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NZ election: Winston Peters a big factor

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COMMENTS

24 September 2008 09:47

Guest blogger: Stuart McMillan (pictured) is an experienced New Zealand political analyst and academic. We're inviting various NZ commentators to give us their thoughts about the upcoming election.

Foreign policy is unlikely to be a significant issue in the New Zealand election, called for 8 November, but the foreign minister already has been. The importance of that is not that the Parliament’s privileges committee has found Foreign Minister Winston Peters to have been deceitful but that either the National Party (which is well ahead in the polls at the moment) or the Labour Party will almost certainly need an agreement with a minor party to form a government. The National Party has ruled out any arrangement with Winston Peters, leader of NZ First, which has seven members of parliament and has a confidence and supply agreement with the Labour-led government.

It is theoretically possible for one of the major parties to get an over-all majority in the 120-seat Parliament but much more likely that the mixed member proportional electoral system will require one of the major parties to enter into negotiations with one of the minor parties.

By ruling out any arrangement with Mr Peters, the leader of the National Party, John Keys, has reduced his options. The Green Party (six members in the present Parliament) could probably not stomach an agreement with National. ACT New Zealand, a right-wing party (two members in the present Parliament) would be willing but might be insufficient. National’s most promising hope is with the Maori Party (four members in the present Parliament but which might  increase its numbers).

Under a curious, even bizarre constitutional arrangement Mr Peters became foreign minister as part of a deal to secure the support of his party. He had previously taken ministerial posts in National-Party-led governments.

For a Labour-led government which places great emphasis on foreign policy, it was surprising to have a foreign minister outside of cabinet. In a way Mr Peters was hemmed in. Phil Goff, the previous foreign minister, had defence and trade and Helen Clark herself took considerable interest in foreign affairs and maintained extensive international connections.

Nevertheless, Mr Peters achieved rather more than expected. He advanced NZ’s relations with the US, which suffered ever since the anti-nuclear policy and legislation adopted in the 1980s. He had none of the baggage of  Labour Party politicians. He obviously got on well with the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who made a recent visit to NZ.

The government has long sought a free-trade deal with the US. It was surprised when Australia went alone and achieved one. The assumption was that Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq alongside the US helped that. But there is at present trade cheer because the US seems prepared  to enter into a free-trade negotiation with the so-called P4 (NZ, Brunei, Chile and Singapore).

If NZ gets a National-Party led government there is no likelihood that the anti-nuclear policies and legislation will be abandoned.

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