Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First look uncannily like a united opposition as they join forces in a three-pronged assault on John Key's administration. Jonathan Milne goes behind the scenes with the key players in the plot to overthrow the Government.

Get a haircut and get a real job. That's what they've been telling him, those PR gurus and makeup artists and socialites. You want to be Prime Minister? Stop being so damn worthy. Get yourself some snappy dark suits. And, for goodness' sake, get rid of that ridiculous fluff on the top of your head.

"I choose my own clothes," says David Shearer, frustrated. "I looked at all my suits and I thought, well, please tell me which of those is not dark?"

But last week, the new Labour leader got a haircut. It wasn't with Rodney Wayne or Bianca Fallon or any of the other red-carpet stylists. He didn't ask the advice of his press secretary, the former TVNZ journalist Fran Mold, or any of the army of image consultants that await his call. Nope.

He was on Auckland's North Shore visiting his mum and he popped around the corner to his regular barber shop, Takapuna Men's Hairdressers on Lake Rd.


Lesa, the owner, wasn't there, so Tristan Rua cut his hair. "It was pretty much a tidy-up," says 39-year-old Rua. "We didn't talk politics. We talked about the fire at The Backbencher pub - I said there'd be room now for a puppet of him."

Rua describes the haircut as a short back and sides, plus trimming back the fluff on top.

"It doesn't matter what you do as long as you're clean and tidy. It's not important how much your clothes cost. What is important are the issues of the day."

Shearer paid his $23 and left. Really, he should have hired Rua as a political adviser.

You've got to know when to count your dollars and cents. The amount you spend at the barber's or tailor's may not matter much, but your spending habits suddenly become important when you want to be Prime Minister of a country whose biggest bank says the economy is "moving into the danger zone" with a current account deficit approaching 5 per cent of gross domestic product. Those numbers matter.

The Government has had a hell of a few months trying and failing to balance the books and Shearer would like to claim the credit for putting them under the spotlight of public scrutiny. So too would the Green Party co-leaders, Russel Norman and Metiria Turei and NZ First leader Winston Peters.

The teachers' unions would probably like to claim the credit for putting the Government on the back foot, as would a fair few parents who didn't like the idea of their child having to share a class with nearly 40 others. There's the student unions and Grey Power too - they're all campaigning against asset sales. Even Michelle Boag, the former National Party president turned ACC agitator would probably happily take a share of the credit for the Government's woes.

According to Prime Minister John Key, these are the numbers that matter: "Voters returned the National Party to Government with a resounding mandate, delivering National its largest share of the vote in the history of MMP, while Labour slumped to its worst result since the 1930s."

Raising an estimated $5 to $7 billion through the partial sale of state assets is an election commitment to protect New Zealand's economy, he says. "We will create more jobs and higher incomes for New Zealanders. We will not be funding this through increasing government debt and ever-increased government spending as has happened in the past."

But here are some more numbers that matter:

5. The number of heads to roll after ACC leaked the names of claimants at their Sensitive Claims Unit, most the victims of sexual harassment. Already, Cabinet minister Nick Smith and four ACC board members or executives have quit.

65. The age of entitlement to national super for ever and ever, amen, at least according to Key. Can the country afford to pay for the growing number of superannuitants? On current projections, young couples starting out in the workforce now will eventually have to support a pensioner each.

400. The extra pokie machines that SkyCity casino would like as a trade-off for building Key a $350 million National Convention Centre. The Auditor-General is looking into the deal.

1010. The number of schools that were going to lose funding for teachers, until the Government backed off on controversial plans to save money by increasing class sizes. "We lost the PR battle," Key admitted in this week's NZ Listener.

$5-7 billion. The best guesstimate we can get from the Government of what they'll get for hocking off up to 49 per cent of shares in our four state-owned energy companies and some of our koru-branded jetliners. An estimated 100,000-plus Kiwis have already signed a petition against the sales.

47.9%. National's rating in this week's Key Research-Herald on Sunday poll - about the same as its election result but less than the combined opposition parties.

$7.80. The cost of a packet of 12 Nurofen in the Beehive store - just what Key may need on his way to Cabinet tomorrow.

