Feb 7, 2023 Politics
Members of Parliament who’ve had the privilege of serving in high office, winning government and securing a ministerial warrant sometimes struggle to adjust on return to opposition. Some ministers enjoy up to a dozen staff (a senior private secretary, private secretaries, political and media advisers, and executive assistants), plus a chauffeured vehicle, a title and, of course, the oversight of a ministry often made up of thousands of people who exist to implement the policies the minister demands. It’s gratifying. What the minister says, the ministry does (in theory). But resources in opposition are sparse. Most MPs can hire one executive assistant, electorate MPs can hire one or two electorate assistants, and the canniest MPs can sometimes hire an ‘issues assistant’ if they negotiate it with the whips’ office. It’s a slim operation, and no one refers to an opposition MP as ‘Minister’. The chauffeur is gone and so, too, are the willing functionaries. If Labour loses the next election, some, if not most, of its current ministers are likely to take retirement rather than bear the indignity of returning to opposition.
For some commentators, that loss is a foregone conclusion. In 2022’s polls, National and Act were, on average, 4% ahead of Labour and the Greens. On some polls, the right bloc could govern alone. On other polls, Labour and the Greens could do it with help from Te Pāti Māori. But the most recent polls tend to favour the right bloc, and 4% is a reliable enough lead to call the right the favourite. Yet history is instructive. In every MMP election bar those of 2005 and 2014, National’s polling declined in election year. What if the same thing happens in 2023? Christopher Luxon, who topped out in the preferred prime minister polls at the be- ginning of 2022 before declining toward the close, seems intent on abandoning the centre, arguing for boot camps and ankle bracelets for children, criticising business owners as “soft”, calling beneficiaries “bottom feeders” and implying there are high- and low-calibre Māori.
That’s a National Party that could very well lose an apparently unlosable election. The most important issue is the cost of living, but Luxon is easy to lead off track — whether towards unemployment (depending on the interview, there are either too many people in work or
too few) or abortion (which he thinks is tantamount to murder but will do nothing about). But where does that leave Labour? As the old saying goes, oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. How the Prime Minister and her Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson, deal with the cost of living is likely to determine who wins and who loses. But there is one aspect of the government’s performance that commentators tend to neglect — its Māori ministers and how they handle landmark reforms: Nanaia Mahuta in Three Waters; Willie Jackson in the public broadcasting merger; and Kiri Allan’s hate-speech protections.
Each reform is crucial to perceptions of the government’s competence and purpose. Allan’s hate-speech protections, for example, make good on the Prime Minister’s personal assurances after the March 15 massacre that it really will never happen again. Willie Jackson’s public broadcasting merger reassures the public that Labour governments are still capable of big, bold reforms. And Nanaia Mahuta’s Three Waters reforms could either guarantee the future of New Zealand’s modern infrastructure or lose Labour the election itself. Three Waters is increasingly a cipher for the country’s worst anxieties, whether over co-governance or central government creep.
The entrenchment mess (the suggestion that future privatisation of Three Waters entities would require 60% support in Parliament) in late November indicates that perhaps Mahuta lacks the skills to reassure or eliminate those anxieties, or is failing to properly manage the legislative process. National senses Three Waters is Labour’s weakest policy, erecting signs in the past 12 months promising to ‘repeal’ the law (even though, at that stage, the reforms weren’t actually law yet and there was nothing to repeal).
That leaves Jackson and Allan as pivotal to the government’s performance. Jackson is an old hand, having served as an MP and Mana Motuhake leader in the old Labour–Alliance government. In the 2017 term Jackson was the most persistent and effective advocate for the Māori caucus. For that he was rewarded with more portfolio work after the 2020 election, taking on Māori development and, last June, broadcasting. If the election hands Te Pāti Māori the power to pick the winner, Jackson is by a long shot Ardern’s most valuable minister, adviser and negotiator. But as far as policy goes, perhaps the burden of responsibility falls to Allan and hate-speech protections. The East Coast MP is caught in a difficult position, managing expectations from the left — who want her to go much further than proposed — and bad-faith arguments on the right (libertarians would prefer no protections at all).
Where the hate-speech protections land is a statement of the government’s values. Does it prioritise Ardern’s kind, inspired words and deeds post-March 15 or does it cave to the messy, complicated realities of parliamentary government? For Allan, it’s a moment that will shape the narrative about what kind of Labour MP she is — indeed, what kind of leader she might make.
There are four names that are guaranteed to appear in any conversation about a future Labour leader: Grant Robertson, the social democrat and safe pair of hands; Chris Hipkins, the centrist and the choice of the Labour right; Michael Wood, the socialist and unions’ man; and Allan, the rural choice and the Māori caucus’s candidate.
There are few MPs who are as quick, articulate and well situated as Allan. She smartly positioned herself as a rural champion in the blue East Coast electorate, and as a strong Māori voice within Cabinet. But how she handles the hate-speech protections will determine the narrative surrounding her leadership future, and the narrative about values that the government takes to the election.