National’s small allies know their place, but they also know how to make sure their votes count.

The importance of National's support partners - Act, United Future and the Maori Party - has grown immensely since election night a year ago.

Then, National looked like it could govern alone, with 61 seats out of 121. After the final vote and with one less seat, it needed one of its partners to pass laws; now it needs Act and United Future or the Maori Party because the Opposition gained a seat and the Government lost one in the Northland byelection.

All confidence and supply bills are guaranteed support but that's it.

Other bills require ministers and chiefs of staff to consult the three support parties.


The support parties sit together in Parliament: Peter Dunne, the 61-year-old veteran who has been in Parliament since 1984; David Seymour, the new Act leader who replaced John Banks as Epsom MP; Maori Party first-termer Marama Fox and co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell.

Seymour had a nervous start. For a 32-year-old he carries a lot on his shoulders - the incredible party baggage of the past, the high expectations of a board, the responsibilities of an electorate and running a party in Parliament.

He has gained confidence and profile through coverage of populist measures such as his Rugby World Cup booze bill, extra paid parental leave for parents with premature babies, the Red Peak flag and his "coq-up" in front of the cameras over roosters and France.

They are hardly core Act policies, and Act founder Sir Roger Douglas might not be amused. But the public is getting a sense of Seymour's witty personality, which will make him a better ambassador for Act in the end.

When Seymour was made an Under-Secretary to the Minister of Education, Prime Minister John Key did not rule out the possibility of his becoming a minister during the term.

It would be a mistake. The role would constrain him in his efforts to rebuild support for Act.

The dynamics of the MPs among National's support partners are more collegial this term than last, probably because Seymour and Fox are newcomers and eager to learn, and Dunne has the experience and the will to give them support.

National has always dealt with each party separately and continues to do so.


But in a new development under MMP, the support parties have started to hold their own informal meetings together from time to time.

They share enough information to ensure their interests are protected and they are not being played off against the other.

The trust level among the parties is very high given that they are all into their third terms supporting National.

Seymour's vote is pretty much taken for granted by National - Act is its closest voting ally - but his support is not enough.

The Maori Party often votes against the Government, and Dunne is in the middle, usually predictable but occasionally digging in.

The latest reforms to the Resource Management Act are in limbo while Dunne waits for a draft bill to be produced.

Environment Minister Nick Smith may have problems producing a draft bill yet because he doesn't know what parts of it Dunne will oppose.

Dunne is opposing National on another measure - its plans to delay having a fully elected regional council in Canterbury from next year until 2019 - and National will need the Maori Party to pass it.

On a lot of issues, the numbers are finely balanced. That includes issues that probably will not be tested in a vote.

It is sobering to think that right now, there would not be enough parliamentary support to send training troops to Iraq - although a vote wasn't required to do so.

And there would be enough parliamentary support to get rid of section 70 of the Social Welfare Act, which requires the elderly to forfeit overseas annuities and retirement funds by the amount of New Zealand superannuation they are getting.

If such a measure were to pass in a private member's bill, Finance Minister Bill English would veto it, as he has promised to do on Sue Moroney's bill to extend paid parental leave to six months.

It is in the area of private members' bills that the support parties, and Dunne in particular, can affect the gains of the Opposition.

He supported Moroney's bill which, despite being headed to a dead end, will give Labour opportunities to campaign on the issue for months.

Dunne also supported David Parker's contractors' wages bill which is before a select committee. It would require that contractors be paid no less than the minimum wage.

Any vote passed 61 votes to 60 has gone through with Dunne's support and the opposition of National and Act.

This term, Dunne has supported private members' bills from three National MPs and seven Labour MPs, and one Act bill.

Private members' bills are becoming one of the more exciting events to cover in Parliament, because of an infuriating self-discipline Dunne has applied - he won't say which way he is voting until his vote is cast.

The tactic also means other MPs must show him respect rather than slagging him off from Johnsonville to Kingdom Come, in case he is supporting them or in case he might support them in future.

Sue Moroney went to the extent of gathering 14,225 signatures on an open letter to Dunne to urge him to support her bill extending paid parental leave to six months.

As the votes were recorded by the Clerk of the House, applause broke out when Dunne's proxy vote - last because his is the smallest party - was cast by National.

Numbers count in politics - but that does not necessarily mean the smallest numbers count for the least.