Analysis: The coalition announcement was a three-ringed circus to rival reality TV

7:10 pm on 24 November 2023
Winston Peters

NZ First leader Winston Peters striking his 'this is so dumb' pose during the announcement of the new coalition government. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Analysis - Welcome to the circus.

The announcement of an historic three-party coalition at Parliament's Banquet Hall was wild enough to rank alongside the best reality TV.

There were three ring masters - Winston Peters, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour - each with spectacularly different ideas about what they were there to do.

There was a metric tonne of policy announcements - far too many to examine in any kind of detail on the hoof.

There were a couple of rows of exhausted, excited and anxious new ministers watching on and a crowd of journalists with a similar range of emotions.

Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop at the coalition government's policy and ministerial reveal on 24 November, 2023.

National's top brass settling in for the show Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Luxon arrived and began with his 'I've got this' style. Move through the gears, keep it polished and professional was his plan.

"The National and ACT agreement provides that the Government will progress a range of ACT initiatives, and these will be supported by New Zealand First.

"Equally, the National and New Zealand First coalition agreement outlines a range of New Zealand First priorities, which will be supported by ACT," he said. Easy.

He even had a happy surprise - National's tax plan remained intact despite the anticipated cancellation of the foreign property buyer tax at NZ First's behest. (How exactly this will work is the subject for a whole other press conference or five, but on with the show, for now.)

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon on 24 November, 2023.

Incoming PM Christopher Luxon was in control of the press conference right up until he threw to Peters. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Even as Luxon said all of this, you sensed the tension building towards the moment when he would have to throw to his coalition partners.

As his script demanded, Luxon lavished praise on the men either side of him. He built them up as a team of pros with a really great plan to figure out all their differences and "go to work for all New Zealanders".

Then, the moment finally arrived.

Peters, naturally, got the first go. At first, he dispensed with some pleasantries. Then, he said read the document if you want to know what we got. And then, the main course, a lashing for the news media before a single question had even been asked.

"Please do not be mathematic morons," he said, in reference to the period of time it took for the government to be formed. There was good natured laughter, including from Luxon.

"Now please tell the New Zealand people for the first time in 30 years how it works and that we took five months less than Germany took in 2017."

And with that, Luxon's careful opening was shattered. Peters successfully goaded a journalist in to an argument and we were off to the races.

Luxon is used to having the measure of a press conference, where he is flanked by loyal National Party candidates eager to please him.

But at the very first press conference of his new government, within the first 90 seconds of throwing to his governing partner, he lost control.

"Alright, alright, OK," Luxon said through awkward laughter.

Peters did fall back in line but Luxon at this point started using a tactic of muttering underneath his coalition partner's words: "Yeh, mmm, yeh," in a way that felt intended to hurry them up.

Peters, after less than two minutes holding forth, obliged and the spotlight fell on Seymour.

David Seymour took his chance to detail ACT's policy wins Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The ACT Party leader had a completely different idea of what he was there to do. He set about a seven-minute monologue outlining everything he'd won for ACT voters in his agreement.

This too was unsettling for Luxon, just in a rather different way. Seymour was wholly justified in taking his moment but Luxon was obviously uneasy about how long he was carrying on. He giggled at Seymour's occasional gags then started his "mmm" and "yeh" interventions about halfway through.

Mercifully, Seymour finally offered up an "in conclusion" and Luxon got the three leaders over to a table to sign the coalition agreements.

NZ First leader Winston Peters, National Party leader Christopher Luxon and ACT Party leader David Seymour at the formal signing ceremony on 24 November, 2023.

Winston Peters, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour at the formal signing ceremony. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

This went about as well as any of them could have hoped, apart from some fiddling with a little 'sign-here' post-it note that was left littering the table.

Back on track then? No chance.

As soon as he returned with Luxon and Seymour to take questions, Peters took up a position with his left hand on his cheek leaning into the podium. Luxon answered questions about the tax plan while Peters grinned and laughed quietly to himself. He raised his hand in a gesture to Luxon that he wanted the floor.

"Can I just say this is no longer 'Jessica, Jessica, Tova' alright? We're going to have a balanced media from here on in and so I want everyone to get a fair question, just not two of you."

Luxon looked into his podium and flexed his jaw.

"Unbelievable," Peters said.

RNZ's Jane Patterson carried on the quizzing about tax. Peters stood, stewing.

Then Luxon said it.

"Sorry, Tova?"

Peters shifted his gaze away from Stuff's political correspondent, Tova O'Brien, who is best known at Parliament for her time as Newshub's political editor.

Luxon, having been forewarned about the names not to be uttered in this press conference, went on to repeat them a few more times. Awkward.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters on on 24 November, 2023.

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

What else?

Luxon answered a question about trust simply. Peters called the very same question "stupid" and railed about being adults. Seymour answered it diplomatically, citing Cabinet collective responsibility.

At this point, Peters resumed his 'this is so dumb' disposition, leaning on his podium for a while longer.

Next, he snapped at a reporter who used the term "co-deputies" in a question about the novel arrangement that sees him taking the deputy PM role for the first half of the term and Seymour for the second. Luxon leapt in: "The role is shared and broken up at the 18-month mark."

The reporter carried on their question but hold on, this wasn't right either, Peters said.

"We're not sharing it either. I'm taking the first 18 months and David's taking the second. Right?"

He liked the next part of the question much more, however, when Luxon's characterisation of the deputy role as "ceremonial" was quoted back at him.

Winston Peters

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

As Seymour studiously addressed that question, Peters was again laughing away. Luxon decided to try making this one into a bonding moment, joining in on the joke and reaching across to tap Peters on the arm a couple of times.

Even Seymour started laughing when Peters then shouted down another question with: "You've lost! You lost! Right?" Predictably, the press started shouting back.

By this point, Luxon was reduced to laughing at himself when he insisted: "We're going to do this with some order and decorum."

In short, Luxon looked enthusiastic and hopeful, Seymour came across bookish and careful, while Peters appeared bored and distracted.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and ACT leader David Seymour on 24 November, 2023.

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The whole bun fight staggered to its conclusion inside an hour.

Episode two of this show airs next week when the government is sworn in and Cabinet meets for the first time. Tune in as the new Prime Minister goes in search of the first overseas mission he can send his Foreign Minister on. A nice long one, he's thinking.