Peters back in the spotlight

TALKING POLITICS BY GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 12:07 07/01/2013
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.
SHANE WENZLICK/Fairfax NZ
In current polling, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters looks set to become the kingmaker after the 2014 election.

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OPINION: David Shearer's untested abilities were a prime focus of political coverage last year, but during 2013 the spotlight will shift on to a far more familiar figure.

On current polling, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters looks set to become the kingmaker after the 2014 election. As a consequence, Peters' plans and allegiances will be the subject of endless speculation throughout this year.

The likely scenario?

All year, Labour and the Greens are being set up to wear any odium from being associated with Peters, who - as in 1996 - is just as likely to find any number of compelling reasons during the post-election negotiations to take affront, switch sides and join a National-led coalition arrangement.

No-one should be surprised at such an outcome, given there are few obvious advantages for Peters as the third wheel in a centre-left government.

During 2013, therefore, any Peters v National conflicts are best viewed as merely token play fights.

As a consequence though, National can afford to allow its poll support to dwindle into the low 40s this year, and still realistically hope to head the next government.

The challenge for the centre-left will be to make a realistic assessment of Peters' intentions early in 2013 and act accordingly, and not rely on him to make up the numbers in any Labour-led government.

In the short term, the first political event of 2013 will be the likely appointment of Agriculture Minister David Carter as Speaker.

Nick Smith is tipped to return to Cabinet as Carter's replacement in the subsequent reshuffle, but the fate of Education Minister Hekia Parata will be the public's prime concern.

Prime Minister John Key may well conclude that Parata could hardly have a worse year in education this time around, and retain her in her current post. If not, a job switch with Social Development Minister Paula Bennett looms as another solution for Key's most pressing management problem - what the heck to do with Hekia?

The Electoral Commission's MMP reforms will almost certainly result in the government's embracing a 4 per cent MMP threshold. The only question will be whether this kicks in at the 2014 election, or in 2017.

Choosing a 2014 start date could look self-serving, given the Key government would benefit immediately from the way a 4 per cent threshold would help to propel the Conservatives into Parliament.

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Talking of thresholds, the anti-asset sale campaigners now claim to have gathered the roughly 300,000 valid signatures needed to hold a non-binding referendum later this year on the government's partial asset sales programme - which also faces a Supreme Court challenge at the end of this month.

The programme is likely to proceed, despite both tests.

With its foundation leadership on the way out, the Maori Party will struggle in 2013 to emulate the Greens' transition to new leadership.

The Greens have problems of their own. Having being bullied by the Clark government, the Greens will be unwilling to repeat that experience, but as yet, they have proved unable to reach the 15 per cent to 20 per cent poll ratings they need to bargain effectively for power in any Labour-led administration.

Finally, if Key does decide to retire shortly after the next election, 2013 should be the year that the tyres are firmly kicked on Judith Collins as his likely successor.

- The Wellingtonian

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