In a classic piece of misdirection, we're being urged to look away from the recent Labour-Greens MOU and towards a future with Winston Peters as PM. I did, and there really isn't much there.

In an effort to make sense of the fact that their theories don't really make sense of the Universe, some theoretical physicists posit that we inhabit but one of an infinite number of multiverses, in which anything that could possibly happen does happen. It's a theory that, if nothing else, has been a boon for good (and not so good) science fiction/fantasy stories. 

But if the theory is true (whatever that might mean, given the problems with testing it), it means that Winston Peters is Prime Minister of New Zealand in some unknowable number of future universes. Just as, in some unknowable number of future universes, both Peter Dunne and David Seymour are each Prime Ministers of New Zealand. As, indeed, are you and I.

The important question is, will our particular universe be one of these possible future ones? Well, there's been a recent small flurry of excitable speculation on the interwebz that yes, by golly, maybe it will be! Sparked by a Tracy Watkins "imagine if!" speculator in the weekend's Dom Post, Toby Manhire drew up a list of possible alternative roles that Peters might fill. I chipped in with a po-faced, leaden discussion of why I thought it could never happen. Matthew Hooton told me I was wrong in its comments, while David Farrar "fomented happy mischief" with his own post - to which Anthony Robbins responded in kind.

Phew! So much excitement for something that, were it to happen (which it almost certainly won't), would not occur for another 18 months or so. But seeing as the blood is in the water, I'll circle back for another bite at the whale carcass.

David Farrar and Matthew Hooton are the only ones who seem to at least pretend to think there's a real possibility of Peters becoming PM in some Labour/NZ First/Greens amalgam (as opposed to it being something politically-themed other than Auckland housing and/or the problem of homelessness that it is exacerbating to write about). So for convenience's sake I'll refer to their general theory as the "Farten Hypothesis" - and yes, I really will be that juvenile.

In its pure form, the Farten Hypothesis goes something like this:

(1) The 2017 election delivers a result with National still in the mid-40s, Labour in the mid-low 20s, NZ First in the teens and beating the Greens back into fourth place (but still providing a potential Labour-NZ First-Greens majority); and,

(2) Winston Peters is ahead of Andrew Little in the preferred PM stakes; and,

(3) Winston Peters demands that the price for NZ First's support is that he be made Prime Minister; and,

(4) National is so resolute in its principles that it says "no" to the demand; and,

(5) Labour is so desperate for a share of governmental power that it says "yes"; and,

(6) The Greens leadership agrees to positively support the idea (in terms of voting confidence and supply for the ruling amalgam, which it may or may not be a part of); and,

(7) The Greens membership then agrees to ratify the leadership's decision (as party rules require).

That's a awful lot of "ands" that have to all fall into place for the Farten Hypothesis to be actualised - so if Peters was to become the PM in a Labour/NZ First/Greens amalgam, the Anna Karenina principle would have to apply with full force. It's worth noting, however, that for Peters to become PM in a National/NZ First amalgam, you need three fewer conditions to apply. All you need simply imagine is that a party able to swallow in the interests of power interest free student loans, working for families, no nuclear ship visits and the continued existence of the Maori seats accepts that the price of it continuing to govern is to allow one of their ex-MPs to take a figurehead role in government for period of time, before John Key's successor figure takes over.

So is the easiest route to a future Peters PM-ship really through a Labour-NZ First-Greens arrangement?

Furthermore, in his comments on my earlier piece, Matthew Hooton added some extra epicycles to the Farten Hypothesis' basic deferent. In order to explain how a small party leader actually could function as Prime Minister in a cabinet dominated by members of (at least one) other party, Hooton postulated that Peters wouldn't be what we think of as a Prime Minister. Rather, he would serve as "Prime Minister" in name only. He'd accept all the trappings of the role, but take no interest in "his" Government's policies, nor would he seek to actually get his own way in collective decisions. Churchill from 1951-55 was (apparently seriously) the posited model.

Which is, frankly, getting into the outer realms of speculative fiction.

Try imagining how question time in the House, or an appearance on Morning Report, or commentary by Paddy Gower for Newshub would go with this arrangement in place. Sure, Peters was able and willing to function as a figurehead "Treasurer" (whatever that was) and Foreign Minister in the past. But those are offices where you can phone it in and it just doesn't matter. Doing so as Prime Minister? A mere figurehead leader of government from a party whose policies routinely are overridden by its governing allies? In today's media environment? Really?

So however tempting the baubles of office might be for Labour and the Greens post 2017, they must recognise that a Peters premiership under such conditions would be a near-certain guarantee of one term rule (at most), with the threat of long-term damage to their brands so great that it outweighs any immediate gains. That sounds to me more like the Universe I think I live in than any alternate one. 

