CRUNCH TIME

The phoney war is over. This morn­ing, the lead­ers fly into Welling­ton. To­day, the real hag­gling be­gins. The big win­ners will be gen­er­a­tions of el­derly, as Peters locks the su­per age at 65 and ex­tends his Su­perGold card. But the big­gest win­ner of all to­day

Sunday Star-Times - - FRONT PAGE - JO MOIR, TRACY WATKINS AND AMANDA SAXTON

It’s game on. Coali­tion ne­go­ti­a­tions will get un­der way in earnest this morn­ing as NZ First leader Win­ston Peters be­gins four days of meet­ings to de­cide who he will form the next Gov­ern­ment with. Peters is head­ing back to Welling­ton from his North­land bolt­hole while Na­tional leader Bill English and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern jet in from op­po­site ends of the coun­try to be­gin talks.

The NZ First leader main­tains they will be wrapped up by Thurs­day.

Both main party lead­ers will be vy­ing to make an of­fer Peters can’t refuse with­out aban­don­ing their core prin­ci­ples in a game of po­lit­i­cal brinks­man­ship that plays per­fectly into the wily old cam­paigner’s hands. He is tipped to de­mand the min­is­te­rial posts of for­eign af­fairs and rac­ing.

Af­ter spe­cial votes were counted yes­ter­day, Labour and the Greens gained one seat each, mean­ing a Na­tional/NZ First coali­tion would reach 65 seats while Labour/Greens/ NZ First would get to 63 seats – a ma­jor­ity with two votes to spare.

Gen­er­a­tions of su­per­an­nu­i­tants will be the big win­ners, with Peters ex­pected to win key pol­icy con­ces­sions around NZ Su­per and the Su­perGold Card.

Na­tional an­nounced ear­lier this year it would raise the re­tire­ment age to 67 in 2030 but Peters is ex­pected to make it a con­di­tion of any deal that the age be rolled back to 65. Peters is set to build on his legacy Su­perGold Card, ex­tend­ing it from pub­lic trans­port to a full-fledged e-wal­let pro­vid­ing dis­counts on doc­tors’ vis­its and eye tests, and per­haps even power bills.

Last night at the Grey Lynn Re­turned Ser­vices Club in Auck­land, vot­ers were con­fi­dent Peters would take care of them.

Gil­lian Ri­ley, 57, said she hoped Peters would tilt to the Left.

Ri­ley’s main con­cern this elec­tion was the su­per­an­nu­a­tion age hike that Na­tional had pro­posed.

Usu­ally an NZ First voter, Ri­ley backed Labour be­cause she ‘‘thought they needed a bit of help this time’’.

‘‘I’m glad Win­ston will be in Gov­ern­ment re­gard­less, though,’’ she said.

Among other pledges, Peters’ com­mit­ment to re­cov­er­ing the bod­ies of the Pike River min­ers will be a non­nego­tiable.

Na­tional and Labour will have to make some big con­ces­sions. Peters ran a hard line against Labour’s wa­ter tax and wants that reined in, ex­cept for a tax on wa­ter bot­tlers.

The Greens could still emerge as a ma­jor stum­bling block for Peters, and he would likely de­mand they re­main on the cross-benches sup­port­ing the Gov­ern­ment on sup­ply and con­fi­dence, as the price of a deal with Labour.

Peters told New­stalk ZB that mak­ing a de­ci­sion by Thurs­day – his self­im­posed dead­line – was still com­pletely do-able.

‘‘It was al­ways go­ing to change and so the spe­cial votes were al­ways im­por­tant for that rea­son and know­ing the facts now as we have them puts us in a bet­ter per­spec­tive to make judg­ments,’’ he said. ‘‘It is not go­ing to be a sim­ple ex­er­cise.’’

‘‘It is ex­traor­di­nar­ily com­plex and you’ve got to have re­gard to ev­ery one of your col­leagues and the mem­ber of your board’s views,’’ he said.

Ardern said she was con­fi­dent she would be­come Prime Min­is­ter, and said she would be ‘‘proud’’ to lead a Labour-Green-NZ First coali­tion. The re­sult strength­ened the man­date for change and ‘‘for ne­go­ti­a­tions to con­tinue in earnest’’.

She added the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple voted for a change to the sta­tus quo and over the com­ing days Labour would ‘‘fo­cus all its ef­forts on com­plet­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions’’.

English said the fi­nal re­sult made it clear Na­tional had fin­ished 10 seats ahead of the Labour Party and ahead of the Labour-Greens bloc.

Cater­ers will be work­ing over­time in the Bee­hive to­day as talks be­gin on neu­tral ter­ri­tory – a meet­ing room be­tween the Bee­hive and Par­lia­ment build­ings on level two.

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