The Prime Minister's first move in election year is a cautious one. By naming the parties National could work with to form a third term government - and not ruling out Winston Peters this time - John Key has left his options as wide as possible. He would "prefer" to continue working with Act, the Maori Party and United Future, whose sole MP, Peter Dunne, was restored to the ministry yesterday. While there were policy differences with Colin Craig's Conservative Party there would be "enough common ground" to include it too. A relationship with Mr Peters' party was "most unlikely" but he would not rule it out.
Nor indeed did Mr Peters rule it out yesterday. The New Zealand First leader issued an equally careful statement that ruled out any pre-election accommodation with any party but left his post-election options open. The country has seen this often before. If the election result requires him to make a choice he will almost certainly go with the biggest party, taking a ministerial job just as he did with the Bolger and Clark governments in their third terms.
Mr Key would clearly prefer that Mr Peters was not in the ministry and merely agreed to abstain on confidence and supply issues in Parliament. In the meantime, the Prime Minister will need to ignore more of the kind of nonsense the NZ First leader delivered yesterday on the subject of electorate accommodations for small parties.
Mr Peters said: "The general election should be decided by voters, not by backroom deals between political parties. The time for talking about forming governments," he said, "should be immediately after the election and not before." He could not be more wrong. Voters go to elections for one reason alone - to elect the next government. They do not cast their vote for the pleasure of watching party leaders indulge themselves in post-election negotiations.
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The clearer the choice of governments can be for voters before an election, the better it is for voters, for the legitimacy of the government that results and for our democracy. Mr Key should do his utmost to present a likely coalition to the country ahead of the election.
In fact he should simply announce the electorate deal and save himself from another silly campaign stunt such as his "cup of tea" with Act's candidate in Epsom at the last election. Voters are now well versed in the finer points of MMP and do not need a contrived photo opportunity to tell them to cast their electorate vote for a candidate of a supporting party.
Opposition parties are hardly in a position to criticise this strategy. Jim Anderton's "Progressive Party" existed only for the purpose of giving the previous government one more seat than Labour would be awarded on its proportion of the party vote.
If National is to return this year, it may need to give that message to a number of electorates besides Epsom and Ohariu, and endorse candidates of more parties than Act and United Future. In announcing those National could work with, the Prime Minister is putting the ball in their court. If they campaign on reasonable and sensible issues and avoid the trap of non-negotiable commitments, they have every chance of advancing some of their policies. If they adopt uncompromising positions, they cannot expect a clear run in an electorate.
By declaring his position so early in election year Mr Key has left plenty of time for small parties to make their choice, and for National to endorse those it can work with. A clear indication of the party's preference is probably all that its voters need.
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