You know its election year when Winston Peters starts laying out his stall. He puts a sign up saying "bottom lines" where people unhappy with something the Government has done can come and see if Peters will make their wishes an absolute, non-negotiable condition of any post-election deal he might do.
This year's first bottom line has been awarded to those Pike River families (not all) who believe the remains of some of the miners might be in the long tunnel leading to the exploded mine and they want the tunnel made safe for re-entry.
Re-entry involves a great deal of engineering and expense to make the air less volatile, and quite likely the heat and blasts have left nothing to find. But none of that concerns Peters. He has accepted a plan by international consultants for the families without asking the questions a responsible party would ask. Labour's policy on Pike River is to get an independent assessment of the plan, which would be standard practice.
Peters does not really care whether a plan is practical or worthwhile if there are some votes in it. He does not need many votes, just 10-15 per cent of the total could put him a pivotal position if Labour and the Greens together can get 40 per cent.
National has won 47 per cent at the past two elections and might struggle to do as well this time. National's new leader is "not ruling anything out" where Peters is concerned. In London yesterday, Bill English did not dismiss the possibility Peters could be foreign minister after the election as he was in the last term of the previous government.
The most interesting response to Peters' pitch for Pike River votes came from Labour's leader. After Peters questioned the need for an independent assessment of the re-entry plan, saying, "How many more reports to the authorities need?", Andrew Little called his remarks "cheap" adding, "The difference between me and Winston Peters is, I wasn't sitting in a Cabinet in the 1990s that undermined our health and safety in mine regulations". It does not sound like Labour is going to butter up Peters this time.
Labour will have calculated that unless it gets more votes than National, it is unlikely to get Peters' support. On the two previous occasions his tally mattered, in 1996 and 2005, he went with the party with the most votes. Unless Labour beats National it is unlikely to get his support, and if it does win more seats than National it probably will not need Peters. Labour would be above 40 per cent and the Greens' usual 8-10 per cent is all the support it would need.
But to get above 40 per cent, Labour needs the anti-government votes that go to NZ First. If this election year continues as it has started, it will be an absorbing battle for those votes between Labour and Peters.
As usual, in public he will declare no preference for Labour or National right up to election night, but both Labour and National know differently. Regardless of bottom lines, he will go with the winner if his choice matters. Let us hope it does not.