One last point before ending. How coincidental is it that the twin proponents of the Farten Hypothesis are a frequent media commentator "from the right" and a person whose income derives not insubstantially from the National Party's taxpayer funded parliamentary allowances? Why might such individuals be wanting public discussion to link the idea of a Labour-Green replacement government with Winston Peters as PM? In short, cui bono

Which is why I don't think I'll talk about this subject any more, and you shouldn't do so either. 

Comments (15)

by Nick Gibbs on June 06, 2016
Nick Gibbs

As a "figurehead" PM, doing interviews would just consist of not giving straight answers to straight questions, attacking the interviewer and egregious blame shifting?  

In other words, Winnie doing what he does do best. However I agree with you; he won't be PM, he'll be Foreign Minister again, but in a National Govt (it'd just be easier and more convenient).

by Andrew Geddis on June 06, 2016
Andrew Geddis

As a "figurehead" PM, doing interviews would just consist of not giving straight answers to straight questions, attacking the interviewer and egregious blame shifting? 

I think that's likely - but what "works" when you are the leader of an opposition party pitching to a small section of the electorate doesn't scale up into head of the government having to answer for all its policy decisions.

by Antoine on June 06, 2016

Your Spinoff link is broken

[Ed: Thanks - fixed now?]

by Antoine on June 06, 2016

And I think the best remedy for this problem is for Labour to lay out more bottom lines about leadership positions. Ideally something along the lines of "Labour will retain the PM, Deputy and Finance roles in a Labour led government".


by donna on June 06, 2016

Even in the unlikely event  all the conditions listed above are met, I'm not too worried at the thought of Winston as PM. He'll be too busy doing character assessments of immigrants at the airport to do much else.

by mikesh on June 06, 2016

If Winston were to in a position to make a play for PMship he would not necessarily have to settle for a mere figurehead role. He could insist, as part of the deal, that he be accorded a "real" PMship, with authority to make his own cabinet appointments etc. Whether Labour and the Greens would grant him this I don't know, but when they announced the MoU they made much of how essential it was to rid the country of this awful government that we have at present. If a Peters PMship turned out to be the price they had to pay in order to accomplish this, then the statesmanlike thing to do might well be to grant Winston his wish.

by Megan Pledger on June 06, 2016
Megan Pledger

I think that if Winnie becomes PM it will be because he snatched the leadership from National.   After John Key there is noone in National in any way suitable as PM - and John Key has been looking like an idiot lately so his days are numbered.   What I see happening is that Key gets himself in such a mess that all he can do is resign,  National tear themselves apart in a leadership challenge (there are too many big egos for it to go any other way)  and Winston will swoop in to gather the remains.



by mikesh on June 07, 2016

I would think that if National offered Winston the PMship, the Labour/Green  contingent would match their offer rather than inflict another term of National on the country. In those circumstances I would think that Winston would go with Labour, with the Green Party signing a C&S agreement rather than team up with National. Getting rid of this National government would have to be their priority.

by Wayne Mapp on June 07, 2016
Wayne Mapp

It is not nearly as complicated as Andrew claims.

It is pretty easy to see a scenario that has NZF at 15% and Labour less than 30%, with the Greens providing the balance to go over 50%. Sure the Greens have a say in that the package has to be able to survive a vote of no confidence. But it will be a big call for the Greens to say no. Because if they do, they will likely be in Opposition (again!).

If Winston can't get to be PM for say 18 months with a left grouping, then he might as well go with National and get the role of DPM. A much easier life and a much simpler govt.

These scenarios are being widely discussed because of the level of chatter around the Hill. It is not just us commentators interviewing our keyboards. Needless to say it is impelling Act to get to 3% to give National a partner than is more than a clip on 1% party. Now that Act are out of joke territory mostly due to the hard work of David Seymour, I reckon that 3% or so is a plausible goal.

The next 18 months of NZ politics is liable to be pretty interesting, though without the bizarre element of Mana Internet. 


by Andrew Geddis on June 07, 2016
Andrew Geddis

These scenarios are being widely discussed because of the level of chatter around the Hill. It is not just us commentators interviewing our keyboards.

On Morning Report this morning:

Guyon Espiner: There's been a bit of talk about Winston Peters sharing the prime ministerial role over a term. Can you rule that out?

Andrew Little: Yes

But I guess there's still that pesky "chatter around the Hill" ... interestingly, but, from only one side of the political spectrum.

by mikesh on June 07, 2016

Andrew Little may be a great politician, but he is obviously no statesman.

by Tim Watkin on June 11, 2016
Tim Watkin

I've been wanting to get into this action all week. I tend to agree with Wayne on this. While some stars have to align, it's not impossible. If immigration stays high, Labour stays relatively low, then NZF has more power.

