With the focus this week being on Winston Peters, coalition talks and missed deadlines, it has been easy to forget that politics could be turned on its head in a few short days.

Jacinda Ardern could be Prime Minister and drawing up her new Cabinet.

Peters will be a footnote to the 2017 election. The story for the next three years will be about New Zealand's new young Prime Minister, the Trudeau of the South Pacific.

Who put her there will be irrelevant unless things go wrong, and then Peters' role in her elevation will be remembered. That's the only time the "coalition of losers" will give David Seymour any more headlines.

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If things go right, it will be Ardern's success, not Peters' and not New Zealand First's.

She will be preparing to make her first overseas trip as Prime Minister to Apec in Vietnam next month.

She and David Parker will work with outgoing Trade Minister Todd McClay (in the national interest) to make a good show of wanting to change the objectionable parts of TPP without actually withdrawing from it - she does not want to start her premiership with the summer of discontent.

She will be a more conscientious senior partner to New Zealand First and the Greens than Helen Clark or John Key were to their junior partners. She will never use the term senior or junior.

She will refer to their positive role every week and be so inclusive in her running of government that New Zealand First will feel smothered. Helen Clark will school her in the art of strong leadership, not sucking-up leadership.

Someone with more interpersonal skills than Peters will ask her to back off a bit, until the next time New Zealand First feels excluded, then it will be back to inclusive government.

Peters initially won't mind all the attention going to Ardern because he thinks it will only last for six months.

It will not do his party any harm with women and after the hype has died down, he can make serious progress on making New Zealand First the party of regional New Zealand, and regaining Northland for New Zealand First.

The job would be easier, however, if Shane Jones and Ron Mark could be relied on to reach a state of d├ętente. Any fracture in party disciplines or the tiniest crack would be exploited by National.

If the National and Labour agreements are similar in the magnitude of gains, there are many more apparent reasons from a New Zealand First perspective to install a new party than a stagnating fourth term National government.

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

It would be the most obvious way of delivering change he promised at the election, even if it is underpinned by uncertainty. It would bring excitement back to politics.

But to rephrase Peters' no-win lament of last Sunday, it could also be a lose-lose choice for New Zealand First.

Peters will not just be considering which party would be best to lead the Government. He will also be considering which party would make the most dangerous opposition to New Zealand First over the next three years.

That danger will exist for New Zealand First no matter what arrangement it opts for - full coalition, ministers outside cabinet or sitting on the cross benches.

Labour is clearly going to be a stronger force under Ardern whether in government or opposition but it would be unlikely to target New Zealand First in a toxic way because it might still need it as a future coalition partner - including during this term of government if the alternative collapsed.

A certain consequence of installing Labour would be turning National into a strong opposition and one intent on destroying New Zealand First.

English would immediately announce his retirement from politics, throwing the party into a temporary state of turmoil as it held its second leadership contest in year.

But the factors that normally demoralise opposition parties would be absent.

Its morale would be high even if its moral authority is non-existent. It had more of a triumph than a defeat at the election.

Its front bench would know more than the ministers replacing them.

And any downturn in the economic indicators, whether or not they were of domestic origin, would be an advantage to National.

The choice for New Zealand First is a lot harder than in 1996 because it has the benefit of hindsight. They are awake to the pressures could bear down upon a small party in the next three years.

The party has to consider its political survival as well as the quality of the two deals on offer.

National would be a better coalition partner than it was in 1996 but it could be harder for New Zealand First to forge a visible and positive role in a fourth-term government.

New Zealand First could have a stronger and more visible role in a Labour-led government but run a greater risk of being annihilated in 2020.


New Zealand First could be in for a tough few days.