By Cam Slater
In New Zealand politics, some alliances may seem unlikely at first glance. A case in point is the dilemma National faces right now. There has been plenty of animus between National and Winston Peters, with 30 years of sabotage, ankle-tapping and skullduggery to try to ensure Winston is dead and buried. Clearly none of that has worked, and the main protagonists are all pretty much gone meaning that there is the possibility of some detente, and indeed cooperation.
However, making strategic moves and finding common ground can be crucial. Such is the case with the National Party, which has the opportunity to forge a partnership with New Zealand First. While the history between the two parties may not be harmonious, there are compelling reasons for National to consider an accommodation with Winston Peters and his team.
It's important to acknowledge that this sentiment comes from an unexpected place. In 2005 and 2017, when Winston Peters sided with Labour, many within the National Party were relieved. The prospect of a government reliant on him seemed like a recipe for instability. Personal relations between Winston and prominent National figures have been anything but rosy, with the occasional legal threat and a playful nickname for one well-known commentator. However, in politics, pragmatism should always prevail over personal grievances. John Key knew that; he was perhaps the most pragmatic National leader since Jim Bolger. Bill English had no pragmatism, only a deep loathing and grudges.
One of the primary reasons to explore cooperation with New Zealand First is stability. A government with 69 seats is inherently more stable than one with just 61. National and ACT are slowly coming to the awareness that the special votes and the Māori seats threaten their bare majority. It is highly likely that National will lose one or possibly two seats after the special votes are counted. Sources close to Te Pāti Māori are also telling me that they think they will pick up two more Māori seats off Labour. That will mean a parliamentary overhang, and a Parliament of 123–124 seats, meaning that National and ACT's present 61 seats won't be enough.
Extending an olive branch to Winston Peters, especially when it's not a necessity, can foster goodwill and respect. Those who have interacted with him emphasize the importance of these elements in any political negotiations.
Dopey suggestions that are being floated right now of offering Winston Peters the role of Speaker show that National still doesn't really understand that you need to show honor and respect to Winston Peters, rather than insulting gestures.
The political landscape is not static; the numbers can and will change. At the present, the National/ACT alliance holds 61 out of 121 seats. But the final vote tally may see them drop to 60 or even 59. Waiting until late November, without making the first move, could result in a hung Parliament. Factors such as the outcome in Port Waikato or Te Pāti Māori's success in winning electorates will shift the equation. It's a complex game of variables, and waiting until the eleventh hour may not be the wisest course of action. Acting sooner may also yield a more favourable deal for both parties.
With regards to Port Waikato, one way that I understand is being talked about inside National is offering to withdraw both National and ACT candidates, clearing the way for NZ First to pick up a safe electorate seat by getting the incredibly well-respected Casey Costello elected in her own seat. It would achieve several things in one go. For National it means nothing, Andrew Bayly is already on the list. It shows they are willing to offer a metaphoric wero and lay down an olive branch to be picked up by NZ First. It also gives NZ First a safety net, a seat to fall back on like after the 1999 election, as well as shoring up support for the coalition.
Furthermore, while a National/ACT Cabinet would be an ideal scenario for many, that doesn't necessarily mean there isn't a place for New Zealand First. If the numbers fall the way I believe they will, then being parsimonious and rude by not including NZ First in Cabinet may well be their undoing. For instance, Winston Peters or Casey Costello could serve as the Minister of Crown/Māori Relations. Such a position could address the issue of ensuring public services are based on need, rather than race, and provoke an essential and much needed conversation in order to heal the divisions caused by the former government in race relations.
Imagine the dynamic that could unfold if Shane Jones were to take up the role of Minister of Energy. With his presence in that portfolio, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori would undoubtedly express their disapproval, while National could focus on addressing critical concerns such as the cost of living and improvements in health and education systems.
Ultimately, the goal should be a three to four-term National-led Government. For this to become a reality, the three parties of the centre-right must unite against their common adversaries, rather than bickering amongst themselves. This entails focusing on the issues that matter most to New Zealanders — challenging the left's woke identity politics, advocating against envy taxes, pushing for effective crime policies, and eliminating wasteful spending.
David Seymour is going to have to walk back his insults about trust in Winston Peters, after all if Jim Bolger, Helen Clark and John Key say they can trust Winston Peters then their experience outweighs Seymour’s personal thoughts. This should be easy to do, but can David Seymour hide his hubris enough to make that work?
In conclusion, an alliance between National and New Zealand First may not be an intuitive choice, but it's a strategic one. The potential benefits in terms of stability, adaptability to changing circumstances, and the opportunity to tackle critical issues from different angles should not be dismissed. In politics, as in life, it's often when we bridge our differences that we can find the most common ground and make the greatest progress.
This essay originally appeared on The BFD on 17 October 2023.