Whatever Winston Peters decides to do today or tomorrow, the deadline he has set for negotiations on the next government, debate is bound to continue on whether this is the right way to form a government. It has not been edifying to watch the leaders of two large parties, backed by more than 80 per cent of the voting population, vie for the favour of a party with 7.2 per cent. Since the leader of NZ First is conducting his talks with both parties separately and simultaneously, he is almost guaranteed to get more than his proportion of the vote would warrant.
Indeed, he declared on Monday he was seeking nothing less than, "a change in the way this country is run, both economically and socially".
It ought to be possible to improve the procedure for government formation under MMP without throwing the baby out with the bath water. It is good to have a system that incorporates many sides of public opinion in the country's political decisions. But that can be done without enabling a small party to position itself for an outsized advantage.
Peters and his negotiating team are probably the only people who know what the other parties are separately offering him. It is unlikely National and Labour have confided in each other. Each has probably tried to imagine the best the other might offer and beat it. Thus their opening offers to him were probably better than his relative vote warranted and he has since had the opportunity to let each side know what the other has offered in order to bid them up.
This is not the first time post-election negotiations have played out like this but the circumstances are unusual. While National has beaten Labour comfortably enough, two of its three previous supporting parties have not survived. On the other side, the Greens have been diminished. All the small parties likely to have supported one side or the other are no longer in play, leaving the government to be chosen by the only one whose leader never declares in advance what he will do.
This could be Peters' last election and under different leadership his party, if it survives, might be more predictable. But the position he has engineered for himself will always be possible under MMP unless the system is refined in some way. The obvious solution would be a rule that the party with the most votes at an election is given a period to try to form a government and if it cannot, the second-placed party has the exclusive right to try to do so within a stated period. If it cannot, another election should be held.
This would not entirely prevent a small party exploiting a pivotal position but at least it would remove its opportunity to run a bidding contest between the major parties. It is in the interests of both major parties that they agree to pass a law through Parliament to this effect, and it is certainly in the interests of good government. It could happen within the term of this Parliament if the government formed as a result of these negotiations turns out to be unpopular or unstable.
In that event, both major parties might agree this sort of blind auction does not serve New Zealand well.