OPINION: Call it the prisoner's dilemma or call it power over principle.
But the refusal of National and Labour - and more surprisingly the Greens - to unequivocally reject a deal with Winston Peters after his latest Chinese-bashing speech speaks volumes.
It speaks volumes about the current political arithmetic that puts NZ First at or on the fulcrum of power - meaning unless they all refuse to work with him, and trust each other to stick with that pledge, neither big party can rule him out. And it speaks volumes about the willingness of political leaders to turn a blind eye in pursuit of office.
Mr Peters' "Super-city of Sin" speech on Friday drew together all the strands of his long-running anti-immigration theme with an overlay of morality.
Despite his disclaimers that his party was not anti-immigration, you could not read the speech and miss the message: Chinese immigrants (or at least a demonised subset of them) drive up house prices, stretch infrastructure to breaking point, break the law, access health and superannuation they have not paid for, and import corruption and depravity.
Not their fault, of course. Blame those in power because "no rational government would continue down a path that jeopardises the future of its own people with stupid population policies". That's Mr Peters quoting himself 10 years ago.
Mr Key, who ruled out working with Mr Peters on principle in 2011 after the Owen Glenn donations saga, has aped Mr Peters' own stance: Let the voters speak and he will decide in 2014. Labour's David Shearer is saying something similar. Neither, it seems, finds anything morally reprehensible in Mr Peters' words.
Stranger still the Greens, who have their own contradictory demons to wrestle with - how to be internationalists while being sceptical about free trade and foreign house buyers - could barely muster a whimper of objection.
Yes, they found the way he said it "reprehensible", but they hoped "a sophisticated discussion can be had on some of the issues he raises, such as the impact on property prices".
This skirting around by all three is partly about the balance of power resting so close to Mr Peters' grasp. But it also recognises a deal of public sympathy with the Peters rhetoric.
They may surmise, too, that as with Don Brash's famous Orewa speech, coming out red in tooth and claw may polarise the public and prove counterproductive. Better to sigh, say "there goes old Winnie again", take issue with the facts and hope the speech gets little oxygen.
It is a mile from the approach former Greens co-leader Rod Donald took back in 2005.
In a speech to his party's conference he described Mr Peters as a snake oil merchant. "Peters is the ugly face of New Zealand politics - all the more so because he is smart enough to know that his proposed 'flying squad' searching the homes of 'undesirables' echoes Hitler's Germany."
As you may imagine, Mr Peters was not well pleased. More than anything that speech provoked NZ First to join UnitedFuture in vetoing the Greens from government.
Given both Labour and National have been willing to welcome Mr Peters into a senior portfolio in their governments, Mr Donald may have been biting off more than he could chew.
But at least you knew where he stood.
- The Dominion Post