While we wait for Winston, what's on the table?

by Jane Patterson / 06 October, 2017

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There's a strange feeling around Parliament.

The precinct is populated by some MPs, press secretaries and journalists, but with many people in limbo, not really knowing how things will look in a few weeks time.

And the stake-outs have started, with political reporters lurking in corridors trying to talk to MPs and staff as the first of the coalition meetings get underway.

The man of the hour is the New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, doling out interviews with journalists like party favours as he shuttles between his Bowen House office and the 'neutral' territory of a meeting room in Parliament House.

Political reporters on stakeout in Parliament Photo /  Craig McCulloch

Switching between annoyance and jest, he chides reporters waiting to interview him for their conduct.

"You're carrying on this behaviour in the most irresponsible fashion.

"I'm being very kind just even talking to you right now about the matter."

Theatrics aside, the point he is most eager to make is New Zealand First will not be making any firm decisions about government support deals until after the special votes are announced on Saturday afternoon.

Unlike previous elections there is a deadline for a deal - Thursday 12 October - self-imposed by Mr Peters to avoid what he sees as unfair accusations he will conduct long drawn-out negotiations

Winston Peters on his way to meet the National Party leader Bill English. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

He still bridles at the suggestion he held the country to ransom in the 1996 government talks, pointing out it was the first negotiation under MMP and was wrapped up within weeks, not months as some have characterised.

The meetings yesterday were short and sweet, basically laying out the ground rules for the talks that will begin in earnest once the final election result is known.

That includes where the parties will meet, the flexibility to have different people present depending on the issue under discussion and that the talks will remain confidential - a condition that also extends to the media, Mr Peters said.

"Otherwise we may as well hire the Westpac Stadium, turn on the lights, turn on the loudspeakers and just go for it," he said.

After a half hour discussion each with Labour and National, Mr Peters said for him, this is a no win situation "between the devil and the deep blue sea."

"You can't win with the public, you can't win with the media, you can't win with the commentariat."

Jacinda Ardern off to meet Mr Peters yesterday. Photo / Richard Tindiller

Mr Peters has talked about nine permutations of government his caucus is considering.

In broad terms, they would include three potential arrangements: coalition, confidence and supply and an agreement to abstain.

A formal coalition means the party giving support gets one or more seats around the Cabinet table, but they are bound by cabinet collective responsibility which means once an issue has been thrashed out in Cabinet and a decision made, no Cabinet minister can publicly disagree or criticise.

Smaller parties have struggled to maintain their identities within governing arrangements, so while coalition gives them the power and influence of a Cabinet position, it can also remove opportunities for them to differentiate themselves.

Confidence and supply is designed to allow ministerial positions within the executive, but outside of Cabinet, thus freeing the party from cabinet collective responsibility.

It delivers the stability required by the Governor-General to give the rubber stamp to a new government, while allowing ministerial positions without the straitjacket. Support ministers cannot criticise government policy in their own portfolios, but are free to hold independent views on any other issue.

There is a third option; a promise from - in this case New Zealand First - not to vote against the government on either confidence or supply. If the party seeking to form a government can demonstrate it would have the numbers to survive any confidence vote, and pass its Budgets, it could take a credible deal to the Governor-General.

The supporting party could then use its leverage and negotiate on every other piece of legislation the governing party wanted to pass - a very powerful position.

However the question is, would any party pay that price for power?

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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