So if Key has a bit of a headache this month, who's been smacking him around the ears?
Once, Labour was Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition and it was the party's job to hold the Government to account. Now, with NZ First back in Parliament and the Green caucus nearly doubled in size, the honours are shared.

Month by month, the leaders of all three parties have been steadily winning more media coverage for their public statements, and the Green co-leaders, in particular, are making a big impact.

This month, for the first time, their names have featured as often in the nation's papers as Shearer's and more than Peters'.

This month, too, the three parties joined forces to push the petition for a citizens-initiated referendum to stop the Government's part-sale of state-owned energy companies and Air NZ. They present a weirdly united front. As long as they can hold that together, Key could be in trouble.

But as the three-year Parliamentary term passes by and it becomes apparent they are fighting for the same votes, that unity will become ever harder to maintain.

When you meet politicians in real life, you often discover they are shorter than you expect. Not Shearer, though. He's tall and he has to turn his knees sideways as he sits down on the couch in TVNZ's Breakfast studio.

It's just after 7.15am and they're on an ad break. Rawdon Christie and Petra Bagust can't resist teasing him about the morning's Herald. There, gossip columnist Rachel Glucina described Shearer's appearance at the NZ Woman's Weekly 80th birthday party as suave. "One female suggested Shearer looked like a sex-god rock star," she wrote. "Admittedly, he was dressed in head-to-toe black with a few chest hairs visible."

Shearer claims he hasn't yet read it and is saved by the floor manager counting them in from the break - and it's straight to the debate about the retirement age. Leaving it at 65 is a "potential time bomb", the Labour leader tells viewers, that will hurt the next generation. "I've had a fantastic upbringing. I don't think my kids should have anything less."

As Shearer strides across Auckland's Victoria St after the interview, it's still dark. A white Holden Statesman corporate cab is at the kerb, engine idling. His wheeled suitcase and leather satchel are already inside. Off to the airport, heading for the weekly meeting with his caucus of 34 MPs in Wellington and then the Prime Minister's Question Time in Parliament.

In the car, he calls Radio Waatea for a scheduled interview. "Winston and I get on very well and we always have," he assures host Dale Husband. "We're going to have differences over policy but we have this quiet co-operation in the House."

There were criticisms this year that Shearer was invisible, that his deputy Grant Robertson, erstwhile leadership challenger David Cunliffe and other political parties were stealing his thunder. But Shearer insists his face is now being recognised in the street, or at National Fieldays. Members of the public approach him at the airport.

He has his work cut out, trying to do battle with the Government and win the confidence of his own party. There have been claims Robertson has filled the top Parliamentary and party positions with his own friends and allies.

In the latest development, former Christchurch Central MP Tim Barnett, who has been in Cape Town leading the campaign against Africa's Aids epidemic, confirms to the Herald on Sunday that he has thrown his hat in the ring for the job of Labour Party general secretary. Barnett is one of several senior figures who have been reviewing Labour's constitution, proposing to restructure it in a manner that might give members greater control over the leadership and policy of the party.

Certainly, they need to do something, because the party is riven with factions. Former Christchurch mayor Garry Moore, a respected party stalwart, reveals he has been on the verge of quitting the party this year because he is unhappy with the petty politicking - and he says that if Barnett gets the job, "I will be polishing up my resignation letter again". These are the sorts of deep wounds that Shearer must heal.

Shearer has been an MP for just three years and likes to portray himself as the political outsider, the ordinary bloke, the real deal. His back story is well-known: years in Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, wearing flak jackets and negotiating UN food convoys past machine gun-toting militants and warlords. Famously, there was the time in Mogadishu when his wife Anuschka was kidnapped at the point of an AK47 and he had to negotiate her release.

So what's he doing here, when he could be back in the Middle East fixing the whole world's problems? "I spent 20 years doing that sort of work but I'm a New Zealander," he says. "I'm a pretty passionate New Zealander and being able to do something for your own people is pretty important."

Here, of course, there's no flak jacket. Shearer is wearing an airforce-blue pinstriped suit from Working Style and a Boss tie. All he has to protect himself are his wits and a pleasant demeanour.

In the debating chamber that afternoon for the debate over partial asset sales, he needs them. He's head-to-head in Question Time with Key, another leader who arrived from outside "the system", promising to be a breath of fresh air. Now Key has become the consummate politician.

