NZ First conundrum - the road more or less travelled

New Zealand First, we know, could go either way. And this weekend we learnt a little more about what Peters and his crew will be considering if they end up as the pivot party

Call it their Robert Frost moment: Winston Peters and his New Zealand First colleagues may well face a choice after this year's election, when they have to choose from two roads diverging in a yellow wood - one to the left and one to the right.

While the polls are all telling quite different stories at the moment, our poll of polls still has New Zealand First with every chance of holding the balance of power on September 21. Twice before - in 1996 and 2005 - the party has been in that pivotal position, but arguably this year could be its most trying decision yet.

It's quite clear where the road most travelled leads - to another National-led government. Winston Peters' track record is very clear and it's a well-worn path. His instinct has always been to support the party with the most votes. Indeed, he's created a "constitutional convention" that he has to at least speak to the largest party first, even at the first MMP election when there was no precedent to base a convention on! (Geddis, Knight and Edgeler may have views on just how much of a convention it is, but it just seems to be Peters saying what he's thinks is proper).

However this past weekend on The Nation he put some flesh on the bones of that convention - he said it would only mean a phone call and he'd prefer to be talking to both main parties at the same time.

"Well ideally you’d start with one and you’d ensure that the other one is not left out. Because frankly… if you cannot get reconciliation over here then you need to have some chance of getting reconciliation over there. As distasteful as it is to you, and others, the public is demanding a stable Government, and that is the number one responsibility of anybody in politics."

New Zealand First has also shown a dislike for five-headed monsters; that is he prefers fewer coalition partners. However he may not have as much choice this time, as Key has clearly laid out his preference to keep ACT, United Future and the Maori Party in his tent (more partners means power is divided). At the same time, Labour will most likely need at least the Greens to make a government work.

So here's the Peters principle as it stands: Biggest party, fewest partners.

Both times, by following that rule, New Zealand First has supported a third term government. In both cases he has failed to survive the term as a minister. You'd think that there would be a lesson in that.

And this is Peters' conundrum. Does he again lean on a tiring government? Or does he take the road less travelled this time and tie his horse to a fresh new government? As the poem goes, that will make "all the difference" to New Zealand.

Note that he doesn't have to enter a formal coalition to exercise his power. Even if he goes to the cross-benches, whoever he supports (or refuses to vote against) on confidence and supply will have relied on his votes to win office.

There are any numbers of clues to consider. Take Jim Bolger, who told The Nation that Peters' family is full of Nats and his instinct is in that direction. It's undoubtedly easy to see Peters as a Nat at heart. You could listen to Tuariki Delamere too, who says "the Green factor" on the left is likely to scare Peters off. And anyway, who wants to play third wheel?

National also gives him policy certainty over the age of elegibility for superannuation. New Zealand First will never let the age go up from 65, and Key has threatened to resign before doing that. So on that core issue the two are sympatico. What's more, people who know them both say that for all their seeming hatred, they would probably work well together - both pragmatists with astute antennas for public opinion.

On the other hand, a left-bloc coalition would give him a suite of policy gains (as opposed to keeping super as it is). He could certainly achieve his long-dreamed of ambition of Reserve Bank reform. There would be restrictions on land sales to foreigners, a focus on export growth - those are tangible policy wins that he has campaigned on as crucial to a stronger New Zealand. But most of all there's the buying back of state assets. Peters seems to be stressing that as a bottomline, and that's one thing Key and English surely can't credibly offer.

Then there's the question of personalities. Peters has called Key "arrogant", "pretentious" and a liar, while adding that his government is "incompetent". And that was in just one interview. On Cunliffe he has been much quieter, although you wouldn't take his silence as a vote of confidence. Still, voters must wonder how he could use his party's power to make a man he has insulted so roundly Prime Minister. 

Then there are the 'others'. How does he play with United Future? He told Paddy Gower this weekend that he wouldn't want Dunne to be a minister again. Maori Party? Given their policies of "racial separation" he's hardly going to support a government that includes them.

So does that mean a Labour-Green government could find favour? Perhaps, but there's that "Green factor" again. And Peters' National instincts. And super.

Stand and look down these paths too long, you start to get dizzy. It seems that one way or another New Zealand First will have to contradict itself.

Push Peters on these questions and he insists that he must respect the voters and wait until they've had their say. Looking at how the polls have moved this year, you can see his point. If National's lead is, say, over ten percent as it is in today's Herald poll, then it's very hard to make the case for a change of government. 

But given that New Zealand First may well have the power to take New Zealand with it down whichever path its members choose, voters have the right to demand more information. While Peters insists he must hear from voters before he decides anything, surely voters also have the right to hear from him, to know his deliberations and priorities, before they give him the power to choose which path.

New Zealanders have the right to know exactly what they will be voting for, because somewhere ages and ages hence we might just be telling of the path this country took in 2014 and what a difference it made. And knowing how way leads on to way, there's a chance we might never be able to go back.