That unaccountably long-employed and endlessly superficial political pontificator, Peter van Onselen, recently opined that there are “lessons to be learned” from New Zealand’s electoral “system” (sic). Well, thinking along rather different lines, it occurred to me that my adopted country might be onto something. Back in the day, I understand from the locals that it could take several months to form a government here after one of these almost inevitably inconclusive elections.
Perhaps there is something to be said for long periods without a government. Why didn’t Winston Peters stretch it out a bit further, say to a year, I thought. One year in three without a government. Now that would be a real contribution to global political thinking!
How does my earlier optimism stand up now that we do have a government in New Zealand? Not so well, I am afraid.
Let us skip lightly over the well-reported facts of recent government-forming activities — for example, that kingmaker Peters doesn’t have a proper seat in parliament, one where he has had to convince a majority of the voters on his own patch to vote for him, as opposed to the pretend seat awarded to his party for simply getting over five per cent of the national vote. The new Prime Minister, the toothy Jacinda Adern, took several goes before she won a proper seat. No one else in the New Zealand First Party has a real seat. The Greens don’t have one to bless themselves with either.
Another well reported fact is that Peters, with around a mere seven per cent, has shunted from office the former governing party, the Nationals, who easily scored the highest number of votes nationally (44.9 per cent) and the most seats (56). Easily more than Labour (36.9 per cent and 46 seats). Indeed, the Nationals scored more votes and more seats than the Greens and Labour combined.
The process whereby a new Labour-Greens-New Zealand First coalition has become the government makes a farce of the democratic process. How can voters take seriously anything that a party promises before an election, when those same pledgesare more than likely not even going to survive the process of constructing a new government? Even before the government rocks up to the new parliament, some of the core promises of its component parties will simply not be implemented — unless all the coalition partners agree. This is especially the case with the tripartite rabble now in office.
What the Americans call “log rolling” is par for the course in all electoral systems. This is the system of legislative and policy tradeoffs between parties in Congress, as in ‘you pass my favourite legislation and I will pass yours’. Witness the Australian Senate. No deals done – no Government policies enacted. This happened with John Howard’s GST back in the 90s, when the Australian Democrats insisted on a whole raft of amendments. That is political life. Kevin Spacey’s chilling analysis in House of Cards is perhaps the best insight into the ghastliness of the system that I have seen.
But the New Zealand system elevates log rolling from mere argy bargy over individual legislation, itself a parody of democracy, to tawdry deal making that will determine the very formation of a government. No deals done — no government formed at all.
Where the heck does this leave the voters and their expectations of future government accountability and performance?
The decidedly unchurchillian Peters claimed that he made his choice based upon two things: that Kiwis voted for change, and very uncertain economic times ahead. I can’t fathom how that gets him to Labour. Let alone the Greens. Kiwis did not vote for change, and only an imbecile would think they did. Even on the facile argument that more voted for parties other than the Nationals, the proposition is absurd. How is “change” defined, in any case? Did Labour voters want a government that included NZ First? Did they want a government that included the Greens? Did NZ First voters want a government that included Greens?
As for Peters’ claim that the prospect of uncertain economic times led him to Labour, this beggars belief. It is conventional wisdom all over the world that the former National government under John Key and Bill English delivered economic stability, growth and moderate (for this country of low wages and limited prospects) prosperity during times where other countries’ economies faltered badly. The parties Winston chose to lead New Zealand through tougher economic times and more troubled waters are located somewhere between economic illiteracy and economic sabotage. And that is just Labour. The new Prime Minister doesn’t even believe in capitalism! She has no experience in government. She has no experience of anything much that is useful. She has staffed for Helen Clark and Tony Blair, and led the young international socialists. Terrific! We won’t even mention the Greens.
So, policy-wise, what do we have?
Let’s start with cuts in immigration. High recent migration by Kiwi standards has basically kept the place afloat. The economic arguments for higher immigration always outweigh the arguments against it. But in the case of a tiny economy where around a quarter of the country’s best and brightest (those that are prone to drive productivity and innovation) actually live in other countries (half of that quarter in Australia, of course), it is literally insane to cut immigration.
Next, free undergraduate university education. This came a matter of weeks after one hundred top Kiwi companies’ CEOs pleaded with anyone who would listen that young people don’t need useless university degrees to get ahead in life. Winston Peters? Winston Whitlam more like. Free tertiary education was one of Gough’s dumbest innovations in a pretty crowded field. That anyone still believes it worthwhile to spawn legions of third- and fourth-rate “universities” staffed by fifth-rate minds dealing cant and ideology and worthless degrees to kids wasting time on the taxpayer dollar is more than a little alarming.
Next, renewable energy. Sound familiar, Aussies? Our new government here will have us 100 per cent renewable by the 2030s. That is not a misprint. South Australia on steroids.
Then we will have a one billion dollar regional development fund. Now where I have heard that one before? Winston Oakeshott? Tony Peters? This will go mainly on regional tree plantings (I kid you not, to get Maori into work and create carbon sinks) and on regional rail projects. And we will move the port from Auckland to the underperforming Northland region. Really? This is not regional development. It is a series of Peters vanity projects without a smidgeon of economic-impact assessment, nor it it thinking about the opportunity costs of (say) not encouraging local innovative capability and entrepreneurship in the regions. Decentralisation was a Whitlamite fantasy in 1970. It still is.
Then we have Prime Minister Adern’s stated policy of taxing our farmers for water use. Given NZ’s biggest commodity, industry and export sector is dairy, wow, what a great idea! And I think about 98 per cent of the nation’s massively high rainfall run-off finds its way to the sea. More great stuff! Greens and Maori want to cut the number of farm animals and tax their breathing and farting and urinating near rivers. Since most regions’ economies rely on agriculture, how come farmers are being asked, at the stroke of a legislative pen, to confront a steep rise in their production costs?
Luckily, this insanity of a water tax seems to have been postponed for the moment.
Now, given all this, it is more than likely that there won’t actually need to be any action to cut immigration. Observing what this bunch of policies will do to the economy, far-flung Kiwis mulling a return and others observing the place from afar will more than likely just stay put. Immigration problem solved!
Kiwis did not vote for this mess. Perhaps our greatest hope is that it probably won’t last long, that unworkable absurdity will be its own remedy So, PVO, you might like what you see across the Tasman. Me? Not so much.