Maori Party possibly in the box seat after the election

Whatever your opinion of Rodney Hide, he is dead right about one thing. John Key's refusal to work with Winston Peters amounts to a seismic shift in the political landscape.

The ramifications of Mr Key's decision are vast, not least in putting the Maori Party in the box seat after the election.

But the party's increased leverage in post-election negotiations does not come cost-free.

Holding the balance of power may prevent it from taking what, for it, might be the preferable option of abstaining on confidence votes in Parliament in return for a big basket of policy goodies, thereby allowing it to retain a fair measure of independence from the governing party.

However, the way the numbers fall in Parliament may well force the Maori Party into a formal confidence-and- supply arrangement of the kind NZ First has with Labour.

That would be a big step for a party naturally worried about becoming another statistic in the minor parties' largely unsuccessful struggle to get a reward from voters for being reliable partners either inside or outside a minority Government.

The Maori Party does have the advantage of representing a niche market rather than having to compete with all and sundry.

But at some point it must start delivering the goods.

This election would seem to be the opportune time to do so, given National's lack of viable partners and Labour's likely need for any partner it can get.

Ten days after Mr Key announced Mr Peters was persona non grata as far as National was concerned, such shifts in power and influence have been the subject of only fleeting discussion.

To a large extent that is because all eyes remain riveted on the unfolding political horror story that is NZ First.

In a few short weeks, the party has gone from being seen as the paragon of virtue on political donations to being subject to possible prosecution by the Serious Fraud Office and the police.

Mr Peters' blanket denials of anything being amiss have been exposed as worthless.

They have been replaced with excuses for failing to handle things by the book, which veer between the incredible and the pathetic.

Take the failure in 2006 to declare to the Electoral Commission the $50,000 donation from the Spencer Trust.

This is now being put down to human error.

Had the donation been disclosed, however, then questions would have been immediately asked about the Spencer Trust.

Once it had been revealed as the same sort of mechanism that National has used to channel donations and hide their source, Mr Peters would have been rubbished - just as he is being now and deservedly - but much earlier.

Compounding this disaster is the privileges committee inquiry, which has become the political equivalent of a high-stakes poker game between Mr Peters and wealthy expatriate Owen Glenn, with both putting their reputations on the line.

Only one of them can be telling the truth.

Next week's showdown may supply an answer as to which.

More than likely, it won't.

Unlike Mr Key, the prime minister has been careful not to prejudge such matters.

Mr Peters may be damaged goods.

Such has been his behaviour that it is hard to see how Labour could entertain working with him again should it be in the position to form the next government.

But things might look very different if the SFO and the privileges committee clear him.

If that does not happen, Mr Key's declaration poses a quandary for Helen Clark.

So far, Labour does not seem to have been damaged by its association with Mr Peters.

Miss Clark could yet be in a position post-election to cobble a government together.

But securing the confidence of the House is one thing.

Building public confidence in a fourth-term Labour government is another.

Labour has had to hold its nose and ignore the political stench coming from the direction of NZ First.

That is not a long-term proposition.

Mr Peters' inclusion in her government would make it hugely unpopular from day one.

Other minor parties, such as the Greens and United Future, are already getting squeamish about sitting around the cabinet table with him.

They have their fingers crossed that NZ First will not make it back and the problem simply disappears.

But there is no guarantee of that.

If NZ First does make it back into Parliament, Labour would likely need Mr Peters' backing to rule.

To forgo NZ First would therefore be to forgo power.

Labour has no choice but to keep the option open and its fingers crossed that the cards fall favourably on election night so it does not have to take that option.

If it does, it will not face opposition from the Maori Party, which has deliberately avoided commenting on Mr Peters' troubles.

It contacted his office in a personal gesture of Maori solidarity to see how he was bearing up under the pressure.

At the last election, NZ First polled barely 5% of the party vote in the Maori seats - seats it held a decade ago.

It is not a threat to the Maori Party.

Now, following Mr Key's decision, the Maori Party has prised the balance of power off Mr Peters, who is now hog-tied to Labour.

That will see an accompanying intensifying of the pressure on co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples to declare their preference for post-election talks.

They will not succumb.

They are not beholden to the great mass of voters on the general roll.

Instead, post-election, they will hold a consultation exercise with the party's membership on how they should proceed in negotiations with other parties.

What is notable during the party's three years in Parliament is the lessening resistance to deal with National.

But the Maori Party has not committed itself to talking first with the party that wins the most seats.

And just as National and the Maori Party have been building a relationship through meetings and dinners, so have the latter's relations with Labour improved considerably following the bust-up between Ms Turia and Miss Clark four years ago.

The odds, though, must favour National to make the running.

The numbers in Parliament are more likely to fall its way.

It will offer the Maori Party whatever it takes to get its hands on the keys to the cabinet room.

It is not going to die in the ditch over its stated timetable for scrapping the Maori seats.

It may well offer some concession on the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

The Maori Party has previously insisted the measure be repealed.

But it appears repeal will not be a non-negotiable bottom-line for agreement.

Apart from that, the Maori Party can probably name its price.

John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald's political correspondent.

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