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Time for a New Zealand first

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 12 May 2017

The September election is still a few months away but politicians, pollsters and pundits are already speculating on the outcome.

Of course, forecasts are difficult, particularly about the future. However, one thing seems certain: It will be a close race.

A continuation of the current National-led government with its smallish support partners is possible but perhaps not too likely. It is also improbable for Labour and Greens to command a parliamentary majority of their own.

Few people are yet prepared to even consider a National-Greens arrangement, and so everything points to NZ First holding the balance of power.

These are the general post-election possibilities which most observers take as a given.

There is only one problem with this list: It is incomplete.

The best option in a scenario with no outright centre-left or centre-right majority might well be a formal coalition between National and Labour.

Of course, I know that many readers will object instinctively at this point. A National-Labour coalition would never, ever work, they would say. The personalities are too different. The two parties are both competing for the centre ground. It would tear them apart.

That is all correct – except that the very same objections were made in Germany before their 2005 election.

Back then, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats entered their first Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats. It was the government which steered Germany through the GFC.

Merkel later presided over a more traditional, smaller coalition between 2009 and 2013. For the past four years, she has formed yet another Grand Coalition – and we might well see a continuation after Germany’s own election in September this year.

None of this is to say that Germany’s Grand Coalitions are perfect (they are not). But they show that two parties which traditionally regarded each other as archrivals can work together if there is the political will to do so.

New Zealand once borrowed its electoral system from Germany, so why should it not also import its Grand Coalitions? Not as a permanent fixture but as a temporary fix.

Over the next parliamentary term, many tough nuts need to be cracked, chief among them the overhaul of our planning laws. What better way to go about such seminal reforms than with a large majority?

The year 2017 could be the time for a true New Zealand first: a Grand Coalition.

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