Who is in charge?
By Richard Harman (author)
NZ First Leader Winston Peters yesterday launched what amounted to a linguistic coup against his own Government.
He is now rejecting the description of it as “Labour-led” and instead insisting that it is a Labour-NZ First coalition.
But by any objective measurement, the Government is “Labour-led”.
For a start, some pages on its own Beehive website describe it as “Labour-led”.
And right from its inception that is what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called it.
On October 19, 2017, just before 6.00 p.m., Peters announced that NZ First would go with Labour.
Just over an hour later, Ardern issued a statement headed “Agreement with New Zealand First to support a Labour-led Government.”
The first sentence read: “Labour is pleased to have successfully concluded negotiations with New Zealand First as a critical step to forming a Labour-led progressive Government.” Since then Ardern has often referred to her Government as “Labour-led.”
However yesterday in a radio interview, Peters insisted the Government was not "Labour-led"; instead, he said, "I'm afraid it's a coalition called Labour and NZ First.”
And later in the day he repeated the claim, answering on behalf of Ardern, during Question Time in Parliament.
Paula Bennett: “Will the Labour-led Government support the Employment Relations Amendment Bill that was approved by Cabinet as it is currently written?”
Winston Peters: On behalf of the Prime Minister, after 25 years of MMP we expect members of Parliament to come here understanding the lexicon and language of MMP. That's number one—it's a coalition between the Labour Party and New Zealand First with support agreement from the Green Party. Having got that out of the way, can I just say that the bill is progressing successfully and it will pass in the fullness of time.
As Peters himself likes to say, “words mean everything” and what he apparently means to say with his subtle re-casting of the description of the Government is that NZ First and Labour are now equal partners.
Bennett tried again.
Bennett: In light of the previous question and answer from the Prime Minister, can she confirm that the Labour-led Government unanimously voted for the bill at select committee and the bill has now been prepared for a second reading; and do they know how they will vote for it?
Peters: On behalf of the Prime Minister, that member will not conform to the proper language of an MMP environment. We do not intend to answer her mindless questions. She knows full well the construction. We can handle it, and that's why we're here, and that's why they're over there—because they just don't grasp what the new environment looks like.
Bennett: In light of the previous question and in light of the previous answer, will the Winston Peters - led Government, unanimously vote—
Speaker: Order! Order! That was deliberately disorderly, and the National Party will lose two supplementaries as a result of it.
Peters’ actions may be amusing, but there is a deeper and more calculating purpose behind them.
This week, with his refusal to confirm that NZ First will support the Employment Relations Amendment Bill as it stands and now the rejection of the Labour-led label is undoubtedly making the Government squirm.
That’s the point.
NZ First believes it gets its votes by promising its voters it can restrain Labour from what NZ First MPs like to describe as its urban elitist tendencies.
Making life visibly uncomfortable for Labour is central to that.