Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Six months for voters to demand coalition transparency

Should political parties be more transparent with coalition arrangements? Photo / Thinkstock
Should political parties be more transparent with coalition arrangements? Photo / Thinkstock

Political parties and politicians treat voters with contempt when they refuse to be upfront about post-election coalition arrangements.

To varying degrees all of them are rather tricky about who they might go into coalition with, what the configurations might be, and what policy tradeoffs and negotiations could be involved.

To add insult to injury, politicians also attempt to spin their obfuscation as being about protecting voters and democracy. With the general election date announced, this is the major political discussion of the moment and will be an ongoing debate throughout the campaign with attempts by both voters and the media to tie the parties down over their post-election intentions.

For the best recent item about coalition transparency see Tim Watkin's blog post With friends like these... the coalition questions. Although Watkin's post is primarily focused on David Cunliffe's recent interview in which he refused to discuss who Labour might work with in government, it's also a very good discussion on why voters need to know in advance what they're voting for.

Watkin argues that both major parties, as well as the minors, need to be much more transparent: 'To refuse to answer questions about a coalition even with your best mate, and to say that any deals will only be done after the election, lacks respect for what the party is asking of voters. Cunliffe said the voters have the right to choose who governs. But that argument misses the point that it's only an informed choice if they know what that government might look like'. With this level of ambiguity from politicians, Watkins argues that elections are much more uncertain, and voters might find that they get a different outcome to what they thought they were voting for.

Who will New Zealand First go with?

With public attention now turning to likely coalition possibilities after September 20, the big question is over Winston Peters. If New Zealand First gets back into Parliament, would it use it's 'king-making powers' to put Labour or National into government? John Key has challenged Peters to signal his coalition preferences. According to Frances Cook and Barry Soper, National is putting the pressure on the minor parties: 'John Key says Winston Peters has a responsibility to his supporters to say who'd he'd most likely coalesce with after the election. The PM is quoted as saying, 'New Zealanders actually do want a sense of transparency about how people will operate and that's going to be one of the challenges for a New Zealand First voter and in reality they won't actually know whether they'll go with Labour or National and those voters might have a view' - see: Newstalk ZB's Peters fumes over being accused of dragging his feet.

The same article reports Peters' explanation for why he can't say more about his coalition preferences: 'A democratic party makes a decision as a Party, as a caucus, as a board, alongside its supporters. Now there's a lot that's going to be said and done by way of new policy in the next six months. How can we make a judgment on that until we've heard those policies.' Peters has also claimed that 'the public doesn't want these sort of deals pre-election' - see Radio NZ's Peters deflects Key's election challenge. According to Peters John Key is scaremongering, and he has labeled Key's statements about New Zealand First as 'deceitful', 'dishonest' and 'disingenuous'.

This morning, Peters had a 35-minute interview with Radio NZ's Kathryn Ryan, in which he discussed his election year agenda and answered questions about how he would use the 'balance of power' after the election - listen: Winston Peters - New Zealand First Party Leader. Listeners will be more informed about Peters' reasons for not talking about post-election scenarios, but unfortunately not much wiser about which major party he is more likely to support. The most interesting admission from Peters was that he is open to - though does not prefer - the idea of supporting neither party as a coalition partner - see Radio NZ's Cross-benches fine if necessary - Peters.

Will the Greens be left in the lurch again?

In the past, Winston Peters made it clear he would not support any government that involves the Green Party. This continues to be a potential spanner in the works for any Labour-led coalition after the election. And today, Peters did not rule out again making this demand after 20 September if he negotiates with Labour. Certainly many commentators argue Peters will be reluctant to enter into a Labour-led coalition as the third-place getter behind Labour and the Greens. If Peters is 'king maker' he will effectively have Labour over a barrel, which goes someway to explain why Cunliffe is so reluctant to box himself into any firm arrangements.

This all raises the spectre of the Greens being left out of a Labour-led government for a fourth time. Notably, Labour leader David Cunliffe is refusing to say that he would include the Greens in a post-election coalition, only admitting that he would discuss the possibility with the Greens after the election. This is covered well by TVNZ's Katie Bradford in Labour, Greens sparring soon after election date revealed. Bradford reports: 'Labour is now "cuddling up" to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Mr Cunliffe said: "We will see what the voters decide and we will work with whatever cards the voters put on the table. That may indeed quite likely will be with the Greens. It may well be with Winston first." That was a slip of the tongue, but the Greens could yet again be sidelined, with Mr Cunliffe saying there's no pre-ordained party he will talk to first. He says "probably the next biggest left of centre party" will be the one he talks to. Mr Peters is refusing to say if he would work with the Greens but is positioning himself to once again be kingmaker'.

For another example of Cunliffe's careful distancing himself from the Greens, see Barry Soper's Labour hedging its bets over preferred coalition partner. He reports that 'Cunliffe says the Greens won't necessarily be the first cab off the rank if he's in a position to form a Government after the election'.

Today, Cunliffe has been slightly more positive about a Labour-Green coalition, but remains very careful not to say anything resembling a promise he'll work with the Greens - see Stacey Kirk's Cunliffe backs down on coalition comments.

The fundamental problem for the Greens is that they are essentially hostage to the Labour Party, and will have no post-election leverage. Arguably this wasn't so much the case at the last election, when the Greens' official coalition position was that it could potentially go into coalition with National. It's unlikely that the same line could be run again, given the more intense National-Greens hostility in 2014. In political science terms, the Greens are now a 'flank party' without any 'blackmail' potential in coalition negotiations. It means that if Winston Peters demands a Green-free Labour-NZ First coalition, Labour can easily oblige, knowing that the Greens will not vote in any way to bring the government down and let National govern.

