Luxon’s move could lead Labour to a Coalition of chaos

Peter Dunne

Peter Dunne

Wellington, May 11, 2023

Christopher Luxon’s announcement ruling out any post-election working arrangement between National and Te Pati Māori is more predictable than bold. 

Realistically, such an arrangement had never been likely, and recent events have merely confirmed that. So, Luxon’s announcement simply acknowledges the inevitable, but gets in first, sparing National the ignominy of being spurned later by Te Pati Māori.

Beyond that, Luxon’s move at this point is a potentially smart one, although not without a measure of risk. By portraying a government of Labour, the Greens and Te Pati Māori as a “coalition of chaos,” he is certainly trying to capitalise on the confusion of the last week or so.

He is also trying to link Prime Minister Chris Hipkins into that by implying that he would not be able to run an effective government if he needed to rely on the Greens and Te Pati Māori.

By unspoken contrast, he is planting the seed that a National/ACT government would be much more straightforward and effective.

Labour’s position unclear

In so doing he has thrown down the gauntlet to the Prime Minister. While it is generally accepted that a future Labour-led government will have to involve the Greens, the position is not so clear regarding Te Pati Māori, with Hipkins so far ducking questions on whether they could be part of a future governing arrangement.

Luxon is trying to force Labour’s hand – to rule Te Pati Māori in or out of its government formation calculations. And here is where things get interesting.

If Hipkins says that Labour can work with Te Pati Māori in government, Luxon will be able to home in on what concessions Labour will be prepared to make to achieve this. He will be hoping that he can reinforce his “coalition of chaos” message this way.

For his part, Hipkins will be wary of giving away too much too soon, for fear of either alienating Te Pati Māori altogether (unlikely) or giving credence to Luxon’s portrayal.

Calculated risk

Luxon’s calculated risk is that there are more potential National voters who will be concerned about the possible involvement of Te Pati Māori in government than not.

To them, his announcement provides comfort and certainty about what they might expect of a National-led government.

Hipkins will be similarly mindful of scaring away some of his soft support if he embraces Te Pati Maori too fervently at this point. At the same time, he will know full well that if he distances himself too much from Te Pati Māori, he runs the risk of alienating some of his own support, especially among Māori voters.

Hipkins’ emerging dilemma will be observed by Luxon with relish.

Luxon’s announcement also creates problems for Te Pati Māori.

At the weekend it boldly proclaimed it would be the “Kingmaker” at this year’s election.

By ruling it out as an option for the government, Luxon reduces Te Pati Māori’s role significantly. Now, instead of being the Party that could determine the shape of the next government as it clearly hoped, the best that the Party can wish for is being in some sort of governing partnership with Labour and the Greens.

So, rather than being the independent voice of Māori that it has consistently promised to be, Te Pati Māori has now ended up being dependent on Labour to progress its aims.

This may not please those of its supporters who imagined Te Pati Māori being able to leverage influence between both Labour and National to the overall benefit of Māori.

Being at best a potential bit-player in a future Labour/Greens government – likely itself to be a fraught relationship, given the Greens’ frustration with Labour’s general lack of progress on climate change – is not what those more conservative supporters of Te Pati Māori had in mind.

Sharp Maori Leadership

Te Pati Māori’s leadership is sharp – the way it recruited Meka Whaitiri shows that – so, will not take Luxon’s rejection lying down. A smart move in these circumstances might therefore be for it to announce that should it hold the balance of power after the election, it will not formally join any government arrangement.

Instead, it would sit on the crossbenches, and treat each issue on a case-by-case basis, whichever of the main parties leads the next government.

That way, it could retain its mana, and meet the aspirations of its supporters. Given the polls showing neither Labour/Greens nor National/ACT winning a majority at present, such a move would put Te Pati Māori in a genuinely pivotal position.

Luxon’s move has put pressure firmly on the Prime Minister to state where Labour stands.

The longer Hipkins avoids a definite answer, the longer he will fuel suspicion that a Labour/Greens/ Te Pati Māori arrangement is on the cards.

For the first time in a while, National has taken the political initiative by raising the spectre of the “coalition of chaos.”

How Labour and Te Pati Māori choose to respond could well determine the election outcome.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from December 1999 and September 2017. He lives in Wellington and writes a weekly column.

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