And Shearer, too, seems to have learned a lot. Once slow and stammering, he now addresses the House in a clear and emphatic voice. He parries and lunges at the Prime Minister and his deputy, Bill English.

"Mr Chairman, we're getting to the end of what is, I think for most New Zealanders, an obnoxious piece of legislation," he roars.

The peacemaker has become the militant, and it prompts the question: if voters liked him for his inexperience and political naivete, will they like him less as he develops into an effective politician?

At seven the next morning, again, it's dark. Clad in a long black overcoat, Green Party co-leader Russel Norman stands in the cold and wet outside the doors of the TV3 offices in Wellington - but no one replies to his calls, asking to be let in. Eventually, another worker arrives, swipes her way in, and he follows her through the doors and into the lift.

This studio is far smaller than the TVNZ one and the walls are lined with old plywood backdrops. Taped to one wall, a couple of pieces of paper provide directions for setting up the evening weather cross for Augie Auer. (Auer retired as TV3 weatherman in 2002 and died five years later).

A lone cameraman emerges, pats some makeup on to the Green co-leader's face, hooks him up to a microphone and seats him behind a desk.

Norman is being interviewed by Firstline host Rachel Smalley at the Auckland studio but he can't see her - apparently the piece of technology that would have provided him a moving picture has been mislaid in Wanganui. Instead, he talks to a still photograph of her face.

The political activists and Grey Power members have collected about 80,000 signatures for the petition against asset sales, he tells her face. "It's very tight. We'll keep on pushing away at it. People know it's very unpopular."

Afterwards, the plan is to share a taxi from TV3 to Parliament but no one has told Norman. "I was planning to catch a bus," he demurs. So we set off on foot through the Wellington rain, to seek out a bus stop.

The Greens' senior leadership gather around the caucus room table - communications director Andrew Campbell, chief of staff Ken Spagnolo and political director Alex Smith, Russel Norman and his co-leader Metiria Turei, who wanders in with a fresh plunge-pot of coffee. Fair trade and organic, no doubt. She's a bit grumpy at discovering someone has been wasting electricity. "They turned on some of the lights, did you notice? I went round and turned them off again."

This is the daily strategy meeting at which they plot to overthrow the government. The other MPs and staff are not invited.

Key is trying to rescue his mixed-ownership asset-sales plan by offering a "loyalty bonus" to mum and dad investors who buy shares and hold on to them, keeping them in New Zealand hands, but the Green leaders are not convinced. They reckon it means low-income taxpayers subsidising those who are wealthy enough to invest in shares.

"I think we need to change the language," says Campbell. "We need to call it something like a 'winners' bonus'."

This is a new, aggressive Green Party. The party that once eschewed combative politics now boasts that it has professionalised. They wear suits and ties. They're not afraid to put the boot into Key. "We are clearer and more focused in our language and we're relentless in getting our points across," says Turei. "That's our job. To put pressure on them and to make them squirm over decisions that are demonstrably bad for the country."

Her co-leader agrees. After the election, says Norman, they sat down for a chat with Key and his senior advisers. The problem, they told him, was that he and his Government were inseparable. They would be attacking his Government - and that meant attacking him personally.

Neither Norman nor Turei seems unduly concerned by this.

The Parliamentary debate over the Mixed Ownership Model Bill overshadows the entire week. Everyone is watching, listening, sniffing the air. Debates on government bills are mostly pro forma, ritual re-enactment battles in which everyone dresses up in coloured uniforms and plays their assigned part and the outcome is never in doubt. Not this one though. The Maori Party, which is signed up to support the Government, has broken ranks and is voting with the opposition. Key has a buffer of only one vote in Parliament. Anything could happen.

When Jenny Shipley's National-led Government tried to sell off Wellington Airport in 1998, it ripped apart her fragile coalition. Winston Peters and seven of his NZ First MPs walked out of government and into opposition.

Now, a reinvigorated Peters is back in Parliament and he's made it clear that the sale of public assets is, again, a bottom line. He won't go there.

Peters has a new, energetic bunch of MPs and they've been straight into the fray. Denis O'Rorke has already delivered 22 speeches in the House. Tracey Martin chips away in Parliament like, well, a chipmunk. And Brendan Horan apparently has a fine baritone voice for those evening singalongs.

