Keep calm and wait on . . .

Weekend Herald - - DECISION 2017 -

For six long days the mi­asma of para­noia hung over the Par­lia­men­tary com­plex as NZ First, Na­tional and Labour trudged to and from a room on neu­tral ter­ri­tory for pow­wows.

On the very first round of talks, the par­ties had agreed to ab­so­lute con­fi­den­tial­ity. No phones were to be taken into the meet­ing room.

The se­crecy was such that staff were too pet­ri­fied to talk to any­one — or even to look at Peters and the NZ First crew.

Those who came across Peters round the traps would quickly look away again as if he was the basilisk or Sodom and could turn them to a pil­lar of salt. Staff seen hav­ing per­fectly nor­mal civil ex­changes with a jour­nal­ist were in­ter­ro­gated af­ter­ward. Even the lo­qua­cious Shane Jones was silent.

It was wartime Bri­tain. They may as well have put the posters up. Tit­tle tat­tle lost the bat­tle, loose lips sink ships. Beware of fe­male spies, keep mum: she’s not so dumb and all that.

For the me­dia this meant long days of invit­ing haem­or­rhoids by sit­ting on cold tiled floors. Some re­sorted to count­ing those tiles to pass the time.

At least there was a dead­line — the Oc­to­ber 12 date Peters gave back be­fore the elec­tion and stuck to de­ter­minedly since then — although it eroded from a dead­line for the fi­nal de­ci­sion, to a ‘ tar­get’ to the days the talks proper would end and talks oc­ca­sional be­gan.

With noth­ing to re­port on, the te­dium was punc­tu­ated by the most triv­ial of events.

The es­ca­la­tor that went up­wards in the tun­nel be­tween Bowen House and Parliament House was bro­ken on day one. It stayed bro­ken and be­came sym­bolic of the talks, the elec­toral sys­tem, the coun­try. It left Peters with one slow jud­der­ing lift to make his way to and fro with his team. By Fri­day even Aus­tralia’s Parliament had learned of the bro­ken es­ca­la­tor and tweeted “all our es­ca­la­tors are work­ing per­fectly”.

The most trans­par­ent event of the week hap­pened on Tues­day when Labour leader Jacinda Ardern took bis­cuits into the meet­ing — ginger­nuts and choco­late wheat­ens. She car­ried them openly, on top of a folder. It seemed she too was tak­ing tips from the old wartime posters: Help win the war on the kitchen front.

By the next day, even baked goods were clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion.

Ardern took a gin­ger loaf into the meet­ing, baked by a staff mem­ber — but she car­ried it in her case so no me­dia could see it.

When this re­porter learned of it any­way and dared to tweet it, an in­qui­si­tion was mounted into how the re­porter had known of it. Was some­one Speak­ing Out of Turn on sen­si­tive mat­ters such as baked goods?

When Ardern was also sprung go­ing into Peters’ reg­u­lar haunt — the Green Par­rot — sus­pi­cion of a spy in the camp reached fever pitch.

“You can’t even have a schnitzel in peace,” Ardern sighed af­ter her din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence was re­ported on. Not if you go to Peters’ sec­ond home you can’t, no.

The same re­porter could also have told Ardern her baked goods diplomacy was fu­tile any­way. Peters had pre­vi­ously re­vealed he very, very rarely ate cake, hav­ing for­saken it years ago. He pre­ferred savoury food.

On an­other day, a staffer was seen de­liv­er­ing a pot of tea to the room for Na­tional’s Gerry Brown­lee, prompt­ing de­bate about whether Steven Joyce’s much vaunted tea- mak­ing skills were up to scratch.

It was gru­elling for staff as well. The poor staff in Bowen House, where Peters re­sides, were sub­jected to a pha­lanx of cam­eras point­ing at them ev­ery time the lift doors opened in case Peters was in the lift.

Pop­ping out for lunch re­quired ex­tra for­ti­tude.

Some­times the par­ties in­volved tried to make up for the lack of in­for­ma­tion with snacks. The Greens were most gen­er­ous, de­liv­er­ing on one day pack­ets of bis­cuits and on an­other slabs of choco­late. On the very first day Labour’s fi­nance spokesman Grant Robert­son dropped off lolly cups. Af­ter that day, he was in the ne­go­ti­at­ing team and steered clear.

NZ First learned of this, and its chief of staff David Broome ap­peared on the fi­nal day with L& P choco­late bis­cuits, glo­ri­ously old- fash­ioned Milk Ar­row­roots and the pos­i­tively whacko co­conut and ly­chee Tim Tams. Even Sky News Aus­tralia ded­i­cated some time to analysing this choice.

Hav­ing for­bid­den ev­ery­body from talk­ing about any­thing at all, Peters first be­rated jour­nal­ists at length for try­ing to get him to talk about the gov­ern­ment for­ma­tion talks. When they in­stead asked about triv­ial things such as the gin­ger loaf in the hope of get­ting any an­swer at all, he be­rated the jour­nal­ists for ask­ing about that in­stead of about im­por­tant things such as the gov­ern­ment for­ma­tion talks.

Then on Thurs­day it ended, just as Peters had proph­e­sied* (* ac­tual con­tents may dif­fer from those de­scribed). Re­turn­ing from his fi­nal, fi­nal (* ac­tual con­tents may dif­fer from those de­scribed) talks with Labour, Peters wan­dered into the wait­ing me­dia pack and sighed.

How sad he was that he had not been able to tell re­porters more on these trips back and forth, 10 times a day.

Alas, he had been sub­jected to a con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment that for­bade it. He had, he said, found it all very “em­bar­rass­ing” be­ing asked ques­tions that he could not an­swer.

He was mor­ti­fied by his need for si­lence, even though he had im­posed it him­self. Af­ter it had ended, it con­tin­ued. On Fri­day, Peters turned up with a tie that had ‘ TGIF’ [ Thank God it’s Fri­day] on it. The me­dia re­turned to the piles- in­duc­ing tiles. There were no snacks. Some clutched pho­tos of the NZ First board mem­bers so they would recog­nise them if they passed. Soon af­ter lunchtime, Peters an­nounced he was rein­vent­ing week­ends. The board would not meet un­til Mon­day. When it met, who knew how long it would meet for? The tiles would be put through a few more stake­outs yet.

Staff seen hav­ing per­fectly nor­mal civil ex­changes with a jour­nal­ist were in­ter­ro­gated af­ter­ward.

Pic­tures / Mark Mitchell

Win­ston Peters was un­likely to have been swayed by the baked goods brought into talks by Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.

Claire Trevett

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