By Chris Trotter

GUYON ESPINER AND ANDREA VANCE kept casting glances towards Ruth Richardson, much as they would towards a batty old aunt. Indisputably, there was something deeply eccentric about Richardson’s performance on Saturday’s Newshub Nation. But, there was also something scary.

Like the Bourbons (the French royal family restored to power following the defeat of Napoleonic France) Richardson appears to have “learned nothing, and forgotten nothing”. Hearing her speak about the New Zealand economy, and what is needed to restore it to health, it was as though the three decades that have slipped by since her brief tenure as Finance Minister were empty of incident. As if all the deterioration in the quality of New Zealanders’ lives and the slow decay of their nation’s institutions — much of it attributable to Richardson’s policies — could be made to disappear by a furious waving of hands.

Richardson is exactly the same person, ideologically, that she was in 1991, when her vicious “Mother of all Budgets” left beneficiary families in tears, and the charities dedicated to their support starved of resources. The same, pint-sized true believer: fizzing with ideological certainty; ready to inflict pain and hardship upon half a nation for its own good — and for the even better of the other half.

That the passage of so many years has not dimmed the fanatical brightness in Richardson’s eyes is only marginally less frightening than the fact that she sits on the ACT Party’s Board of Directors.

That Ruth Richardson just might have the ear of ACT Party Leader, David Seymour, was reportedly enough for a number of the National Party’s biggest friends and donors to take a deep breath and pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the coffers of NZ First. Their argument was straightforward. National could not afford to be driven into the same dangerous territory as Jim Bolger. Winston Peters had applied the handbrake whenever Jacinda Ardern’s government threatened to leave the road — best to have him there if Christopher Luxon looked like doing the same.

After all, the only thing that had saved Jim Bolger’s government, following three years of “Ruthanasia”, was the First-Past-The-Post electoral system. The disastrous electoral impact of Richardson’s policies may be measured in the precipitate fall in the National Party’s share of the popular vote. From 48 percent in 1990 to just 35 percent in 1993. Had MMP been in place for the 1993 general election, Labour and the Alliance, with a combined Party Vote of 52 percent could easily have taken power. Bolger would have presided over National’s first one-term government.

If Seymour is permitted to exert the same economic and social policy influence over Luxon’s government as Richardson exerted over Bolger’s, then a Labour-Green government in 2026 will be odds-on favourite. And it won’t be anything like the Labour-Green-NZ First Government of 2017-2020. Assuming the pollsters are correct, and that Chris Hipkins’ government is soundly defeated on Saturday, then a pretty ruthless scouring of the Labour Party is unavoidable. What a National-ACT government (unrestrained by Peters’ handbrake) is likely to face in 2026 will be as close to a “coalition of communists” as New Zealand has ever seen.

For a few days, over the course of the past fortnight, it appeared that the moderate faction of the National Party had prevailed over its hard-liners. Luxon made it clear to the voting public that while his preference was for a “clean” two-party coalition with the ACT Party, if its preference was otherwise, then he would pick up the phone and call Winston. Almost overnight, NZ First’s numbers improved by a whole percentage point — lifting it to a projected 6 percent of the Party Vote. With NZ First securing that level of support, a National-ACT-NZ First government became a dead certainty. The Right was poised to re-take the Treasury Benches.

Or … not. Between Luxon’s confirmation of a week ago that, if required, a three-party coalition, including NZ First, was possible; and National Campaign Manager Chris Bishop’s panicky Sunday predictions of deadlocked negotiations, hung parliaments, and the possibility (probability?) of a second election; something very serious had gone very wrong. Somewhere in National’s caucus, party, or party-donors’ ranks (and, quite possibly, in all three simultaneously) a split has opened up between those who favour simply a change of government, and those who, echoing ACT’s election slogan, favour “real change” — Richardsonian change.

Having witnessed the NZ First “surge”, from 5 to 6 percent, these “Real-Changers” were clearly terrified that ACT’s recent slump in support, from 15 percent to 10 percent, was not going to stop, and that Luxon might well emerge from Saturday night’s count with a Party Vote between 34-36 percent, followed by ACT and NZ First with 8 percent apiece. For the Real-Changers, an ACT Party with no more support than NZ First could produce only a lazy, do-nothing, National Government — something on the model of John Key’s. Unacceptable, was their judgement. ACT won’t wear it. Seymour would rather face a new election than spend the next three years as National’s and NZ First’s geeky younger sibling. If Chris Bishop wasn’t prepared to tell the public, then ACT and the Real-Changers would.

Hence Bishop’s panicky statement regarding fruitless negotiations, hung parliaments and a second election. Clearly, he and his fellow strategists are attempting to spook Peters’ more recent converts into returning to National and ACT. Their argument is brutally simple: back a National-ACT government — without Peters — or face months of crippling political and economic instability by keeping him in the mix. That’s the voters’ choice: a clean two-party coalition, or a dirty three-way.

Will it work? Is Peters’ recent support susceptible to such threats? Are they Real-Changers, too, or are they after a different sort of change? Not Richardson’s economic rationalism, but Peters’ economic nationalism? And if it’s the latter, then asking them to embrace Ruth and kiss Winston good-bye, may not work. It just seems logical that if a right-wing voter was looking for the real change that Seymour is offering, then he or she would already be safely tucked-up with ACT.

Then there’s the Left’s lost and lonely. Driven away from both Labour and the Greens by the latter’s support for restricting freedom of expression, re-writing the Treaty, and encouraging transgenderism. These unreconstructed lefties are looking to NZ First for shelter from the wokesters’ storm. Ex-Labour-Alliance-Green voters are not going to oblige Bishop by backing a National-ACT government — no way.

Peters, himself, has described Bishops’ statement as “scaremongering”:

“These very concerning comments must be an unfortunate misunderstanding because suggesting the National Party would start scaremongering and threatening to ignore the will of the people on Election Day and ignore the need of our country to form a stable government would be highly troubling to voters. It is telling voters National would instead enforce another costly election on the nation purely because of their own political expediency.”

Which is a classically orotund Winstonian way of saying that such behaviour, far from persuading opponents of Labour and the Greens to run towards the National and ACT parties, is much more likely to drive them into the arms of NZ First.

Very good news indeed for sly Uncle Winston, but not at all what eccentric Aunt Ruth was hoping to hear.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 9 October 2023.

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