The National Party waved so many olive branches towards Winston Peters last night the New Zealand First leader must have felt the winds 230 km north in Russell.

Prime Minister Bill English claimed a firm pole position to lead the next government, his 46 percent of the party vote only just behind John Key’s celebrated wins in 2011 and 2014 against less appealing Labour Party leaders. With Labour on 35.8 percent, New Zealand First on 7.5 percent and the Greens on 5.9 percent, National is clearly number one.

It was a personal triumph, too, as it was more than double the 21 percent vote English attracted in the grand failure as National leader back in 2002.

On current voting results, it is possible Labour and the Greens could sway Peters into a three-way affair. 

So in addressing the nation after 11 o’clock last night, English wasted no time in declaring his intention to deal with Peters, to respect him and effectively to seek his party’s help in addressing the regional and social issues highlighted so starkly in the torrid election campaign.

From the podium, English stated the obvious in saying: “Voters of New Zealand have given New Zealand First a role in forming the next government.” It was obvious, as Peters can choose to go either way, with National in a two-party government with a clear majority, or with Labour and the Greens that just makes it to majority with 61 or 62 seats.

But English said it. He acknowledged the Peters Principle: that voters decide the election and the shape of any government. Moreover, English was legitimising New Zealand First as a government partner with the other party they had legitimised, National.

“In the next few days we will begin discussions with New Zealand First finding common ground and most importantly taking on the responsibility of forming the kind of government that will enable New Zealand to get on with its success.” 

In a media conference straight afterwards in the hubbub of National’s election night party at Sky City, English went further.  Asked if there was a greater obligation on Peters to talk to National as the biggest vote-winner, he said: “We’re not going to tell Mr Peters how to negotiate. 

“But I think the mandate National has is clearly stronger than Labour, that’s reflected in the votes, particularly in the way that as the campaign went on National’s support strengthened considerably, which indicates that people want to see the the economic success continue, and not be disrupted by a significant change in economic policy direction.

“But the voters have also indicated that there are issues they would expect to be addressed where they see Mr Peters as having some of the answers there and we would expect to get on and discuss that with him.”

Asked how National could work with the big economic changes NZ First advocates, such as changing the Reserve Bank Act and greatly increasing government spending, English said he would wait to see how such issues surfaced in negotiations.

Almost half of voters had voted for the economic direction to continue. “We would expect that to be contested. We have got no doubt about that.”

Immigration open for discussion

On immigration, English left another door open for the New Zealand First position to be considered. “We respect the negotiation process. Mr Peters has got some well-known positions. We would expect from tomorrow to be talking about how we can find common ground with him on these positions.

“They do represent policy that is difference from ours but that is the coalition forming process. We know we will have to give ground.

“He will be well aware that we have pretty strong support from the New Zealand public, significantly stronger than any other party and I’m sure he will respect that.”

Pressed again by’s Richard Harman on whether immigration was therefore on the negotiation table, English would only say: “We will pay Mr Peters the respect of talking to him on the positions that he might hold.”

Negotiations mean compromise

English said negotiations “do always mean compromise.”

National wanted to push forward with its economic success and address issues that had been keenly debated in the campaign: lifting water quality and dealing with poverty. 

Asked if if the future of the Māori seats could be under threat, English said he expected New Zealand First to raise the case for its policy of holding a referendum on the future of the seats.

“I do not expect to start negotiations on that now. We will show the respect that a coalition…er, potential coalition partner deserves and that is speak with them first, talk with them about what’s going to work, where the common ground is.”

In his speech, English had said there was no rush to conclude a coalition negotiation, although there was an obligation on parties to get to work on it. Asked later if he needed to get hold of Peters before Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, he said: “It is a bit more responsibility about it than just a race to make a phone call.”

He pledged to consider all options – a stable majority government or a stable “operating government” where National could seek support on votes on confidence and supply.

“We’d look to have as close an arrangement as we can get.”

Having worked with the Māori Party, Act and United Future over these past terms, English believed National knew the process of government forming and knew it had to be undertaken with respect.

“We are in reasonable shape, I think, for working with Mr Peters.”

No call had occurred late last night between the men but English appreciated that Peters did not want to be rushed. “Let’s see how things unfold but I think at some stage there will be direct discussions between myself and Mr Peters.”

Seymour in the past tense for Government

The news was not so good for Act and its sole MP and leader David Seymour. 

Peters has consistently criticised Act and made it clear he would not favour working alongside the economically right-wing party.

English said while Seymour had made it back to Parliament, National needed more than his one seat to form a government so while it had had a positive relationship with Act, “we have to negotiate with a different party.” 

It was a statement in the past tense and it did not say negotiate with another party or an additional party. Just a different one.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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