Needs must when deals are wrought

17:00, Jul 09 2014

It is extremely unlikely Internet-Mana MPs will sit around the Cabinet table. We know this, because Labour leader David Cunliffe said at the weekend that it was extremely unlikely they would.

We also know that in the past Winston Peters has said he would not take the baubles of office, John Key has ruled out a rise in GST and (further in the mists of history) Jim Bolger gave a "no ifs, no buts, no maybes" promise on the pension surtax.

Pardon if my cynicism is showing, but it pays to state the obvious.

More often than not, politicians' promises are relative rather than absolute. Much as voters wish it were otherwise, they should usually be read as if they come with a silent "all things being equal" attached.

So Bolger found a way to justify a surtax, Peters famously redefined the baubles as not including a ministerial job and Key established a tax working group that sanitised with logic a rise in GST to 15 per cent.

Whether the promise is translated into reality or not, the thinking behind it can be as telling as the promise.


Bolger knew how important the surtax was in undermining Labour's support and Peters' "no baubles" promise was part of his "neutral" pitch to draw support from Left and Right.

In the case of Cunliffe and the Internet-Mana party, a range of options remains open. Ministers outside cabinet, under-secretary roles and policy guarantees in exchange for support on key confidence and supply votes.

Until he unequivocally rules them out (and on the evidence of politicians past, perhaps even then), there is always the possibility of a deal.

For Cunliffe and Internet-Mana also read Key and the Conservatives.

A deal can be sold as in the national interest (otherwise the other side gets in and wouldn't that be awful). Or maybe "in the interests of stability we need to tie them in" (with ministerial posts or whatever), to ensure a stable government which all Kiwis want.

There is a symmetry to the dilemma facing both Key and Cunliffe. Both face sub-5 per cent threshold parties funded by one or two deep pockets that are a turn-off for many Centre voters. Both are relative fringe players that could be crucial to the electoral mathematics after September 20.

If they get in, their two, three or four MPs could be the difference between governing and not.

If they don't get in, their wasted vote of 3 or 4 per cent could make the difference between having the numbers and falling short.

In Key's case, his strategists have suggested he will not do a deal with Colin Craig's Conservatives, essentially giving them the East Coast Bays seat - until their polling crosses the line into relevant. That is probably higher than the 2.65 per cent the Conservatives achieved in 2011 and possibly as high as 3.5 per cent. Certainly, well north of where they are polling right now.

In Cunliffe's case, he can be relatively certain Internet-Mana will be there.

His bigger concern is the political Centre's negative views of Harawira, his Left-wing allies and Internet founder Kim Dotcom - and more generally about the increasingly fractured Centre-Left vote.

Labour's vote softened measurably after the Internet-Mana deal became known. It believes that was not because the new party took Labour votes but more because it was a bridge too far for floating voters to contemplate a four or five-way alternative government.

And Labour knows - because it has already started - that National will use that against it.

It is a difficult line for Cunliffe to walk. He needs to emphasise the stability of a three-way deal with the Greens and NZ First - both of which have the advantage of being parties that win in their own right and will, if in Parliament, have achieved more than 5 per cent support. He can contrast that with National's vassal parties, there only at Key's favour.

But strategising at the party's weekend Congress pointed up the problem. Labour was stacking up its potential pluses just to get over the line.

It could push up to about 30, with a good ground game and organisation, the Greens bring about 12 per cent, NZ First would add another 5-6 per cent and Internet-Mana would add the final cherry on top. Presto, 51 per cent.

Over at the National conference the previous week, the mirror-image argument was being played out by its strategists.

Achieve close to 50 per cent and we govern alone. Fall to the mid 40s, and Labour with its allies could get the numbers. Subtext? Deals with our minor allies may be crucial, so brace yourself for Key's announcement of deals with the minnows.

Memo to Cunliffe and Key: if you are counting them into your thinking, so will the voters.

Memo to voters: look less at what they say they will do and more at what they may need to do to win power.

The Dominion Post