Thanks to New Zealand's three-year terms, a general election is always in the recent past or the near future. As of this week the halftime whistle has blown, and we're now assuredly closer to the next polling day than the last. If that doesn't quite signal a lurch into campaign mode, it certainly invites a taking of stock and a girding of loins.
For Labour, the predominant pose at the midway point is a furrowing of brows. The party had hoped that in the lead-up to its 100th birthday in July, things would be looking up: a united party building a body of policy and setting the agenda, making gains against a government running out of ideas, bogged down in succession speculation and suffering the unsightly rashes of third-termitis.
Not so much. Certainly, Labour is more unified than it was under the last two leaders - even if that isn't saying much, Andrew Little will almost certainly lead the party into the election - while National is hardly a vigorous wellspring of new ideas. But Labour has failed to make headway, as brutally reflected in the last Colmar Brunton poll for TVNZ, putting it down to 28 points, against National on 50.
The clumsiness was illustrated neatly in the response to the Panama Papers fallout. It looked like an open goal for the Opposition: after a week of refusing to accept there was anything remotely tax-havenish about New Zealand, despite at least five tax experts saying otherwise, John Key pirouetted and asked for a review after all. There were "learnings" to be had, he said in three different interviews early last week.
All of this fits perfectly into the most compelling critique of Key available to the Opposition: behold the moral windsock, absent any genuine conviction - just like on refugee numbers, just like on New Zealand citizens detained on Christmas Island, there wasn't a smidgen of principle, just bald political expediency, a mindset that regards "fairness" as nothing more than a tick-box on a survey.
And yet, there go the Labour party, thundering down another cul-de-sac, saying the man Key had appointed to review the trust regime had been naughty in the Bahamas. The man concerned, John Shewan, launched a persuasive defence of his credentials, and Labour again took on the appearance of an overhasty gotcha-style blogger. There was hay to be made in demanding that an international expert should have been appointed, not in slamming the appointee himself. The Shewan broadside backfired.
It has been said a thousand times that leader of the opposition is the most miserable job in politics. More than most, Andrew Little must endure a hailstorm of contradictory advice and censure, from his colleagues, from the public, from godforsaken commentators. If Little were to act upon all the counsel published in the media in just the last fortnight, for example, he'd follow firmly in the footsteps of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, while vehemently rejecting the path taken by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. He'd target Key more directly at the same time as avoiding attacks on Key. There would be radical policy announcements, but also not a lot of policy.
If there is one obvious and constructive step Labour could take - yes, more advice - as the 2017 election heaves into view, it's to get cracking on a formalised arrangement with the Green Party. Labour rejected a Green proposal, early in 2014, to campaign in tandem, as a kind of coalition-government-in-waiting. This time, they surely realise it's a no-brainer. Barely anyone can reasonably cast a vote for Labour or the Greens without knowing the parties need each other to govern.
National laughs off the idea of a partnership with the Greens - no one seriously buys that idea, least of all, and crucially, the Green membership. Labour and the Greens might as well publicly agree to co-ordinate approaches in 2017, and to assign ministerial positions, should it come to that, proportionate to their respective party votes.
New Zealand First are in relatively rude health, especially given their potential to surge in a campaign. More than once have they been miscast as kingmaker, but the truth is that National, for all their might, have only the barest bric-a-brac of support parties; there's every chance it could come down to an auction for their post-poll endorsement. On the left, a clearly telegraphed Labour-Green coalition would be vastly better placed to have a chance of viably winning that, notwithstanding Winston Peters' public distaste for any accommodation with the Greens, than Labour alone, hoping to scrape together a ragtag government.
The very process of agreeing terms with the Greens well in advance might prove steeling for Labour, too. It would bring into focus the idea of a Labour-led government, featuring, if you can suspend disbelief for a moment, Labour MPs in a Labour-led cabinet. Right now it seems barely anyone - many members of the Labour caucus, I'd wager, included - considers that a serious prospect.
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