John Armstrong's opinion: Week of immigration policy drama leaves room for doubt in Labour-NZ First coalition

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

Will the governing Labour-New Zealand First coalition still be intact by the time next year’s general election rolls around?

The answer is that most probably that will be the case. The past week’s clash between the two coalition partners over immigration policy has, however, left room for doubt to creep into talk about the longevity of the current governing arrangement.

It had previously seemed to be pretty safe to assume Jacinda Ardern’s Administration would stumble though the remaining 12 months of the current parliamentary term in much the same ungainly and all-too-frequently messy fashion in which it has stumbled through the close-on two years since being sworn into office.

It might not be pretty to watch, but by and large the coalition — in tandem with the Greens — has done the job asked of it.

The past week, however, has witnessed evidence of a squabble which prompts a rather different diagnosis of the health of the coalition.

The issue at stake was the reinstatement of a category of visa which will once again enable migrants who are New Zealand citizens or permanent residents to sponsor one or both of their overseas-based parents to come and live in this country.

The approval of visas under a previous such programme had been running to as many as 5,200 a year prior to the previous National government putting it on hold in 2016 pending a “review”. 

The details of the replacement programme were announced by Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway last Monday. As the week progressed it gradually became clear that Labour had been stitched up something rotten by its coalition partner.

The new scheme has requirements that those sponsoring an application for a visa meet certain income thresholds. These vary according to the number of parents covered by the visa application and the number of sponsors. The thresholds range from $106,000 up to  $212,000. Furthermore, the maximum number of individuals helped by the programme will be limited to just 1000 a year.

The new programme is a kick in the guts for those who had waited patiently in the hope it would ease the restrictions which had applied to the programme’s predecessor— not increase them.

Labour was accused of producing a policy to the benefit solely of the rich and wealthy. It was an accusation that would have left many Labour MPs and party members feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

Worse was yet to come. 

Having bided his time while Labour copped a huge heap of flak for fronting the release of a policy largely of New Zealand First’s making, Winston Peters then climbed aboard his trusty anti-immigration bandwagon to claim the credit for the tough-to-meet conditions of the revised visa.

It is one thing to exercise your veto rights as a coalition partner, it is another matter to crow about doing so at your partner’s expense.

The question now is whether the political gamesmanship in which Peters indulged on this occasion was a one-off or whether it signals the adoption of an election strategy which seeks to reap votes at Labour’s expense while still maintaining the pretence of being a trustworthy, reliable and straight up and down coalition partner.

Peters’ shenanigans on immigration policy demonstrates the risks and dangers of either partner making public details of closed-door negotiations over policy.

It is worthy of note that Peters was very careful not to blow New Zealand First’s trumpet back in April when he and his colleagues pole-axed Labour’s planned introduction of a capital gains tax.

But that was then. We are now not far off entering election year.

It has been speculated that New Zealand First might choose to walk out of the Government in the early months of next year and sit on Parliament’s cross-benches until the House rises for the election in October or November.

It is doubtful that the party would stand to gain much from such a gambit. It might well backfire by making the party appear irrelevant.

What seems more likely is that Peters begins an active campaign to promote the independence of his party by means of him exerting his veto rights much more frequently than he ha done so far to date. He would also test the Prime Minister’s patience to the limit and beyond in the belief she will give him much latitude to do so before crying enough is enough and sack him from her ministry.

It must be stressed that eventuality remains a very distant possibility. But the past week’s events might have brought it a tiny step closer.