Labour's leader walks tightrope in delivering trade messages.
Was there ever a more contrary bunch of people than New Zealanders? Not so long ago there was quite a groundswell of support for a change in the flag. Yet the moment the chance to do just that comes along, even those who want a change don't want it because it's "too soon".
Things got even more ridiculous this week when Labour leader Andrew Little, in the process of excoriating the flag referendums, said he wanted a change to the national anthem instead. It is rather like a 5-year-old demanding a Thomas the Tank Engine set all year but bawling when Santa delivers it because it is not a Transformer.
While our current flag loses points because of its similarity to Australia's, according to Little our national anthem is bad because it isn't enough like Australia's.
The attention given to his remarks probably came as a surprise to Little - he made the comment as a throw- away line.
Quite why Little is now taking the lead on Labour's opposition to the flag is unclear given Labour's argument that it is a waste of money and a distraction from more important issues.
Prime Minister John Key effectively skewered Little on that when he wondered why, if it was such a non-issue for New Zealanders, Little was asking him about the flag instead of those more important issues.
There has been no shortage of them. Little's anthem blurt came as the world's longest show of Deal or No Deal churned on at ministerial talks over the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Maui. Those talks are due to conclude today, but in a bid to get a pre-emptive strike Labour set out five "non-negotiable bottom lines".
It has since put most emphasis on the condition that the agreement must not impede a government's right to ban or restrict property sales to overseas owners. But it is Labour's fifth bottom line which is most likely to create problems for the deal. That states that the agreement must include "meaningful gains" for farmers.
Yesterday, dairy industry representatives at the talks were voicing concerns about the lack of gains in dairy. Yet Labour has treated that condition almost as an afterthought. While others focus on the dairy industry, Labour apparently has its eyes on the poultry industry - it appears to believe its stance on foreign buyers is its Golden Goose.
The timing of the TPP talks in Maui has given it a convenient platform from which to continue trying to build the momentum it believes it gained from its hitjob on Auckland home buyers with Chinese surnames. It is true a 3 News Reid Research poll since then showed high support for a ban on foreign buyers. But the same poll showed the issue had not resulted in any great swing of votes to Labour.
If things were that simple, NZ First would have benefited far more from its stance on the same issue and Labour would not have got 24 per cent at the last election in which its policies included that same ban on foreign property buyers as well as the capital gains tax targeting speculators. That, too, was popular as a standalone in the polls but did not translate into votes for Labour.
If Labour is hoping for better results from the same policy in 2017 it is pre-supposing voters are stupid and forgetting they judge governments based on wider economic security rather than individual measures. It is also pre-supposing John Key is stupid and will continue leaving room to run with the foreign buyers onslaught.
Key is not stupid. He also knows that even if there proves to be no real problem with overseas property buyers there is now a perception of one. In politics, perception matters more than fact. So it's a fairly sure bet that before 2017, Key will move to deal with overseas buyers.
He has already sent out hints of measures such as land taxes - taxes that might have the added benefit of help to neutralise the fiscal impact of National's hinted-at income tax cuts.
In the meantime, Labour's crusades on the flag and the TPP - both issues which Labour claims to support while opposing at the same time - simply give Key more fuel to accuse them of being inward-looking.
Labour's statement on the TPP declares at least twice that the party is pro-trade. But saying it does not make it true especially if you then set out conditions impossible to meet.
Green Party MP Russel Norman said John Key's bid to change the flag was about "optics" and the same could be said about Labour's stance on the TPP. Labour wants to be seen to be talking tough on the TPP to appease its supporters but not so tough as to scare the horses. Little is walking a tightrope by trying to send different messages to different audiences. If evidence was needed that this was all about messaging, it came when Little objected to the Herald reporting Labour had offered conditional support for the TPP if its bottom lines were met. The angle Little wanted was the flip-side of that - that Labour would oppose the TPP unless those conditions were met.
In terms of meaning, both ways of putting it are the same. In terms of messaging, they are miles apart. But the extent to which Labour's conditions really are non-negotiable will depend on how it interprets those bottom lines once the agreement is revealed. In that it has left itself a lot of wriggle room.
Labour has not spelled out, for example, what it considers would be "meaningful gains" for farmers or how much of an impact on Pharmac it will tolerate. What if the deal delivers meaningful gains to consumers, and to the high-tech or niche manufacturing companies Labour claims to champion but not to dairy farmers?
Despite Labour's big talk about refusing to support the TPP it has not set out how, or even if, it will follow through if it is in government in future. Little has refused to say if a Labour government would consider withdrawing from the TPP.
That is because it has no intention of doing so. Taking easy shots for short-term political gains in opposition is one thing, but Little knows full well that if there is even a hint Labour would withdraw from the TPP it will be game over in 2017 as far as its business credibility is concerned.
While Little restricted his criticism of the national anthem to its dirge-like qualities, the underlying reason was probably that the anthem is a prolonged entreaty to God. The flag's Union Jack serves as a reminder that the Queen is our head of state, but the existence of the Queen can at least be proven. When it comes to the anthem, there is scepticism about whether the "God" being addressed exists. The same could be said of Labour's bottom lines.