Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: All aboard the Laboureen

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The centre-left agreement aims to present voters a seaworthy rival.
National's portrayal of a hapless opposition at the last election.
National's portrayal of a hapless opposition at the last election.

Remember that TV ad from the last election? It centred on a pair of boats contesting a race of sorts. One sleek vessel, crewed by confident, co-ordinated and coxed oarspeople in blue, left their hapless rivals, a mix of green, red and purple bodies in a cruddy old dinghy, in their wake.

The commercial first aired on August 20, 2014, and attracted some controversy over a soundtrack that resembled the work of that well-known champion of centre-right causes, Eminem, the use of which National Party campaign boss Steven Joyce would later insist was "pretty legal". And it is the best available argument for the deal announced this week by the Labour and Green parties, who intend to start rowing in time towards the next election.

That boat may not have been a spectacularly imaginative metaphor, but it did the job very nicely.

The contrast of a stable, focused and unified government squared up against a wobbly, cross-purposed and rancorous alternative was only exacerbated by the emergence of Internet-Mana (hardly a resounding advertisement for political marriages, but let's call them an outlier).

Originally, the "coalition of losers" boat contained just red and green people; Joyce's team quickly realised they needed an Internet-Mana personification, so a greeny was digitally inked purple before broadcast.

In his contribution to Victoria University Press' Moments of Truth, a collection of views on that psychedelic 2014 election, Steven Joyce explains that the blue boat offered "a symbol that showed how New Zealand was a team that was working together and really starting to get somewhere". As for what Joyce calls "the 'Laboureens' boat", even before the purple enhancement, that was "a two-ended boat" packed with people "arguing with each other". Among the reasons to keep the ad in play was because the "opposition campaign steadily appeared more and more like that boat". There was the Internet-Mana stuff, of course, but also "the debate about the Greens wanting Labour's fiscal numbers checked" and "no co-ordination on policy announcements".

Notwithstanding a byelection blip in Northland, Joyce, helmsman of the last four National campaigns, has proved himself the most astute election strategist working in New Zealand. Labour and the Greens can hardly be blamed for taking his advice to start rowing in the same direction.

The Laboureen pact, to borrow Joyce's coinage, goes some way to spiking the National Party's guns, providing " and this is far from a given " the two parties can remain amicable and co-ordinated over the next 17 months. While both parties have calculated a risk that they could lose votes, for Labour it involves a more profound, tacit acknowledgement that they no longer can command, or not in the short-term at least, a 40 per cent-plus vote " as they approach their 100th birthday, the party's fortunes are almost certainly entwined with the Greens'.

As long as that is the case, they might as well make the best of it, and pragmatically send a message that they are serious about reaching government, grown-up about how MMP works, and acting constructively. Newshub's political editor Patrick Gower responded to the refusal to lay out who would get which positions in power by designing his own half-serious, half-mischievous (Shane Jones was there, as a NZ First MP) cabinet in a Labour-led government. This was regarded by some as an exercise in mockery. But given Labour's tribulations of recent times, the very appearance of the words "Labour-led government" in the media are a kind of triumph.

Some of the Green enthusiasm, however, has been over the top. A video clip posted online by the party announcing "This is a game-changer", and heralding "an historic agreement", has a sniff of the doth-protest-too-much about it, recalling John Ralston Saul's definition of "world class" in his Doubter's Companion: "A phrase used by provincial cities and second-rate entertainment and sports events, as well as a wide variety of insecure individuals, to assert that they are not provincial or second-rate, thereby confirming that they are."

It is odd that the Greens have been big-noting the memorandum of understanding: in this case, there should be nothing pejorative about saying it's not all that big of a deal. It simply sets out the stall for a co-ordinated campaign, semi-formalising an already broadly friendly and sympathetic relationship in personality and policy. All the same, they'll get plenty of opportunity to cock it up, and the appearance of crossed wires between Metiria Turei and Andrew Little on day one over their intention to enter coalition after the election " to which the response should surely be, "yes, that is absolutely our goal" " does not augur especially well.

Then there's the great known-unknown of New Zealand politics: Winston Peters. While he'll be doing everything in his power to woo any Labour supporters who loathe Those Bloody Greenies towards NZ First, it is hard to imagine him ruling out any governing relationship involving the Greens " that would throw away a lot of leverage. The idea of NZ First supporting a Labour-Green government, with some key ministers outside Cabinet, say, is not likely, but neither is it entirely far-fetched. Whether it could last is another matter.

For all the hazards, the deal makes sense. Many have argued that it is impossible to see how either party stands to gain, but as the last election evidenced, to Joyce's great satisfaction, lack of co-ordination hurt them. Whether or not the Laboureen announcement increases their support immediately is much less important than whether the commitments it lays out lead to them working better, together and separately, as they make a pitch to the electorate in 2017. If they get it right, both will look more stable, government-ready, sea-worthy.

Joyce will hardly be awake at night fretting about the reupholstered Laboureen hydra. As long as John Key sticks around he is blessed as a campaign manager with a formidably popular and proficient leader. With or without a Winston-shaped outrigger, National remains comfortably placed for a fourth term. But the deal, if it avoids the main pitfalls, at least puts Labour and Greens in the game. The two red and green parties would do well, as they strive to keep their discipline, to play that boat ad at every caucus meeting up to the election. If they can find a copy, that is: despite being, you know, pretty legal, it has vanished from YouTube.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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