ANALYSIS: Party dramas leave New Zealand government looking ragged
By David Barber Apr 28, 2011, 7:52 GMT
Wellington - Opinion polls show that Prime Minister John Key is a shoo-in to retain power at this year's election, but his minority centre-right government was looking decidedly ragged Thursday with both its main support parties in disarray.
One of his ministers, Rodney Hide, announced his resignation as leader of the free market ACT party, which is on the far right of Key's administration, in favour of a man bent on dragging it even further to the right.
Meanwhile, the Maori Party, whose two ministers sit firmly on the government's left wing, was nervously awaiting the weekend's launch of a breakaway party being formed by a dissident legislator angry at its complacent co-operation with Key's conservative National Party.
With New Zealand's proportional representation voting system virtually ensuring coalitions or minority governments, it all threatens Key with a headache when he tries to form a new administration after the election on November 26, even if he trounces the main opposition Labour Party, as the polls predict.
In a twist, one of the men Key will have to rely on is former banker Don Brash, who Key ousted as leader of the National Party four years ago. Brash is now poised to head ACT with the express aim of encouraging the government to take a sharp turn to the right.
Brash, who quit parliament in 2007, was not even a member of ACT last week when he launched his whirlwind coup to oust Hide, a divisive figure he blamed for ACT's dwindling poll support.
Hide conceded Thursday that he had lost the support of his four colleagues in parliament and Brash will be elected leader at the weekend.
'I believe that Don Brash is the best person to lead ACT to success in this year's election,' he said. 'There comes a time when someone needs to pick up the baton and take it forward.'
Brash defended ousting his personal friend of 15 years, saying, 'Sometimes in politics you have to put personal relationships aside.'
He said he acted to 'save the party, not to kill it' and rejected claims that it was extremist.
'I don't think the ACT party is a far-right party at all, unless you call prudent budgeting far-right or one-law for all, far-right,' he said. The party, whose name originally stood for Association of Consumers and Taxpayers, 'to my mind reflects the values that National used to stand for,' he said.
Denying that he was too old at 70 to get back into top-level politics, Brash said he would contest the election and expected to be returned to parliament.
Key, apparently unsure how all this will pan out, said the power-sharing deal with ACT remained and Hide would retain his portfolio as minister of local government.
Brash's return to politics was not welcomed by another government minister, Peter Dunne, sole representative of the United Future party in parliament, who said Key would be horrified at the prospect of being dragged to the right.
'Don Brash is a rigid right-wing ideologue. Give him influence and a hand on power and watch the New Zealand we know become a harsher, more brutal, place,' he said.
There was no welcome, either, from the four Maori Party legislators who, like ACT, have pledged to support the government on all critical votes in parliament.
As leader of the National Party, Brash made a controversial speech in January 2004 opposing preferential treatment for the indigenous Maori minority.
It still rankles with Maoris and commentators said it was difficult to imagine the Maori Party agreeing to work alongside Brash in a future National Party-led government.
The Maori Party has its own problems, with firebrand renegade legislator Hone Harawira, who walked out in February accusing his colleagues of ignoring the interests of their race in co-operating with the government, scheduled to launch his rival Mana Party on Saturday.
A pact in which Harawira and the Maori Party had agreed not to challenge each other in seats at the election to avoid splitting the Maori vote appears to be in doubt.
The strife among the government's supporting parties was good news for Labour, which according to opinion polls has no chance of regaining the power it held for nine years until 2008.
Brash's re-appearance gave Labour leader Phil Goff a bogeyman to attack in the coming campaign. 'We know what Don Brash stands for,' he said. 'He wants to slash the minimum wage by 100 New Zealand dollars (80 US dollars) a week - putting more New Zealanders into poverty.'
Goff predicted that a Key-Brash government would have an extreme right-wing agenda, with savage cuts to spending on health, education and pensions and a wholesale sell-off of state assets. 'That would be a disaster for our country.'