A glimpse behind the door of supply and confidence negotiations reveals the dominant political fact this term - Key is King
What's clear from talking on The Nation this morning to the leaders of the minor parties supporting National, is quite how minor they now are. United Future's Peter Dunne was the most transparent when he said "I had nothing to go with" and negotiations were reduced to, essentially, ensuring "a good working arrangement".
Dunne said frankly:
Previously, you would trade an agreement on these policy points in return for support. This time what National was saying was, 'We don't need your support but we want to have a wider working relationship.' So specific policies were not on the agenda.
ACT's new leader David Seymour tried to argue that his party got 50 percent of the things that mattered to his party in his negotiations, but I suspect you'd be closer to the truth if you took the 0 off the end of that number. At least he was honest enough to admit:
Yeah, look, burglary is something that I’ve heard about repeatedly on the doorsteps of Epsom. We had a policy to crack down on that. That’s a non-starter for now, but we’ll keep advocating it. We campaigned on reducing corporate welfare, reducing middle-class welfare in return for considerable tax cuts. We’re not in a position to negotiate that.
In both cases, they took what they were given, even if in Seymour's case it means a half million dollar political jack-up allowing his single MP party to run a decent office in parliament. It seems small government only counts when it doesn't involve your own survival. If they're so opposed to corporate and middle-class welfare, what about minor party welfare?
The Maori Party's Te Ururoa Flavell, curiously, seems to have been the most ambitious of the three negotiators. Perhaps as the biggest he senses some flicker of power, or maybe because he knows the Maori vote matters and will only grow, he knows he's got some leverage over the white bread National Party.
As expected, it looks as if the Maori Party have won a promise to extend Whanau Ora and the continuation of the Maori seats, until Maori as a whole are ready to move on those. Flavell was less revealing about other prominent policies he had hoped to win from National, such as a review of the justice system and specific poverty targets, although he says poverty issues remain an area he can work on with National. He's told me Whanau Ora is the obvious vehicle for John Key's efforts to tackle child poverty this term, whatever form they mayy take.
But the most surprising hint from Flavell is that he talked about the policies he's worked on around the Maori economy and that his party needs to start delivering on jobs. While it looks like he'll be Maori Affairs minister, he hinted at something more:
“The field of economic development is one place that we’d definitely like to be”.
Where Turia had an associate minister's role in Health, given her focus on smoking, rheumatic fever and the like, perhaps Flavell is angling for an equivalent spot - or under secretaryship - under Steven Joyce's Economic Development umbrella.
The problem for all these parties is how little power they seem to have - depending on how the special votes fall perhaps. It sounds like negotiations took the form of vassals going in to kiss the ring of the emperor.
Yet Key is putting on his best noblesse oblige face, talking about trying to pass laws by more than his bare 61 seat majority. At the very least, he's trying to give his minor mates, some relevance, something he can easily afford to do when they are so weak in comparision to him. It means they may be more obliged to owe him a favour in 2017 when things may be tighter.
One example: ACT and United Future have been given speaking slots and questions in the House, something new compared to past agreements. The suggestion is that might give them a bit of profile, in the House at least, and some oxygen in debates that matter to them.
Where the one bit of tension remains is around the Resource Management Act reforms. National says it wants to bring people on side, but ACT remains implaccably on the other side of the debate from United Future and the Maori Party. Thing is, ACT is more likely to win as businessleaders (as seen in Fran O'Sullivan's Mood of the Boardroom) expect National to deliver for them. They want the RMA regulations loosened and the environmental principles underpinning the law watered down and it's a pretty easy thing for National to dole out to them.
Yet as important as it is to see how this loose alliance of parties is coming together, the clear message is that Key is King and no-one should forget it.