On the south side of the Ditch we’re living in The Present, a time that American poet Billy Collins identified as the moment “after you hear the punchline but before you get the joke”.
The punchline of the September 23 general election was delivered on the night but we won’t get the joke until the final count is announced on October 7. Even then we won’t know whether to laugh or cry while we wait for the leaders of four parties — National, Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens — to turn the punchline into a joke that will keep us amused for the next three years.
One thing is certain: whatever the precise wording of the punchline, the media will fail to understand that the joke’s on them.
Jokes only work if they contain the germ of truth. This is especially true of politically incorrect humour which relies on stereotypes based on commonly held prejudices. The stereotype that the New Zealand media have built over the past decades of New Zealand First’s Winston Peters is of a power-crazy flake. Their jaundiced view of him, revealed in their ridicule and scorn prevents them from seeing him for what he is — a consummate professional politician. Wherever he sits in the new parliament, his 7.5 per cent share of the vote gives him the decisive role in forming the next government, something that the media have been predicting for the past 18 months.
While the Greens (5.9 per cent) can give National (61 per cent) the majority of 61 seats it needs to govern for a fourth term, Labour (35.8 per cent) will require both the Greens and New Zealand First to lead a three-party coalition which, on polling day, won a majority of the popular vote by a slim margin.
The final count can only cause marginal change to seating arrangements in the House of Representatives, possibly transferring one or two seats from National to Labour or the Greens, lifting the potential majority for a centre-left coalition including NZ First from 61 to 63. But Peters has refused to start coalition negotiations until the 384,000 special votes, 15 per cent of the total, have been included. While he claims to be showing respect for the basic principles that all votes are equal and every vote counts, the media take it as further evidence of their long-held belief that he’s just an irresponsible, spotlight-hogging prick.
Among many commentators nervous about not having a government for a few weeks was NZ Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan. “The country is supposed to stand by and twiddle its collective thumbs while Winston Peters plays the major parties off against each other,” she spluttered incredulously.
For a start, even if the country did have collective thumbs it wouldn’t be using them for twiddling. In this day and age even Donald Trump knows that thumbs are for texting. In any case it’s hard to know what to do with one’s thumbs apart from sit on them while the four largest parties negotiate towards an agreement on which them of them will team up to hold a working majority in the next parliament.
This is what the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system is specifically designed to deliver — minority parties forced into coalition to obtain the working majority required to form a government. That was why the winning side in World War II (including New Zealand, yay!) forced MMP on Germany to prevent the rise of another you-know-who.
Germany is one of just four of the world’s 123 democracies which use the MMP system. The others, according to Wikipedia, are Lesotho, Botswana and New Zealand which, ironically, voluntarily adopted it by plebiscite for much the same reasons as it was imposed on Germany after Labour unleashed a blitzkrieg of free-market deregulation after winning a majority in the House on a minority of the popular vote in first-post-the-post (FPP) elections in 1984 and 1987.
Germany held its first free post-war election in 1949 and its longer experience with MMP was evident in the aftermath if its most recent federal election held the day after kiwis went to the polls. No-one broke out in a sweat at the prospect of Angela Merkel taking three or four months to stitch together a new coalition. Nor was there any surprise at the decisive role played by the minor parties in forming a government.
Had the parliamentary Press Gallery spent more time in their gallery above the Speaker’s chair, not racing off after question time for selfies with ministers in the corridors, they would have recognised that the election delivered the same balance that prevailed in the debating chamber on the fortnightly members’ nights. That’s when the “three-headed monster” of Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens would combine to push through centre-left friendly bills to improve home insulation and maternity leave, their majority coming from three MPs in two parties — United Future and the Maori Party — representing (shock! horror!) less than 2 per cent of the total party vote.
Their absence is the greatest difference between the fifty-first parliament and its successor, which has the potential for a more clear-cut, mature, European-style division between centre-right and centre-left. Hopefully, this will help the media finally to get up to speed with MMP, freeing them from their habit of reporting elections as if they were still conducted under the first-past-the-post system.
Whether he goes Left or Right, Peters will hold the centre. His support comes from the small towns, New Zealand’s rural rust belt and that makes him an outsider in a system long dominated by the urban elites in politics and the media.
“There are too many people in politics and experts who give their subjective judgment, laced with their personal preference, who think that that passes for professional comment,” he said in a debate last November congratulating Donald Triumph.
“This contest was never about the Democratic or the Republican parties. It was about those old parties being captured by big vested interests and controlling Washington—and the American people knew it.”
Peters prides himself on his professionalism and despises the media for what he perceives to be their lack of it. The joke will really be on them if he gets hold of the broadcasting and media portfolios and starts shaking out the big vested interests that have gained control of New Zealand’s television, radio and newspapers over the past 30 years.
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