So, we now have a government in principle1, with New Zealand First choosing to enter minority coalition with Labour, supported by the Greens. Peters has said he understands that the deal offered to the Greens is a confidence and supply agreement, and the numbers I’ve heard are 4 ministers inside cabinet for NZ First, a parliamentary under-secretary2, and at least 2 ministers outside cabinet for the Greens. If they have been proportional, which Jacinda has promised to be, that would suggest about 3 or 4 ministers for the Greens to New Zealand First’s 4 and a half. The leadership team will likely be Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister and Winston Peters as Deputy Prime Minister, although he hasn’t yet confirmed that role.
The TV news is making a big deal that National was the plurality winner, and for the first time isn’t part of the governing arrangement despite that. Our government has always had a constitutional requirement that only needed a majority of seats in the House to secure the treasury benches and the premiership, and that’s what the new Labour-New Zealand First coalition looks to have secured. This is really no big deal, and given that we have recently re-endorsed MMP, people will simply have to get used to the idea that any group of parties that gets over 50% gets to be the government, as it’s not going to change any time soon. I do expect there are some that will take some time to get used to the idea, but it might as well be now, because I expect it to happen again a few times before FPP thinking dies off.
New Zealand First are likely to be looking at areas like regional development, housing, primary industries, immigration, and education in terms of their policy areas of interest.
The Greens are currently holding a Special General Meeting online (better for the environment, more convenient for delegates) to vote on whether they will accept the deal negotiated with Labour, (the various branches having already had discussions on what sorts of agreements we favour, and then instructed their delegates) however the worst likely option is that they might ask for some adjustments before approving the deal3, if they don’t simply approve it outright. The party will seek a full consensus if possible, rather than resorting to the 75% vote that is the minimum requirement to pass a deal, because that’s an important part of party culture. They have officially confirmed to members via email that they are discussing the deal right now, and Jacinda has committed to not interrupting that process.
The offer from Labour, according to Winston, is likely to be a confidence and supply agreement, but this hasn’t yet been officially confirmed by either Ardern or the Greens. What does that arrangement mean for the Greens?
Well, firstly, it’s approve confidence and supply, or let National govern. Abstaining would give National a majority of one in terms of the remaining votes and thus afford them the support of the house, and Winston appears to have made locking the Greens out of coalition part of its deal, so it’s the only realistic option. There is a valid option to walk away from an agreement and just let National govern if the Greens feel that Labour is abusing their position, so the commentary by some in the media that the Greens have “nowhere else to go” is just wrong, they simply don’t want to go with their other option if they can avoid it. Besides, Labour will want to have the Greens on-side in case there is an option to ditch New Zealand First in three years time.
Secondly, it means more flexibility to criticize and question the government, exempting them from collective responsibility for cabinet decisions, which New Zealand First won’t have, while still giving them access to ministerial positions that can be left out of cabinet, which might include responsibilities like Minister for the Environment, for Climate Change, for Social Development, or for Transport. The ministers appointed outside cabinet would still have ministerial responsibility, so the Greens will need to be careful about which areas they accept ministerial portfolios in, as they will technically be responsible for not just all government policy in that area, but also the operation of those ministries, so they will ideally want any ministers be appointed in areas where they’ve achieved siginificant policy gains or policy alignment with Labour in terms of which ministries they take up.
It’s likely to also include policy concessions, although perhaps not as much as going into full coalition, as that extra independence from the new government will have to come at a price.
This arrangement is not the same thing as the previous arrangements that the Greens have had in the last term of the Clark government or after they crossed the floor over the GE issue, as they will actively be supporting the new government, and in that case they were actually completely on the cross benches. It will be more akin to the relationship between the National Party and the Māori Party last term, but with a stronger junior partner who will be needed to pass any legislation that National doesn’t agree with Labour on. (This also means that Green ministers would be in a similar position to what the previous Māori Party minister was, where they would be asked questions in the House during Question Time, but they would be in a more powerful position where Labour couldn’t sideline them by going to other parties for votes very often, as their only option is getting National onside)
It’s worth noting that although technically parties with a Confidence and Supply agreement are not part of the government proper, even though their ministers are considered part, so if one of the co-leaders is not given a Ministry, they’d be in a position to be openly critical of government policy, and the other could still hold the government to account on areas not related to their portfolio. Of course, reporters or the public never made that distinction in the past, so it’s relevant to see whether they can be convinced that there is a difference between C&S and coalition this time.
A lot of party members have argued that staying at arms-length of a government that needs New Zealand First’s support to sideline the National Party and ACT is probably a good idea, and to be honest I can’t quite disagree. The Greens will likely be transparent about whose idea confidence and supply was is that is indeed the nature of the offer they got, and will be careful not to ruffle feathers while doing so.
While this may not be the ideal government all of us wanted, it will also prevent an almost-unprecedented four-term National government and relieve the pressure on people who are reliant on the state for support, or medical care, or education, and who have been suffering under an under-funded public sector.
1 It’s an agreement in principle at this stage, and Jacinda is not formally Prime Minister yet as the Greens haven’t approved a confidence and supply agreement, so Bill English is still caretaker Prime Minister.
2 A Parliamentary under-secretary is an extra tier of parliamentary responsibility that falls below being an associate minister, with the main difference being that they’re not authorized to act on behalf of the primary minister, but are expected to assist the minister in specific duties. Last term, David Seymour was an under-secretary for Education so he could assist in ministerial work regarding his charter schools policy. Effectively, it’s a more limited form of associate minister that comes with its own budget and a specific policy area, but doesn’t lock out the actual associate position for that portfolio, usually because there is a specific policy area the support partner wishes to assist in. As an example, you might have an under-secretary for child poverty working under the Minister for Social Development, or an under-secretary for immigration working under the Minister for Internal Affairs.