English needs to be wary of his ambitious M.P.’s

For the last several days National Leader and Leader of the Opposition Bill English, has been keeping a low profile, as has his Deputy Leader Paula Bennett. With sore and embittered M.P.’s itching for action against the new government, and no clear leader to co-ordinate the attack, this is surprising.

So soon after losing the Prime Ministership, Mr English is taking a risk. There are a number of Members of Parliament that Mr English needs to keep a wary eye on. But these ones are not on the Government benches. They are in the ranks of his own National Party.

One can understand every now and again, the Leader of the Opposition taking time off to see family or to have a quick breather. But so soon after the election, with sore M.P.’s still adjusting to the cold reality that they are no longer in power and being on the Opposition benches entails a completely different set of skills and tasks, Mr English is conspicuously absent.

Mr English has several ambitious Members of Parliament in his party who probably quietly want his job. Although they were all unified in support of him when he lost the Prime Ministers job to Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, it would not have been lost on any of them that this was the second time Mr English has lost the election. Perhaps though, this should not be so surprising, because despite the polls on Stuff, One News and Newshub, the public support for National-A.C.T. and United Future had definitely soured. Worsening environmental, mental health, crime, education and social welfare problems were finally becoming – after nine years of simmering in the background – a conflagration that could no longer be ignored.

His ambitious members include Judith Collins who was cultivated by Prime Minister John Key and was active as a Minister of Justice and Minister of Police – two portfolio’s she strongly believes in. Ms Collins was undone by the well known Oravida scandal and and many members of the public judged her as corrupt. Another one is Amy Adams, a work horse Minister who held a range of portfolio’s during her time in Parliament. Although she has never shown a great desire, Mrs Adams is smart, respected in what she did in Parliament as Minister and could be playing a long term game.

Also dangerous to Mr English’s future are Simon Bridges, Nikki Kaye and – although she too has been in hiding of late – Paula Bennett. Mr Bridges, a senior member and M.P. for Tauranga held a number of portfolio’s including Minister for Energy and Resources. He sits at 6th spot and is Shadow Leader of the House. Ms Kaye, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and has since returned, is the Spokesperson for Education. At age 37, she is the same age as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She has potential and also appeals to the more left-wing parts of the National Party.

Paula Bennett has been keeping a low profile of late. However her seniority as Deputy Leader of the National Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Spokesperson for Children, Women and Social Development. Ms Bennett’s combative approach could potentially make enemies and hand the Government ammunition.


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.


Simon Bridges’ hypocrisy

Today it emerged that National M.P. Simon Bridges has accused the new Labour-led Government of trying to avoid scrutiny. Mr Bridges was complaining about the number of National Party Members of Parliament that would be allowed to sit on Select Committees. It reminded me of a stunning piece of hypocrisy that happened on his watch in 2013.

In April 2013, as the then Minister for Energy and Resources, Mr Bridges (M.P. for Tauranga) introduced a Bill of Parliament to the House of Representatives. It was called the Crown Minerals (Crown Land and Permitting)Act, 2013.

The way in which this Bill of Parliament was forced through to this day in my mind is one of the greatest shames of the New Zealand Parliament. Mr Bridges must have had some idea that this Bill was going to generate significant opposition, during its passage through Parliament. The opposition that arose was indeed substantial. During the short period between the Second Reading and the Third Reading, a coalition of notable New Zealanders and organizations signed a petition trying to stop the passage of the legislation. Organizations that signed included Amnesty International, Greenpeace and 350 Aotearoa. Notable individuals included former Prime Minister and constitutional lawyer Sir Geoffrey Palmer, former Green M.P. Jeanette Fitzsimons and Peter Williams QC.

At the Third Reading, New Zealand First, which had been originally set to support the Bill of Parliament turned against it. In speaking against it their spokesperson N.Z. First List M.P. Andrew Williams informed Parliament that the party would not support its passage any furthe due to draconian changes introduced by Mr Bridges that included:

  • using the Royal New Zealand Navy as an arresting force
  • effectively criminalizing freedom of assembly on the high seas
  • disproportionately heavy fines

New Zealand First’s resistance was justified. Not only were the changes draconian, they were in a Bill of Parliament that was forced through with no scrutiny allowed by the Select Committee. No public consultation was permitted either and the Bill was pushed through under urgency, as a number of others during the early and mid years of the fifth National Government.

