Labour got it right, but Turei missed a golden opportunity

The next time the Prime Minister delivers a speech on something as fundamental as national security and the potential for Islamic State-inspired terrorism in New Zealand, the Greens should read it carefully, rather than making assumptions about its content and consequently missing or dismissing what he is really saying.

Had they done so, they might have realised the new (and temporary) law to be pushed through Parliament to block New Zealanders going to Syria to sign up with Islamic State (Isis) looks like being far less an infringement of personal freedom than its far lengthier and more prescriptive Australian counterpart.

The Greens might have also realised that contributing to military training in Iraq was about the minimum John Key could get away with without traditional allies such as Australia looking askance.

Labour Party polling is understood to have shown no public appetite for sending combat troops. Even National voters did not like the idea - less than a third were comfortable with that option.


National's private polling would have produced similar results, and Key is nothing if not poll-driven, so his Government's contribution to the battle against Isis is very much on the moderate end of things.

But the Greens would prefer to continue to demonise National as persecutors of the poor, environmental dinosaurs and in this week's case, unfailingly loyal lap-dogs itching for an invitation to sign up to Uncle Sam's latest military adventure.

It was hardly a surprise that the Greens rejected every initiative in Key's Wednesday address that was targeted at Isis.

In doing so they have displayed not so much a reluctance to shift on principle as a downright refusal to entertain even the thought of doing so. That is their right.

But it means two things. First, there can be no getting the Greens out of the shadow cast by Labour without compromise or dropping whole swathes of policy as a prerequisite for any move more to the centre of the political spectrum, which would enable the Greens to no longer be hostage to Labour.

It also makes it harder for them to supplant Labour as the dominant party on the centre-left. That is because the politics of Opposition stretch much further than just opposition to policies or ideas.

On occasion - and Wednesday's speech was such an occasion - the public expects political parties to show some degree of flexibility so they might reach some consensus in the national interest.

This is especially so on foreign policy, defence and intelligence matters.


Labour understands this. The Greens pretend not to understand.

During the debate, Greens co-leader Metiria Turei, sounding like she had just jetted in from San Francisco circa 1967, declared her party stood for "peace and freedom" (who doesn't?) before adding that peace was the best weapon when it came to achieving personal security. Just as homeopathy is the best weapon for curing Ebola, presumably.

Turei rejected National's plan to send military personnel to Iraq in a training capacity, saying any military engagement, including training, was a contribution to the "war" effort and would not result in peace.

Neither could the Greens accept the cancellation of passports, the expansion of video surveillance or an extra $7 million for the SIS.

No doubt Turei's rejection of everything in Key's speech made her and her colleagues feel good about themselves. All they succeeded in doing was to isolate themselves from the mainstream. It was left to Labour to exercise real opposition.

The party accepted the broad thrust of intended legislation to lock those intending to fight for Isis through cancelling passports. But Labour also made it clear that it would endeavour to use select committee scrutiny to iron out details it is not happy about.

As an example, Labour is worried the new ability of the SIS to conduct surveillance in an emergency without the need to get a warrant for up to 48 hours will become the norm rather than the exception.

Like the Greens, Labour questions the wisdom of New Zealand training Iraqi soldiers. But that is because Labour believes the poor state of the Iraqi armed forces is the outcome of too much meddling from on high in the past from the local elite and the Americans during their occupation.

Labour can thank three senior MPs for the party's assured and no-fuss handling of the kind of issue where sticking to long-established principles, as the Greens have done, can be of no practical use to anyone.

Those three MPS are Annette King, Phil Goff and David Shearer.

King is revelling in her role as "deputy acting leader", which she will relinquish when the result of the party-wide leadership ballot is made public in 10 days.

In the meantime, her vast experience and innate political savviness - attributes she shares with Goff, Labour's defence spokesman - has led to the pair ensuring Labour is seen as acting responsibly and not bagging the Government just for the sake of it, but without attracting scorn on their side of the fence.

They have been greatly assisted by Shearer who worked for the United Nations in Baghdad before returning home and entering Parliament.

His knowledge of Middle East politics in general and Iraqi politics in particular gives him real authority as Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, a role in which he has grown in stature in contrast to his difficult days as party leader, when stature was thrust upon him only to immediately melt away.

The irony is that many in the party believe King and Goff are well past their use-by date - and they would not shed any tears if Shearer left with them.

But it is the Greens who are the losers.

Key's speech offered them a heaven-sent opportunity to get closer to National. But they wasted it.

They have instead reinforced the perception that they are too soft when it comes to responding to the question of how best to respond to the Prime Minister's response to the threat to life and limb posed by the jihardists of Isis.

And they have been taught a lesson that being in Opposition is not solely a matter of opposition for opposition's sake.