The coalition is showing signs of maturity, but Labour isn't selling it very well

2018-12-01 20:47:41

OPINION: On Tuesday this week a very rare thing found its way to journalist's inboxes: a press release signed off by Labour, NZ First, and the Greens.

The release confirmed the set of compromises made by Labour and the Greens to ensure NZ First would support the second reading of a long-fought bill to reform workplace laws. Union officials would still need permission to visit any non-unionised workplace, and multi-employer deals had been softened even further into irrelevance.

It all looked fairly reasonable, like a group of parties with different beliefs working out a compromise. The unions and business groups put out nice-sounding press releases not long after. Winston Peters himself told media it was a triumph for the democratic process.

But the path to get there on this flagship employment law was an absolute mess, and exhibited all the worst fears the Left wing of this country has about a coalition with NZ First.

​NZ First had already won a major concession before the bill was even introduced. Despite the fact Labour as a party exists to protect the rights of workers, the first Labour-led government in a decade decided to let NZ First keep 90 day trials for any businesses with fewer than 20 employees.

This was a big win for NZ First and the smaller regional businesses who back them. Almost a third of the country's workforce (29 per cent) work in places with fewer than 20 employees, including basically every agriculture and forestry company. It should have been enough – but it wasn't.

As the bill was introduced and passed its first reading the business lobby roared into gear with full-page attack ads and websites, threatening industrial chaos if the law passed unadulterated. Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Iain Lees-Galloway utterly failed to respond and sell the law, which shouldn't have been that hard, as it included popular measures such as restoring the right to tea breaks. Instead he and Labour mostly just talked about how all the bill did was restore workplace law to its 2008 position, which is mostly true but not very inspiring.

So NZ First swooped in to fill the vacuum. Shane Jones went on Q+A in early August and said very clearly that the bill was still negotiable and he was listening to the business industry's concerns.

Behind the scenes, this made Labour immensely angry. NZ First had already taken a chunk out of this key law and was now hunting for another bite. It all got public in September when the bill came back from select committee with little change. They went all in: briefing journalists on background that the bill would be changed and publicly describing it as "work in progress". It got so bad the unions wrote a letter to Peters telling him to back down.

Eventually Labour rolled out Heather Simpson, Helen Clark's old enforcer. It's understood she met NZ First chief of staff Jon Johansson, and Johansson himself met the unions, and the deal we saw on Tuesday was hammered out.

The spin from government types  is that the workplace relations stuff was a blip, and the coalition is actually getting much better at working together, after a few horror months at the start.

Hundreds of decisions are run past each other or worked on together and don't get any attention, because the media naturally covers only the stuff that the parties disagree on. The parties do seem to have a decent system, where most decisions are worked out by staffers, with anything more controversial being dealt with by the respective chiefs of staff. Staffers huff and puff and complain to reporters, but they don't quit their jobs. Things very rarely get so hard that the party leaders actively have to negotiate – indeed, one source said the last time this happened was during the Budget.

There is a sense that, for the obviously controversial issues the coalition is careful enough to look somewhat unified. NZ First is yet to really rebel on oil and gas and climate change, and the Greens didn't pull out of Government over waka-jumping. It's the slightly less obvious hotspots where the drama has taken place – like in fisheries, where NZ First has effectively halted any attempt at increasing regulation of the industry; and the attempt to end the three-strikes policy, when Peters humiliatingly put down Andrew Little for daring to discuss enacting a longtime Labour policy.

And for all the drama, this Government doesn't seem at all likely to fall apart any time soon. There were times when this didn't seem so obvious. Peters is having far too much fun right now to dramatically resign from Cabinet.

Part of that stability might be the warm feelings the parties are getting from the polls: while National's internal polling has NZ First at 4 per cent, Labour's has had them at 5 or above plenty of weeks recently. The Greens have consistently scored about 5 in both the public and private polls, and both major parties' internal polling has Labour ahead of National right now.

This is streets away from the situation in the last two terms when NZ First was in Government. Between 2005 and 2008, it basically never made it above the 5 per cent mark in public polling – leading to its one and only term out of Parliament. NZ First sees itself as the beneficiary of a weakening National Party – if it looks a lot like Labour and the Greens could govern alone after 2020, the party is expecting some softer National voters to come across to moderate the dang Greenies.

But things have not calmed down completely. NZ First understands well that its key to relevance is making a fuss when it suits. Peters might want to be a "constructive" partner, but what he has mostly constructed thus far is a series of walls around the more ambitious policies of Labour and the Greens. Jones, easily the most quotable man in politics, can win headlines and knows it – sometimes this works well for the Government, other times he goes a touch far, as he did with employment relations, and with his World Trade Organisation comments this week.

And maturity can be a bit boring. The prime minister's office, which just lost two people from its comms team, has not been selling the overarching narrative of the Government well. It can feel like all this Government cares about are "processes" and the dreaded working groups, while the big laws it passes – like the industrial relations one – go by without much fanfare. NZ First and increasingly the Greens are adept at focusing the headlines on their wins, while Labour ministers seem to mostly stay in a defensive crouch. This may be because they are simply magnanimous, but at some point you do need to remind people the party stands for more than just Jacinda Ardern.

Plus, if we assume the relative calm of the current period is the result of some nice poll numbers for the Government, that isn't a very strong foundation. National may still be reeling from the Jami-Lee Ross saga, but mistakes such as that over Karel Sroubek can start to look like a pattern. After all, Lees-Galloway is supposed to be a safe pair of hands. The election is also never that far away in New Zealand, and every party will need to start differentiating itself further as the months tick down.

Just four years ago, 47 per cent of the country voted for National and 4 per cent for the Conservatives. Those voters haven't disappeared into the ether, they just got a bit sick of the last lot, and haven't warmed to this new fella either. National has a deep bench and is never in need of funding – you can never really write it off. Even if a victory in 2020 seems impossible, an Orewa Speech moment where it shoots up in the polls is not. If that happens, and NZ First or the Greens fly down under 5 per cent, expect all this maturity to be shaken off.

* Comments have been turned off on this article.

Back to the top ^

Related Articles (30)