A year before the election campaign, it's odds-on that when all's said and done, NZ First will again choose the Prime Minister.
This would be a first. Since the advent of MMP, no small party has broken the 5 per cent threshold after joining a coalition. This time, both NZ First and the Greens are on track to make it.
The difference is that Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters have handled the brute politics of coalition government better than Jim Bolger, Helen Clark, John Key or Peters himself on previous occasions.
Past practice was to seek a facade of unity. In contrast, this Coalition has been quite happy to leave no one in any doubt that NZ First adamantly opposes policies like Labour and the Greens' oil and gas exploration ban, nor who stopped proposals like Michael Cullen's new capital gains tax.
Similarly, Ardern has allowed NZ First to own the Provincial Growth Fund. While dogged research by National's Finance Spokesman Paul Goldsmith has revealed the fund has in reality handed out only $62 million of the nearly $2 billion Shane Jones has announced, that also means the bulk of the cash should start hitting small towns in election year.
On immigration, despite pre-election promises by Labour, NZ First and the Greens to cut numbers, a massive 106,000 immigrants arrived from countries other than New Zealand and Australia in the year to April 30, over 8000 more than in each of the previous two years.
This might embarrass Peters but it also means his perennial issue remains available to him, with Labour and the Greens able to be blamed.
If it is back next year, NZ First is adamant it plans to hold coalition negotiations with Labour and National to extract the best deal.
For its part, National's ill-advised attempts to set up client environmental and Christian parties have failed, as predicted. The brief suggestion Simon Bridges could deal with Hannah Tamaki's yet-to-be-registered Coalition NZ embarrassed liberal National MPs despite Tamaki having no chance of making it to Parliament anyway.
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Unless Bridges can achieve what Key failed to do, and secure a majority on his own, NZ First is National's only plausible path to power.
Bridges receives conflicting messages on what stance to take towards NZ First. Some argue he should mimic Key in 2008 and rule Peters out. Others think he should make it clear that a National-NZ First Government is on the cards next Spring.
Characteristic of his leadership style, Bridges is stuck in the middle, with National still publicly and privately disparaging Peters and his colleagues, risking their post-election ire, while not securing the supposed gains from ruling them out.
Declaring NZ First beyond the pale is usually seen as the bolder move. Were it taken seriously, Peters would be reduced to arguing a vote for NZ First is merely a vote to balance the Greens in an Ardern Government, but his power over Labour would immediately evaporate.
As with Key in 2008, Bridges' goal would be to drive NZ First out of Parliament altogether so that National and Act would need only to outpoll Labour and the Greens to limit Ardern to a single term.
The question is whether Bridges has the same mana as Key that such a pledge would be taken seriously, or that he could make it without precipitating a leadership challenge.
Relatedly, it would rely on Bridges and his colleagues having confidence he could outpoll the red-green bloc. The further risk is Peters simply laughing at the struggling National leader, saying he's looking forward to Bridges' call on election night.
The more innovative approach would be to accept that neither a Key-style pledge nor a target of governing alone is credible, and that waffling over the NZ First question will prove unsustainable as the election nears.
Better, then, to embrace reality early and declare that NZ First is National's preferred coalition partner. Peters would have no choice but to go along with it or render himself impotent, not just after the election but in the current Coalition's remaining year.
Immediately and after the next set of polls, Bridges would be seen as a more credible potential PM.
It would counter National's biggest fear: a repeat of Bill English's 2002 debacle where blue voters decide the party has no chance and so go off looking for alternatives, including even Labour.
Moreover, bringing into focus that NZ First is equally likely to support National or Labour would start to drain Ardern's authority as Prime Minister and create division within her Government.
Underlying everything is that a National-NZ First Coalition is in fact perfectly plausible.
Ardern and Peters are highly respectful of one another's position but there is no friendship or affection beyond that. With the exception of Tracey Martin, the NZ First caucus is more comfortable with National MPs than their current Labour and Green colleagues.
If the price National must pay for a deal with NZ First is a tougher line on immigration and law and order; the further expansion of the Provincial Growth Fund; more handouts and protection for the fishing, forestry and racing industries; an expansion of KiwiRail; the announcement of a closure date for Ports of Auckland; and the resumption of new oil and gas exploration, then it will happily pay it.
Like most of Parliament, Bridges has been on holiday overseas this recess, in his case in the UK. He had a nice long flight back to ponder perhaps the most important political decision he will ever make. He had better get it right.
- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.