The Week in Politics: 'Eerie silence' surrounds coalition negotiations

12:02 pm on 27 October 2023
Collage of Christopher Luxon, David Seymour, and Winston Peters looking towards the Beehive

Photo: RNZ

Analysis - Negotiations to form a new government between National, ACT and NZ First were taking place this week - in Auckland at an unknown venue and with very little known about what was going on between the three parties.

Newshub's Lloyd Burr said incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon was attempting to control media coverage, and the best way to do that was to hold them in a city without a political press gallery.

After previous MMP elections, negotiations have been mostly held in Parliament.

"Luxon wants to do this like a corporate business deal rather than allowing some scrutiny of who he's meeting with," Burr said.

"These are the people who will lead our country. While the meetings have always been in private, the public should at least know who is part of the talks, how often they are taking place and for how long."

Questioned about his tactics on Newshub's AM Show, Luxon said he knew it was "frustrating for you guys in the media in particular because we are wanting to do it very differently, I just don't feel that having those coalition conversations and negotiations through the media is a good way to deal with it".

Stuff headlined its report "The eerie silence of coalition negotiations" with political reporter Thomas Manch saying ACT leader David Seymour, through a spokesperson, had declined to comment and NZ First's Winston Peters could not be contacted by phone.

National leader Christopher Luxon thanks supporters in Botany after the 2023 election.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon. Photo: RNZ / Tim Collins

Luxon's most comprehensive comment, if it could be called that, was during a Morning Report interview.

Good progress was being made but there was still a long way to go, he said.

"We're using this time between now and the special votes to make sure that we continue to move things forward."

The talks had been moved to Auckland as a matter of logistics though they were not being held exclusively in the city.

"We're following the process, trust the process, I know it's different and it's frustrating for people but we've got to just work through this process to make sure we've got a good, strong, stable government," he said.

Reporters questioned Luxon while he visited a sugar factory in Auckland, but all they got was "we're pleased with negotiations" and the talks were about "progressing the relationship and the arrangements".

It does not appear that the parties have got down to the hard yards of deciding what they can agree or disagree on. This week may have been more about what they want in terms of a governing arrangement - full coalition or the looser support on confidence and supply, or possibly just on confidence.

When they do start negotiating policies that could be acceptable to all three there could be some tough talking.

Stuff investigated potential "agreements and clashes" and said the negotiations were likely to heat up next week.

The report identified common ground issues as reduced government spending, limiting increases to welfare payments, abolishing the Māori Health Authority, stopping Auckland Light Rail, repealing Labour's resource management reforms and a "back to basics" approach to education.

Clashes included increasing the age of superannuation eligibility. National and ACT want to eventually raise it but Peters has said he would "absolutely not allow that".

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters at the Duke of Marlborough in Russell on Election Night on October 14 2023.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

NZ First's manifesto states: "The age of retirement will remain at 65 years. No ifs, buts or maybes."

Tax policy could be difficult. Each of the parties has "significantly different" approaches, the Stuff report said.

National's $14 billion tax cut plan relies in large part on taxing the sale of expensive properties to foreigners. Economists and Labour have said the figures do not stack up, and Peters has said he wants to see the spreadsheets.

It would also cut across the law change that banned foreign buyers, passed by the Labour-NZ First coalition government.

NZ First campaigned on introducing a tax-free threshold, which National's plan does not include, while ACT wants to flatten the tax structure and cut tax rates through more fundamental changes.

Peters also campaigned on a promise to introduce legislation which would stop gender-diverse and transgender people from using gendered bathrooms.

Luxon rubbished the idea. "You are on another planet if you want to have a conversation about bathrooms and make that an election issue," he said at the time.

Then there is ACT's referendum on the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

ACT's David Seymour arrives at Wellington Airport on 16 October 2023 following the election at the weekend.

ACT Party leader David Seymour. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

When it was announced, Seymour said it was a bottom line although he has not recently repeated that condition.

If it really is a bottom line, a governing deal between National and ACT will be very difficult to achieve because Luxon has ruled it out.

He knows it would become a hugely controversial undertaking which could suck up much of the oxygen during his first term as prime minister.

A more likely outcome is that Seymour will give it up, or agree to kick it down the road, and use that as a strong bargaining chip when he seeks the implementation of other ACT policies.

That is the way difficulties have sometimes been overcome in previous government formation negotiations, when it has been a case of "you can't have that, how about you get this instead?"

There was evidence this week of just how difficult and potentially dangerous a referendum could be.

