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Peters poses a problem for the opposition

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 2/06/2016 Peter Wilson, Political Writer

Labour and the Greens are going to have a problem when they try to present themselves as a stable government-in-waiting during next year's election campaign, says NZ Newswire's political writer Peter Wilson.

That's what the agreement they signed this week is intended to achieve, and it makes sense for them to work together.

As their leaders say, voters want to know what they're getting when they go to the ballot box.

In 2014, voters who weren't supporting National didn't know what they were getting.

The alternative was a Labour/Greens/NZ First coalition - with one of the pieces missing.

Winston Peters wasn't there, and he won't be in 2017.

Unless Labour and the Greens win enough seats on their own to change the government, which on current polling seems highly unlikely, they're going to need NZ First.

They won't be able to give voters any sort of assurance Peters will join them post-election.

He has never said before an election what he's going to do after it.

Peters carefully manages his campaigns so that he keeps his options open.

He doesn't burn any bridges, despite trenchant attacks on both the main parties.

He has, many times, explained his stance by saying his party doesn't stitch up deals before an election because democracy demands that voters decide how the cards fall.

There are other reasons.

If he holds the balance of power, he wants to be able to play the main parties off against each other.

And if he said before an election which one he was going to support, he would almost certainly lose votes.

NZ First is a centre party with a set of policies that attract support across the political spectrum.

If he said he was going to join a Labour-led government, his centre-right voters would desert him.

If he said he was going to join National, his centre-left voters would desert him.

And he isn't the only one keeping his options open.

The agreement Labour and the Greens have signed doesn't extend beyond the election.

Despite saying, in Metiria Turei's words, that it "lets people see we are a strong and stable alternative to National", they haven't promised to form a coalition government.

That's because Labour knows it might have to deal with Peters post-election.

Asked what would happen if he demanded that the Greens be shut out of government, Andrew Little's answer was "let's not get ahead of ourselves".

Under some scenarios Peters could do that, with the Greens having little choice but to support a minority Labour-led government on confidence votes.

As for the agreement, it was something that needed doing.

Friction between Labour and the Greens was a distraction neither of them needed during the 2014 campaign.

Labour's then leader, David Cunliffe, turned down the Greens' offer of a pre-election alliance because he didn't want to upset Peters.

And Cunliffe insisted on the fantasy that he could put together a Labour/Greens/NZ First coalition government.

Peters will never be the weakest partner in a three-way coalition.

The government's attitude to the agreement is that it delivers evidence of Labour's slide to the left.

Prime Minister John Key claimed Labour was "vacating the middle ground of New Zealand politics" and said the more it did that, the happier he would be.

He was hyping it up, but to an extent the agreement does play into National's hands.

The Greens are well to the left of Labour, and National will make the most of that during the next election campaign.

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