When New Zealand First abruptly vetoed Labour’s plans to repeal the three strikes criminal justice law a few months ago, it was glibly explained away by Labour as just a breakdown in communication that would be resolved by the time a policy paper came anywhere near the Cabinet for consideration. With the Criminal Justice Summit then looming, and clearly more water yet to flow under the bridge, the explanation had a brief air of credibility about it, so was largely believed, and everyone moved on.
It will be more difficult to treat this week’s equally blunt dismissal by the Deputy Prime Minister of Labour’s long-held plans to double the refugee quota in quite the same vein. All the more so, given the Deputy Prime Minister’s accompanying chilling observation that “Labour is not the government.” This would have been news to many people who thought we had a Labour-led coalition government with New Zealand First, and supported by the Greens.
Certainly those comments were intended to play to New Zealand First’s racist constituency that does not like either migrants or refugees and definitely does not want to see any more of them. But they were also sending a none-too-veiled reminder to Labour that this government survives neither because of the gushing charm of its leader, nor the self-imagined talent of its Ministers, nor the will of the public, but simply and solely at the pleasure of New Zealand First and its leader.
Labour has been placed on clear public notice that it needs to toe the New Zealand First line to remain in office. The Prime Minister’s muted response shows she understands her predicament all too well and will bow to it, because she has no other option.
While this was always seen as a potential risk for this coalition government, given its make-up, Labour had earlier believed that during the period of the Prime Minister’s maternity leave, their Ministers would be able to straightjacket the Deputy Prime Minister, to preserve the fiction this government was Labour-led.
But he was too wily for that to ever have been a possibility. This was his opportunity to put his stamp clearly on the government, and he was not going to be denied. He easily outwitted his Labour colleagues and used his considerably greater experience to perform better than most had expected he would as Acting Prime Minister, thereby bringing an air of stability to a government that has looked somewhat chaotic before and since. In so doing, he enhanced considerably his stature within the government, as well as increasing New Zealand First’s dominance of it, leaving Labour between a rock and a hard place.
By the time the Prime Minister returned to duty, the die was firmly caste, and the government to all intents and purposes had become a New Zealand First/Labour coalition. Nothing has happened to reverse that over the last few weeks and the Prime Minister’s travails with her own Ministers in the last couple of weeks have reinforced the new dynamic.
Against that backdrop, the refugee putdown this week is a ruthless assertion to the public of where the power really lies in this government and who will be calling the shots for the remainder of its term. The Prime Minister’s awkward balancing act from here on is to continue to appear enthusiastic and aspirational, while at the end of her Deputy’s string, and only allowed to implement the policies he mandates.
How long the now marginalised public tolerates this becomes an open question.