In this book extract from Annette King – The Authorised Biography, the former Labour MP reveals she was confident Winston Peters would go with Labour during those fateful talks.
On election night Annette, despite Labour's come-back-from-the-dead result, was disappointed. It wasn't as good as she expected. Normally, she would have been at the election-night party with her Rongotai team, Wellington Central, Ohariu and probably people from Mana. But not this night. Instead her successor Paul Eagle came around for dinner before he headed to the electorate party.
"I stayed home to watch all the results. Also, because I didn't want to rain on Paul's parade. It was his night. I just sat there willing us to get a few more points up and I must say I thought we could have a chance, maybe a chance, but I didn't think on the night we were going to make it and I don't think she did either. I think she thought it was going to be too high to climb until the specials came in."
On the night Labour won 45 seats, New Zealand First 9 and the Green Party 7, while National had 58 and ACT 1 seat. On those numbers a Labour-New Zealand First-Green government had 61 seats, just enough to govern. But it would have been hard for New Zealand First to opt for that governing arrangement given National was just three seats away from a majority in its own right.
Once the special votes were counted, though, Labour and the Greens picked up a seat each and National dropped two.
So the final numbers read Labour 46, New Zealand First 9 and the Green Party 8. National dropped to 56 and ACT 1, well short of a majority. Between them Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens had 63 seats, increasing the prospects New Zealand First might opt to support a Labour-led Government.
Annette was confident New Zealand First leader Winston Peters would go with Labour.
"I just felt it. The way he was treated [by National]. The way [Parliament's Speaker David] Carter treated him in Parliament. If I was the Nats I would have spoken to the Speaker and said, 'Hang on, he's the leader of a party. You can't keep on chucking him out and speaking to him in that manner.'
"The way they insulted him and the way they kind of tried to destroy him, tried to destroy him out of his seat and did. I felt within a year of the election the way things were going that if we had a chance Winston would go with us. And having been in government with him I didn't fear him. People say worry about Winston. I say don't worry about Winston. I worked with him and we were in government with him and he did what he said he was going to do."
The big unknown, the potential spanner in the works, was the Green Party and its relationship with New Zealand First.
But Annette says [Jacinda] Ardern handled the negotiations with aplomb.
"Watching those negotiations and being in both, the way Jacinda handled the Green negotiations, which were held in the Leader's lounge in the Opposition wing, and the formal ones [with New Zealand First] on the second floor, and the way she was balancing those and being true to herself and to her values was remarkable. She would not have sold out on the Greens. If Winston had said I'm not having a bar of the Greens or they're going to have to have nothing, she would not have sold out on them. But she managed to negotiate with the Greens so they got a win without being in the Cabinet but having major Cabinet portfolios outside."
While Annette was impressed with how Ardern handled the negotiations, Ardern was also thankful for her mentor's advice. And sometimes it was pretty simple. "You know some-times something would come back and we'd have to make a call. And I always liked that she had a certain view about the way, about the right or wrong things we should do. But on a couple of occasions she gave me the reassurance that I should follow my gut, and a lot of times in that negotiation I did," says Ardern.
All the while, of course, no one on the Labour side had any idea what New Zealand First was negotiating with National, just as National had no idea what was going on between Labour and New Zealand First.
Annette says what interested her was that the negotiations were all about policy. Contrary to popular opinion, Winston Peters wasn't that interested in the baubles of power. "He didn't come in and say I want to be Deputy Prime Minister and want economic development and I want that. He did not. He came in and went through their manifesto portfolio by portfolio. I think the person who was a really steadying hand in that was Tracey Martin. Obviously, he rates Tracey and she personally led a lot of the discussion on topics. But it was very straightforward policy by policy, what did we agree on, what did we disagree on.
"Jacinda pushed back where she didn't agree and agreed where we did and took copious minutes and then they were shared at the end of the day so we both had the same thing and knew what we were saying. And I just thought we were spending a lot of time on policy, and it seemed to me that the Nats' time with them was diminishing rather than growing, especially on the last day."
And then on that last day there was still some drama to come and, again, Annette was at the centre of it. As she puts it, Labour nearly missed the bus because of a simple miscommunication.
On that last day Annette and New Zealand First's Shane Jones were responsible for liaising between their two leaders as the negotiations came to crunch point. The formal talks had ended, but there were still clarifications flying between the two parties.
"There were phone calls going on between Shane and me. Shane was told to ring me and so I was taking calls from him and he would ask a question and I would ask Jacinda and she would give an answer and so there was a bit of back and forwards.
"And then there was a bit of misunderstanding about who was going to call who between Jacinda and Winston. So we were sort of waiting for them to have their last talks, thinking Winston was going to ring Jacinda and they thought Jacinda was going to ring Winston. And I sent a text to Shane saying 'All ka pai?' And he phoned me and said, 'She hasn't phoned, she hasn't called.' So I said to Jacinda, 'Winston's waiting for you to call.'
"So she called, talked to him. I'm not sure what they said. He didn't tell her he was going with her. I think he asked some questions and then a few minutes later, maybe it was minutes, sometime later he came through Bowen [House]. Cameras were following him walking through up to the Beehive theatrette and we're sitting in Jacinda's office, some on the couch, some standing up, all watching the television."
Annette was sitting on the couch in the Leader of the Opposition's lounge on the third floor of Parliament. Beside her stood Labour leader Jacinda Ardern. Grant Robertson was there and Ardern's partner Clarke Gayford and many others. All of them were intently watching the television as New Zealand First leader Winston Peters strode up to the Beehive theatrette rostrum to tell the nation which party he and his MPs were going to back to lead the next government.
"As soon as he started talking you got the feeling if you're going to have a change of government, if you're going to have a change of direction, if you're going to have a new approach it can't be with the Nats and we're getting more excited watching this and then he said it, wow, the room just exploded."
After nine long, hard and painful years in Opposition, Annette King might be gone, but Labour was back.
Extracted from Annette King – The Authorised Biography by John Harvey & Brent Edwards, ($44.99 RRP, Upstart Press). On sale tomorrow.