On the M.O.U.

I’m a bit late to the party on the Labour/Greens M.O.U. but letting the dust clear a little before passing judgement is perhaps not such a bad thing.

The M.O.U. had to happen. And the sooner the better. Not because it means a lot in terms of the Green and Labour working more closely – they already were – but because that relationship is now publicly codified and it’s now very clear that there’s a forty-percent-plus block that balances out National’s vote.

Some in the commentariat have made a big deal about how this is Labour giving in.

It isn’t.

If anything it’s Labour getting stronger. It’s a given now that not only will Labour’s machine work to make Andrew Little the next Prime Minister, but the Greens’ machine will as well.

Effectively Little is now leading a voting block that is within striking distance of becoming Government.

And that’s something Winston Peters is now going to have to deal with.

Because despite the pundits claiming this makes Peters stronger, what it actually does is put him into a corner. When, for example, he dogwhistles against a minority such as Muslims, he’s whistling in the wind – because whatever argument he’s making goes nowhere if it’s not backed by either Labour/Greens or John Key’s National party.

A Labour party at 29% could feasibly kowtow to Peter’s cynicism (I don’t think they would, but desperation makes anything possible). But a Labour/Greens block at 43% doesn’t have the same pressure. When you represent nearly half of all New Zealanders it’s much easier to say no. And it carries a lot more weight.

That creates an uncomfortable situation for Key. The numbers are most likely going to mean a fourth term National Government will be a National/NZ First coalition – that’s received wisdom.

That means that if the Green/Labour block – particularly Andrew Little – knock back Peters’ headline grabbing, there’s going to be more and more pressure on Key to engage with it. That’s pressure Key doesn’t want or need – he’s busy enough trying to put some shine back on his ailing liberal brand without getting caught up in debates about Muslims, or Asians, or Māori or whatever drum Peters is banging for attention this week or next.

Now I know there’ll be some within Labour who are afraid of upsetting Peters by pushing back on him occasionally, but they need to get over themselves and start thinking like price makers instead of price takers. Headline-grabbing cynicism aside, New Zealand First’s policy platform aligns a lot more closely with Labour and the Greens’ platform than it does with National. And Peters is a professional – he’s been around and he’ll make the decision on who he goes with based on the numbers post 2017 and what leverage they give him to get what he wants.

Anyone who doubts that should remember that it was only a few years ago that John Key’s dirty politics team ran a rabid and personal attack campaign on Peters that saw him exit politics for a term. A campaign that presumably had the Nats’ sign off. Key’s people humiliated Peters yet Winston can’t and won’t rule out going with them – if he did he’d lose the illusory power he has.

Things have changed with the M.O.U. They’ve changed because Andrew Little has re-staked his claim as leader of the opposition and has brought together a power base that rivals the Prime Minister’s in terms of the number of New Zealanders it represents. Having watched Little throughout his time in the union movement and in politics, I’m expecting he’ll use that power well to create change – it’s something he’s always done.

What that all adds up to, despite what some pundits have claimed, is a harder time for Winston and bad news for Key.

Rob Egan is an ex-senior advisor to two Labour leaders and co-owner of public relations firm Piko Consulting.

Paid parental leave back on the cards?

I suspect the media are going to get a lot of mileage out of “the Winston effect” over the rest of this parliamentary term – but you can’t blame them, because in some important ways his Northland victory is going to be a bit of a game-changer.

First progressive policy out of the blocks: a re-run on paid parental leave.

The Government has extended paid leave from 14 to 16 weeks, but Labour says it’s not enough. It’s resubmitting a Bill that would stretch it out to 26 weeks.

“We’re just going to keep going,” says Labour MP Sue Moroney.

Ms Moroney has tried and failed to pass the Bill before. But thanks to Mr Peters’ victory in Northland, she now has the numbers.

This is a damn fine policy. Paid parental leave has huge social benefits, giving babies the best possible start in life with a parent at home and able to provide them with what they need. It has huge knock-on benefits to society – healthier, happier kids growing into healthier, happier adults, less stress on new parents, saving more of those valuable taxpayer dollars spent on juvenile delinquency or healthcare.

The shame of it is that, given the nature of the Members’ Bills ballot and this government’s aptitude at running out the clock on Members’ Days, it’ll take a minor miracle for Moroney’s bill to get drawn and back through the house.

(On the plus side: a Labour-led government in 2017 will be able to pass it with no problem!)

So does this mean a Winston win is good news for the left after all? It’s far too early to say. Yes, he supports this very good progressive policy, and yes he opposes some RMA reforms, but … two and half years is a hell of a long time in politics.

