It is all about relationships.

One of the more curious features of the state sector reforms of the 1980s was the belief that relationships between ministers and senior public servants could be managed through a contract.

The idea was that a minister and their chief executive negotiate what they would achieve over the years ahead.

It did not take long for everyone to discover that life does not work like that. The future is, by definition, largely unknown.

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The National Party found that out over the last nine years as it struggled with the global financial crisis, the Pike Mine tragedy and earthquakes.

None of this was in the coalition agreement - they just had to deal with it.

It is also true that ministers and their chief executives quickly realise that defining how they will work together at one point in time defies reality.

What really matters is that they get to know each other and form a positive working relationship. In a matter of weeks, any contract signed will be consigned to the bottom drawer and forgotten.

These are the kinds of understandings that Jacinda Ardern needs to take into the negotiations she is having with Winston Peters.

My guess is that he already knows this. He has been there and learned the hard way.

In 1996 National and New Zealand First formed a relationship based on a huge amount of detail. It did not work. As we all know, that government was akin to a car crash.

Former Labour Cabinet minister Steve Maharey.
Former Labour Cabinet minister Steve Maharey.

In 2005, Labour and New Zealand First agreed on a framework. People got to know each other. A direction was set, key areas of policy identified and the government got underway.

What made it work was the quality of the relationships between the key players - politicians and senior staff.

The coalition negotiations taking place this week are under considerable time pressure.

Frankly, it is not credible that a detailed plan covering the why, what and how of the next government can be thrashed through.

That is a good thing. It will make a repeat of 1996 difficult. The focus will have to be on creating a framework and building sound relationships.

None of this means that the parties are being asked to park their manifesto commitments at the door.

Each will have to ensure they make clear what they will have to deliver to meet the expectations of their supporters.

But if the relationship starts off on a sound footing, details can be worked out in real time as the government gets on with the job.

Another lesson learned, is that no one has to like each other (although it helps if they do). But is vital that they respect each other.

Without that, all the detail in the world is not going to make a difference.


Steve Maharey was a senior Cabinet minister in the fifth Labour Government and is a former Vice Chancellor of Massey University.