Some what-ifs to that might have made a difference

Winston Peters has been back centre-stage, exactly where he likes to be. What if history had dealt him — and us — different cards?

What if in the last week of the 1999 election campaign Labour’s Tauranga candidate, Margaret Wilson, had suggested voters cast their electorate vote for the candidate who could beat Peters?

National’s Katherine O’Regan had led in two local polls. It is a fair bet 64 of Wilson’s voters would have voted for O’Regan, given her the seat and wiped out New Zealand First because it got only 4.3 per cent of the party vote.

It is highly unlikely New Zealand First could then have got 5 per cent in 2002, let alone the 10 per cent it got, let alone win seats in this Parliament.

So Peters would not have been in the mix these past four weeks. Talks to form a government would have been more straightforward.

Now test this 1996 what-if: if Helen Clark had been prepared to pay Peters’ price of the Treasurer’s post and difficult policy demands, might Labour and New Zealand First have formed a government after that election?

Probably not, because Peters, according to Michael Laws, always aimed to go with National (he is tribal National from the 1970s) and there was the problem with the Alliance. But if Clark had been in coalition with Peters post-1996 it is a fair bet her government would have disintegrated, just as National’s did in 1998.

In that event National would have been in power through the 2000s boom and so probably have now been in its third term.

Strategically, pushing Peters to Clark would have been the right game for National (and for Peters, given his voters’ expectations and their revenge in 1999). But National stands above all for power. Bolger correctly followed his party’s primary principle in accommodating Peters’ demands. Fat lot of good it did him. He was deposed in 1997, though then could grimly watch Jenny Shipley take the fall in 1999.

Don Brash is a smart learner. He has learnt National’s No 1 principle from Murray McCully (in whom he still has “total confidence”, he declared last week) and adjusted his principled one-law-for-all stand on the Treaty of Waitangi to pitch to Tariana Turia, who has scores to settle with Clark.

What if Clark had tried harder with the Maori party post-election? She fumes at private dinners that Turia is a traitor and has vented high displeasure to associates of one Maori party candidate. But with a bit less emotion and a bit more strategic focus Clark could have transcended her pique.

After all, despite Labour’s interpretation in 1996 that Peters’ negotiations with it had been a sham, she has been talking turkey with him this time.

Clark could have painted a picture to Pita Sharples, Hone Harawira and Te Ururoa Flavell of what she and they (and Turia) could do together — as Brash appears to have been doing. Sharples said on radio on Friday that “Dr Brash is seeing it (Maori policy) in a new light now. It was an ignorant policy that he had and I believe that he and ACT and everyone else is starting to learn from us”.

That sounds awfully like: “I think we could work with Brash.” (Even though overwhelmingly the Maori party voters said they didn’t want that, so to do so could well be suicide.)

Now try this what-if. If the Greens had stood an electorate candidate in every seat, the extra presence in the 17 electorates where it did not stand a candidate might have got it the 1243 extra party votes it needed for a seventh seat.

That would have sliced another seat off National and given the Labour-Anderton-Green combination 58 seats. Clark would then have needed only Peter Dunne to make a majority — eminently do-able, with Dunne as Foreign Minister, even though Dunne’s political body language suggests he will position himself nearer National next election.

Dunne alone would have been less galling for the Greens, too, than having Peters also in the mix, even though Dunne insisted the Greens stay below stairs. With Peters in, too, some Greens have mused that it might be better to endure a potentially short-lived rickety Brash government in the hope of a Labour-Greens-only affair afterwards.

Now let’s bounce a bigger ball. What if Clark had toughed it out on the foreshore and seabed?

The received political wisdom in 2003 — to which I subscribed and still subscribe — was that not to confiscate tribes’ right, granted by the Appeal Court, to seek title from the Maori Land Court would have been Labour’s death warrant, in last month’s election if not earlier. National would have made cartloads of hay out Labour allegedly letting “Maoris own the beaches”.

But what if Clark had let the decision stand and tribes had started taking cases and some had failed? The issue might have lost its potency. At least, there would have been no Maori party to encourage National to believe it had options last week.

Now, what if there had been a referendum on MMP in 2001 or 2002 as many people thought they had been promised? You fill in the blanks.