When John Key said "winning ugly is better than losing tidy," he could just have easily been anticipating the 2017 New Zealand election, rather than the Australian election last year.

It was July when he said it, two months before he had privately made his decision to resign as Prime Minister in favour of Bill English who, it could be said, lost magnificently.

It was certainly not the prettiest or tidiest of wins for Jacinda Ardern - having the leader of another party, Winston Peters, announce the result, and for her not being able to answer questions about Labour's two agreements because the deals had not been finalised.

But that is a minor detail in the scheme of things and the agreements will be released next week.


Ardern properly pointed to relationships being as important as the actual policy agreements.

The quality of the relationships is what will determine the character of the government, not the coalition contract.

So far we have seen Ardern's ability to manage the relationship with New Zealand First and the Greens maintained in parallel universes.

She signed up to the notion that "ne'er the twain shall meet" was a reasonable starting point for New Zealand First and the Greens.

But it cannot persist in government.

If it is not addressed early, Winston Peters and New Zealand First's standoffish relationship with the Greens will become a point of vulnerability for the new Government.

The Greens are pledging confidence and supply to the Labour-led Government of which New Zealand First is an integral part.

Whether it says so or not, it is effectively giving confidence and supply to a Labour-New Zealand First coalition.

It is ludicrous to imagine that New Zealand First can maintain these artificial walls and that it does not need a close working relationship with the Greens.

They will be working in Cabinet committees together, they will almost certainly need each other's support for initiatives or positions arising outside of their respective agreements with Labour.

Winston Peters goes with The NZ Labour Party. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Winston Peters goes with The NZ Labour Party. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

With so many moving parts to the make-up of this Government, there is more scope for things to go wrong.

This type of government arrangement has not been used before. In theory, it replicates the 2005 to 2008 model in which there were two coalition partner parties in government and one with ministerial positions outside.

But in reality, that was only one MP, Jim Anderton, in coalition with Labour and only Winston Peters and Peter Dunne in ministerial positions outside.

This government arrangement involving three significant parties is going to be one of the most difficult to manage because of its inherent unbalance.

Two of the parties, of almost equal size, are being treated in such a different way because New Zealand First says so.

However the imbalance will be paid for in other ways.

While New Zealand First will have the privilege of sitting at the Cabinet table deciding on anything and everything, the Greens, sitting outside Cabinet will have greater freedom to disagree with Cabinet decisions, and to differentiate from Labour.

Labour and New Zealand First will have to back each other up. There cannot be a scintilla of disunity between them emanating from the cabinet.

It is not the decision to go with big parties that has killed small parties in MMP. It is disunity, be it within their own parties or with their coalition partner.

One of Ardern's first priorities as Prime Minister should be to insist on a normalised relationship between New Zealand First and the Greens.

It will help that former co-leader Metiria Turei, who recently called Winston Peters racist, is no longer on the scene.

Peters himself will have to make some adjustments to the way he works. He has to make a big mental shift to turn his default political posture of negativity and vitriol to constructiveness.

He must also exert some discipline over his team. In the interests of his party's survival he may need to signal early on that he plans to stand in 2020 to avoid ongoing speculation about a succession contest between Shane Jones and Ron Mark.

National will be unlike any opposition before - as the largest party in the Parliament by 10 seats, it will not be demoralised.

Its objective will be to make Ardern's honeymoon as Prime Minister as brief as possible and to discredit the new Government as early as possible.

Their numbers will be a powerful aid. In Question Time, for example, where oral questions are allocated in proportion to the number of non-executive members of the party, National will get to ask roughly eight out 12 questions every day, Labour three and the other parties will share the other question.

The National Opposition will sniff out any vulnerability and tension in the new Government and they will have the power to exploit it.