Possibly too long for our Prime Minister. I don’t mean this in a Doctor Who “doesn’t she look tired?” way, but check out the video on that 3 News article. The dodging-the-question lines just aren’t as smooth as they used to be. Smiling-and-waving is being replaced with sneering-and-dismissing.

And nothing gets Winston Peters going like people trying to pretend he’s nothing to worry about.

Northland isn’t Epsom – nor Ohariu

Danyl Mclauchlan has rebutted the spin around Winston’s victory in Northland – “Labour can’t criticise the Epsom deal now! Hypocrites!” very well. (And after I’d drafted this post, Rob Salmond made one, too! Great minds, etc etc.)

I’ve been a little disappointed in how many people have basically warned the lefties they know – oooh, you’d better not say that, that would look really bad, wouldn’t it?

Northland wasn’t Labour’s to give. New Zealand First didn’t need Labour’s help. Winston certainly isn’t going to turn around to Andrew Little and say “what policies would you like me to adopt so you can pretend you don’t really want to pass them?” And Andrew Little didn’t sit down for a farcical cup of tea photo opportunity (and then try to claim it was a “private” engagement when someone recorded his foolishly-uttered words.)

Northland isn’t Epsom.

Northland also isn’t Ohariu, which got very interesting last year. National fielded a candidate who was too scared to say his own name in case people ticked it (and gave him a nice safe list position so he wouldn’t scare the horses), but despite this Peter Dunne’s once-mighty majority was slashed to 700 – one of the lowest in the country. But the “deal” there took a very different form: the National Party basically pretended that Ohariu didn’t exist. They certainly didn’t do what they did in Northland, which was see bad poll results and massively over-react to protect their preferred candidate (which ironically would have meant undermining their actual candidate.)

And thus everyone assumed Ohariu was a (sorry) done deal, to the extent that local newspapers didn’t even mention the Labour candidate (the very talented Ginny Andersen) by name in some of their coverage, and many were shocked at the comical scenes from Dunne’s victory party – populated mainly by his staff.

But a deal was (sorry) done, nevertheless, and a man whose party could barely get more than 5,000 votes, who had to resign his ministerial portfolios in disgrace over leaking a confidential GCSB report, got a reprieve from retirement and the plum role of Minister of Internal Affairs.

That’s what a dirty deal looks like.

Northland by-election today

Whatever the result, it’ll be an interesting day in New Zealand politics and a great warm-up for the tension and excitement of the Cricket World Cup final tomorrow!

TV3 will have coverage at 9:30, and I’m sure #nzpol will be buzzing from just as soon as anyone can figure out what we are or aren’t allowed to say under electoral law.

ETA: And results should be available from around 7pm on the Electoral Commission’s results website.

My reckons on Northland

Opinions about the Northland by-election are like cliches, they’re getting trotted out all over the place. So why not add my 2c?

I’m on the record saying I don’t think Labour can win the seat, but can definitely use the by-election as a platform to get Labour’s message out to a wider audience. But that was before Winston was a definite contestant, and now the big question seems to be whether a three-horse race is going to ruin everyone’s fun.

Is Willow-Jean Prime going to “cost” Winston the by-election? No, in the same way Green voters didn’t “cost” Labour the chance to retire Peter Dunne and the same way Labour-candidate voters didn’t “cost” the left as a whole the chance to retire ACT. Voters are smart. Sometimes they may not vote in the way a totally rational actor I would personally, but we have to trust that they’re ticking whatever box they tick for reasons which are good enough for them.

The voters of Northland will vote as they see fit, and we might not like the result. If we don’t accept that then we may have to rethink how committed we are to some basic democratic principles.

I’m not a Northland person. I have distant-relatives-by-marriage up there and a BFF who spent her childhood there and at uni I dated a guy whose parents are farmers in some small town I can never remember the name of. I’m an Aucklander transplanted to Wellington. I have about as much sense of the ~mood~ of the electorate as Winston has an ability to stop himself grinning when he’s being cheeky to Tova O’Brien.

What I do know is that ~everyone knows~ by-elections have lower turnout, and this favours the incumbent. And in the MMP era the only time an electorate has changed parties in a by-election is when the incumbent MP re-wins their seat. So a Winston victory is a long shot, whatever the 3News polls say. And it would be a great poke in the eye to National to lose a safe seat, another black mark on the start of their third term.

But I’m not going to hold my breath.

And it’s still a great platform for Labour to get their messages out there.