Both political polls broadcast by the TV networks over the past two days point to the same thing; the Government’s survival at the next election depends on NZ First.
Significantly both Newshub and One News had NZ First on four per cent; not enough to return to Parliament.
In the Newshub poll, Labour could still scrape back with the Greens with a precarious two-seat majority, but the One News poll shows National so far ahead (47% versus Labour’s 40%) that even the Greens’ seven per cent would not be enough to beat National plus Act.
If the present polling trends continue, to win convincingly, Labour is going to need NZ First back in Parliament, and that presents a range of challenges.
What we have seen in the past is that when NZ First believes its survival is at stake it becomes an unpredictable and potentially destructive force as it seeks to define itself in its traditional role as an anti-establishment party.
Ardern must now allow it enough space to differentiate itself at the same time as she does not allow it to break her Government up.
And it remains possible that Peters could decide to pull out of the coalition.
So Ardern is now walking a fine line.
Just how fine was obvious at her post-Cabinet press conference yesterday when she was asked whether Peters was correct in claiming (on RNZ) that recent immigration decisions were a significant tightening up of immigration and that was because of pressure at the Cabinet table from NZ First.
“Ultimately the decisions we make as government do require consensus building so we do work with our confidence and supply and coalition partners to develop our positions,” she said.
“What I would say is that these should be looked at across the spectrum of immigration decisions we have made.”
The Prime Minister’s comments sounded like a concession that Peters was correct.
How much further she will be prepared to make concessions to him on immigration will be interesting.
He has also promised that NZ First would campaign for a “values” test for people wishing to migrate to New Zealand; a proposal that would surely test Labour.
New Zealand First’s biggest problem will be how it convinces its electorate that without it in Government, Labour would form a politically correct left-leaning alliance with the Greens.
But first it needs to rebuild its base.
Shane Jones was doing that yesterday with some dog-whistling to those who have little time for metropolitan political correctness.
He did so in his own unique way allowing a picture of himself with what looked like a semi-automatic rifle at a shooting range in Bangkok where he was on holiday last week.
The Prime Minister may express her abhorrence at the picture, but it looked like a wink and a nod that could well resonate among the many gun owners frustrated with the Government’s gun clampdown.
A measure of the level of that opposition comes with opposition to the clampdown from the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners which is supported by a host of firearms owning groups including the NZ Deerstalkers Association, the National Rifle Association of NZ and Target Shooting New Zealand.
In its submission against the Arms Legislation Bill, the Council says it will transform how firearms owners’ clubs and social gatherings work, and “indeed whether they bother to volunteer to sustain such social capital.”
Jones knows that that sort of argument will resonate at his party’s annual conference this weekend and that there will be support for his Bangkok picture.
And that is where it counts for NZ First; in the margins in provincial New Zealand.
That is why NZ First MPs are letting it be known that they are sceptical about the Government’s freshwater reforms and the proposals to bring agriculture into the ETS.
Doug Woolerton, one of the party’s founders, defined the NZ First voter in an interview with POLITIK last year.
He said NZ First targeted voters the two main parties did not.
“We’ve always thought the constituency was the guy who owns the shop, the guy who fixes the tractors,” he said.
“It’s not the farmers.
“It’s the people who service the farmers who do the grunt work day today.”
The calculation that NZ First now have to make is whether that electorate will stay loyal as they watch the very urban Ardern Government go on.
POLITIK understands the party’s leader, Winston Peters, has sounded out friends about whether he should withdraw from a full coalition arrangement to a confidence and supply agreement which would give him more freedom to oppose some Labour policies but which would paint a picture of disunity within the Government.
One senior National MP, looking at this, speculated that Labour could lock NZ First’s support in by doing a deal over an electorate seat with them which would ensure their return to Parliament.
That, however, would seem unlikely.
During the term of the last Government, Peters referred to National’s deal with ACT in Epsom as an abuse of the electoral system.
Nevertheless, though Labour mounted a candidate (Willow-Jean Prime) in the Northland by-election in 2015 and thus technically did not do a deal, it hardly campaigned.
She got only 1380 votes, and Peters got 16089, but in the 2017 general election when she did campaign, Prime’s vote jumped to 8599 and Peters went down to 13,854.
Obviously, there is room in the Northland electorate for another informal accommodation.
What these polls suggest is that the Government is likely to be less stable, less cohesive and more fractious over coming months as NZ First tries to re-establish itself.
Labour will have to live with that if they want to be sure of forming the next Government. Their future depends on Winston Peters.