Claire Trevett: Act’s David Seymour gives National leader Chris Luxon his first taste of the pre-election bogeyman game

OPINION:

Act leader David Seymour’s alternative Budget this week and Labour’s reaction to it kicked off the traditional game of Political Bogeyman: Trying to scare the voters off voting for your opponent because of the risk posed by their buddies.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon might want to take it as a compliment he is now being interrogated on what he will and will not adopt from Act policies in any future Government.

These questions don’t tend to get asked if your chances of getting into Government at all are negligible.

But after Seymour unveiled his alternative Budget, Luxon was grilled on whether he would adopt the Act leader’s prescription for cuts to the public service, partial asset sales, and scrapping ministries including the Ministry for Women and Ministry of Māori Development.

These things are hammered out in negotiating rooms after parties know the strength of the hand they hold – not in advance.

That has always been the case – Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would also refuse to publicly run through the Green Party policy list ticking off the ones she would pick and the ones she would dump.

There are occasional exceptions to this – usually if a support party’s policy becomes too problematic for a major party on the campaign trail.

That happened with the Green Party’s policy on a wealth tax in 2020 – Ardern flat ruled it out.

Of late National has started rattling the wealth tax maracas again and so after some to-ing and fro-ing Ardern has once again ruled it out.

The only thing Luxon did commit to this week was that Nicola Willis would be his Finance Minister – that would not go to Seymour.

That too was no surprise. Under both Labour and National Governments under MMP, the Finance Minister has always been from the same party as the Prime Minister.

You don’t separate the head from the purse strings. It is too much power to hand over and would be catastrophic if there was a breakdown in the governing arrangement.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson also later stated Labour would keep hold of its own purse strings, whatever permutations an election might throw up.

Nonetheless, after Luxon ruled it out Seymour cried foul about him ruling things out prematurely.

That is the same David Seymour who is curious about what Labour would rule in and out from the Māori Party’s manifesto. It is also the same David Seymour who had earlier said he did not necessarily expect to be Finance Minister or think it was important – and what was important was the policy gains Act could get, not the positions.

All of this is part of the game of trying to spoil your rival’s chances by highlighting the dangers of what might happen after the next election.

Seymour does not actually want the Prime Minister to rule out too much from the Māori Party manifesto yet.

That would deprive him of months of trying to scaremonger about the prospects of Te Pāti Māori having the balance of power and going into Government with Labour.

Seymour has not been subtle in that. After recent polls showed the Māori Party in kingmaker position, Act sent out an email to its supporters with the headline, “Keep the Māori Party out of Government.”

It pointed out the Māori Party co-leaders had said they could not work with Act, because it believed in a Tiriti-centric approach.

It is not aimed at stopping people voting for Te Pāti Māori – it is aimed at stopping people voting for Labour. It wants people to conclude that Labour will need the Māori Party to get into power – and that the Māori Party will have a lot of sway.

Luxon will be more than happy for Seymour to take the lead on that particular tactic – he could not be so blatant and nor would he want to jeopardise the relationship with the Māori Party for the future – just in case.

In the past, National has tried to rustle up similar fear campaigns about a Labour-Green Government.

In an attempt to blunt that, when it was in Opposition in 2017, Labour had signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Greens and the Green Party agreed to Labour’s new fiscal rules.

In the end, the election made that redundant and New Zealand First had more influence. NZ First leader Winston Peters always eschewed any pre-marital arrangements, believing nothing could or should be decided until the voters told them what to decide.

That might work for a party in the centre which can claim it could go either way. It is not as easy for those whose future partners are pre-ordained. It is obvious the Greens would only go with Labour and Act only with National.

In return, Labour is also playing this game. After Act released its alternative Budget on Monday, Grant Robertson issued his warning of doom, saying Act’s policy was “naive and dangerous”.

He then said it was for Luxon to justify how he could tolerate it and to answer questions on just what he would adopt from it.

Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson also joined in the fun. There was the surprising scene of Jackson singing National’s praises for its record for Māoridom through the ages – purely so he could then say they would be betraying it by adopting Act policies.

He went on to say that while Seymour might be a Māori, he was a “useless Māori” judging from his policies.

Robertson did point out one truth: That small parties could put up extreme packages only because they knew they would never be adopted holus-bolus.

In an ideal world for the larger party there are smaller measures that come close to the larger party’s position. There are ways to help that along – for example National may well decide not to adopt a policy similar to Act’s for court orders on gang members to restrict their movements and activities. That would mean it could “give” it to Act in negotiations.

Sometimes it also suits the larger party to let the smaller party take the flak for a policy it does like, but is wary of pushing because it risks alienating a chunk of voters.

But those small parties should be aware that once the governing term is done and the agreement expired, the larger party often shows no compunction about claiming some of those measures as its own.

NZ First’s policy to have 1800 extra police recruited is certainly coming in handy for Labour now as the key defence in the law and order battle – and it never mentions NZ First was responsible.

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