The Ultimate Dirty Deal: When Hitler and Stalin - mortal ideological enemies - concluded their mutual non-aggression pact in 1939, the world stood aghast. Why did no one see it coming? Fundamentally, it came down to a lack of imagination. Being able to think the unthinkable is a rare talent in politics - but an extremely valuable one. Something to keep in mind over the next three weeks.
WHAT IF, three weeks from today, National decides that an acceptable deal with NZ First just isn’t on “the cards that count”? What if the easy assumptions of Election Night: that Winston Peters will recognise the futility of attempting to build a coalition with anyone other than National; have long since proved vain? What if it only takes a few days for National’s negotiators to realise that, in the 21 years since 1996, NZ First had matured into a political party with a mind of its own?
What if it turns out that Peters’ views, although taken extremely seriously by his party colleagues, no longer enjoy the status of Holy Writ? What if National’s negotiators discover that NZ First’s policies are actually a great deal more than mere rhetorical flourishes? What if NZ First’s manifesto is expected to be treated as a serious proposition by both National and Labour? What if, when English’s negotiating team are caught rolling their eyes and smothering guffaws, the atmosphere drops rapidly from cool to effing freezing? What if the prospects of a deal with NZ First – a deal which National’s caucus, members and supporters, the markets, and New Zealand’s major trading partners, can all live with – dwindle?
What if, three weeks from today, NZ First’s parallel negotiations with Labour are going gang-busters? What if the Wellington beltway’s confident prediction that Peters and Jacinda Ardern would not hit it off proves to be wildly inaccurate? What if a shared liking for single malt whiskey breaks the ice between the two leaders and the talk flows freely? What if Ardern’s rural upbringing has equipped her with a set of core values remarkably congruent with Peters’ own? What if both leaders evince a strong sense of patriotic duty which, in turn, imbues their respective negotiating teams with the feeling that they are but two halves of a single mission?
What if the broad policy over-lap of NZ First and Labour only makes matters easier? What if, on immigration there is particularly strong agreement? What if, in the midst of their discussions on this subject, both negotiating teams come face-to-face with their strong negative feelings – bordering on complete aversion – to the Greens and their policies? What if, reported back to their respective leaders, these reservations progress quickly to a top-level conversation that edges, inexorably, towards the conclusion that if an agreement is to be concluded between NZ First and Labour, then the only role for the Greens will be to supply the votes necessary to carry confidence and supply motions?
WHAT IF, three weeks from today, a transcript of this conversation between Peters and Ardern is placed in the hands of the Caretaker Prime Minister by an employee of the Security Intelligence Service? What if English, reassured that the information had been collected in accordance with the “activities which impact adversely on New Zealand’s international well-being or economic well-being” clause of the SIS Act, calls the Greens’ leader, James Shaw, to a clandestine meeting where he invites him to listen to the relevant fragments of the secretly recorded conversation between Ardern and Peters?
What if, putting to one side the morality and legality of the recording, Shaw demands to know from English why he is being allowed to listen to it? What if English then briefs him on the difficulties his own party is having negotiating with NZ First, and on the sheer size of the dead rats NZ First is expecting National to swallow in order to secure the right to govern. What if, being asked again by Shaw to explain why he is being told all this, English takes a deep breath and invites the Green Party leader to set forth the conditions under which he would be willing to ask his party to vote on whether or not to enter into a formal coalition agreement with the National Party?
What if Shaw laughs out loud, declaring that the very notion of such an arrangement would send the farmers into paroxysms of rage and split the National Party asunder? What if English agrees that a split would be inevitable, but then asks Shaw to consider whether that would be such a bad thing? What if English suggests that a “country party” would not only provide National with a permanent coalition partner, but would also draw support away from NZ First? What if English went on to suggest that, with the Greens anchoring a much more moderate National Party in the centre of the political spectrum, the ecological policies so dear to his heart would have a much better chance of being enacted? What if he then pointed out that, if the Greens came to feel that National was insufficiently attentive to the needs of the planet, they could always turn to Labour?
What if Shaw objected that the very idea of negotiating with National would almost certainly cost him his job, and that the Green Party would never let him do it. What if English responded by asking Shaw if his party would still feel so adamant about keeping National at arm’s length if its members were made aware of what their supposed friends in the Labour Party and NZ First really thought of them? What if he asked Shaw to weigh-up whether or not the Greens really would walk away from a genuine Government offer to get serious about Climate Change, poverty and swimmable rivers?
WHAT IF, three weeks from today, Bill English asks James Shaw if he has ever heard of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 26 September 2017.