It will, as Winston always says, depends on the numbers on election day. For example, I think he would struggle to say that a sub-30% Labour Party has the mandate to lead a change in government. And that's the biggest argument against this happening... for it to occur Labour has to be weak enough, but if it's too weak Peters wouldn't use his kingmaker power to change the government. 

And yes Peters has always gone for two party coalitions. But here's part of the counter-arguement - joining a 4th term National Party would be a huge risk and his personal antipathy to John Key is high. If he could keep the Greens out of government but guaranteeing its numbers in the House...?

So I have no doubt that Peters would seize the opportunity should it appear. Maybe an 18 months each deal with Little? Probably too radical, but who knows?

by Tim Watkin on June 11, 2016
Tim Watkin

And as evidence I posit this fascinating interview last year:


Paddy Gower: On that scenario, do you think you could be prime minister?

Winston Peters: Well, you don’t predicate your future – if you want to have a future in politics – on what you want.

PG: But in the scenario where you were the smaller party, perhaps, in a government in some form, does the prime minister have to come from the biggest party?

WP: You know, in 1932 the prime minister came from the second biggest party in the coalition. That’s why Forbes became the prime minister of this country.

PG: So the prime minister could again come from the second biggest party?

WP: I’m saying there is a precedent, yes. I’m just reminding people of the history. And that was before MMP.

PG: So is that something you’d like to do?

WP: I’ll tell you what everyone in New Zealand First is focused on – me, my caucus, everyone in the whole team – and that is to massively grow our vote by using new systems and the best technology possible in 2017.

PG: You’re entitled to do that.

WP: And we worry about that the day after the election.

PG: But do you want to be prime minister one day?

WP: You don’t get my point. In a long career, when have I ever run for that sort of position? Not once. I’ve seen all sorts of people with high ambitions, most falling by the wayside, most never making it, and I don’t want to be one of those.

PG: What about some sort of agreement where you shared being prime minister? Say it was a National government; say it was a Labour-led government. Would you share being prime minister?

WP: I’m not going to be answering those questions, because it’s immaterial unless we get the kind of sign-up and support that we are seeking in 2017.

PG: But it sounds to me like if you do, you would do that. You would share that role of prime minister.

WP: Given that I haven’t answered your question, how does anything sound to you in that context? I’m not being evasive. In a long time of MMP, for the last 22 years, I’ve told you journalists year after year every election year that we are going to decide when the people have spoken. And I keep on getting the kick-back from the media saying, ‘You’ve got to decide now.’ No. The people must decide first. It’s called democracy.

PG: Yes. And I’m asking you one last time to rule out wanting to share the role of prime minister one day.

WP: That’s a very adroit way of asking the same question. And as I said at the beginning, the people will decide the numbers we have in 2017, and everything’s academic until that happens.

by Tim Watkin on June 11, 2016
Tim Watkin

And interesting Little has figured out an answer since we first asked him in August last year:

Owen: In your mind, are you saying you won't need Winston for the numbers?
Little: I'm saying that under MMP, the lead parties will need coalition partners. We are working on our relationships with New Zealand First, as we are with the Greens.
Would you be in a government with him if Winston says that he wants to beprime minister for at least part of the time. Because that's what we're hearing.
That's news to me. We will continue to work on our relationships with both the other two parties that we joined with in Opposition.
Yes or no, could you live with that? Running out of time.
We're two years away from the election. We haven't even had the next election. We're not negotiating coalition deals right now.

by Dennis Frank on June 12, 2016
Dennis Frank

The most likely universe in which it happens is one in which Labour, Greens & NZF leaders agree to formulate a plan for change of government, to defer the power-sharing details until the final vote count is in, and allow WP to retain the option of going with the Nats.  A combination of pragmatism and principle.

First, the pragmatic concession that NZF commands the political center in Aoteoroa (presuming the Nats fail to win back the swing-voters who are losing confidence in them).  Since swing-voters normally produce changes in government, the leftist tendency to merely preach to the converted is a fatal flaw - so the triumvirate can only succeed by presenting a viable alternative that swingers decide to vote for.

Second, the design principles requisite to success.  These must signal realistic solutions to the problems most in the minds of swing-voters in the months prior to the election.  They must include a vision sufficient to inspire centrists that a better way forward is indeed available, and give them a sense that the triumvirate has a solid consensus and is not a sham.  The essential key principle is mutual commitment to providing us with a government dedicated to our common good.

In this universe the leaders would agree that WP would seem a credible minister of finance (as opposed to the incredible suggestion floated by the MoU) and making a sensible selection is crucial to catalysing the necessary shift of the centrists.

In sum, this is a universe in which the key players prove they have political nous by devising a genuine consensus and producing a coherent plan for progress.  Framing it as centre-left will only be authoritative and effective if the leftists transcend their sectarianism and the centrists remain authentic.  Disciplined collaboration enhanced with lateral-thinking always works magic - could even shift us into that universe...

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