Founding editor of Newstalk ZB Plus and former lawyer, Philip Crump explores political, legal and cultural issues facing New Zealand. Sometimes known as Thomas Cranmer.
As the coalition talks continue largely away from public gaze, newsrooms have become frustrated at the endless number of ‘slow-news’ days that have left them without a regular line up of political talking heads to provide daily content.
Focus has now turned back to Luxon’s mergers and acquisitions experience with questions being asked by political journalists as to why an agreement between National, ACT and New Zealand First has not been reached already. The delay has been characterized by several political commentators as ‘humiliating’ for Luxon, but is it?
There is, invariably, a huge amount of pressure to close any corporate deal and with that pressure to concede points or fudge issues. Experienced dealmakers will, however, use every minute until closing to negotiate and re-negotiate the terms of their deal, often to the exasperation of their own advisors. Knowing that they will need to live with those terms for years and that those terms will largely determine the success of the deal, they will often hold out longer than anyone expected to secure the best possible terms.
By contrast, negotiating a bad deal will get you fired from Unilever and any other top corporation. No one cares if you did the deal quickly if the terms suck.
In these coalition talks, there has been some suggestion from commentators that the only party with pressure to close is National, and that ACT and New Zealand First could walk away at any time. With respect, I don’t think that is entirely correct. All parties to the negotiations need to be able to demonstrate that they are responsible negotiating parties – they will each need to show some wins to their supporters, but they will each need to demonstrate that they can close a deal of some sort and be a responsible partner in government.
It is an interesting dynamic. There was, from all accounts, a deal between National and ACT ready to go if the special votes had gone in their favour – which, at one point, National believed might be the case. However, once it was clear that Peters had some leverage and that a three-handed deal was needed, things became more complicated.
For Luxon and Seymour it is indeed their first rodeo as the New Zealand First leader pointed out during the campaign, but for Peters it could well be his last. He will be conscious of that fact and determined to gain some meaningful wins up front given his experience of the Ardern government when he felt he was excluded from some key discussions relating to He Puapua and Covid. All indications are that Peters has in fact secured some good concessions that will please his voter base.
Likewise, Seymour needs to ensure that he is not overshadowed by Peters and that ACT remains the number-two partner in the coalition. Some within the National election team observed during the campaign that Seymour may have suffered in the eyes of the public by being too closely aligned with National on too many issues.
The suggestion was reminiscent of the Cameron-Clegg coalition in 2010 when the two party leaders were labelled ‘the chuckle brothers’ by the British press for their chummy demeanour at the announcement of the coalition. Ultimately the Liberal Democrats and Clegg were decimated by the Conservatives in the 2015 general election by the perception of being too closely aligned with their larger coalition partner.
For Seymour, therefore, showing some independence from Luxon is important if ACT is going to demonstrate that it is a worthy party, in its own right, for the public to vote into government.
But to the larger question being posed at the moment: will Luxon be feeling ‘humiliated’ by the length of time that all this is taking? No, not at all. I doubt he cares a jot.
Political opponents and some commentators are eager to hang that label around his neck but as soon as an agreement is reached – and all indications are that it is still a day or two away – the focus will shift very quickly to the terms of the deal and the business of government. And that is where the party leaders will be judged.
Time spent now agreeing a fulsome coalition agreement will undoubtedly be time well spent.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say.