John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Prosser saved by the realpolitik bell

Coalition manoeuvres stop parties calling for MP's head

Prosser has the good fortune to be an MP in a party which can get away with a lot before next year's election as it will be a major factor in determining who governs afterwards. Photo / Mark MItchell
Prosser has the good fortune to be an MP in a party which can get away with a lot before next year's election as it will be a major factor in determining who governs afterwards. Photo / Mark MItchell

The ratings for TVNZ's Seven Sharp may be going through the floor with (older) viewers finding little sustenance in the show's anaemic diet which mixes social media-heavy with current affairs-lite.

Last Wednesday's programme, however, truly captured the moment in screening a punch-drunk Richard Prosser recoiling in horror at finding himself trapped in a media maelstrom of his own silly making.

His eyes were almost popping out of his head. His face wore the blank stare of someone who could not quite comprehend what was happening to them. The NZ First MP did not know where to look or which way to turn as he was relentlessly hounded by Seven Sharp's reporter.

Prosser did not project the confident glow of someone who once described himself as a "freedom-loving, gonad-equipped, libertarian go-getter".

The NZ First MP's body language was closer to his putdown of (small "l") liberals as "namby-pamby, thumb-sucking, lefty pinko fantasy-land morons".

Not since Act's David Garrett incurred the wrath of Parliament for revealing he had once stolen the identity of a dead baby to obtain a false passport, has an MP been deluged with such high volumes of verbal acid and outright contempt as that which rained down on Prosser this week following his blundering blunderbuss discharge at all things Muslim.

Unlike Garrett who subsequently resigned from Parliament, Prosser appears to have survived and will continue to pick up a backbencher's $145,000 salary for the next two years at least.

The many people who are now questioning Prosser's fitness to be an MP will be asking why that will be the case. The answer is pure and simple - politics.

Prosser has the immense good fortune to be an MP in a party which can get away with a lot before next year's election because it will be a major factor in determining who governs afterwards.

Garrett belonged to a party which realistically can only back a National-led Administration and which at the time was seen as being on its death-bed.

While there were widespread calls from outside Parliament for Prosser to quit (or be made to quit) his job as an MP, the comparative silence on that score inside the institution was a significant factor in saving him from a forced resignation.

Politicians from other parties were quick to condemn Prosser for his ravings against Muslims and accord him pariah status. But when reporters' questions turned to such pertinent matters as whether those self-same politicians could still work with NZ First if Prosser remained a member of that party's caucus, words suddenly deserted them.

They would not comment on the hypothetical. They said it was far too early in the electoral cycle to be ruling things in or out.

What they were not saying was that both Labour and National may well be locked in the Mother of All Bidding Wars to get Winston Peters' signature on a coalition or co-operation agreement following next year's election.

Neither John Key nor David Shearer is going to blot his copybook with Peters over something as relatively trivial as Prosser's indiscretions.

The caution was evident in the motion placed before Parliament to try to counter any embarrassment New Zealand might have copped in other countries

This should have been a Government initiative. It was the work of the Greens. It looked like the motion had been watered down to attract the widest possible support across Parliament. It made no mention of Prosser or NZ First.

The hardest-hitting statement came from the Metiria Turei, the Greens co-leader. But it really was not that hard-hitting at all. She warned that if NZ First kept Prosser on board "there will be costs of that to them". She declined to say what those costs would be and where they would impact.

The net result of this collective walking on eggshells was the absence of any rising bow-wave of pressure within Parliament for Prosser's head.

Without that pressure, Peters could safely ignore outside calls for Prosser's resignation.

While this may look more than a touch venal, the episode has highlighted the importance the parties are giving to coalition manoeuvrings, even though the next election is still some 20 months away.

The most visible sign of attempts to build ties and strengthen them in the hope that they will bear fruit when the real negotiations begin is the manufacturing inquiry sponsored by Labour, the Greens, NZ First and the Mana party.

The inquiry has no official status. National can ignore its findings which will include recommendations for changing the targets set by the Reserve Bank in order to try and lower the value of the New Zealand dollar.

The big question is how far consensus will stretch across the range of other economic management issues so that those parties can produce a coherent and agreed alternative to National's less hands-on approach.

The exercise is all about showing the parties can co-operate to a level which demonstrates that a Labour-Greens-NZ First-Mana governing arrangement would be stable.

National will hammer the message that such an arrangement is inherently unstable. A lot more therefore hangs on the results of the manufacturing inquiry than might appear to be the case.

The inquiry also presents a challenge to Labour to come up with an agreed policy prescription that makes it harder for Peters to do a deal with National after the election.

But Peters is not someone who can be pushed to go faster than he wants. Hence the early start to efforts to get him on board for the long haul.

Just how tricky this all is was highlighted by the latest Roy Morgan poll which had Labour and the Greens rating sufficiently highly to be able to govern without Peters. That would be ideal for both parties. but it is not very realistic.

Peters is not going to tolerate being some kind of off-course substitute who only comes into play if his party is needed to make up the numbers.

Labour may have to accept a pre-condition that he is part of a Labour-led Government whatever happens seats-wise.

His party's presence may also be necessary for another reason. For the first time since the introduction of MMP in 1996, the party with the most votes may not end up as the governing party. A governing arrangement made up of also-rans will need as many of them on board as possible to engender legitimacy and authority.

Such are the complexities exercising the minds of party leaders from here on. In that light, Richard Prosser is an utter irrelevance.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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