Winston's wriggle room

With Winston Peters there is what he says, what he seems to be saying and what he says he said.

Which makes this week's controversy over how he would exercise the balance of power all the more relevant.

When a man can say he will not take the baubles of office and then agree to be foreign affairs minister in the Clark Government - and by most definitions there are fewer offices with bigger baubles than as chief foreign affairs poobah - it is worth examining his assurances carefully. In that case it was our fault, silly voters, for not realising that the baubles of office were the trinkets, the frippery, not the office itself.

Again in 2008 responding to allegations of seeking a helicopter to campaign in, he was adamant.

"Have you seen me flying around in helicopters? I'm asking you to use your intelligence and memory. Do you recall me flying around in helicopters in any campaign?" Confronted with the fact that he used one to fly from Nelson to Picton and Blenheim, he said it was from the West Coast not Nelson and was "one helicopter ride. Once".

Then photos were unearthed of him using a helicopter in 1999.

Faced with the indisputable he found a way to dispute it.

The way the question was framed, he said, implied he had used a helicopter to campaign from.

"Which of course was ridiculous because of the physical impossibility of speaking to crowds in a noisy gale. We used a helicopter to travel and I do not deny that, but to suggest that I somehow stood at the door of a flying helicopter shouting at voters is preposterous. We were campaigning - not deerstalking."

So when he says he will not be "working with" Labour or National, or that he will not be taking a Cabinet post, or that he will be voting issue by issue on confidence and supply - and may even abstain - it may only seem that there is no wriggle room.

So John Key has a point; that Mr Peters' stance means that at any time a government could fall; but don't bank on it.

A pledge to abstain by a party with the balance of power, even an unsolicited one, can be as powerful as a support agreement; it cements in place the bloc with the most seats. If that happens Mr Key will face a conundrum. He could let Labour form an "unstable" government. He could swallow a dead rat and deal with Mr Peters. Or he could govern with an uncommitted NZ First.

His instinct may be to stand back and wave Labour through. But there will be those in his caucus and his wider constituency who will clamour for a deal to keep Labour out of office.

Mr Key can console himself, though, with the knowledge that the polls are sounding a single note: that on Sunday National will be able to form a Government on its own.

The Dominion Post