English and Peters meet to kick off government formation talks; National team includes Brownlee, McClay, chief of staff & top policy advisor; Peters brings along Mark & Martin plus advisors

By Alex Tarrant

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters says government formation talks can be completed by 12 October, although he has raised the prospect that special votes – due 7 October – may not be fully counted by their planned 2pm release time.

He also says that the five day timeframe between the two dates does not indicate in any way that New Zealand First is more likely to sit on the cross benches than go into a government one way or the other.

Speaking to media on his way to lunch Thursday, it was put to Peters that National had raised concerns that negotiations might not be able to be completed between the specials becoming public on 7 October and the return of the writ on the 12th. “It’s your judgement that it’s unnecessary,” he responded to the journalist. “What’s wrong with that?” he said when asked if only a week of negotiations was enough time.

He disputed comments that he was holding the country to ransom, raising again that the final result would not be known until the special votes were in on 7 October. He even raised the prospect that the count might also not be finalised by that point. However, there was nothing about the planned timeline that meant talks couldn’t be finalised on the 12th.

Asked whether the short timeframe meant there was greater prospect of New Zealand First going on to the cross-benches instead of a formal coalition, he said: “nothing of the sort.”

Peters had earlier told media the discussion with National focussed on logistics. He said the parties did not talk about policy. He said the script was: “We need to have a talk about the protocols under which we’ll conduct these talks with both parties.”

He said talks would be “fair, confidential and above board.” NZF and National had agreed to meet at a certain place, and agreed that different teams would talk about different subject matters.

The negotions have begun

Earlier, National Party leader Bill English fronted a heavyweight negotiating team comprising Gerry Brownlee, Steven Joyce, Todd McClay, chief of staff Wayne Eagleson and chief policy advisor Cameron Burrows. 

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters took along deputy Ron Mark, MP Tracey Martin, chief of staff David Broome and advisor Paul Carrad.

The meeting, in one of the lower, non-political floors of the Beehive, is the first face-to-face between English and Peters since 23 September election results came in. 

Some power-points or a Skype attendee might be on the cards – a large projector screen had been set up in the room earlier Thursday morning.

Peters is also set to meet Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern this afternoon.

Hello, goodbye

National’s meeting with NZF was over about half an hour after its 10am start. On his way back to the office, Peters told media the meeting went well, but that the teams didn’t delve into policy.

As reported, Peters has said he’s waiting on the special vote results due at 2pm on Saturday 7 October, before entering more intense negotiations.

Ardern calls in Michael Cullen

Meanwhile, Labour Party leader met with Peters from 2pm. She led in a team including deputy Kelvin Davis, finance spokesman Grant Robertson, advisor Mike Munro and former Labour Finance Minister Michael Cullen. Chief of staff Neale Jones was also in the Labour team.

Different teams are expected when it comes down to specific policy negotiations after the 7th.

Policy work

That timeframe – waiting until the specials – has given each major a chance to run a fine comb over how their policy platforms fit with New Zealand First’s and whether there could be space for manoeuvre.

My understanding is that National had already done most of the heavy lifting on this before the election. Meanwhile, Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern early last week gave her front-bench 48 hours to run comparisons. Labour’s also been plugging guesses of NZ First policy costings into its fiscal parameters.

While New Zealand First’s policy platform fits much better with Labour, and even the Greens, than with National, this might not give direction as to what way Peters might go. As I wrote here, the fact that NZ First and National don’t fit that well could work to National’s advantage in that they can offer Peters the chance to be seen forcing them to change direction on a number of his bugbear policies.