Ready for Deputy Prime Minister Marama Davidson?
Jacinda Ardern's dreams of governing unencumbered by coalition partners are fading. The latest polls have Labour below the 61 seats needed to govern alone — and that was before Judith Collins convincingly won the Newshub leaders' debate. For their part, the Greens have survived their wobble over James Shaw's $12 million grant to the Green School.
The growing probability of a Labour-Green Government is motivating National to talk about the radical tail wagging the more mainstream Labour dog. Labour will raise fears about the influence of David Seymour — who Collins has indicated is welcome to be her Deputy Prime Minister — on the National-Act alternative.
The rough convention that has emerged under MMP is that the leader of the smaller partner becomes Deputy Prime Minister when there is a formal coalition government. That title was won by Winston Peters in negotiation with Jim Bolger and Jacinda Ardern in 1996 and 2017 respectively, and by Jim Anderton with Helen Clark in 1999. Under more casual confidence and supply agreements, the deputy prime ministership stays with the deputy leader of the main ruling party.
The business community seems to assume that the job, in a Labour-Green Government, would go to James Shaw, the fifth most popular minister among business leaders according to this week's Mood of the Boardroom survey. But that ignores Davidson being top of the Green list and more popular with the Green activists who will have to sign off any coalition agreement with Labour.
After his little dalliance with National following the 2017 election, his popularity with the dreaded capitalists, his compromises with the agriculture sector over climate change, and the Green School debacle, Shaw is still on probation with the party base.
Moreover, what would it say if the Greens, finally part of a coalition government, passed over their top ranked MP, a Māori wāhine with impeccable credentials as a flaxroots activist, for their second ranked MP, a Pākehā male from PwC?
Deputy Prime Minister Davidson is bound to terrify elements of the business community the same way Deputy Prime Minister Seymour would alarm the political left, but everyone can relax. With NZ First set to follow Peter Dunne's United Future Party and the old Māori Party out of Parliament, we are back to a de facto two-party system similar to what we enjoyed before MMP.
The Greens and Act can safely be given whatever titles are necessary to keep them sweet. They can be thrown a few other baubles such as the Green School or Don Brash's 2025 Taskforce set up under the 2008 National-Act confidence and supply agreement to recommend how to bridge the income gap with Australia, but completely ignored and even mocked by John Key and Bill English.
But parties like the Greens and Act — and, in the future, perhaps the New Conservatives — have no leverage and thus no real power. They can throw their toys around the Cabinet table and even make a few threatening public statements, but Ardern can always shrug her shoulders and tell the Greens to try their luck with National. Similarly, a Prime Minister Collins could always suggest Seymour have a cup of tea with whoever would replace Ardern as Labour leader.
Both Act and the Greens have previously had a crack at establishing relationships with their mortal enemies. Rodney Hide signed a Co-operation Agreement with Clark's Labour Government in 2007 and Jeanette Fitzsimons and Russel Norman with Key's National Government in 2009. But all parties' memberships were horrified and the arrangements were ultimately mere tactical devices to put natural allies on notice.
In coalition with Labour, the Greens can ask as often as they like for things like their cherished wealth tax but will get nowhere. Similarly, Seymour would be crushed asking Collins to cut the 30 per cent tax rate to 17.5 per cent. Neither Ardern nor Collins would jeopardise their re-election in 2023 over a coalition partner's unpopular policy idea.
Beyond providing the brute numbers to pass legislation and a Budget, the value of the Greens and Act to Labour and National is as occasional cover for the larger party to do what it would like to do anyway, whether punitive climate-change measures or partnership schools.
More valuable to the political system as a whole is how the Greens and Act widen the "Overton Window" of socially permissible ideas and thereby prevent complete policy and ideological stasis under the median-voter parties.
To voters, ticking the Greens or Act offers a way to express their displeasure to their preferred larger party when it gets arrogant or in a rut, is disorganised or unfit for office, has an unpopular leader or fails to deliver.
Sadly for those who care about them, ideas always comes second.
The Greens did well when Labour had left-leaning but unconvincing leaders such as David Cunliffe and Andrew Little but badly since Ardern look over, despite her failures on all the issues Green voters are meant to care about. Key's mushy centrism should have been a boon for Act but it struggled all the way through his popular and competent administration. On ideological grounds, it makes no sense that Act is polling the highest it has since the early 2000s with Collins as National's leader.
There are reasons for the business community to fear an Ardern Government without Winston Peters as a handbrake or for left-wing activists to dread a Collins Government elected solely because of a Lazarus performance by the incoming Prime Minister. But the actual power the likes of Davidson or Seymour would have over policy is the least of them.
For his part, Seymour would be busy enough managing a caucus of perhaps a dozen unpredictable newbies. For their part, Davidson and Shaw would have their work cut out explaining why they still weren't meeting their members' expectations on issues like poverty, tax, climate change and housing — despite their flash new BMWs, $300,000 salaries and Beehive suites.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant whose clients have included the National and Act parties. These views are his own.