Bryce Edwards: The big implications of National ruling out NZ First

Bryce Edwards: The big implications of National ruling out NZ First

The National Party’s chance of taking power this year now hinges on Winston Peters’ downfall. Conversely, Peters’ options for staying in government mean sticking with a Labour coalition. This situation was clarified yesterday when National leader Simon Bridges announced he was ruling out forming any sort of government with New Zealand First.

Bridges stated that he doesn’t trust Peters and his party, and will therefore not be open to any post-election negotiations with them. While National and some commentators are pointing to a loss of trust between the two parties, in fact the decision is really all about electoral strategy for National and Bridges. They have calculated that the party’s only real pathway to power involves killing off NZ First.

This is best expressed today by Gordon Campbell who says: “For months, National’s best (and only?) hope of winning Election 2020 has involved keeping New Zealand First down below the 5% MMP threshold, and out of Parliament altogether. Getting to that point would require National to win very close to 45-46% of the total vote and for David Seymour’s Act Party to win two MPs (or more)…. in order to get National into a position where it could hope to form a minority government. Towards the end of 2019 that series of dominoes began to fall into place. National has been polling steadily at 46% and Act at around 2%, while – on the other side of the fence – the combined Labour/Greens vote is only about 46%, and NZF is sitting at 4%, just below the MMP threshold” – see: On National’s hopes of driving NZF out of Parliament.

For an earlier discussion of National’s strategy towards NZ First, it’s also worth reading Alex Braae’s backgrounder from before the decision – see: Simon Bridges is about to make a big decision that could shape the election.

Yesterday’s announcement was a big gamble on Bridges’ part according to Claire Trevett: “Simon Bridges is around the poker table and has calculated that Winston Peters is bluffing about his hand – and so he is holding. Bridges’ unequivocal decision to rule out any deal with NZ First after the election is a gamble. But it is a calculated one. Bridges has worked out he has more to lose from keeping Peters on National’s radar than he does from ruling him out. Bridges is betting Peters would always have sided with Labour if he was the kingmaker in 2020 anyway” – see: Simon Bridges’ big gamble on National ruling out Winston Peters (paywalled).

The announcement is really directed at conservative voters who might have been tempted to vote for NZ First. They now have a clear directive not to, because “A vote for NZ First is a vote for a Labour government”. According to Trevett, “Bridges is betting the election will come down to a very narrow margin. He wants every single vote he can get – and that means spelling it out to National Party voters that there is absolutely no hope of a National-NZ First Government.”

She points out, however, that some conservative voters might still be persuaded by NZ First “that only a vote for NZ First can stop a Labour-Greens Government. That argument alone may be enough for some National voters to tick the black and white box. But that will only be effective if polling shows Labour and the Greens have a high chance of making it alone. If the battle is close, National voters will hunker behind National to try to get them over the line.”

According to RNZ political editor Jane Patterson, Bridges’ announcement against NZ First was inevitable: “It’s all about trust – and there’s none between the two parties, especially at leadership level where it really matters. The ultimate goal is to run New Zealand First out of Parliament altogether; starving it of the electoral appeal of being ready and able to support National or Labour. New Zealand First can no longer play both sides” – see: Why the Nats had to rule out NZ First partnership.

At the end of the election campaign, it looks like the political career of either Peters or Bridges will essentially be over. This fight to the death is explained by Henry Cooke: “This sets the stage for an all-out war of an election that will be the end of either man’s political career. There is very little chance that should NZ First return to Parliament after the election National would have the numbers to govern without them” – see: Simon Bridges chooses scorched earth approach that will be the end of him or Winston Peters.

Cooke also points out the likely counter-narrative from NZ First: “The strategy for NZ First is clear and has already been made by MP Mark Patterson on Twitter – vote for us as the only chance of stopping an ultra-left Labour-Green government. This strategy only works if a Labour/Green government seems inevitable. Herein lies the risk for Bridges. If voters don’t think National have a shot of it alone the party’s support could drop a lot further as right-wing voters decide they want to vote for NZ First as a handbrake on Labour and the Greens.”

Newsroom’s Bernard Hickey sees the positive side of the decision for the public: “Voters now have a definite choice: a second term for a Labour-NZ First-Green Government, or a return to a purer National-ACT Government… There is no kingmaker or uncertainty any more” – see: Bridges creates stark choice by ruling out Peters. And he says this is Bridges’ boldest call yet.

Similarly, writing before the announcement, Stuff’s Andrea Vance was advocating that Bridges make this very decision, saying: “Better to rip off the band-aid, and prevent NZ First exploiting their position as kingmaker. It sends a strong message to centre-right voters that a tick for National is the only way to change the Government. And it would save us all from an entire year of Peters’ tiresome equivocations” – see: Spare us the boredom Bridges, rule out Winston.

On the political right, there is celebration about Bridges’ announcement. National Party blogger David Farrar says it may not be normal behaviour to rule out parties from consideration, and narrows National’s available choices, but in this case it was the correct decision because of NZ First’s hostility to National: “National would have been idiots to think that Winston would go with them in 2020, after his decision and behaviour in 2017. He lodged a secret lawsuit against senior National MPs the day before the election, and then pretended to negotiate with them. What he did with his lawsuit was such an act of bad faith, that you could never have a working relationship with him. So in reality Winston has ruled himself out, rather than National. If National had left the door open to Winston, it would only have benefited Winston, Labour and the Greens” – see: Yay – National rules out NZ First.

Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking is also impressed, calling the decision “sensible” and “obvious” – see: Simon Bridges NZ First move a masterstroke. Given that the party will have less leverage, he doubts NZ First will now make it back: “That means between now and September, New Zealand First have to campaign very hard on identity, just what is it they have delivered? Yes, they stopped the Capital Gains Tax, maybe they kept the farmers out of the Emission Trading Scheme for now, maybe Ihumātao is held up because of them, but is that a platform for re-election?”

Hosking suggests that Bridges decision also makes life more awkward for NZ First and Labour’s relationship: “Does Labour go hard out against New Zealand First to try and make it just a Labour-Green government, or aren’t they that confident? Bridges has created real problems for not just New Zealand First, but Labour as well. Are they mates? Or has this just been one very awkward association of convenience that’s about to blow wide open?”

Similarly, Newstalk ZB’s Kate Hawkesby strongly approves of the decision: “People love strong decisive leadership, people like direction, they like to know what they’re dealing with. The fact Simon Bridges wouldn’t do this earlier bewildered me” – see: Narrow options for Simon Bridges and Winston Peters.

But Hawkesby points out that under MMP National still needs other electoral friends: “The more pressing issue for the Nats now that they’ve ruled Winston out, is who they can rule in. Who can they do deals with aside from Act? And if it’s just Act, is that enough? So eight months to find new friends, form new allegiances, cobble together support, or rely heavily on Act.”

Finally, on the left, blogger Martyn Bradbury questions the wisdom of National’s move, and says while there is some logic to Bridges’ calculations, Labour and the Greens will now be able to paint a picture of a possible National-Act coalition government as an unmoderated rightwing threat – see: Simon Bridges makes first strategic blunder of Election 2020 by ruling NZ First out now.