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

Claire Trevett: Feathers fly in danse macabre at Beehive

Winston peters. Illustration / Murray Webb
Winston peters. Illustration / Murray Webb

It was Real House Roosters of the Beehive kind of stuff, an A-grade brouhaha.

Parliament's most obstreperous roosters, NZ First leader Winston Peters and Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson, spent three days playing verbal ping pong.

It was a debate characterised by its maturity.

Finlayson said Peters had "come here 40 years ago to goof around", and not just ordinary goofing around but "low-grade goofing around".

"There's never really been a correlation between the word merit and Winston Peters."

Peters returned fire. Gerry Brownlee, Chris Finlayson and Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox were "an unsightly trio of drama queens". A journalist led a "hedonistic lifestyle". National's whip Tim MacIndoe was a "flyboy from Hamilton who wouldn't know a Maori if he fell over one". MacIndoe was also "idiot features", a "loony tunes disorganised twit" and possibly a tasty snack.

When MacIndoe objected, Peters' retort was "lighten up sunshine, I can eat you for breakfast".

This sophisticated political argument took place after the Government scrapped yesterday's special sitting of Parliament at which five Treaty settlement bills were to get their final reading.

That decision was because NZ First pulled its support for two of those settlements at the 11th hour. It meant Parliament could not pass the bills by a unanimous "voice vote" - something that required only a skeleton crew of MPs.

National was either unwilling or unable to recall its troops at such short notice to hold a full party vote.

National and NZ First spent the next three days arguing over who was to blame for this scenario.

The incident was part of the danse macabre between NZ First and National.

Labour wisely stayed completely out of it. For a start, there was no real need to wade in - the roosters were doing a good enough job of slaying each other.

Labour was also otherwise occupied in updating the complicated algorithms used to calculate the impact the stoush might have on Peters' D-Day - the day he may have to choose between National and Labour.

Labour has been suspicious Peters has a secret preference for National come 2017. There were hopes this week's encounters have improved Labour's chances of securing NZ First instead. Those hopes were boosted by NZ First deputy leader Ron Mark's declaration to National: "I just have no time for you and nor does NZ First."

Labour's hopes are possibly in vain. Mark was swiftly replaced by Peters in the war of words after that and Peters had plenty of time for National - albeit to abuse them.

Finlayson insisted there was no comparison between the two scenarios. Peters called it "electoral apartheid".

Judging from the grin on his face and the relish with which Peters prepared his rejoinders, Finlayson's sledges were the equivalent of cooing sweet nothings.

Labour was also busy trying to sort out what it was going to do on the issue of the Kermadecs.

All eyes are on National and the Maori Party. However, the Kermadecs are as much a conundrum for Labour, if not more.

Labour leader Andrew Little has already been lobbied by environmental groups after saying Labour would reconsider its support for the sanctuary this week unless the Maori fishing rights were resolved.

Should the Government go ahead without addressing that problem, Labour's caucus has already discussed whether to allow its Maori MPs to cross the floor and vote against the Kermadecs legislation while the rest of caucus votes in support.

That would go against Little's wider desire for a united front in his caucus. But the main concern is that it would be seen as tokenism - a rather cynical bid to appease both the environmental and Maori flanks of Labour at the same time. It would fool nobody.

So should it come to that, Labour is more likely to come down on the side of Maori and vote against it, despite having a sanctuary as a policy since 2011. That is because it took a decade for Labour's Maori to rebuild the trust and credibility eroded by the Foreshore and Seabed Act in 2004.

The Kermadecs scenario has disturbing echoes of that time. Having recaptured all but one of the Maori seats in 2014, Labour will not want to jettison them again.

Labour is also wary of a possible resurgence of the Maori Party after an apparent endorsement from King Tuheitia and the first signs of a truce between the Maori Party and Mana.

Faced with such a predicament, it is little wonder that on Monday, Little was singing the praises of Finlayson. He will be desperately hoping National resolves it rather than leaving it to Labour to inherit.

For National, resolving the stand-off over the Kermadecs is more about demonstrating it is a competent manager of a government.

But it too has a balancing trick to achieve.

On the one hand, the Maori Party, engaged in mortal combat with Labour, desperately wants a win. On the other, if the Government cedes too much it risks feeding Peters' race-based rhetoric.

And nothing is more likely to result in a backlash in caucus than giving Peters a weapon to bludgeon National with.

Peters is on high alert for opportunities to munch into National's vote.

It was the reason he pulled support for the Taranaki Settlement Bill in the first place.

He had belatedly spotted a provision allowing iwi to appoint six members to a Taranaki Regional Council committee. Peters had hit the motherlode.

There was the race-based element to it and the regional element to it. Voters in Taranaki had overwhelmingly rejected the prospect of Maori wards on the New Plymouth District Council, yet here was National slipping non-elected Maori on to the regional council "by stealth".

Finlayson insisted there was no comparison between the two scenarios. Peters called it "electoral apartheid".

He merrily turned National's own 2004 Iwi versus Kiwi campaign back on them.

In an attempt to console the iwi who now had to wait even longer for their settlements, Finlayson had chosen a quote from that inspirational movie Life of Brian: "Always look on the bright side of life." He then rather ruined this cheerful exhortation by adding "that was when the three were all being crucified, I think".

Perhaps the quote he might have preferred by the end of the week was a Russian proverb: rooster today, feather duster tomorrow.

- NZ Herald

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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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