Comment

High stakes moves as the election looms

Peter Dunne surveys the shifting landscape as the political year begins

Parliament resumes next week for its comparatively short pre-election session with the dust yet to settle on three big stories that could influence the outcome of the election.

They are the impact of the Government's $12 billion infrastructure spending announcement; the controversy over two Party funding issues - the decision of the Serious Fraud Office to prosecute four as yet unnamed persons over the way a $100,000 donation (subsequently returned) to the National Party was handled and the ongoing inquiry into the mysterious New Zealand First Foundation. Then there is National's decision to rule out working with New Zealand First if in a position to do so after the next election. These may be joined by a fourth issue if, as is widely expected, an announcement is made in the next few days that the Government will buy out Fletcher Construction over the Ihumātao land dispute.

The announcement of the $12 billion infrastructure package was certainly bold, and well stage-managed, but it is not clear if it will have any significant impact on the standing of the major parties. After all, both seem in agreement on the broad outlines of the programme, with the difference being over whose idea it all was in the first place. Indeed, it could be argued that rather than craft a bold new plan for infrastructure development, Labour’s package is just as much about inoculating itself against National’s charges that nothing has been happening in this area.  

What is clear is that voters will see very little in practical terms from this package this side of the election. That of itself raises a problem for Labour. Its record to date in terms of progressing major developments (think Kiwibuild, think Auckland light rail) in a timely and competent fashion has been appalling. So, can it be relied upon to deliver last week’s infrastructure package in anything like the ten-year time frame it announced?

Moreover, there will be four general elections between 2020 and 2029. Not even the most avid Labour diehard would dare imagine their party winning every one of those, and political priorities will inevitably change over time. Already, the Greens are making clear their frustration with the roading emphasis of the current package, and it is a more than reasonable bet that they will attempt to wind this back if in a stronger position to do so after the election.

All of which means the infrastructure package is unlikely to be the electoral king-hit for the Government some were predicting.

The electoral funding issues swirling around both the National and New Zealand First parties at present have a greater potential to influence the political agenda, although in both cases that potential is still unspecified. The Serious Fraud Office’s decision to prosecute four persons whom it has so far declined to identify in relation to a donation to the National Party leaves the party in an awkward position.

Although it seems able to say with confidence that neither the party itself nor its senior officials are amongst those charged, by implication clearing them of any involvement, it is not actually as simple as that. While this case drags on – the indications are that it may not be resolved before the election – and the names of those charged remain suppressed, National will still suffer residual taint. This could impact on voter trust levels in the party, and scare potential donors away, neither of which is desirable in election year.

New Zealand First is in a similar situation over the revelations about the byzantine operations of its New Zealand First Foundation. These appear more extraordinary and dubious as each new detail is revealed, although it is still not clear whether any electoral law has been breached by these unusual and highly convoluted practices.

Nevertheless, the damage arises less from the detail and more from the perception that something shifty has been going on to get around the law, and that will impact on the party’s credibility as a reliable and trustworthy player. Some will also recall that this is not the first time the party has had murky funding issues – in 2008 the party’s leader was found to be in contempt of Parliament over funding non-disclosures, leading to New Zealand First losing all its seats in that year’s election. Disclosure now of the names of some those who have donated to the current Foundation may scare some of them off from doing so again, or more likely, leave new potential donors less keen to do so. Either way, it is not good for New Zealand First.   

National’s decision effectively stitches New Zealand First to Labour’s hip, further ruffling the feathers of the Greens.

National’s long awaited and unsurprising decision to rule out working with New Zealand First after the election will have a direct influence on the political year. It is high stakes politics – from which only one party – either National or New Zealand First, but not both – will emerge unscathed.

Time will of course show the wisdom or otherwise of this call but in the meantime the stridency of the New Zealand First’s leader’s reaction confirms that he knows he is now in a desperate struggle for political relevance and survival. No longer can he lay claim to be a kingmaker, playing both sides off against each other the way he has done so many times over the years. Now he is just another bit player competing for attention.

While National’s decision sets up a huge challenge for it to fulfil over the next few months, it has also created a significant problem for Labour. What does it do about New Zealand First, now that its potential leverage power has been removed? 

It now faces the direct decision of whether it needs to work more actively to get New Zealand First back into Parliament, given that on current electoral numbers, Labour will not lead the next government without New Zealand First.  Previously, it had hoped that the potential rivalry between Labour and National for New Zealand First’s affections would have been enough to ensure New Zealand First crossed the threshold, without Labour having to do very much to help. That way, it could have kept a measure of distance between the two.

Now, it is left with no option but to become more directly involved in helping New Zealand First make it back, which immediately raises questions about what to about the Greens. National’s decision effectively stitches New Zealand First to Labour’s hip, further ruffling the feathers of the Greens. No wonder the Prime Minister has sounded a little miffed in her comments this week.

Already, the tensions between the Greens and New Zealand First are becoming more obvious and will only intensify as both seek greater brand differentiation before the election. While there is now the opportunity for the Prime Minister to assert her leadership over the two increasingly squabbling children in her governing arrangement, ongoing passive appeasement seems more likely.

And that brings up the issue of the Ihumātao settlement, whenever it is announced. Leaving aside the Prime Minister’s unwise initial intervention (compounded by her subsequent failure to visit the site), the settlement has the potential to create more dissatisfaction than it resolves.

New Zealand First will use the occasion to beat its anti-Treaty Settlement drum loudly once more, pitting them directly at odds with the Greens who will argue that the settlement does not go far enough. Meanwhile, iwi will see this as a particular short-term victory, but with wider land confiscation and recompense issues still essentially where they were before the Ihumātao occupation began. For others, the question will be one of how secure property rights generally are now that the precedent of the government becoming involved directly in disputes between private landowners and iwi has been established.

It is all very messy, even more so since the lingering sense of unresolved wider frustration on all sides of the Ihumātao debate could yet have a bigger influence on the political year ahead and the election than any of the other factors currently being discussed. 

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