Winston Peters and NZ First hold the balance of political power, but which way will the scales tip? A look at Peters’ past gives some hints – but history can only take you so far, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

After all the ups and downs of the last few months, the inevitable has occurred. Winston Peters is the king- or queen-maker – but who will he crown?

Taking to the stage at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell, Peters did his best to cut off speculation over which way NZ First will side, after the initial election results put his party in a position to anoint the next prime minister.

‘We invite you to be patient and not rush out and ask us, who you’re going to go with. If we hear that one more time I think we’ll be advocating a chagce of our political system.”

It’s a futile request, given the obvious interest in who will form the next government – National and NZ First, or Labour, the Greens and NZ First?

Aware of the criticism NZ First copped for weeks of coalition negotiations in 1996, Peters has pledged this time to make a decision public by October 12, when the final election results are made official with the return of the writs.

So what else could Peters have learned from past experience?

Continuity or change? 

In the past, Peters has always plumped for the party with the largest share of the vote (National in 1996 and Labour in 2005).

It’s a moral rather than constitutional stance, perhaps also rooted in the realpolitik of taking the most stable option.

However, Peters gave himself room to move when speaking to media in Northland on Friday, saying: “There’s been in the last twenty years an emerging convention that you start with the party that has the most votes but that’s only a convention.”

The other thing Peters’ previous coalition deals have in common is that they both extended the lifespan of an existing government – but not by much.

National’s third term ended with Peters sacked from Cabinet and the Government turfed out in 1999.

With Helen Clark and Labour, the result was worse: NZ First dipped below the five per cent threshold and exited Parliament, with Labour also gone from power.

With that in mind, perhaps Peters would prefer the chance to start something new.

An added appeal would be the leverage NZ First would have in negotiations with Labour and the Greens, given its increased significance and size relative to the others.

Third wheel? 

There are some arguments to the contrary, however.

One is the desire for stability: Peters has said his main reason for rejecting Labour in 1996 was Clark’s inability to guarantee the support of the Alliance as needed for her to govern.

He has clashed repeatedly with the Greens during the 2017 campaign, first when former co-leader Metiria Turei attacked his “racist approach” to immigration then when MP Barry Coates publicly floated the idea of a snap election instead of a Labour-NZ First coalition.

It’s unlikely he was enamoured with Greens leader James Shaw publicly urging him to back a coalition of the left during his election night speech, either.

While Peters has not held back in attacking Bill English and the National government, he did the same to Jim Bolger back in 1996, shortly before signing on as Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer. 

What about his so-called “bottom lines?” Some, including the establishment of a foreign ownership register, cutting net migration, and keeping the superannuation age at 65, would seem to lend themselves more to a Labour deal.

That’s not to say that English and National may be unwilling to bend, however.

Policy and position wins

One participant in the 1996 negotiations told Newsroom earlier in the year Peters would be primarily motivated by policy wins in “highly symbolic, clearly NZ First-branded” areas, such as regional development.

New NZ First MP and former Labour minister Shane Jones could be an option for the economic development portfolio, while his time as a Pacific ambassador could also make him a useful option in foreign affairs.

What Peters might want for himself is harder to guess: with Prime Minister and Finance Minister off the table for both National and Labour, deputy PM may be as good as it gets – and he’s done that before.

Ultimately, trying to figure out which side Peters will come down on is currently a guessing game – and he’s likely to keep both English and Jacinda Ardern guessing for a few days while he extracts the best deal possible.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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