There is a beautiful thing emerging as the relationship between NZ First leader Winston Peters and Prime Minister John Key develops. The exchanges between the two men have the distinct look of the schoolboy pulling the cute girl's pigtails in the classroom.

It has resulted in some pearler exchanges. Peters takes some pride in being one of Parliament's orators, so Key has made a habit of pretending he doesn't understand Peters' questions in Parliament. He once asked the Speaker to get Peters to repeat a question because he was "mumbling" - prompting a retort from Peters that Key himself was "that man famous for his diction".

On another occasion, Key effusively praised the Speaker for his apparent ability to understand Peters' meandering questions - a feat no other person present was up to. He has corrected Peters' pronunciation of Huawei and once told Peters his question was "incorrectly phrased".

What Peters gets, he gives back. He has called Key the "recluse from Merrill Lynch" and the "Mandarin Candidate" because he was in the thrall of China.


This week, lest Key was pondering the existential question Bret McKenzie has posed for the man of 2012 of whether he was a man or a muppet, Peters helped him along by declaring Key and Finance Minister Bill English the Bert and Ernie of New Zealand politics.

If there was any analogy to be drawn from the Muppets, it is that the relationship between Key and Peters is similar to that between Kermit and Miss Piggy. Any preliminary overtures from either side are met with a kung-fu squeal and an upper cut to the chops.

So when Peters said holding the retirement age at 65 was a bottom line in post-2014 election talks - which could be seen as putting the ball very much in National's court, given Labour's determination to raise it - Key was immediately suspicious.

He said Peters was "tricky" and always left room to worm his way around any so-called bottom line. He challenged Peters to rule out working with Labour in 2014 if Labour's policy was to increase the age at some later stage - rather than immediately. Peters went on to reject Key's claim while simultaneously proving it.

He stuck to his stance that the retirement age was a bottom line - even if it was not until many years later - but then said Labour's policy was to raise it after 2021 and there were three elections before that.

Having made it an issue by declaring it a bottom line, he told TV3's The Nation that he could not see how it was an issue "unless someone gets sucked into making it an issue, and we are not going to be doing that in NZ First".

By early this week, the pair were still agreed there was no need to change the retirement age but were instead quibbling over the numbers of immigrants who may or may not have sat on their bottoms doing nothing for 10 years until they could get Super.

The actual answer was of little relevance to anything other than to prove that even where the two agree, they disagree. But there is an increasing suspicion the pair are getting fond of each other.

Key now looks almost disappointed if there is no exchange with Peters to look forward to in Parliament.

Key refused to work with Peters in 2008 and 2011 on grounds of trust, saying Peters had eventually imploded and been shown the door by every Prime Minister he'd worked under.

However, despite all the huffing and puffing, Peters has returned to more sensible form on the cross benches and Key has a fine line to walk. He knows full well he could have to turn to Peters come 2014 and alienating him will be to the detriment of his own party.

National's coalition dance card is so sparse it risks being consigned to desultorily sipping a Clayton's and soda on the wallflowers bench for a very long time.

The one thing in National's favour is that Labour's dance card is perhaps too full and there is no guarantee it will always be the leading partner.

Its primary partner - the Green Party - is so strong it could result in an unseemly tussle over who steers the dance steps, with the result that instead of a tidy two-step, there is a sprawling locomotion conga line with various other partners trying to step in.

Peters will have to decide whether he wants to take part in a dance in which the Greens, a party he has traditionally looked down his nose at, are more highly ranked than NZ First.

Key is likely to be hoping that, despite the transformation of the Greens into a more sturdily mainstream party, voters will be a bit wary of the potential unpredictability of a government in which the main party is not strongly dominant.

But Peters has more immediate problems to deal with. For a start, he has to get back into Parliament.

He is rightfully proud of having managed that feat last year with scarce resources, and next time round his party has the advantages of incumbency - not least hefty parliamentary resources.

However, NZ First's problem is that its 2011 vote is not necessarily all its own.

Many Labour supporters voted for NZ First by way of trying to lock National out of getting an absolute majority.

If National's aim last year was to try to make sure NZ First did not make it back in, 2014 is shaping up as being about making sure NZ First does make it back in - and achieving this while trying to appear indifferent about the prospect.

If that happens, you can expect the scene to change from Miss Piggy and Kermit to a real-life version of "tickle me Elmo".