OPINION: The insistence by the leader of the New Zealand First party, Winston Peters, that he will wait until after the general election before revealing which of the two main parties he would prefer to deal with has the virtue of consistency.
That stand has been the line Peters has taken ever since the MMP system came into operation. But as someone once said, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds and now, after more than nearly two decades of MMP elections, Peters' position is no longer what many voters want.
From Peters' point of view, it has advantages. There is even, it has to be conceded, some validity to it. The outcome of an election is always to some extent uncertain and opinion polls showing parties on the right and left fairly evenly matched suggest that the election this year may be more uncertain than many. Better, in this view, to wait and see what the voters say before indicating which way you will jump. Minor parties too are susceptible to swings in their fortunes, as Peters well knows having been unceremoniously and unexpectedly bundled out of Parliament in 2005. It might seem, to some oversensitive souls, to be presumptuous for a minor party to assume it will be in Parliament, let alone in a position of choosing who to support.
But the arguments for not declaring one's hand before the election are far outweighed by the arguments against. The chief advantage for Peters is that by playing his cards close to his chest he will be able to flirt coquettishly with journalists and voters about where his sympathies lie and thus milk the uncertainty for all its worth in the run-up to the election. And beyond - for if his party emerges holding the balance of power he will be able to haggle like a trader in a bazaar to the maximum benefit of his party and, more importantly, himself. He will also be able to jump either way while being able to plead that he has not broken any promises, as he did when he finally plumped for National in 1996 when many who had voted for him could have been forgiven for thinking he would go with Labour.
But after 20 years of MMP, voters expect better than this kind of chicanery. They know that MMP governments are necessarily formed from coalitions of varying degrees of flexibility and are entitled to know what the options may be. Parties declaring their preferences, with whatever nuances they think are appropriate, are not improperly trying to influence voters. They are treating voters as mature adults able to weigh alternatives intelligently. Voters are entitled to know what those alternatives may be before polling day.
Prime Minister John Key this week made it clear that he would prefer to continue with National's three present partners - ACT, United Future and the Maori Party. But recognising the obvious, that may not be enough to hold on to power, he has also said he could possibly work (holding his nose perhaps) with the Conservative Party and even (in a pinch) with New Zealand First. Labour leader David Cunliffe yesterday also set out Labour's preferences.
Peters should be prepared to do the same.
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