The Green Party can be excused a great deal of self-congratulation at the weekend. With 11 per cent of the vote at the election it has confirmed its place as the third party in New Zealand, the only "minor" party to have consistently cleared the 5 per cent threshold. It has never relied on a single personality or an electorate provided by a major party.
All of its original MPs have now retired and its second leading duo is well established. The Greens have a settled national constituency though it may be going too far to claim, as co-leader Metiria Turei did, that the party does not prosper at Labour's expense.
At any election where one of the major parties is given little chance of winning, some of its usual voters will go to an alternative on its side of politics. The Greens will struggle to do as well at the next election with Labour under new leadership and the Government three years older. But the Greens will be there and bidding for a role that has eluded them so far, to be part of a government.
Ms Turei's speech contained an intriguing reference to that role. "We are not Labour's little brother," she said. "This is not about tuakana-teina, this is a relationship of equals. We will be a sizeable part of a future progressive government, an equal player."
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The Greens have watched from the sidelines as other third parties have made pacts with a major party in power and in every case so far it has proved to be a fatal embrace. None have survived like the Greens, who have managed to get several programmes adopted by the previous Government and the present one while keeping their distance. They claim credit for subsidised home insulation, cycleways, identification of toxic sites and attempts to improve pest control on conservation land.
But they have much bigger ambitions for the environment and the economy, and having watched the fate of small parties in government, they must have a different relationship in mind. A "relationship of equals"? The Greens would need much more than 11 per cent to claim that status. They would need at least 20 per cent to have anything approaching equal weight in coalition with a party with 30 per cent or so of the vote.
But even 10 per cent could easily be crucial in deciding which major party can govern. The Greens' difficulty is that there is really only one party they could support. Ms Turei's speech to the Greens' conference confirmed this is still a party positioned to the left of Labour. She said the Greens did not agree with Labour's "continued pursuit of economic growth in the face of declining natural resources and climate change", and "their pursuit of free trade agreements that undermine New Zealand land, assets and jobs".
Indeed, the speech was notable for an absence of environmental vision and its concentration on issues close to Labour's heart. She seems particularly annoyed that the Government will allow SkyCity to increase its gambling facilities when the casino provides Auckland with the convention centre it needs.
The trouble with being a party to the left of Labour or the right of National, as Act can attest, is that the major parties need to lean to the middle. When Helen Clark needed a partner, she preferred Peter Dunne and even Winston Peters to the Greens. John Key made a pact with the Maori Party to ensure he would not be hostage to Act.
Labour will be wondering what Ms Turei means exactly by this aim to be an "equal player". Do they want equal Cabinet posts, co-ministers of everything or important portfolios that would be their own preserve? Would it mean Labour makes some decisions and the Greens make others? With the Greens in play anything is possible.