English says he’s best placed to form New Zealand government

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 10:39pm

New Zealand’s ruling National Party says it is best placed to form the next government after securing the biggest slice of the vote in Saturday’s election, but it will need the support of a populist maverick to get there.

Prime Minister Bill English, whose party won 46 per cent of the vote, said he’s confident he can reach a deal with New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters in coming days to produce a stable administration.

National’s tally exceeded the 41.7 per cent combined support for the opposition Labour Party and its ally the Greens, who say they will also seek talks with Peters.

“The voters have given us the task of forming a government with New Zealand First and that’s what we’ll proceed to do,” English said in Auckland on Sunday. “The shortest path to stable government is a two-party coalition.”

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has refused to concede defeat and said she will try to secure a majority in a three-way arrangement with Peters and the Greens. The mercurial Peters could play both sides against each other to extract a high price for his support and ensure he has significant influence in the new government.

Whoever wins will need to address growing concerns about poverty, homelessness and the environment, even as New Zealand’s economy continues to grow at a healthy clip. Seeking a rare fourth term for National, English, 55, has pledged tax cuts and a continuation of steady economic management. Ardern, 37, has vowed to close the gap between rich and poor and would spend more than National on welfare, health and education.  

National won 58 of the 120 seats in parliament while Labour got 45. New Zealand First has nine seats and the Greens seven, with ACT New Zealand winning one. The numbers could alter slightly after about 380,000 other votes, including overseas ballots, are counted in the next two weeks.

“English has a greater chance of forming a coalition with Winston Peters, but there’s absolutely no reason that there won’t be a Labour-New Zealand First-Greens coalition,” said political analyst Bryce Edwards. “The numbers add up either way.”

Even though National remains the biggest party in parliament, there is no obligation for Peters to choose it over Labour.

“The majority of people have voted against the status quo,” Ardern said on Sunday. “There are conversations to be had over the coming days, and I intend to have them.”

Peters, a 72-year-old populist who has supported National and Labour governments in the past, objects to excessive immigration and foreign investment and wants to shake up monetary policy. English has no-one else to turn to after the Maori Party, which supported National in the previous parliament, failed to win any seats.

“It all depends on how far National is prepared to go on those sorts of issues,” said Raymond Miller, a politics professor at Auckland University. “They are probably going to be in a fairly compromising position.”

In return for backing a National government in 1996, Peters was appointed deputy prime minister and treasurer. When he supported Labour in 2005, he was rewarded with the foreign affairs portfolio.

The problem for Labour is it needs both the Greens and New Zealand First to oust the government, and its two potential partners have a frosty relationship.

“I know that our parties don’t agree on everything, but now is the time to put those differences aside and to work together to create the government of change that New Zealanders want,” Greens leader James Shaw told supporters late Saturday.

Only two months ago National had looked assured of victory as Labour languished in the polls. The elevation of Ardern to the leadership changed all that – she electrified the campaign and created a wave of excitement that saw her party jump to level pegging with National. 

However, Labour started to fade in the final days under relentless attack from National over its economic credentials and a lack of clarity on tax policy. Despite polling below its expectations, the party is still optimistic.

“I believe that we’re well and truly in the game,” Labour campaign chair Phil Twyford told Television New Zealand. “New Zealand First campaigned on the slogan ‘Have you had enough?’ That’s a pretty clear indication that they want change. A majority of New Zealanders voted for change.”