Pre-electoral positioning has begun
To look like a credible contender for office, a political party's supporters need to see that it has potential partners with whom it could form a government after an election. On the other hand, a political party can't give too much implied support to those potential partners either, in case they bleed votes to them at the election. Worse still, some potential supporters might be put off voting for your party if they believe that you will support in office a party they don't like.
So, there are risks and opportunities in the lead-up to an election as parties give out signals to voters about their potential for forming or supporting the next government.
There's been much speculation about whether the National Party will have enough support parties around it after the next election. ACT and United Future are both at risk of losing their one-seat positions, especially given that both party leaders have lost their ministerial posts recently. ACT is in particularly dire straits thanks to the prosecution against Mr Banks. The Maori Party will be lucky to get back in with two seats after the next election, and anyway they need to distance themselves from National to survive in the long term.
Mr Key has said that he will give the electorate clearer messages this time about which parties National would be willing to work with. That presumably means no more cuppa tea meetings. Key could not have been clearer, however, in 2008 when he said that he would not work with NZ First under any circumstances. And that statement helped to turf NZ First out of parliament for a term following that election. This time around, however, Mr Key is not ruling out doing a deal with NZ First.
So, along came Winston at his party's conference last weekend to set out some very clear messages. Whereas before the last election Peters said that he was aiming to be in opposition (to keep them honest, etc), this time he's positioning himself as the king-maker. He confidently predicts winning more seats at the next election, and insists that anyone who wants to form a government will have to deal with him. And, to really throw some weight around, he insists already that there will have to be at least one major policy concession as a part of that deal: a new state-run arm of KiwiSaver that he calls KiwiFund. So, already there's a policy bottom-line; and undoubtedly Peters would throw a few 'baubles of office' into the bargain.
Mr Key has already dismissed the KiwiFund idea; and Labour's Mr Cunliffe has greeted it with coolness, but not with a closed mind. The Greens had already put forward a similar proposal.
Issuing bottom-lines at this early stage – well before the election campaign has even begun – is not very useful for future negotiations. But it does up-stage competitors and get media attention. It's a classic Peters stunt. Once the baubles of office come into view next year, all kinds of compromises are possible, after all.
So, for time being, the punter in me is picking a National–NZ First government (with a possible side-deal for United Future and/or Conservatives, if they it make through) as the most likely kind of outcome.
If, on the other hand, it looks like Winston is more likely to deal with Labour, depending on the numbers, that could weaken the influence of the Greens. It would also make government-formation rather complicated.
In the past, Peters has refused to support a (Labour-led) government that might have included the Greens, thus helping to shut the Greens out of office. With the Greens being more centrist nowadays, the ideological distance between them and NZ First may not be impossible to bridge next time around.
I'll be watching this with interest. The baubles of office have a way of focusing political minds.