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CHRIS TROTTER: Calling The Big Dog’s Bluff

IT IS THE CONSIDERED VIEW of the political punditocracy that the Act leader, David Seymour, is bluffing. The conventional wisdom of the so-called “experts” has not changed since New Zealand adopted MMP – any small party responsible for forcing an early election will be wiped out. The voters will not be trifled with – not by small parties demanding more than their share of the Party Vote entitles them. That being the case, Seymour must be bluffing. End. Of. Story.

But is it? It was inevitable that at some point, some minor party leader was going to call bullshit on the conventional wisdom. The only real surprise is that it has taken nearly 30 years of MMP coalition governments to produce someone willing to think the unthinkable. Fitting that it should be the leader of Act, because thinking the unthinkable has long been touted as Act’s stock-in-trade.

And, is it really that unthinkable for parties capable of securing hundreds-of-thousands of votes to decide, finally, to make those votes count? What we should all find unthinkable is the bizarre notion that a minor party is morally obliged to shelve 90 percent of its policies, smile sweetly for the cameras, and vote alongside its coalition partner like a robot for the next three years. Especially when most of the senior coalition partners’ members and supporters cordially despise everything the junior partner stands for.

Eventually, any party with even a modicum of self-respect is going to rebel against such unreasonable expectations. Possessing a great deal more than a modicum of self-respect, Act has, over recent weeks, been alarmed by a disrespectful degree of shrinking voter support. Finally, Christopher Luxon’s National Party has the acquired the momentum that makes electoral victory look almost certain. Those voters who had turned to Act, almost in despair, are, in ever-increasing numbers, hauling themselves aboard National’s band-wagon. Somehow, Act has to prevent more defections.

There is only one effective way to do this. Act must play on the widespread fear among right-wing voters that Luxon isn’t much more than a political Ken Doll. Good for joshing and jiving with the punters, but not much more than a handy accessory to a Labour-lite Action Barbie named Nicola. Given the alarming falling away of Act support, isn’t Seymour’s optimum strategy to urge the Right to give the wide-awake David Doll all the muscle he needs to break National out of its plastic fantastic play-world and force it to confront political reality?

It’s why Seymour is telling National that if a detailed coalition agreement, promising to enact the most important of Act’s promises, cannot be negotiated, then it will only be able to rely on Act’s votes in support of parliamentary confidence motions. Act will not pledge to support National on motions of supply (i.e. money bills). It’s support for National’s 2024 Budget would be determined transactionally – it would not be automatic. Seymour’s strategy should be to convince at least one-in-three right-wing voters that they must vote Act – or face a National government even squishier than John Key’s.

Seymour also needs to convince his colleagues that such a hardline approach will not result in what all the pundits regard as inevitable – a new election leading to Act’s destruction. Rather, he must challenge them with these questions:

“Why would the voters punish a party for insisting that politics is not a game? Why would they wipe out a party that is prepared to stake everything on its determination to bring real change? After 15 years of neither-fish-nor-fowl governments, isn’t there a better-than-even chance that at least 5 percent – and possibly much more – of the electorate is in the mood for some honest-to-goodness red meat?”

For nearly thirty years the pundits have been telling the minor parties that they must be good little puppies and let the big dogs decide. The parties with a plurality of the votes cast must be allowed to govern – even if that means ignoring the priorities of hundreds-of-thousands of voters.

But, what if an early election is forced by Act and the party is not wiped out? What if it actually picks up seats? Surely, in those circumstances, the senior coalition partner would be obliged to revise its negotiating strategy?

Not so much a case of the tail wagging the dog, as the tail successfully calling the dog’s bluff.

This post has been reproduced from Chris Trotter's blog, Bowalley Road. It was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 September 2023.

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