Coalition; deal or relationship?

Long term agreements – like
political coalitions – are about relationships far more than they are
about deals. There’s no point in prenuptial agreements in life, business
or politics unless they’re between people who share values and purpose.

Right now, New Zealand’s political parties are in coalition talks to
build a Government. The reported focus of the discussions is to strike
deals on policy and positions of responsibility.

But very little of the work of government is new policy. Most of the
daily of politics deals with the massively diverse range of matters that
emerge in the course of daily life of a nation. Some of these are
momentary and unexpected. Others are very long-term inter generational

Judgements made by Governments in these situations are based on
deep-seated beliefs and value-systems, along with practical and shrewd
political calculations about what will work.

It’s arguable that this is where the real business of politics lies,
and where there’s the greatest opportunity for change and influence in
the life of a nation.

Coalition deal-making has nothing to say about how to handle these
matters. Even a system to resolve disputes and disagreements won’t cover
these issues unless coalition parties are prepared to compromise on

Political analyst Geoffrey Miller and I run a database of the
employment, education and living circumstances of New Zealand MPs before
they reached Parliament.

We do this to better judge the likely choices of Parliamentarians.
What people say is not as reliable as what they do, and what we do is
likely to be based on our life experiences. People signal a lot of
information about their values, interests and purpose in what they
choose to do, where they do it, and who they do it with.

So Geoffrey and I used the database to assess the likely chances of
success of the coalition options currently being negotiated in New

What we found was a lot of common ground in work and education
experience between National and New Zealand First. The most common
career or work experience for an MP from either party before joining
Parliament was in business, property or finance.

A National-New Zealand First government would include more MPs with
business, education and agriculture backgrounds than a Labour-New
Zealand First-Greens combination.

National’s main source of MPs is the business sector (25% of all pre-jobs held by all party MPs) and government (19%).

New Zealand First has the largest proportion of its caucus with
business experience (27%), followed by employment in education (18%) and
Police/Military (18%).

Based on the share of employment experience, a Labour-New Zealand
First-Green coalition would deliver a group of MPs with the broadest
range and diversity of skills, knowledge and experience.

Labour has significant groups of MPs who come from education, legal
and media backgrounds, and includes a strong contingent of Maori MPs,
who have often held senior leadership and governance positions within

Labour has the largest number of MPs with experience in government
jobs (17), forming a quarter of its caucus. But the second largest
category of Labour experience is in business (14%).

The Greens are dominated by MPs with employment backgrounds in union
and activism (43%). But in contrast, are the party with the largest
proportion of MPs from the business sector (29%).

The scale of activism of Green MPs would appear incongruous with the
backgrounds of New Zealand First MPs. But there is common ground across
the Greens and Labour in people who have experienced the challenges of
starting and running businesses.

New Zealand First’s own education and media backgrounds would
complement Labour’s employment experience in these fields. Their
strengths in business, farming and military would extend the coalition’s
representation of these sectors.

The coalition choice for New Zealand First is a more natural
relationship with National, or a better deal with Labour and the Greens.

But even the deal that delivers you the most gains can’t make up for a
fractious relationship. Long term deals are really only successful when
struck with people with whom you feel affinity.

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