John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Bumpy rides on both sides of the divide

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The polls are now starting to point to the possibility of a Labour-Greens Government after 2014. Labour leader David Shearer, left, and Green party co-leader Russel Norman. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The polls are now starting to point to the possibility of a Labour-Greens Government after 2014. Labour leader David Shearer, left, and Green party co-leader Russel Norman. Photo / Mark Mitchell

National's in strife, but it's not easy for Labour and Greens either

In the Prime Minister's not-so-good books on Monday, possum in the media's headlights on Tuesday, political road-kill by Thursday.

The longer the week went on, the more strained, watery and forced Hekia Parata's smile became, and the more evasive, disconnected and empty of meaning were her jargon-filled replies to questions.

The Minister of Education's misery levels rose in inverse proportion to her plunging credibility as she found herself being hounded by the Opposition inside Parliament and the media, teacher unions and parents outside after her monumental gaffe in announcing alterations in funding formulas without first assessing the full effect on individual schools' teacher numbers.

The obvious question is whether this blunder will be the one on an ever-lengthening list of happenings which have blighted the Government this year that finally tips the balance and makes a significant number of those who voted National at last year's election shift allegiance.

Whatever, it is all sweet music to the ears of Labour which did by far the most of the Opposition running.

Not that it had to do very much. Rather than back down completely and remedy Parata's pre-Budget bungle by reverting to the current formulas, the Prime Minister produced a compromise which only further alienated teachers and parents.

This episode has underlined the importance of Labour's not-always beneficial alliance with the always noisy education unions. That enabled Labour to "own" the issue, leaving the Greens very much playing second fiddle.

The lesson the Greens are taking is that if they are going to move from niche status to the political mainstream, make lasting inroads into Labour' s core support, and - in their dreams - even supplant Labour as the dominant force on the centre-left, they must be highly visible on mainstream issues like education.

Not only that. With no track record in Government to highlight, the Greens will have to consistently do better than Labour in terms of persuasive argument and impact.

It is a tall order. Even so, starting their Queen's Birthday weekend conference today, the Greens can justifiably claim to have outshone Labour in the six months since last year's election.

That is in large part thanks to a high-octane performance by Russel Norman. The party's co-leader has made a full-on and continuing assault on National's proud claim to be the most trusted party when it comes to managing the fiscal books.

In doing so, Norman's real aim was to show that the Greens, too, are now a party equally aware of the public's strong desire for balanced Budgets, even if a capital gains tax is necessary to achieve it.

Labour has been left trailing in the dust. Whereas the Greens have simply carried on from where they left off at last year's election, Labour's new leadership has had to undertake a major policy rethink after the ballot box walloping by National, and David Shearer has inevitably taken time to find his feet.

The Greens have profited accordingly, hitting 17 per cent in one poll while in others holding the gains made in the election, when the party won nearly 12 per cent of the party vote - just under half of what Labour registered in its worst performance since the 1920s.

That era was when Labour was on the rise - and the last time there was any real seismic shift in the political landscape of the scale the rise of the Greens may produce.

Since then there has been no shortage of pretenders to Labour's throne. Most have briefly flourished when Labour has been out of public favour. All have failed to lift the crown as Labour has recovered and voters have reverted to their default setting.

That was the fate of the Values Party, the precursors of the Greens and whose 40th "birthday" was yesterday marked by a day-long forum before the main conference.

Recognised as the world's first national-level environment-focussed party, Values recorded a healthy 5.2 per cent of the vote in 1975 as Labour crashed to a landslide defeat at the hands of National's Sir Rob Muldoon.

Two elections later and wracked by internal division, Values stood in only 17 of the 92 electorates and was accordingly rewarded with 0.2 per cent of the vote.

Can the Greens defy history? The going will get harder as Labour regroups. And the Greens know it.

They believe they have one crucial advantage that other parties out to break the National-Labour oligopoly lacked.

That is that in a world of finite resources, political debate will be increasingly framed in the Greens' terms. Maybe. It has not escaped the Greens' notice that Shearer wants to "green "Labour for similar reasons, and with that in mind, appointed his hugely capable deputy Grant Robertson as the party's environment spokesman.

But economic growth is the immediate priority in most voters' minds - one reason Norman has sought to retain the political initiative on economic policy.

The necessity for the Greens to be across almost every issue has prompted a beefing-up of resources and intellectual firepower in the co-leaders' offices at Parliament, while former cabinet minister Laila Harre has taken the newly-created position of issues director, based in Auckland.

The Greens have also put more effort than other parties into raising the profiles of their new MPs, and the benefits are starting to show.

While making maximum use of social media such as Facebook, the party is also looking at more of an on-the-ground presence in traditional Labour strongholds like south Auckland.

While all this is in line with the conference's theme of "Growing the Greens", National's noticeable shift to the right has produced a new dynamic.

A National-Greens government is now out of the question, if it ever was in question. The polls are now starting to point to the possibility of a Labour-Greens Government after 2014.

Labour's fear is that a high ratio of Green MPs and corresponding representation around the Cabinet table will make governing extremely difficult.

At the same time, the two parties must show such a government is a workable proposition.

However, the Greens are no longer willing to be ghettoised on Labour's left with nobody else to turn to - and thus at risk of irrelevance if their support drops in the polls.

That is why they want to keep their memorandum of understanding with National alive even if National is unwilling to expand co-operation into new areas.

The agreement helps keep the Greens relevant. Ultimately, they need to keep feeding the polls to keep relevant. Inevitably, that will mean going after votes at Labour's expense.

If the numbers add up there will be a Labour-Greens coalition. But getting there is going to be a bumpy ride.

- NZ Herald

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