Anyone who felt surprised by yesterday’s announcements about who National sees as being its compatible coalition partners after the last election would have to be either naive, or asleep at the wheel. United Future Act and the Maori Party may be the preferred partners of the Key government but the fortunes of all three have been ebbing away to an extent where each may bring only a solitary MP to the post-election bargaining table later this year. It has long been evident that National needs new partners, and the Conservatives and New Zealand First are its only fallback options.
Unfortunately for National, all of its erstwhile coalition partners look more like sock puppets than genuine political parties. Electorate deals will almost certainly be needed to get Peter Dunne back in Ohariu and the Act Party candidate back in Epsom ( probably that will be former MP John Boscawen). The newbies seem no more able to get into Parliament on their own merits. Further electorate deals will be required to get Colin Craig and a few more Conservative MPs across the line. And if that amount of gerrymandering doesn’t prove enough to deliver a working majority for the centre right, then Peters will be waiting in the wings, keen to enter the frame. The handy rationalisation for Peters will be that the party that wins the biggest share of the vote will get first crack at forming a government. No doubt, that will be among the arguments he uses to let down gently any of his supporters credulous enough to believe that Peters opposes the National Party on principle.
In fact, yesterday’s announcement served mainly as a reminder that a vote for New Zealand First is in effect, a vote for the Key government. None of this is rocket science. Peters’ criticisms of the asset sales programme, the hostility to Peter Dunne etc have been intended primarily to tap into public outrage and maximise the NZF vote. In the coming months, one can expect to see similar shadow boxing between NZF and the Conservatives pre-election, given that Colin Craig poses a genuine threat to Peters’ core support among elderly voters. All for show, ultimately. All through 2013, the criticisms that Peters voiced about Key government’s actions and policies always did have a hollow ring to them : simply because it remained inconceivable that Peters would ever follow through on them, and choose to become the third wheel in a Labour Greens centre-left government. From now on….any jousting between Key and Peters pre-election should be viewed as a pantomine ; as the form of play fighting and arm wrestling that boys habitually do, but which doesn’t obscure the bromance bubbling away below the surface. They love each other, man. It is a mutual need thing.
This apparent readiness to deal with each other post-election should begin to clarify what Key may have to give away in order to form a government, once the votes are counted. To woo Peters, Key will have to flag any attempt to make tough decisions on the eligibility age for National Superannuation. With Craig, National and the Conservatives can agree to flatten the tax scales, and deliver New Zealand a far more regressive tax system. Moreover, having Peters on standby also means that National can afford to drop down close to 40% in the polls this year, and still have a realistic expectation of forming the next government.
For some, the road ahead will now look a lot steeper for the centre-left after yesterday’s announcement – but it was only wishful thinking to imagine that Peters’ opposition to the current government has ever been anything more than a theatrical illusion.