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My heart sank when I saw the results of the latest Roy Morgan poll yesterday: if those results were reflected in the election in October, New Zealand would be in for three years of a Labour/Greens/Maori Party coalition government, arguably a worse government than the three years of Labour that we have endured since 2020.

The results were:

• National 32%

• Labour 30%

• ACT 12.5%

• Greens 12%

• Maori Party 4.5%

• NZ First 4.5%

• TOP 2%

• DNZ 1.5%

• New Cons. 0.5%

Those results would give a left-of-centre government a total of 62 seats in our 120 seat Parliament – 40 for Labour, 16 for the Greens, and 6 for the Maori Party. (Even though the Maori Party would, on these numbers, fall below the 5% threshold, that threshold would be irrelevant because the Maori Party is likely to hold at least one electorate, and possibly more.)

By contrast, a centre-right coalition of National and ACT would hold only 58 seats – 42 for National and 16 for ACT. NZ First would, on those numbers, get no Parliamentary representation – it falls below the 5% threshold and at this stage doesn’t seem likely to win any electorate.

Perhaps a centre-right coalition could be created by inviting the Maori Party to join in? I can’t see any likelihood of that happening. The National Party has been vague – far too vague in my view – about whether they could form a coalition with the Maori Party. But even if they could swallow their long-standing commitment to one law for all (dating back to at least the time Bill English was Leader in 2002), it is inconceivable that ACT would agree to be in a coalition with a party which so fundamentally violates the most basic principle of democracy, that all citizens have equal political rights.

By contrast, it seems clear from statements made by Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins – to say nothing of similar statements by other ministers, such as Kieran McNulty – that the Labour Party is comfortable with those New Zealanders who chance to have some Maori ancestry having superior political rights; and clearly both the Greens and the Maori Party are comfortable with that position also. Indeed, for the Maori Party superior political rights for those with some Maori ancestry is fundamental to their positioning.

It’s important that all New Zealanders understand what is at stake here. Today’s Maori Party has moved a very long way from the Maori Party of 2005. After the election that year, the Maori Party was comfortable with the idea of forming a coalition with National, and National was comfortable with that prospect also – I was Leader of the National Party at that time. That was a Maori Party which voted with National, ACT and NZ First to pass legislation enabling employers to dismiss employees without cause within 90 days of their being hired because they could see that many of the beneficiaries of such a policy would be young Maori. (The Bill passed its first reading with Maori Party support, but failed at second reading when one member of the Maori Party caucus got cold feet.) That was a Maori Party willing to contemplate the abolition of separate Maori electorates – as the Royal Commission on the Electoral System had recommended if MMP were adopted – after historical grievances had been settled. And of course the Maori Party supported a National Government after the 2008 election.

But the Maori Party of today is strongly in favour of a totally false interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi, an interpretation which would have Maori in partnership with the Crown, and so with intrinsically superior political rights to those enjoyed by all other New Zealanders. Such an interpretation appears to have been accepted by both the Labour Party and the Greens, despite the fact that Article III of the Treaty makes it unambiguously clear that all New Zealanders have equal political rights.

Even without needing the votes of the Maori Party in Parliament, Labour has been hell-bent on conceding to Maori rights which are clearly superior to those enjoyed by all other New Zealanders, the most egregious of these moves being giving Maori New Zealanders effective control of the country’s entire water infrastructure (through 50/50 co-governance on the boards controlling the proposed 10 entities, and giving only Maori the right to issue so-called Te Mana o te wai statements).

If Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party were to form a government after the next election, democracy as normally understood – with all citizens having equal political rights, irrespective of their ethnicity or when they arrived in New Zealand – is done for.

But there would appear to be a relatively simple solution. If NZ First were to win an electorate, its 4.5% share of the party vote would open the possibility of forming a centre-right coalition involving National, ACT and NZ First. To be clear, I have never voted for NZ First, and don’t plan to in the forthcoming election, but it is clear that enough people do intend to vote for NZ First that votes for that party could, if wasted, throw the election to a Labour/Greens/Maori Party coalition.

It seems to me that the solution would be for National not to contest the Northland electorate in the hope that the NZ First candidate would win it. And there would have to be at least a better than even chance that that would be the result: after all, Winston Peters himself won the seat in the 2015 by-election.

Having NZ First win that electorate would not, of course, directly result in any loss of National’s Parliamentary representation because that would be determined by National’s share of the party vote. For National, there would be two risks in not standing a candidate in Northland. First, some of the “soft-National vote” could drift to NZ First because it would be clear that a vote for NZ First would be unlikely to be wasted. And if NZ First then decided to throw in its lot with the Left, that would be a double blow to the centre-right’s chances of forming a government.

In my own judgement, it is extraordinarily unlikely that NZ First would form a government with three parties all of which are committed to giving superior constitutional rights to those with Maori ancestry. Winston Peters has, like the rest of us, changed his mind on several issues over time, but on the issue of equal citizenship for all New Zealanders he has been absolutely consistent throughout his very long political career.

From the National Party’s point of view, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Unless support for the National/ACT bloc picks up markedly, it seems very possible that the country is faced with the most left-wing government – and the most opposed to any concept of democracy – that we have ever seen in New Zealand. On the latest poll results, without NZ First winning an electorate, we would have a Labour/Greens/Maori Party Government with 62 seats in a 120 member Parliament. If NZ First were to win an electorate, there would at least be the possibility of a National/ACT/NZ First Government with 62 seats in a 121 member Parliament.

When the Tauranga by-election was called last year, I wrote a column suggesting that, if Winston Peters were to contest that by-election for NZ First – the seat that he held for 21 years from 1984 to 2005 – National Party supporters should vote for him, precisely to ensure that party votes for NZ First would be available in support of a centre-right coalition government after the election this year. Of course, Mr Peters chose not to contest the by-election. But the logic still stands: National should not stand a candidate in the Northland electorate this year.

Don Brash

3 May 2023

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