Following the passage of the Bill through Parliament and its controversial vote, I took action as a private individual. My first course of action was to contact Amnesty International and ask for advice on what to put in a formal complaint to the Human Rights Commission. One of their staff agreed to review my complaint and offer suggestions.

After about 6 weeks, I got a response from the Human Rights Commission. They agreed that on the surface as an individual I could say that my basic rights were infringed. They acknowledged the complicated matter of the law, but their basic premise was that this Act of Parliament was an unacceptable infringement on an individual’s basic human rights.

As a New Zealand First Member at the time I also decided to put forward a remit for the Annual Convention in Christchurch that year. I would propose that the party make it policy to repeal the Crown Minerals (Crown Land and Permitting)Act, 2013. It passed with overwhelming support. Delegates and M.P.’s told me at the time it was a good remit.

Based on the aforementioned Act of Parliament and the nature of its passage, which still annoys me to this day, I find it rather rich of Mr Bridges to be accusing the new Government of trying to escape scrutiny. Especially when Mr Bridges was found to have infringed the basic human rights of a private individual.

Reality of Opposition yet to hit National

These are unfamiliar times for National and Labour. The latter will be on a high for bit longer yet from the events of 19 October 2017, where New Zealand First leader Winston Peters gave Labour leader Jacinda Ardern the right to form a Government. But what about the National Party getting used to the Opposition benches?

For a while National will be enthusiastic, possibly looking for opportunities to get an early start in attacking the new Government. For awhile there will still be a smile on the faces of National Party M.P.’s whose brains are not yet in tune with the fact that they will not be the ones passing laws, setting the agenda or the Budget for a change.

But at some point the reality will hit home. It will not just be in terms of having no Ministerial portfolio’s to look after. It will not be just in terms of the fact that many of them will have taken hefty pay cuts from their Ministerial roles. It will not just be in terms of having fewer, or at the least, drastically changed options for overseas trips acting on behalf of New Zealand.

There will be only so much that the right can do to attack the new Government during its honeymoon period without looking bitter and twisted. During this time, the public will be prepared to give Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her new Cabinet some space and patience whilst they learn the ropes, as few of them will have been Ministers before – New Zealand First Leader and Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters and a few others exempt.

Despite this, National appear to have already started attacking. Mr English and National’s finance spokesperson Steven Joyce have both started questioning the proposed fuel tax for Auckland to fund its transport needs. The attacks are classic National – attacking the fact that the taxes will cost Aucklanders more money. However at this time they come off to me at least as desperate and bitter, since National had 9 years to make Auckland’s transport more sustainable, and all that has been achieved is a worsening of congestion on many routes, an under funding of public transport and growing public disgruntlement.

The fact that this is already happening, whilst the new Government’s honeymoon period is barely starting, show that National are deeply hurting at losing office. This should perhaps not be a surprise. They had every reason other than the public mood for change, to think that a fourth term was theirs for the taking. They are the largest party in Parliament and their 56 Members of Parliament present a formidable attack machine, though it is yet to be retooled as an Opposition attack machine and not a Government sanctioned one. National have several things that they need to do in the next few months, aside from accept that – barring a spectacular Government collapse – they are destined for three years on the Opposition benches:

  1. Decide on Bill English’s future – will he really want to stick around once the reality of Opposition kicks in?
  2. Decide the style of Opposition that will be employed
  3. Reorganize their ranks – the line up that worked so well in Government might not be the best line up for the Opposition
  4. Look at their policy platform and how it can be tailored to acknowledge the fact that Government policies on health, social welfare, housing and education among others were failing

These are not insubstantial jobs. They will take time and patience. How bloodlessly will the leadership change that is probably coming, going to be? National will be keen to avoid the blood spillage resulting from the coups Messrs David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little as leaders of the Labour Party. They will want theirs to look like the peaceful transition from Mr Little to Ms Ardern in August this year – bloodless and quick.

But for now, the most unfamiliar task of all awaits. Getting used to being parked on the Opposition benches, most likely until at least 2020 and possibly beyond. That will take some getting used to.

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.