New Zealand’s new government distracted by minor coalition partner interests

Feb 18, 2024
The Parliament Building in Wellington

The Labour Party in Opposition in New Zealand describes the new National Party government as the coalition of chaos. Others call it the three headed monster. It appears that at least one of the monster’s minor heads is doing more talking than its leader.

The election produced a win for National under Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. He negotiated a coalition with the right leaning nationalist party New Zealand First under Winston Peters and the right wing conservative ACT Party under David Seymour.

After last year’s defeat of the Labour Government Christopher Luxon promised to hit the ground running. He has done so with a series of measures to reverse some of the measures introduced by Labour under Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins. Many involve race issues that opponents call “anti-Maori” and others say redress a balance that had been upset under Labour.

These include winding back policies around “co-governance” intended to give Maori a greater role in issues that affect them, disbanding a newly created Maori health authority that would have tackled poor Maori health outcomes, the cancelling of plans for a national “three waters” administration to clean up waterways and water supplies and relieve the financial pressure of these tasks on poorer local authorities, cancellation of a world leading plan that would have made New Zealand virtually cigarette free, and cancellation of a ban on the flu medicine pseudoephedrine risking raids on chemist shops because it can be illegally processed into methamphetamine or Ice (known as P in New Zealand) .

Some of these measures closely fit the policies of the minor parties in the coalition especially the right wing ACT party which has strong views on issues concerning Maori.

On February 6 New Zealand celebrated the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. It was an opportunity to demonstrate unity among the Maori tribes of New Zealand and also the unity of the nation. This year it demonstrated Maori opposition to the new government’s policies that affect them, and to a particularly challenging race related policy affecting the Treaty of Waitangi that was negotiated by the right wing ACT party in return for its support as a coalition member.

It appears that a reason for Labour’s defeat at the polls was that it had introduced measures to help support the Maori population more quickly than the general population found comfortable. Even sympathetic and reasonable New Zealanders said that the “Maori issue” was significant because the government went “too far too fast”.

Labour, who sought to make New Zealand a better place for all, wanted to improve outcomes for Maori health, life expectancy, education, crime and incarceration rates that are all very poor compared with the national average. “Co-governance” was an attempt to give Maori a role in their affairs, but to opponents it sounded a bit too much like apartheid.

Opposition to the remedies proposed and employed by the Labour Government were hard to swallow for even moderate New Zealanders who thought Maori already had about the same opportunities as the rest of the country. This may have been a simplistic view but it was one exploited by the National Party and the minor right wing parties, New Zealand First and ACT.

Under the coalition agreement between National, New Zealand First and ACT, the ACT party won the right to introduce a bill to clarify the principles underlying the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840. ACT contends that the Treaty, sometimes referred to as New Zealand’s founding document, has been reinterpreted over the past forty years to give excessive weight to Maori interests. The Treaty Principles Bill will, according to ACT, give equal rights and duties to all New Zealanders.

Under the coalition agreement between the National Party and ACT, National’s Christopher Luxon agreed the Bill could be introduced to Parliament and be referred to a Select Committee but go no further. ACT leader Seymour says the Government might change its mind if public opinion strongly supports advancing the Bill. Despite the Prime Minister’s insistence that he won’t allow this to happen, ACT has launched a website to help create a surge of public opinion in support of moving the Bill forward into law.

The website was announced just as Luxon was trying to change the subject, announcing measures to improve law and order in the country. Observers in New Zealand noticed what appeared to be seriously disloyal efforts by Cabinet Minister and ACT leader David Seymour to undermine his Prime Minister. Seymour had managed to manipulate the national conversation to talk about the Treaty while the Government wanted to deal with other issues.

Other observers thought ACT’s concentration on Treaty and race issues was a possibly sinister attempt to stir up disharmony in New Zealand.

Some columnists including Gerard Otto and David Slack offer evidence that Seymour has a long connection with a shadowy and possibly insidious international right wing group the Atlas Network. Despite the evidence offered that the Network is active in New Zealand, evidently through support for other right wing groups including the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union and The New Zealand Initiative lobbyists, the Network prefers to remain in the shadows.

When challenged about his party’s alleged connection with the Atlas Network in an interview on Waitangi Day by Mihingarangi Forbes for Radio New Zealand’s Mata programme Seymour was aggressive and combative. He accused Forbes of peddling conspiracy theories. Questions about the Atlas Network’s role in setting the agenda for the ACT party and other major lobby groups in New Zealand continue to be asked in many media outlets in New Zealand.

Seymour’s influence and that of NZ First’s Winston Peters who is currently Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs raises issues about New Zealand’s MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) election process. National’s Luxon is in the uncomfortable position of having won the election but he has surrendered major policy planks to minor parties in order to secure their coalition support.

The minor parties’ electoral performance was hardly impressive. The final election results showed National got 36.08 percent of votes cast for 48 seats, ACT got 8.64 percent of votes for 11 seats and NZ First got 6.08 percent of votes for 8 seats, yet the two small parties have already forced major policy concessions from National.

Luxon’s strenuously declared position that the Treaty Principles Bill must die in a select committee is being strongly challenged by ACT’s Seymour almost to the point of publicly humiliating the Prime Minister, nourishing the view that New Zealand is governed by a chaotic coalition, and raising again the whole question of whether MMP is the best alternative to the first past the post electoral system.

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