Secrecy, forelock-tugging making a mockery of all sides in coalition talks

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James Shaw says Jacinda "seems to be doing a good job" of negotiations with Winston Peters.

OPINION: "Had enough?" Winston Peters inquired on his election campaign billboards.

Well, funny he should ask.

Because "cone of silence" doesn't quite capture the extraordinary mix of vacuity and fear that characterises the current coalition talks – and the only saving grace is that they are lasting such a short time.

Winston Peters is the only leader saying anything substantive.

Winston Peters is the only leader saying anything substantive.

The pledge of omerta between the parties means that only Winston Peters seems free to say anything substantive – and then not very much – on his long marches to The Room, that secret meeting venue on the Beehive's second floor.

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Because of Parliament's geography Prime Minister Bill English – remember him? – is hardly ever seen, let alone heard from, because his team can scurry to The Room through the Beehive's inner corridors.

National Party leader Bill English and his team provide a "photo-op" but no comments as they leave their offices for ...
LAURA WALTERS/STUFF

National Party leader Bill English and his team provide a "photo-op" but no comments as they leave their offices for coalition talks.

Whether out of embarrassment or not his office did arrange a photo opportunity of him – brace yourself, are you sitting down? – getting into his car.

Beyond that there is a pooled photo-op as his team leave the ninth floor offices which he could use to make a comment, but chooses not to.

So it seems we have a caretaker prime minister hostage to the design of the precinct and Peters. Having failed to persuade the country to "cut out the middle man" and demolish Peters and his party, English is now dancing to his tune.

Meanwhile the media are kept at arm's length from him and The Room by parliamentary security, apparently at the behest of the new-found power wielded by Peters' chief of staff, David Broome.

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Labour leader Jacinda Ardern's progress is not much more edifying. She is filmed arriving, at full throttle in case she should be asked A Question, revealing little more than the brand of bikkies she has brought for morning tea.

Slightly more forthcoming is Greens leader James Shaw.

But even he, in common with almost every politician and staffer, clams up whenever the talks themselves are raised. It might be going too far to call it fear, but there is something odd, unsettling and disturbing about the forelock-tugging and unwillingness on the part of Labour, National and the Greens to  .. what? Upset Peters?

Settling aside the ridiculous lack of dignity the process is forcing on the parties, it is also an affront to the public. No-one is saying all the details of the talks should be revealed, but it is hard to see where the harm would be in a daily briefing of the topics discussed and a clear statement of how the final deal will be done and ratified.
 
 
I suppose it gives you some idea of how beguiling is power – and the baubles and salaries of office – that Labour, National and the Greens are willing to play such a demeaning game.
 
 
As for the talks themselves, it seems they are heading down the path of the infamous 1996 phone-book-sized coalition deals, with NZ First bringing detailed policy wish-lists to the table.
 
 
On the Labour side there is the added complication of the Greens. it seems the two parties meet to hammer out a joint position. That is then taken to NZ First (presumably with some wriggle room) for the face-to-face session. In that way Peters is aware of the Greens' positions – broadly speaking – but the Greens can never know his because Ardern and her team must maintain confidentiality.

As the minutiae of policy are discussed, ministerial posts and the actual shape of a government – be it a full coalition, a support arrangement of whatever – is yet to appear on the table.

That detailed work has meant that over at Camp Peters there are preparations for each meeting and a de-briefing session afterwards.

On Wednesday and on Thursday that process goes into overdrive with at least 12-hour days in the offing.

But the secrecy is buttressed by signed confidentiality undertakings and goes well beyond the policies.

For instance ... exhibit one.

In an ocean of uncertainty we do know one thing: That the Greens are going to ratify something and require a 75 per cent majority of up to 155 delegates.

But what exactly are they to vote on?

Will it be the Labour and Green deal?

Will it be just the Green side of that deal?

Will it be the whole Labour-Green-NZ First governing package, that can probably be ruled out?

But it is extraordinary that something so basic and important is still hidden in the miasma around the talks.

Shaw has said he trusts Ardern to negotiate a stable government that last the distance – with a reminder that the Greens campaigned determinedly to get rid of National.

That looks like a promise, ahead of time, to ratify any quarter-way reasonable deal.

It will also be important that any guarantee of support on confidence and supply from the Greens is unequivocal. An out-clause in the "guarantee"' provided by the Alliance to Labour and Helen Clark back in 1996 is often cited as a key reason NZ First opted to back National.

So it is the worst of all worlds for the Greens. A pig in a poke.

They are being asked to accept on trust a deal in which they are bit-part players, but give an unequivocal guarantee of support for it all the same. And then they must give Peters the ultimate power to accept or reject either deal.
 
 
If they weren't worried about being blamed for a fourth term National government they could be forgiven for tossing their toys and heading immediately for the comparative dignity of the opposition benches.
 

 - Stuff

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