The Greens could announce that they have no pre-determined coalition partner and that after the election they would provide parliamentary votes for whatever party implemented, say, five key radical policies. This would, of course, mean that the Greens would have to put less emphasis - or none - on Cabinet positions or other baubles, which is apparently not a strategy favoured by the co-leaders who clearly see the need for Green cabinet ministers. It is also a strategy that could risk causing a subsequent general election or give Winston Peters the excuse to go with National.

Declining Green-Labour relations

Any attempt by Labour and the Greens to be seen as a 'Government-in-waiting' has been dealt a further blow by tensions between the Greens and Labour MP Shane Jones, with the maverick MP stating publicly that the Greens are unfit for government. Jones has targeted Gareth Hughes, calling him a 'mollyhawk' for opposing offshore iron ore extraction - see Vernon Small's Greens complain about Jones' attack. An official complaint has been made by the Greens, invoking an apparent pre-election non-aggression pact between the parties. See also, Isaac Davison's Jones stands firm on jibes at Greens.

For many voters, the whole incident will be a poor advertisement for the Greens and Labour being able to work together in coalition. The NBR's Rob Hosking also writes today about tensions between the two parties: 'A suggestion from the Green Party leadership it might have to accept seabed mineral exploration as the price of being in government has not gone down at all well with some MPs, nor has it been well received by the wider party membership. There are below-the-surface tensions in the Greens between the pragmatists and the purists - or, if you prefer, the careerists and those with principles. These tensions, though, are not so likely to become obvious during an election campaign but are more likely to explode in government' - see: Flagging a third term - Key's challenge (paywalled).

National coalition problems and trickiness

Voters are not just in the dark over any potential Labour-Greens-NZ First alignment, but also about National's coalition plans. We still don't know whether National will do electorate deals with the Act, United Future and Conservative parties. And we still don't know whether, or how, National would incorporate these parties into the next administration. John Key promises to make this clearer in the future, but Clare Trevett reports that this might be only in the last couple of weeks of campaigning - see: Early election avoids clashes: PM.

Colin Craig's Conservative Party is the coalition option of most interest to voters. At the weekend, John Key essentially stated in his TV3 The Nation interview that a deal with Colin Craig in the East Coast Bays electorate was still on the table (despite what Murray McCully might be saying).

The Dominion Post warns that 'The Conservative Party might prove to be National's tar-baby. The closer National gets to this odd little entity, the messier it becomes' - see: Craig alliance sticky situation. The editorial says that 'If National gets into bed with the Conservatives' it risks losing more socially liberal votes.

Election date - motivations and advantages

The announcement of the September 20 election date has led to an array of opinions about how the chosen date could impact on the outcome. The best analysis of why the PM chose that date comes from John Armstrong, who says National went for the earliest possible date without looking like it was manipulating the public - see: Poll date an advantage - without upsetting voters.

Similarly, Vernon Small focuses on the advantage that an early election gives National over Labour: 'Key made the announcement with Labour at a low ebb in the polls and with morale hit by leader David Cunliffe's recent woes.... The longer he waited, the more likely Labour would get its act together, an unexpected problem would blindside him ... or drip-fed interest rate rises would erode confidence in mortgage-land' - see: Key's move a convenient one.

Certainly most commentators are citing the economy as the main factor in the date chosen, and Rob Hosking details this well: 'The economy is obviously a big strength for the government: a measure of Mr Key's confidence is he has scheduled the election two days after GDP figures, three days after current account data; and only 10 days after a Reserve Bank monetary policy statement which will almost definitely put up interest rates. The risk here is that the media will be awash with good economic news but too many voters will not be feeling it in their own bank accounts - especially if interest rates and other costs are rising. Energy costs will loom large - and the opposition parties are already banging this drum hard, in the wake of several firms announcing price hikes over the past week' - see: Flagging a third term - Key's challenge (paywalled).

Opposition leaders have accused National of cynically attempting to reduce voter turnout by holding the election in a cooler month than usual - see Claire Trevett's Early election avoids clashes: PM and Newswire's Election date may deter voters - Cunliffe.

Other interesting commentaries on the announcement include Rob Salmond's Why announce the election date this week?, Josie Pagani's The left missed a chance to score today and Toby Manhire's Labour in a muddle over election day.

Election campaign issues and winners

Although the economy is widely said to be the main election issue this year, Colmar Brunton has polled the public on the 'top 5 issues', and the results do not include the economy, but rather issues like education and health - see the latest Colmar Brunt poll graphics. For another view, see Duncan Garner's The 10 defining election issues.

According to iPredict, the chances of National forming a government are at 70%. Leftwing commentator Chris Trotter seems to agree with this forecast, stating that 'What may also surprise is the sheer scale and comprehensiveness of the Left's (especially Labour's) electoral humiliation' - see: All Over Bar The Counting. And today's Press editorial seems to think that victory is looking out of reach for Labour, especially because the party has put forward little reason for the public to make a change - see: It doesn't give them much time.

Finally, in the end, much will rest on the ability of the Labour leader to change people's minds and show that he has a government-in-waiting (that may or may not include the Greens and New Zealand First.) For the latest on the Labour leader's progress, see Steve Braunias' The Secret diary of David Cunliffe.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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