John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Peters deal would carry a price

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Winston Peters has not survived this long in politics by misreading the popular will. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Winston Peters has not survived this long in politics by misreading the popular will. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A moment comes in many a successful career when you have to swallow a dead rat. John Key held the prospect at arms length on Tuesday when announcing he would not rule out working with Winston Peters after this year's election, adding it was "very unlikely".

If it had to happen, he imagined it would be no more than an agreement under which New Zealand First would abstain on votes of confidence, not an active role in the Government.

Wishful thinking, probably. If Peters does a deal with National after the election - and he will, for reasons that will become obvious - he will want trophies. Having declared, "we don't care about the baubles of office" before the 2005 election he wanted them afterwards.

Helen Clark proved that Peters, left alone with enjoyable portfolios such as racing and foreign affairs, can be fairly harmless. Politically harmless, at least. Financially, the public pays a price.

The racing industry remains deeply grateful for the benefits he obtained for it from the last Labour Government. The Foreign Ministry seemed almost embarrassed at its allocation in Labour's last budget, subsequently wound back by Bill English.

And we are all grateful for the gold card that gives older folk free trips to Waiheke. We know it's excessive and we suppose it cannot last but it will. It would take a government of rare courage to remove it.

Americans call this sort of thing pork. Their huge economy has to carry quite a lot of it. I don't know how much pork for Peters ours can bear but there will be more to swallow if he can get 5 per cent of the vote this year.

If he does I have no doubt he would do a deal with National because Peters has not survived this long in politics by misreading the popular will.

John Key is the most popular Prime Minister this country has had in Peters' lifetime. Peters knows it. He may fool 5 per cent of the electorate but he doesn't fool himself.

National is still polling in the mid-to-high 40 per cents and Labour remains in the low-to-mid 30s. Add the Greens and a left-wing coalition can sometimes match National's numbers, but David Cunliffe and his rivals for Labour's leadership last year were agreed that Labour needs "a four in front" of its score to lead a viable government.

That is because if Labour is in the 40s, National probably would not be. Labour would be the party with more votes and that is the party that has formed the government after every election so far under MMP.

Peters knows that. I would bet he does not want to be blamed for inflicting the first coalition of losers on the New Zealand voter. National's strategists are not so sure, which is why they have plucked Peters from five years of blessed irrelevance and put him back in play.

They think they have given Peters the Judas kiss - that most of those who still vote for him are on Labour's side and might desert him now that National is offering him a post-election deal. I'm not so sure. His natural home is National and his supporters know it.

When Key first came to Parliament he seemed baffled by Peters' antagonism. They were both then on the opposition benches. Labour was the common foe but Peters was forever turning on National, undermining it whenever he could.

Key had been out of the country for the later half of the 1990s and when you are away, no matter how often you come home to visit, you are liable to miss something.

He has probably never seen footage of Peters on television the night Jenny Shipley sacked him. Peters that night looked genuinely shaken, close to tears.

The standard explanation for his dismissal has been that he wanted to be fired. That suited National because it suggested Peters would be an eternally unreliable coalition partner. And it suited Peters, once he had regained his composure, because he could claim to have departed on a point of principle: opposition to a privatisation of Wellington Airport.

The truth is, Peter was playing his usual game over the proposed sale, going to the brink of resignation. He thought Shipley would indulge him much as Jim Bolger used to do.

This will sound like ancient history to John Key. He ruled Peters out of consideration at previous elections because he didn't want Peters to have options to play with. Now that the Maori Party is heading for oblivion Key cannot afford to leave Peters on Labour's side of the pre-election calculations.

Peters, meanwhile, will be contemplating his price.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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