Winston Peters has given the National, Labour and Green parties a very tight schedule for negotiating the formation of a government. He will not begin discussions with National and Labour until the final result of the election is announced on Saturday and he wants to have a deal done by Thursday of next week.

It is understandable he would not want to start until the final election returns are in, since if Labour or the Greens lose a seat on special votes, a Labour-led coalition be all but impossible. But it is harder to see why he has set such an early deadline for concluding the talks.

Thursday of next week is the date for the official return of the results but that is a formality. There is no constitutional need for the government to be agreed by then. The only conceivable reason for Peters to have set himself that deadline, which he did long before the election, was to assuage voters' fear that he might take too long. He is often criticised for negotiations taking six weeks in 1996, and four weeks in 2005. But there is really no hurry. Parliament does not have to assemble until late in November and it is not until then that a government needs to be capable of surviving a confidence vote in the House.

Ideally, the uncertainty would be resolved long before then - this month rather than next - but it is not in the country's interests to have a hasty deal done. Peters' deadline would give the parties just five days for negotiations, which to most people is unrealistic for the options he has left open. If special votes keep Labour in contention, which they probably will, Peters wants to talk to both sides and on the Labour side, the Greens would be involved too.


Five days would be so tight that it raises the question whether Peters really intends to hold negotiations or run a blind tender. He could simply ask National and Labour to make him an offer and would chose the one that suited him better. But that would be no proper way to form a coherent, responsible government. Both major parties would be under pressure to offer him more than they should considering the modest vote his party has received.

NZ First went to the election with a grab-bag of disparate policies - everything from carpeting Government departments in New Zealand wool to moving the Auckland port to Whangarei. National and Labour might have no idea which ones matter most to him or his party before talks begin. Nor do they know whether the survival of NZ First is important to him. Peters is 72 and must be looking towards the end of his career.

Recruiting Shane Jones suggests Peters has done some succession planning. Who knows - they might even be looking for the security of an Epsom-type arrangement in 2020 in case their party vote falls below the threshold then.

NZ First probably sees its prospects of survival in 2020 to be better with Labour than National, which would be at the end of a fourth term. But that assumes a Labour-Green-NZ First government would have a happy first term - which could crucially depend on the country's contentment with the decision Peters is about to make.

He needs to read the final election results carefully and do what he senses the country will accept.