the Cabinet. They will get Conservation, Climate Change and one other (still to be announced).

As well as portfolio announcements, some announcements regarding priorities were also made today. The key ones are:

  • Foreign buyers will not be allowed to buy New Zealand housing
  • Minimum wage is going to increase to $20 by 2020
  • A cannabis law referendum will be had before 2020
  • A substantial tree planting programme will get underway
  • The programme will be managed by a New Zealand Forest Service
  • Winding down government subsidized irrigation
  • The water tax has been scrapped
  • Steeper penalties for those who conduct tax evasion

I expect that in the coming days further announcements about the direction that this new Government is expected to take, will come out.

The new Cabinet is sworn in on Thursday.

New and unfamiliar homes for National and Labour

When Parliament sits for the first time, there will no doubt be a new round of maiden speeches, as new Members of Parliament are asked to tell New Zealand and the world about their journey to Parliament. There will be the swearing in of the Members and the new Government. All of which may seem a bit disconcerting for people who were in some cases people holding down regular Monday to Friday jobs just a few weeks ago.

Spare a thought for the new Opposition and the new Government, suddenly sitting in seats in the House that – depending on which one part one refers to – were either dreading, or long for. Without a doubt there will be humorous moments where someone forgets their allocated seat and sits somewhere else, only to have to move.

For a time there is no doubt it will seem strange to National Members of Parliament to find themselves sitting on the Opposition benches, which just seven weeks ago they had every reason to believe they would avoid sitting on for another three years.

The enthusiasm for replacing Leader of the Opposition-designate Bill English seems minimal at this time. National, having had the advantage of watching Labour churn through Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little before settling on Jacinda Ardern, will have understandably little appetite for its own inquisition. Perhaps that might come later, should the polling suddenly drop out from under the new Government.

Instead, National will no doubt focus on using its formidable resources and 56 M.P.’s to mount a devastating counter attack. The three years in Opposition will be long and they will no doubt cause a few Members of Parliament to reassess their priorities, but many – having witnessed what they thought was a growing arrogance – will be pleased to see Members of Parliament such as Jonathan Coleman, Simon Bridges, Paula Bennett among others being forced to eat humble pie.

Its traditional support partner, the one man band of David Seymour, called A.C.T. will find plenty to be frustrated with. Impotent as a one person band, wondering why National did not follow more of its suggestions and wondering how to grow, there will be plenty on its plate. On top of all this, A.C.T. has Mr Seymour’s euthanasia bill before the House. Given it is one of the few things A.C.T. sees eye to eye with left leaning M.P.’s on, this could be its one chance to do something useful.

Likewise for Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens, those first few weeks on the benches normally reserved for the governing party or in this case parties, will seem equally unfamiliar. For the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand it will be a completely unfamiliar – albeit very welcome – feeling.

Going from a party that was dead in the water and sinking at the end of July to holding office with the Greens and New Zealand First – I am sure in all three parties there will be M.P.’s pinching themselves, wondering how they managed to pull this off. Given that most of these M.P.’s have never been Ministers before, including the Prime Minister-designate, it will be a period of steep learning as they come to grips with their Ministerial portfolio’s and responsibilities.

For the Greens this will be the start of a whole new chapter, there will be only a few instances around the world of a Green Party holding ministerial portfolio’s. Having waited nearly 20 years to hold the ones that they will be handed, the incentive to be careful will be strong.

For New Zealand First, this is just the second time they have been the King (or in this case, the Queen)maker. The memories of 1996, where New Zealand was made to wait for 9 weeks was not lost on them, and this time despite having a much more fractured Parliament, it was able to reach a decision after just 26 days. Like the Greens, the incentive to be careful will be strong as it is unlikely Mr Peters will get another chance to be in such a role.