National Party leader Christopher Luxon has copped a fair bit of flak for the length of time his coalition talks have taken – but he should be cut some slack.
The scenario he’s dealing with is complex, potentially fraught, and different to any that has come before.
On Monday at 3pm Luxon fronted up to announce that National had at last reached agreements on policies with both Act leader David Seymour and NZ First’s Winston Peters. That involved finding a way through what were clearly sticky issues, such as race relations. The job is not quite done yet and so we do not get to see them yet.
However, Luxon said the deals at least allowed the parties to make a start on the big policy promises they had.
While Act is unlikely to have been granted its referendum on the Treaty principles - something National was adamant over - it and NZ First have perhaps got a review of some variety around the use of the principles instead - effectively shunting a controversial issue down the line (at least until the review is completed.)
Act and NZ First are inspecting each other’s full goodie bags and have a chance to object.
There is also the dispensing of ministerial positions, including the Deputy Prime Minister’s role – and the breaking of the bad news to the National ministerial hopefuls who will miss out.
The breakthrough on policy deals is, as Luxon said, a milestone.
However, the complexity of what is facing him should not be underestimated if his Government is to last the distance. He may discover the long talks were the easy bit. Here is hoping not all of that time was spent on policy decisions and some was spent on relationship management.
It will be the first time a New Zealand Government has three different parties sitting inside Cabinet – and it is now clear that a full coalition of the three parties is the form the new Government will take.
If they don’t get it right, it could easily result in a Cabinet either paralysed by disagreement or paralysed by delays and inaction.
Even if Luxon does get it right, that could happen. If it happens too much, it means the Government that has pledged to get New Zealand back on track risks running off the tracks completely.
For that reason, it is already clear that the coalition agreements this time will be lengthy, detailed and quite prescriptive.
The three are setting out in advance what they will all agree to, to make sure there are no hiccups or blind-siding along the way.
That’s all well and good when it comes to making sure all three commit to passing the measures in those agreements, the priorities as of November 2023.
However, agreements in black and white now cannot predict what might happen in the next three years.
Big events – natural disasters, pandemics, economic shocks – force Governments to change their programmes.
Detailed agreements do not leave much flexibility for dealing with the unexpected.
The three need to work out a way to contend with how the unexpected will be managed. It is just as critical as the policy gains and ministerial portfolio allocations.
That could prove hard, given there is already a lack of trust between the three parties. It is a long-standing mistrust that will not have been resolved in the past month.
It’s believed Luxon was initially hoping to get at least NZ First, if not Act, as a confidence and supply partner rather than inside Cabinet.
It was the model former PM John Key had throughout his three terms. The 2017 Labour Government also had one party inside Cabinet (NZ First) and the Greens outside.
That suggestion may well have been why National’s first offer to NZ First prompted Peters to pack his bags and leave Wellington.
The argument for confidence and supply is that it gives the smaller party more space to speak out on issues of importance to them. But it was never going to happen in these circumstances.
Neither Act nor NZ First would be happy to be considered the lesser partner, the one outside Cabinet.
Peters has always preferred a full coalition, inside Cabinet. Cabinet carries two crucial advantages: Access to information and influence over that information.
The disadvantage to the smaller parties is the firm rule of Cabinet collectivity: Cabinet ministers must abide by the decisions of Cabinet and cannot express concern or disagree with those decisions publicly.
There are provisions that allow for venting - the “agree to disagree” provisions. Those have rarely been invoked. There is also precious little room to allow that to be invoked this time round: All three parties need the other two to pass any legislation required.
So Luxon is left to try to work out how it will work in practice. What happens if two parties’ ministers in Cabinet agree with a course of action but the third refuses to go along with it? Is unanimity required? Should there be a Meatloaf rule: Two out of three ain’t bad?
Should National’s greater numbers mean it has more say than Act and NZ First in Cabinet, or do all three effectively have veto power over anything that hasn’t already been agreed to?
To some extent, the risks can be mitigated by making sure nothing makes it to Cabinet unless it is certain all three parties will stomach it. Things that can’t be agreed on can also already be sent back to Cabinet committees for more work. But that also means big decisions get drawn out and delayed.
Cabinet does not vote on decisions. Ministers discuss them, some agree and some disagree.
The Prime Minister is responsible for trying to come up with a solution that everybody can live with – or if no compromise can be found, making the final decision on a matter.
Ministers then just have to suck it up and pretend to be happy with it.
If a minister disagrees strongly enough, they can resign. That is very high bar. And in normal circumstances, it’s fine. A new minister can be appointed.
However, in this case, if one party of the coalition disagrees strongly enough they can bring down the Government over it. Peters has done it before.
When there is a massive drama, it is invariably the Prime Minister who carries the can for it.
Given the consequences, it is little wonder Luxon has taken some time.
Claire Trevett is the NZ Herald’s political editor, based at Parliament in Wellington. She started at the NZ Herald in 2003 and joined the Press Gallery team in 2007. She is a life member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.