The long and tortuous ordeal that produced the new Government’s policy agreement was really only the curtain-raiser.
The real event – let’s call it the main full-length drama – begins when ministers get behind their desks next week and start the daily grind of running a three-way coalition Government.
All of the warm fuzzies about good faith, close consultation, no surprises and working for a common cause are just, well, warm fuzzies. The challenge will be to walk the talk, day in and day out.
Otherwise, there could be some awful disintegration ahead.
And when you reflect on what we’ve seen and heard from the coalition’s leaders over recent times – the inflated talk about how quickly a deal would be done, the flashes of indignation, the displays of one-upmanship – it’s clear the omens are unfavourable.
National in particular, but Act and NZ First as well, have been repeating ad nauseam the strong and stable government mantra, but you get the feeling that it won’t take much to strip away the let’s-play-nice veneer.
Winston Peters and David Seymour are both shrewd and headstrong individuals, and neither tend to be hesitant with their opinions.
While they’ve done their damnedest to be cordial to one another of late, don’t count on that lasting.
As the Government-formation talks proceeded, both demonstrated their bullish styles from time to time.
Peters’ no-show on the day that Luxon and Seymour flew to Wellington, on the understanding the three leaders would meet at Parliament, was quintessential Peters. He wasn’t going to dance to Luxon’s tune, who had hopes of flying to San Francisco on November 15 for the Apec leaders’ summit. Peters was effectively telling him, “not so fast, sunshine”.
Then there was the spectacle of Seymour touting himself for the No 2 seat. This was a first for government formation in the MMP era – a minor party leader brazenly lobbying for a particular ministerial role - the deputy prime ministership, no less.
These two, Peters and Seymour, have history. Their relationship has been marked by an intense antagonism, as was evident when Seymour described Peters as the least trustworthy MP he knew, and someone who has been “shredding his own credibility for decades”.
Peters, in turn, has labelled Seymour a “political cuckold who has got so much integrity that he has to get another party to prop him up”.
Now throw into the mix Christopher Luxon, a shiny new Prime Minister who is untutored in the ways of government. One of his core tasks will be to manage Peters and Seymour, and the inevitable friction between the two, a challenge that would test a seasoned political operator, let alone a relative newbie.
At the same time, Luxon will be needing to convince Peters he rates and respects him, as Peters won’t forget that having NZ First in the Government tent was Luxon’s least-preferred option.
This became apparent when Luxon dropped a strategic clanger three weeks before the election by saying – after weeks of dismissing questions about whether he’d work with NZ First – with words to the effect he’d pick up the phone to Peters only if he needed to.
It was a comment that gave the NZ First campaign some oxygen and pretty much guaranteed they’d get over the line.
We will never know how Peters reacted when he heard those words –but one imagines it only strengthened his resolve to make that need a reality.
But if Luxon is striving to reassure Peters the coalition will be based on respect and togetherness, he wasn’t helped by Nicola Willis telling Newstalk ZB this week that nobody will thank the minor parties if they “hold the country to ransom … nobody wants the tail wagging the dog”, or wants a smaller party “dictating the way the country is governed”.
So with that gratuitous caution ringing in their ears, NZ First and Act now stand ready to join National on the Treasury benches.
It mightn’t be the minor partners’ intention to “dictate” how the country is governed, but they will expect to be consulted every step of the way, and that is where everyone’s mettle will be tested, especially National’s.
Under coalition arrangements, consultation is a constant. It needs to happen in an appropriate and timely fashion, and tensions arise when the protocols are ignored. Peters and Seymour will be intent on making sure that doesn’t happen.
The long and short of it is that ministers should never progress a Cabinet paper or make an announcement without having consulted their partners in government, as the 2017-20 Labour-NZ First coalition found out the hard way on a couple of occasions.
Former Justice Minister Andrew Little notably fell foul of NZ First after he publicly announced he would be taking a paper to Cabinet to repeal the mandatory sentencing regime known as Three Strikes. Little understood he had the backing of NZ First, but the party had changed its mind.
A bruised Little was forced to drop his repeal plan as NZ First protested sternly and the coalition briefly wobbled.
A few years on, we have a quite different-looking coalition Government, and its make-up suggests getting everyone on the same page over its policy programme will be a profound and ongoing challenge.
It will be led by a gung-ho Prime Minister who promises to get cracking and deliver outcomes, having not yet learned the “under-promise, over-deliver” mode of operation.
And his two partner parties have leaders who – in addition to not particularly liking one another – will be aggressively seeking their own policy wins, and wanting to put their stamp on proceedings. Also, one has a track record of being easily slighted.
Get it wrong and things might swiftly implode.
- Mike Munro is a former chief of staff for Jacinda Ardern and was chief press secretary for Helen Clark.