Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Courtship shows Key wise to predicament

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With his support partners looking doomed, PM starts making eyes at his old foe Winston Peters.

Key does not need NZ First's vote for the GCSB legislation to pass. But there is a bigger game plan. Photo / APN
Key does not need NZ First's vote for the GCSB legislation to pass. But there is a bigger game plan. Photo / APN

While Prime Minister John Key was playing Angry Birds with MP Aaron Gilmore this week, he was simultaneously fluffing up his plumage for lovebirds with another MP - one he had hitherto subjected to the Angry Birds treatment for five years running.

The first hint came at his post-Cabinet press conference, where Key revealed he had written a letter to a certain Winston Peters outlining "my happiness, if that's the case" to meet to discuss the changes Peters wants to a bill to clarify the legal powers of the Government Communications Security Bureau.

Political twitchers had waited for this very moment. Key has ruled out working with NZ First in the past, but has backed off from that somewhat as the reality of his own situation and the potential demise of his current partners has sunk in.

So that one letter immediately prompted speculation that the houses of Capulet and Montague might put aside the feud, that the Cold War was over, the Wall about to crumble.

Key made this statement in a slightly pained fashion, as if saying it out loud would have an effect akin to the boy pulling his thumb from the dyke.

He even suggested a compromise was possible, saying Peters' suggestion of an independent panel to review warrants had some merit. He had gone so far as to seek advice on it. "So it's not impossible we could work out a deal with Winston Peters if that's where he wanted to go."

It was like watching a teenage boy asking someone to the school ball.

Despite the Prime Minister batting his eyelashes so hard it caused a small quake during that weekly Monday press conference, Winston Peters was not one to forgo the traditions of courtship. He pulled the old hard-to-get trick. Told a perfumed letter had been sent his way seeking a meeting, he initially harrumphed that he knew nothing of it.

By the next day, the letter had landed on his desk but he would not be engaging in cosy tete-a-tetes with the Prime Minister; there would be no cups of tea for him.

"Why would I do that? You don't have to go and have a private sit-down like some parties want to every five minutes. All the rest can hug and have a love-in with each other, but we are the only independent party in this Parliament and we will stay that way."

Instead, it was to be a long-distance relationship conducted through correspondence alone. Nothing too intimate, thank you, because Key is not Peters' only suitor. There is also Labour's David Shearer, who may or may not need him depending on how the election dice fall. When asked if he was concerned about the budding relationship over the GCSB bill, Shearer dismissed it as a one-issue stand: "I don't think we need to take it much further than that."

Key disagreed. He had doused himself in Lynx and spritzed the corsage, and now he wanted to get to second base. While it might have been a first date with Peters himself, he revealed National had been working with NZ First on other matters as well. In fact, the courtship had reached the stage where NZ First was to be given a Budget initiative - $35 million to fund the measures in Tracy Martin's member's bill to give grandparents raising grandchildren more allowances.

This development had been a closely held secret and came as a bit of a surprise to onlookers, who went looking through the catalogue of confidence and supply agreements to see if one relating to NZ First had slipped in alongside those for the Maori Party, Act and United Future. Nothing, just the tattered remnants of the Memorandum of Understanding with the Greens.

Like a schoolboy caught pashing behind the bike sheds, Peters insisted nothing was going on. Although National had clearly worked with Martin and come to an agreement to support and fund the measures in her bill, Peters declared the two parties had not technically been working together at all. Instead, NZ First had a "number of initiatives we talk to a wide range of parties about".

"But none of that fits the description of talks between NZ First and the Government, as the Prime Minister yesterday suggested."

Key does not need NZ First's vote for the GCSB legislation to pass. But there is a bigger game plan. The short-term plan is to secure as large a majority as possible in order to make Labour's objections look unreasonable. Labour has argued a broad review of the role of intelligence agencies is needed, so while Shearer conceded some of the changes proposed were reasonable, Labour would not support the bill because there was no review.

The long-term plan is for 2014. The initial overtures are partly a test-drive to see what it is like working with NZ First. Perhaps sensing he had come on a bit strong, by yesterday Key was making sure people didn't get too carried away. Asked if it was a sign that the Cold War was over, that the Wall was about to topple, he said he would want to jump to any conclusions. "I'm sure Mr Peters wouldn't either. Let's just see how it goes."

Key's concerns are not so much with the beginning of the relationship, but the potential ending: Peters has a history of enacting the lyrics to 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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