Stuff's Joel Maxwell conducted a range of interviews and reported there could be "an extraordinary pushback from everyday Māori".

Māori Party president John Tamihere said "all hell would break loose" if any government tried to unwind 30-plus years of treaty jurisprudence with a referendum.

It would be great for his party because a referendum would be a clarion call for action around the country.

"Even conservative Māori who voted for National would come out with us."

Greens co-leader Marama Davidson said there would be protests. "Te Tiriti isn't a bloody popularity contest."

Marama Davidson

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Wellington woman Paula-Maree McKenzie said she had taken part in Dame Whina Cooper's land rights march and the protest march against the Foreshore and Seabed legislation.

She was ready to march again because the vast majority of people hadn't bothered to read the treaty "and these people are going to be able to tick a box to determine my relationship with the Crown?"

McKenzie thought there would be a level of anger which went beyond the Springbok tour.

Otaki man Nathan Kirker said there would be uproar, a huge protest at Parliament with the possibility of it turning violent.

Gina Chaffey-Aupouri from the East Coast said it would cause "heaps of division … I think they're gonna cause a war … they'll find Tame Iti on their back step".

Seymour reacted to the interviews. He did not accept that a referendum would cause disruption.

"I think it's irresponsible to suggest to people that it should," he said.

It was important that New Zealand had a constitutional framework honouring the treaty, which asserted that all people had the same rights and duties.

It was unreasonable to suggest New Zealand could not have a treaty discussion without violence, Seymour said.

During his Morning Report interview, Luxon had an unpleasant surprise for those of Parliament's 700-plus staff, and maybe a lot of MPs as well, who might have planned their holidays around having all of January off.

That is how the summer recess has worked for decades, but Luxon wants to change it.

He said Parliament would run for longer up to Christmas, which has happened before, and then start earlier in the New Year, which has not.

Asked if everyone was aware of this, a very good question, he did not give a direct answer.

"Well no disrespect but that's what happens for the rest of the country. New Zealanders … work up to Christmas, they take (a) Christmas break and then they get back into it in the New Year. It's very similar here I think," he said.

He explained there was a lot of work to do. "New Zealanders voted for change, we've got a lot to get through, if we start earlier and have to finish later, so be it."

Asked about it on Newshub's AM Show, Luxon said people usually worked through to December 21 or 22, while last year Parliament shut down on 14 December and did not come back until after Waitangi Day, which was 6 February.

Asked whether he would bring Parliament back in mid-January, he replied: "Yeah, I think so."

Controversy over Peters' tweets

Winston Peters may have been uncontactable by phone this week but he surfaced to post a tweet which led Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni to call for an apology.

Labour's Carmel Sepuloni arrives at Wellington Airport on 16 October 2023 following the election at the weekend.

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Peters' tweet followed reports on Wednesday of the coronial inquest into the 15 March attacks which heard that the terrorist emailed then prime minister Jacinda Ardern's office minutes before the first shots were fired, and that a staff member quickly passed it on to police.

The tweet said: "We waited until today to find out, for the first time, that the Prime Minister's Office received information about the March 15 terrorist attack before the massacre took place. Jacinda Ardern should be called to the hearing and asked to explain this appalling lack of transparency."

Peters, who was deputy prime minister at the time, said keeping "this basic information" hidden was unacceptable, RNZ reported.

In a second tweet, on Wednesday night, Peters said he himself had not been informed at the time but the information had been made public at a press conference.

A timeline of what Ardern knew, and when, was reported widely at the time, and also addressed at a press conference soon after the attacks.

A spokesperson for the prime minister's office said the tweet was "clearly inaccurate".

Sepuloni described it as "a bit bizarre" and called for an apology from Peters.

"I would hope that Winston would actually apologise for those tweets because they are pushing misinformation," she said.

"Jacinda didn't try and hide anything - she was very transparent about what was happening at the time."

An apology would be the right thing to do but she was not holding out much hope.

Newshub's Lloyd Burr said the tweet made Peters look like "a sour grudge-holder who's using New Zealand's darkest hour to score pointless political points".

Burr said Peters' first tweet made it sound as though he had only just found out about the terrorist's email, four years and seven months later.

"How on earth did he not know? Was he just not listening? Did he not read the numerous stories about it? Did he not watch it on the news? The global news?" Burr asked.

The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand spokesperson Abdur Razzaq said it was not a time for politicking, RNZ reported.

"Winston Peters gave wrong information and at the wrong time," he said.

"We would like to think that he would be wiser than that."

* Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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