Naked on the cross-benches – the latest MMP fad

It seems the latest trend in minor party politics is political nudity, draped in just the merest hint of government

When MMP was young and new, coalition governments were the bright new thing that everyone wanted. Famously the 1996 agreement between National and New Zealand First was long and detailed. How political fashions have changed; as a New Zealand First support might say: 'like skirts, deals only seem to get shorter'.

This weekend two of the minor parties seemed to go even further, looking to whip off their coalition garments altogether and opt for political nudity on the cross-benches. It's a fascinating turns in MMP fashion.

It hasn't had as much attention as Winston Peters' East Coast Bays tactic, but the Conservatives' Colin Craig and ACT's Jamie Whyte were also revealing their hands on The Nation this weekend, saying if they make it into parliament and a National-led government is an option, they're seriously looking a rejecting a formal coalition with National and remaining on the cross-benches.

Those cross-benches could get very crowded! "Sitting on the cross-benches" means slightly different things to different people, but Craig and Whyte seem to be saying they'd offer National just supply and confidence and take every other bill case-by-case.

You might say, 'but that's what ACT does now'. But where it seems to be different is that the two minor parties wouldn't endorse National's manifesto they way ACT did in 2011 and stay further away from government, perhaps not getting the ministerial posts, access to ministers and promises of consultation that ACT currently has.

For the Conservatives, it looks like a move to make a deal from Key easier. It's a signal to National that if it fears what Bryce Edwards calls "the contagion factor" from the Conservatives, especially amongst women, urban and younger voters, it can keep Craig and his MPs at arms' length. They don't expect to be part of the government.

This is a change from Craig, who has in the past speculated on what ministerial post he might like. At six or eight percent that might make sense, but the reality of sub-five percent polls is that Craig has to make it very easy for National to do a deal with him. He has to roll over, in essence, and this is best he can offer. 'Give me a seat', he's saying. 'Get yourself a future partner. Give yourself a buffer in case you lose six percent during the campaign as you did in 2008 and 2011. In return, I won't ask for much. you'll hardly notice I'm there (or at least your voters won't). All I need is that seat, nothing more'.

It's his last roll of the dice; it's all now in John Key's hands.

As for ACT, it's about rebuilding. In 2008 it had enough MPs to be able to sustain some ministerships and run the party. In 2011, well, it was all about John Banks and him wanting to essentially be a National minister again. Bugger the party. (And he did).

Now, Whyte actually wants to rebuild the ACT movement and recognises that being a minister as well is likely to be too much. Look at the Maori Party – Pita Sharples has said that the time spent on ministerial work has taken over his life and cost his party dear. And look at the Greens – for all its efforts, no ministers. Yet it has built a brand, a following and an infrastructure that sees it comfortably the third largest party in the House and far above the five percent terrors.

Almost opposite to the Conservatives, ACT is saying it'd be better for it to be at arms length to National for its own sake, not the Nats'.

With New Zealand First already lining up those cross-benches and looking unwilling to do deals with the majors, it seems that the minor parties are hoping that by avoiding getting too close to the dominant government party they can maintain their own brand and policies. They also seem to hope that it will give them more power.

Although Peter Dunne has played down his role as decider on several important bills, fearful of copping the blame for unpopular policies, other minors seem keen to embrace that role and use it to stay relevant. It's a way of more obviously showing their supporters that they are crucial and worth a vote, something the Maori Party has struggled to show.

That could make for a more challenging and less stable third term, should National win come September. If you think about it, it could even make a Labour-Greens government the more stable option.

But for now it seems as if the cross-benches are the only place to be seen and as far away from government as possible is the trendy look for minors in 2014.