This much we know: It's a different kind of drag race

Amidst a pletohora of speculation around the government coalition talks, this weekend's final results made one thing very clear and Winston Peters knows it

It is a time of rune-reading, navel-scrutinizing and Winstonology. A time when little is said and those few words that escape are picked over with elaborate pontification and freighted with meaning they are too slender to bear. A time when we are often better to listen and wait than to guesstimate. And then, a speck appears.

I've been loathe to write much during this waiting period. I thought it right and proper to wait for the specials, and as it turned out with special votes totalling 17 percent of the vote, it surely was just that. It has been for various journalists useful to shuffle through past comments, to recall past-negotiations and compare policies, but commenting on current events seemed like a mug's game.

But now we have the final results of Election 17, it seems some things have become a little clearer. And one comment from Winston Peters has helped solidify the ground on which we stand.

"Let's sort out the things that matter," Peters said to reporters yesterday. "Policy is everything."

Like anything Peters has said since election night, it could be dismissed as verbal jousting that is condescending to the press gallery and voters alike. But those few words, unlike most of the insults and blarney, also tell us something significant.

Simply put, Peters' reading of the situation is that he has options and heads into the negotiations in a position of strength.

To me, that says this week's negotiations matter. Sure, Peters and all the New Zealand First caucus will have preferences and priorities. Sure, the "baubles of office" will come into play. But New Zealand First know now, crucially, they have a clear and legitimate choice of either major party. I don't believe it's done and dusted.

Voices on the left, including Jacinda Ardern, have talked up the vote for change. They point to the fact that more than half the votes cast at this election were for parties not in government a few weeks ago (was it really no longer?). That National's vote is down on 2014. That two of National's three partners for the past three years have been punished with expulsion. They are all valid arguments.

After the specials, the centre-left bloc could have a 63 seat majority, which is certainly mandate enough to embark on three years in government. A single backbencher couldn't hold the government to ransom and a single by-election couldn't topple it. In practice, that matters. 

Some have argued that at 36.9 percent compared to National's 44.4 percent, Labour has no right to claim a mandate to lead. Yet the fact Labour has led past governments with a vote of as little as 33.8 percent means its current result is undobtedly enough.

Those on the right, including Bill English, take another view. National remains the single biggest party and has almost the same percentage of the vote as it did when it took power in 2008. There was no question then it had to mandate to govern; Helen Clark memorably resigned on election night. So there's no question it has a mandate now. 

National alone also tops the opposition bloc of Labour and the Greens and, while rapid population growth makes this next fact less impressive than it may sound, it is still signficant to note that National got nearly 21,000 votes more than it did in 2014.

Putting aside all the spin from those facts, we're left with one simple observation. Both National and Labour can legitimately claim it has the mandate to lead the next government. Both options are kosher. Both options offer stable government. Both options offer change.

On stability - a word English has been very eager to use in recent weeks - it's interesting to note Peters' speech at this years' party convention. Yes, this is more rune-reading, but it's interesting to consider that he thought this sort of speech was needed at that stage to maximise his potential for leverage. Back then, in July, Labour was in trouble and Peters would have been anticipating a weaker Labour Party and English's words carrying more weight than they do now.

His speech got straight to the point, from the first line:

New Zealanders are asking themselves the obvious question - will we have a stable government.

Political stability will be what the National Party tries to argue in this election that they represent.

Well, the world’s most stable, unsinkable ship was the Titanic, until it sank.

• Is there anything stable about Nick Smith’s housing policy?

• Is there anything stable regarding our First Freedom – the freedom to be secure in our homes and businesses, and on our streets?

• What’s stable about National’s policing policy when the police are short-handed everywhere.

• What is stable about a society with worrying mental health issues...

... It continues in a similar vein. What's notable now is that Peters and New Zealand First are not talking about stability or mandate. That's because they know now either major party can deliver that.

The same is true with 'change'. The Labour-Green change speaks for itself, although it comes with some complications. That is, a second minor party. National offers a simpler path. But simpler and better are not the same. And if it comes to it, the Greens can always make negotiations simpler by retreating.

On the other side, National with a bigger minor partner and a bunch of policy and ministerial concessions can still be a vehicle of change, if Peters & Co. so desire.

New Zealand First can comfortably argue that it has ushered in the change people demanded, with wins on immigration, super, foreign buyers... you can be sure with this result it will get enough from either major party to claim "change" for those who have "had enough". Crucially, it will ensure distinct policy gains it can campaign on in 2020.

So today, this much we know: New Zealand First has a genuine choice. The party has no need to bluff or spin in these negotiations. It can defend any outcome. As English liked to say during the campaign, this is "a drag race"; except now the drag race is between National and Labour for New Zealand First's endorsement.

That endorsement can be given to whichever party gives New Zealand First the most. It's as simple as that.

Oh, and one other thing we know. New Zealand First has immense power in these negotiations. Until it chooses. Then that power subsides. And the fine art of governing and negotiating the backlash becomes more important than the art of the deal.