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Will John Key have to drink whiskey with Winston as well?

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 Today John Key has that long awaited cup of tea with ACT candidate John Banks in Epsom. If the latest polls are anything to go by, there is an increasing possibility that National might not have an outright majority come November 26. But will Key have to sink some whiskeys with Winston Peters as well to get back into government?

I speculated in an earlier blog that if Winston made it over the threshold on polling day, then the Greens might be National's preferred political partner. This is because Key has ruled out working with Peters and Peters has now reciprocated.

But I am beginning to have second thoughts about this supposition.

I remember (as do others) that in 1996 New Zealand First and National practically ruled each other pre-election. Jim Bolger reportedly couldn't personally abide Peters and Peters felt the same way about his former boss. Then come post-election negotiations and with only a five point difference only seperating National and Labour (with the former party holding the most parliamentary seats), Winston played a crucial role as king maker with the support of 17 New Zealand First MPs the most sought after prize in politics.

There was one thing though that helped to bridge the gap between Bolger and Peters - whiskey.

Both men loved to imbibe this drink and over more than a couple in Bolger's ninth floor Beehive office, old animosities were put to rest. Out of these little late night tete-a-tete's came the doomed National-New Zealand First coalition.

One could argue (and rightly so) that Key should (ideally) not deal with the moody, vituperative character of Peters. New Zealand First has been a political marriage breaker before, so what would be different about any new arrangement in 2011?

If I were a right-wing strategist within either National or ACT (which I am not) then I would see the value of Key having today's little tea party in Epsom as taking out an important insurance policy. But for the sake of National's longevity in government, I believe that Key will also have to broker confidence and/or memorandum of agreement deals with the Greens AND New Zealand First. Now, this would be smart politics as it would give National more political partners to parlay with and further isolate a greatly depleted Labour caucus.

So, what makes me think that the Nats might talk with Winston about some form of political arrangement if he crosses the threshold? There are some subtle clues that the media haven't concentrated on. One is taxation policy. Winston says that he wants to lower taxes for the vast majority of New Zealanders and re-write and simplify tax legislation. Who in National (and even ACT) would be opposed to that? Another is welfare policy as New Zealand First has long believed in punitive right-wing welfare policies for all non-age related benefit recipients. That's why the Nats will no doubt be able to count New Zealand First as providing the necessary votes on this legislation. In return, the Nats will easily grant Winston extensions to the Super Gold discount card, the expansion of free doctors visits for under sixes (which all the main parties are pledged to support anyway) and further restrictions on foreign land sales.

With all those policy gains, I can imagine that some sort of confidence and supply deal will be sealed between National and New Zealand First to possibly complement those with ACT,  the Greens, the Maori Party and (if Peter Dunne survives) United Future.

Therefore, as it has this term, National will be able to continue as a centrist, conservative government in that it will be able to veer to the right with ACT and United Future when unpopular asset sales legislation comes up and then tip left to the Greens, New Zealand First and the Maori Party on such issues as environmental clean ups, indigenous rights and providing additional support for older people.

I predict the one vital difference in any National-New Zealand First deal this time around will be that Winston and his MPs will not be offered any ministerial posts. I believe that any such deal between Key and Peters will be strictly business. Thus, given the wide number of partners the PM will be able to choose from should National not achieve majority status, then New Zealand First will not be pivitoal to the Government's ongoing survival. A looser memorandum arrangement also gives Winston sufficient room to oppose the Nats while being able to maintain some influence with them. After all, the Greens have been very successful in negotiating similar MOUs with both Labour and National over the last ten years and given their current high polling, it hasn't hurt them a bit.

That's why when Key sits down and slakes ACT's thirst with a cup of tea in Epsom, Key might also like to  think about brushing up on his whiskey drinking skills. Post-election, he might need those too to help seal the deal on another term.


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