Politics, like life, would be a lot simpler without choices. Ask Winston Peters.

This week he seemed burdened by having to make coalition choices when he pointed out that no matter what he did, someone would find fault, the public, the media, or commentators.

"You can't win," he told reporters in a moment of unprovoked self-pity.

Peters had moved from electoral victor of sorts to victim in a flash.


When there is something to celebrate, Peters can be counted on to find something to complain about and someone else to blame.

Part of the grumpiness is the fact that the final election result, to be announced later today, could effectively remove the power of choice from him.

In the unlikely event that there is no change in the seat tally of election night, National would almost certainly become the Government and New Zealand First's leverage would be slashed.

A one-seat majority for the Left would be too close for Peters or Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.

The Greens have always won an extra seat, except for the year they needed one most - in 2005, and it shifted the relative power to Peters' party.

Peters has an excuse for a little self-pity after this election result compared to what was on offer three months ago.

He had a future and a survival plan for the party mapped out.

In July, his party was looking healthy and it was looking like his best chance to become Prime Minister in a coalition with an ever-weakening Labour Party led by Andrew Little or, more remotely, with a poorly performing Bill English for National during the campaign.


Neither eventuated.

His hold on the Northland seat looked secure, and handy for Shane Jones to step into at some point in the future as insurance against the party dipping below 5 per cent.

No one was ready for the upheavals on the left, and Peters did not adjust his campaign for it. He expected the fascination with Ardern to be short-lived.

He became more petulant, and eschewed plenty of high profile media opportunities in the apparent belief that campaigning alongside some opponents was beneath him.

He did not expect the provinces to return to National quite so readily when Labour's tax plans became the defining issue.

He now says he was the victim of a first-part-the-post approach to the election. That means he did not get the news coverage he thought he deserved but it is also an acceptance that the result has curbed his ambition.

So assuming the specials confirm him as kingmaker, with a reasonable cushion of votes in either option, has he made up his mind?

No, but Labour would probably have an advantage because of the greater policy overlap, a more equal partnership with both being new parties of government, inherently less cause for conflict and inherently less cause for the public to tire of you.

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

But there are also signs that National may do what it did in 1996 and offer more than Labour.

Keeping deputy leader Paula Bennett out of the first pro-forma courtesy meeting was an appalling decision by English that simply says he was desperate to please Peters at any cost. If a party is willing to ditch its deputy before they have even got to first base then what else is it capable of?

One of the biggest choices New Zealand First will control is what type of Government arrangement to have.

More weight is being given to the party going on the "the cross benches" than at any other time because of the claim that smaller parties get destroyed by bigger ones after they go into coalition.

But it is not the act of going into the coalition that shrinks parties - it is what they do when they get there.

There are also many examples of smaller parties almost destroying themselves when they are nowhere near the levers of Government but do not manage themselves properly.

New Zealand First in 1999, the Alliance in 2002, United Future and Act in 2005 and Act again in 2011 - all had a stunning reversal of fortune following internal strife within their parties that spilled into the public arena.

United Future and Act also had to contend with a resurgent National Party in 2005 and 2008, as the Maori Party had to in 2017 in relation to Labour.

Peters' party was wiped out in 2008 and not solely because of the donations scandals that engulfed him. His party never recovered from division over his acceptance in 2005 of a ministerial post, foreign affairs, despite him making a reasonable job of it.

The same debates will be going on now within the New Zealand First caucus and whether it is inevitable that a small party suffers with ministerial appointments.

Oddly, Peters says that the type of agreement - such as full coalition inside cabinet, confidence and supply agreement outside cabinet or sitting on the cross benches - will be decided after the negotiations are completed.

That is odd because the type of agreement would normally dictate the depth of negotiations. It would be odd to negotiate an agreement robust enough for a full coalition - and then decide to sit on the cross benches.

The complicating factor in debating the merits of the cross-benches is the variation in what the cross-benches actually means.

It varies from a pledge of full confidence and supply, to abstaining (which is only an option with National on current numbers) to a guarantee of full confidence but not supply.

The latter option, confidence but not supply, would see the support party (in this case New Zealand First) give the larger party a pledge to oppose any no-confidence motion, allowing it to govern, but to make any supply issue, including the annual Budget, negotiable - effectively a veto on the Government's programme.

The main attraction of the cross-benches is that it supposedly distances the support party (in this case New Zealand First) from the larger party.

But the cross-benches could also hand the smaller party too much power, and encourage it to overplay its hand.

It would be a harder option to explain to New Zealand First voters - campaigning for power then seemingly backing away from the opportunity.

The election may have given New Zealand First choices, but there will be pitfalls for Peters' party in whatever option it chooses.