Support partners more important to National

The importance of National's support partners - Act New Zealand, United Future and the Maori Party - has grown immensely from election night a year ago.

On election night National looked as if it could govern alone, with 61 seats out of 121; after the final vote and with one fewer seat, it needed one of its partners to pass laws; now it needs both Act and United Future or the Maori Party because the Opposition gained a seat and the Government lost one in the Northland by election.

All confidence and supply Bills are guaranteed support but that's it.

Other Bills require ministers and chiefs of staff to consult with the three support parties.

The support parties sit together in Parliament: Peter Dunne, the 61 year old veteran who has been in Parliament since 1984; David Seymour, the new Act leader who replaced John Banks as Epsom MP; Maori Party first termer Marama Fox; and co leader Te Ururoa Flavell.

David Seymour had a nervous start. For a 32 year old he carries a lot on his shoulders: the incredible party baggage of the past, the high expectations of a board, the responsibilities of a new electorate and running a party in Parliament.

He has gained confidence and profile through coverage of populist measures: his Rugby World Cup booze Bill, extra paid parental leave for parents with premature babies, the Red Peak flag and his ''coq up'' in front of the cameras over roosters and France.

They are hardly core Act policies and Roger Douglas might not be amused. But the public is getting a sense of his witty personality, which, will make him a better ambassador for Act in the end.

When Mr Seymour was first made an under secretary to the Minister of Education, John Key did not rule the possibility of Mr Seymour becoming a minister during the term.

It would be a mistake. The role would constrain him in his efforts to rebuild support for Act.

The dynamics of the MPs among National's support partners are more collegial this term than last, probably because Mr Seymour and Ms Fox are newcomers and eager to learn, and Mr Dunne has the experience and the will to give them support.

National has always dealt with each party separately and continues to do so.

But in a new development under MMP, the support parties have started to hold their own informal meetings together from time to time.

They share enough information to ensure their interests are protected and they are not being played off against each other.

That said, the trust levels among the parties is very high, given they are all into their third terms supporting National.

Mr Seymour's vote is pretty much taken for granted by National, with Act being its closest voting ally, but his support is not enough.

The Maori Party regularly votes against the Government.

Mr Dunne is in the middle, usually predictable, but occasionally digs in.

The latest reforms to the Resource Management Act are in limbo while Mr Dunne waits for a draft Bill to be produced.

Nick Smith may have problems producing a draft Bill yet because he doesn't know what parts of it Mr Dunne will oppose.

Mr Dunne is opposing National on another measure - its plans to delay a fully elected regional council in Canterbury from 2016 until 2019.

He recently slammed the plan as bringing ''the last vestiges of the old provincial squattocracy and Christchurch urbanites into stark relief''.

National will need the Maori Party to pass it.

On a lot of the issues, the numbers are finely balanced. That goes for issues that most likely will not be put to the test in a vote.

It is sobering to think that right now, there would not be enough parliamentary support to send training troops to Iraq - although a vote wasn't required to do so.

And right now, there would be enough parliamentary support to get rid of section 70 of the Social Welfare Act - which requires the elderly to forfeit overseas annuities and retirement funds by the amount of New Zealand superannuation they are getting.

If such a measure were to pass in a private member's Bill, Finance Minister Bill English would veto it, as he has promised to do on Sue Moroney's Bill to extend paid parental leave to six months.

It is in the area of private member's Bills that the support parties, and Mr Dunne in particular, can have an impact on the gains of the Opposition.

He supported Ms Moroney's Bill, which, despite being headed to a dead end, will give Labour opportunities to campaign on the issue for months.

Mr Dunne also supported David Parker's contractors' wages Bill, which is now before a select committee. It would require that contractors be paid no less than the minimum wage.

Any vote that is passed by 61 votes to 60 means it has gone through with Mr Dunne's support and the opposition of National and Act.

This term, Mr Dunne has supported the private members' Bills of three National MPs and seven Labour MPs and one Act Bill.

Private member's Bills are becoming one of the more exciting areas to cover in Parliament, because of an infuriating self discipline Mr Dunne has applied - he won't say which way he is voting until his vote is cast.

Mr Dunne's tactics also mean showing him respect rather than slagging him off from Johnsonville to kingdom come, in case he is supporting them or might support them in future.

Ms Moroney went to the extent of gathering 14,225 signatures on an open letter to Mr Dunne to urge him to support her Bill extending paid parental leave to six months.

As the votes were recorded by the Clerk of the House, applause broke out when Mr Dunne's proxy vote - last because it is the smallest party - was cast by National.

Numbers count in politics but that does not necessarily mean that the smallest numbers count for the least.

Audrey Young is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.


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