After the sigh of relief, time to set a decisive course

10:25 am on 20 October 2017

Opinion - It was always a logical choice: as it stood on election day, New Zealand First, policy-wise, had far more in common with Labour, and even the Greens, than National; together, they had the numbers to do it. The compromises involved to get a centre-left government around the Cabinet table would simply be MMP working as intended. After the special votes delivered two more seats to the potential coalition three-way, it should have been a done deal, we assured ourselves.

Jacinda Ardern

The Ardern-led government promises some significant good but there are some downsides for progressives. Photo: AFP

But after a certain US presidential election last year, no one has much faith in political logic any more. That was the response I saw over and over from friends and comrades these past short week: we know New Zealand First should go with Labour, but will they?

Well, they did. Let's breathe a sigh of relief. What's next?

Inside Cabinet, outside Cabinet, wombling free, we don't yet know which plum roles will go to Winston, and the three New Zealand First MPs vying to be his anointed successor - Tracey Martin, Ron Mark and Shane Jones. Nor which jobs will go to James Shaw, and the three MPs who are assumed to be in the running to join him as co-leader: Marama Davidson, Julie-Anne Genter and Eugenie Sage.

They might not all get ministerial responsibilities, but there's a lot of Select Committee chairs to go around too, and while Labour has brought in a lot of new blood it should welcome the chance to lean on the more experienced members in its alliance.

Action. This government promises some significant good: the re-entry of the Pike River drift is assured. Perhaps an inquiry on the abuse of children in state care. Action on housing speculation. A reprieve for public tertiary education. Maybe even abortion law reform is finally on the cards. Paid parental leave. Higher wages.

For progressives, there is also some downside: one area Labour and New Zealand First had strongly in common was immigration policy premised on cutting numbers and an unfortunate appearance of blaming newcomers for our strained infrastructure. And sitting at the top table with people like Shane Jones, the more punitive, socially conservative elements within Labour may feel more emboldened. This is no Corbynist revolution.

Then there's National. I don't expect Bill English to stay around - or be allowed to stay around - nor do I think we'll see the easy kind of transition we had in Labour post-2008. This is when the National Party's internal contradictions, which have been suppressed for so long in favour of holding power, will come out: the tensions which must exist between the social liberals who hate tax, the extremist Catholics who hate tax and women's autonomy, and the farmers' lobby, exploding. As a long time Labour supporter, I must say it would be delightful to see someone else carry the label of "disunity" for once.

Departing National Party leader Bill English, with wife Mary, speaking after NZ First chose Labour as a coalition partner.

Bill English, with wife Mary, concedes the election. Photo: AFP

Or perhaps they'll take a long term view, and Bill will be here to contest 2020. Anything can happen in politics these days.

And National won't be the only ones looking for a leader: the Greens, diminished in number but bolstered by the resources afforded to them if they take seats at the Cabinet table, have a new woman co-leader to elect. As they do so, they'll be asking themselves what space they can carve out in this new world.

It's a mixed bag, but I'm inclined towards the positive this morning. We have escaped three more years of uncaring government, and who knows what consequences of further starving our public services and ignoring our crises of health, mental health, poverty and neglect. We have a real opportunity for change: but we cannot assume it's a done deal.

For those of us on the left, the temptation will be to down tools and do whatever we can to support Ardern. Our instinct will be to look beyond the first three years, to set the course for a two- or three- or, gods be good, a four-term Labour-led government. See the big picture! It won't happen overnight but it will happen!

I caution against that. The first term is where the greatest change can be made; even if it must be tempered against Winston. This is the time to wrench the steering wheel as far as it can go in a new direction, knowing that the turn itself will be rather slower going. The big important policies - tax reform, much-needed increases in health, education and welfare spending - all have a long lead-in period, and it's crucial that these have a chance to show results before a resurgent National Party comes out in 2020 or 2023 with a new bag of dirty tricks and a message about wasteful spending and nothing changing.

If we want to hold power for nine long years or more, we have to set a decisive course now, both to get things moving and ensure we don't run out of ideas and end up cruising to defeat the way so many governments do.

It's a huge job; but I think this team can do it.

*Stephanie Rodgers is a communications and campaigns consultant. She blogs at bootstheory.nz.

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