Bryce Edwards: The surprising new power behind Winston Peters

Bryce Edwards: The surprising new power behind Winston Peters

As the new coalition government forms, a number of crucial staffing appointments are being made by Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens. Some of these jobs are incredibly important, as the people in them can end up being more powerful than most of the MPs in the party caucuses. Depending on the role and the person appointed, they can become a central part of the success or otherwise of a government or party in power.

The most interesting new appointment announced so far, is that of political scientist Jon Johansson to the role of Chief of Staff for New Zealand First – see Jo Moir’s news report, Political scientist Jon Johansson made NZ First chief of staff.

A surprising appointment

Judging by reactions, everyone has been entirely surprised by Johansson’s shift from being a political scientist to a political player. And certainly, it’s quite unusual for a political scientist to go from teaching politics to practicing it.

But it does happen from time to time. National’s controversial Jian Yang is a prime example, having previously taught politics at the University of Auckland. And for the latest on him, see Matt Nippert’s article yesterday, Three unanswered questions about our spy-trainer MP.

But perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that Johansson has shifted into politics. He’s long been very close to many politicians and others around the Beehive. In fact, few university academics would know the corridors of power as well as Johansson – he’s a creature of the Wellington political scene like no other, and should have little trouble shifting from the classroom to the Beehive.

A surprising party to go with

That the Victoria University of Wellington lecturer has chosen to pin his colours to New Zealand First is a surprise for most political followers. After all, in the past he has been more associated with Labour and the Greens, and in the lead-up to the 2014 election he advised these opposition parties in their quest to project themselves as a coherent alternative government.

There will inevitably be ideological questions about Johansson’s shift into partisan politics. In the past, as an academic and political commentator he has endeavoured to be as objective as possible. However, he has previously been forthright when it comes to what might be regarded as “socially conservative” ideologies or policies. For example, he became the major academic critic of Don Brash’s Orewa Speech. And it will be interesting to see how he will respond in his new role when inevitably confronted with socially conservative politics involving New Zealand First.

Why Johansson’s appointment is smart 

Johansson’s affinity with Winston Peters will make him a good fit with the New Zealand First leader. He will play the role of Peters’ right-hand-man. And because Johansson is a leading expert in political strategy and New Zealand politics, he will be very valuable to New Zealand First.

Furthermore, Johansson’s academic specialty is in political leadership. He is already highly aware of Peters’ strengths and weaknesses. He knows how leadership works, leaders succeed, and how Peters can best create a legacy as one of the top political leaders of our era. If nothing else, we can expect to see some spectacular new speeches from the New Zealand First leader.

But more than this, Johansson’s appointment is smart because the political scientist is also close to Labour and the Greens. His role as chief of staff is primarily going to involve coalition management, ensuring that the New Zealand First caucus and staff are working together with their counterparts. Because Johansson is already close to the two other parties, he will be well placed to ensure coalition stability and make sure that New Zealand First’s interests are looked after by Labour and the Greens.

The fact that Johansson does not have a history of involvement in the New Zealand First party could be considered a disadvantage in his role as chief of staff. After all, he won’t be aware of the configurations of power and policy within his new party. And he’s essentially an outsider, coming in to manage people who don’t know him or necessarily trust him. But this could also be an advantage. He won’t be tainted by any of the factional differences and loyalties in the party. He therefore comes in as a more independent manager of the party, and this may help when dealing with disputes and differences.

He will also have a greater degree of objectivity, which can be very useful in these roles. It’s not always good to have a party activist running the parliamentary operations of a political party. Sometimes having someone with a background and strong ideological belief in a party can be a handicap.

Why Johansson’s appointment is risky 

Of course, successful political management isn’t simply a matter of knowing all the theory, and Johansson is coming into this important management role with no proven record or experience in the nitty-gritty of how Parliament works.

Added to that, the New Zealand First party is one of the more elusive and mysterious political vehicles around. So, landing straight at the top of this empire – albeit beside Winston Peters – might still prove a difficult task. He will need to show that he has the temperament and diplomacy to deal with complicated and difficult coalition and internal-party problems.

As an outsider, Johansson may also not be in the best position to wield his considerable new power in a way that will protect the party. “Guns for hire” often don’t have the knowledge and emotional commitment that enables them to advance the party’s core interests, and inevitably they are readier to compromise on issues in a way that a “true believer” in the party might see as “selling out”.

After all, there will be many party activists and MPs who have slogged away to get the party into government, and may feel that suddenly an outsider has taken the most powerful job in the parliamentary team. And there will be doubts that he knows how New Zealand First voters really think and feel, like they do.

Also, Johansson’s perceived closeness to Labour could be a problem. Those in New Zealand First might come to regard him as being too ready to give way to Labour and the Greens, or that in his liaisons with the coalition partners he is vulnerable to “Stockholm Syndrome”.

Johansson’s past political commentary

New Zealand First’s political opponents and the media will look to Johansson’s many articles, chapters, books, and media appearances to find critical statements he’s made about Winston Peters and his party. Some of this might make for interesting reading. Already, one person on Twitter has tweeted a statement of Johansson’s from 2005: “Well, that he was mercurial, charismatic, but really was never a team player, and as such, in terms of legacy, there’s really not much of a record there at all. It’s always in a sense been more of a style over substance.” And interestingly enough, Winston Peters then “liked” this on Twitter.

And during the election campaign, Johansson published a number of opinion pieces that might now be re-read in a new light. Here they are:

Finally, many journalists were taught by Johansson when they studied politics at Victoria University of Wellington. Press gallery reporter Henry Cooke (@henrycooke), for example, on hearing of Johansson’s appointment tweeted his lecture notes from 11/05/12: “Winston will want to be part of the next election. He might enter some kind of abstention agreement. He stands to gain more from National than Labour. Jon thinks Jacinda has potential as leader, like a young 21st Clark with warmth.” For more such tweets, see Top tweets about Jon Johansson becoming NZ First Chief of Staff.