Long-serving MP Winston Peters is having a week of it.
He is to take over from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as soon as her baby is due and he announced this week he is suing the Government.
There has been speculation this week in the wake of New Zealand First's hanging out to dry of Justice Minister Andrew Little over the proposed repeal of the “three strikes law” that a melt-down in the coalition is imminent.
Former long-serving MP Peter Dunne said nearly 20 years ago, New Zealand's first MMP coalition government collapsed. It was not a dramatic implosion on a major point of principle but was provoked by a comparatively minor issue - a proposal to sell the Government's shares in Wellington Airport - and came after a series of disagreements between the coalition partners on various aspects of policy.
“While it is far too soon to draw conclusion parallels, the 1998 experience does set out some road marks to watch out for,” Dunne said.
Immediately after formation of the 1996-98 coalition, NZ First's standing in the opinion polls slumped to the point where one senior National MP at the time famously described them as “dog tucker.”
National MPs became genuinely concerned their party and leadership were conceding too much, consequently threatening their own future electoral prospects.
There was speculation the current Coalition Government was being dominated by the whims of NZ First, though the talk seemed limited to the media commentariat, at this stage, Dunne said.
No Labour MPs had yet broken ranks to make that complaint but a long winter and some tough decisions lay ahead.
During 1996-98, there had been a series of public differences between National and NZ First ministers on a range of issues. So far, this time, the spat over three strikes had been the most obvious. But the seemingly general poor communication between ministers suggested the three strikes debacle would not be the last seen of that type.
The third prong of the 1996-98 era was the mounting public concern the tail was wagging the coalition dog and National was not standing up sufficiently strongly, he said.
“There is no real evidence of that feeling emerging at present. Though the next few weeks when the NZ First leader (Winston Peters) is acting Prime Minister could change that.”
One factor present in the current situation not there in 1996-98 and which made the Government potentially more vulnerable was not having a majority in Parliament.
The Coalition had to rely on the Greens as a confidence and supply partner to achieve a majority. There had been hopes the Greens might be the conscience and moral backbone of the Government. So far, the allure of power for the first time had supplanted that hope and the Greens could not be expected any more to do anything to put the Government at risk, Dunne said.
All of which came back to the dynamic between Labour and NZ First, and Ms Ardern and Peters in particular, determining the fate of the current coalition. Ms Ardern's authority is currently unquestioned but generally unexercised, so far.
It there came a time when the perception changed and Ms Ardern, through either circumstances or her own inaction, came to be seen as weak and in the thrall of Peters, pressure on the coalition would intensify.
As the 1998 coalition collapse showed, a combination of circumstances came together to the point where a relatively small issue triggered the demise, Dunne said.
“Though similar circumstances exist at present, they do not yet show any sign of coming together in such a way to engineer a repeat of 1998.”
Nevertheless, each of them had the capacity to be the thread to start the unravelling process.
Winston Peters was beginning to display all over again the same traits that saw him sacked from the Cabinet in 1991, sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998 and suspended as a minister in 2008 - suggesting leopards really cannot change their spots.
“In which case, the next 12 months have suddenly become much more interesting.”
*Dene Mackenzie is the political editor of the Otago Daily Times.