Labour leader Chris Hipkins played his election campaign trump card yesterday.
By ruling out any deal with New Zealand First, he means any vote for New Zealand First is either a vote for National or, at worst, a vote for another election.
Equally, Hipkins underlines that any vote for National is very likely a vote for New Zealand First.
That Hipkins has elected to play this card now suggests that Labour is concerned about its poll ratings and is now desperately trying to get its campaign within sniffing distance of National.
In what appears to have been a very deliberate leak, its internal poll numbers are now circulating, indicating that its support is creeping back up.
The intention of the leak was obviously to assure soft Labour supporters that the party is still in the game and possibly also to try and win back some former Labour votes from NZ First.
The declaration of no deal with NZ First was designed to reinforce that.
This year, as Labour has fallen in the polls, NZ First has climbed, suggesting that much of its current support comes from disillusioned Labour voters from 2020.
In the One News Verian poll, Labour was at 38% in January, with NZ First at 2.3%. Their latest poll shows Labour on 29 and NZ First on 3.7%. ACT has similarly risen over the same period by 3%. However, the National has stayed at 37%.
Thus, the anti-Labour vote is being split by NZ First and ACT.
This may explain the rivalry between the two parties, which has caused ACT leader David Seymour to say that he would be unwilling to work with Winston Peters “in any form,” as he told RNZ’s Checkpoint on August 3.
National Leader Christopher Luxon’s response to this: to say that working with Peters is hypothetical because the party has not reached more than 5% in any of the main polls is disingenuous because Luxon has already ruled out the Maori Party, whose poll rating is lower than NZ First.
Despite that, the well-connected political commentator, Matthew Hooton, claimed in a private note to subscribers last night that Luxon was “being advised by key backers that it would be better to govern with NZ First than Act.”
POLITIK has heard a slightly different version of this from influential background figures in National: that the party ought to prepare to work with both ACT and National if it wants to form the next government.
Hipkins yesterday jumped on that possibility.
“Ultimately, a National ACT New Zealand First government would be a force of instability,” he said.
“I’m ruling out working with New Zealand First, so the New Zealanders are very clear that a vote for New Zealand First is a vote for a National-led government.”
Peters repeatedly refuses to confirm this.
But if his party did not do some sort of deal with National, that would leave him on the cross benches picking and choosing which legislation he might support and which he might oppose.
No government could live with that for long, and the most likely outcome would be an early second election.
Peters is smart enough to know that would see NZ First blamed and probably out of Parliament.
Hence his need to do some sort of deal.
But Hipkins yesterday stated the obvious when yesterday he stressed the instability that NZ First brings to any government it joins.
Even its coalition agreements contain random elements, such as the 2017 one, which called for a free trade agreement with Russia and Belarus and opposed the construction of a new Ministerial wing at Parliament, thus forcing Parliament to continue paying a high rent to its owner, Farhad Vladi, a German property investor.
“I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone in the country that the three years that we were in coalition with New Zealand First was a difficult time, particularly the last part of that,” Hipkins said.
“And so I’ve considered what kind of direction I want to take the country, and I don’t think that working with New Zealand First and with Winston Peters is compatible with it.”
Peters responded to Hipkins’ announcement yesterday by simply re-asserting that NZ First would not work with Labour.
“He’s announcing something that everybody already knows, which is that New Zealand First has already ruled out going into any form of government with Labour because of their racist separatist policies,” he said.
“The fact is the moment we knew Labour had lied to me and hidden their race-based reports and policies from their coalition partner, we ruled out ever working with them.”
All this raises the question as to whether there have been any private talks between Peters and National.
Asked last night directly if there have been, Peters appeared to deny the suggestion.
“We are out there, like New Plymouth today, having meaningful discussions with Kiwi voters, not politicians from other parties,” he said.
“It’s called democracy and how campaigns are won and not having secret discussions behind the voters’ backs.”
But as with everything Peters says, there was sufficient wiggle room in his statement to allow the possibility that there might have been talks.
But slowly, the pressure on Peters to be specific about post-election arrangements is increasing.
His stance since 1993 has been to refuse to talk about what might happen after the election.
But this time round, with any deal with Labour now off the books and one with ACT highly problematical, he is running out of space.