The thing with interviewing Peters is you can try chucking the tough questions at him and he'll give you a broad grin and run in circles with the answer. He makes your head hurt, makes you long for some of those Nurofens. So, instead, the path of least resistance and a patsy question: How would he characterise Key's demeanour?
"He's gone from being Mr Happy-and-Smiling to being tetchy, short-tempered, deliberately obtuse, abusive and frequently frustrated. He exhibits all the characteristics now of a money trader. Instantaneous decision, then move on to the next deal."

And what about Shearer?

No, Peters is not interested in cheap shots at the other opposition leaders. This is the man who previously called Helen Clark the "black widow spider" of politics for swallowing her coalition partners but he has nothing bad to say about her present-day counterpart.

"David's just got the job recently. It's for his caucus to judge him. I felt free to criticise John Key as soon as I knew what his character was about and I think the New Zealand public is coming to agree with me. Shearer is entitled to some more time."

So could it be that the opposition is actually united, at least for now? Take this week's tweet from young Labour frontbencher Jacinda Ardern: "There are few things that have given me joy in this asset-sales debate, but watching Winston annihilate any Nat MP who interrupts him is one."

Peters is no longer ruling out working with the Greens, and Norman says they're happy to reciprocate. "Sure. We work with Winston. We're working with him on the citizens-initiated referendum on asset sales. We'll work with anyone to make good green change. That's what we do."

It's all rather buddy-buddy. Depending on your politics, it's collegial and constructive, it's sickly sweet, or it's suspicious as hell. How can three parties who disagree so fundamentally on so many issues - such as raising the retirement age and immigration - turn around and work together? How long can it last?

Key, for one, expresses confidence that he and his ministers are communicating the Government's key messages. "I am out there virtually every day, talking about our comprehensive plans and our vision to make New Zealand a better place."

Shearer may be new to the game but his deputy Robertson has been around for a long time. He worked in Clark's office before winning the Wellington Central electorate. He knows people and understands how the machine works.

"We would go through periods when things just didn't quite seem to go your way when you're in government," Robertson says. "This is the most sustained period I can remember of things just not working for a government. They have barely been able to make a positive story all year long."

So is his leader tough enough to capitalise? "David by his personality is a positive person. He wants to make change, he wants to be part of making a difference. He hasn't spent as much time as I have around this area. David is capable of taking it to the Government and he has. David has a core of steel."

Robertson is not worried that Shearer's Mr Nice Guy approach might leave him in the shadows of the Greens, NZ First or indeed, his own deputy. "I am not going to challenge for the leadership this term," the deputy leader says.

"I do think what's interesting about the Greens' approach is that they have joined in on the so-called scandals that they never used to. So they were asking questions about John Banks and his resignation. They went into the ACC scandalous stuff as well. They have definitely changed their approach."

Does he mean they're playing dirty? "Well, they are!"

Wellington insider Mark Unsworth, a high-powered lobbyist who makes it his job to know all the MPs, points to that same contrast between gentle Shearer and the tough new Greens.

"The people who complained about John Key being Mr Smile-and-Wave and having no steel have been proved wrong. Maybe Shearer will prove everyone wrong as well - you do need that internal toughness.

"But the Greens have moved to a new level of professionalism. Corporate New Zealand wants to talk to them. Norman is always in a smart suit and tie, always doing the quality slots on TV and radio, always acquitting himself well. There's an extra edge. It used to be they didn't play the man. Well, they do play the man now and they look pretty comfortable doing it.

"New Zealand First is getting lots of coverage, too. Winston still takes charge in the debating chamber. I'm not sure that there's a lot of positive stuff - it's all very negative. They tend to fire guns in a lot of directions. If I was the Government, I'd be a bit nervous about the way they're working together. But when it comes to the year before the election, they'll want their own space and the gloves will be off."

It's reassuring to know that some things never change.

Shearer and Norman are fresh faces, bright and breezy early in the morning - but Peters is famously a night owl.

The interview's finished and it's after 6pm. "Right, I'll buy you a glass of wine," Peters says. And he leads the way across the road to the pub.