It is hard to know what message Labour and the Greens intended to give the electorate with their "agreement" announced at Parliament on Tuesday. Is it that they are committed to forming a coalition together after the next election? That would hardly be a revelation as things stand, but no, that was not the message.

Labour's leader, Andrew Little, was quick to reserve his party's options post-election, saying the agreement would end on election day. Is it a non-aggression pact for the election? It could be, they say. They might consider not contesting some seats to give a candidate from one or the other a better chance of winning. But that has not been decided either. Will it mean joint policies? Possibly.

So what has been agreed, besides the decision to hold a joint press conference and photo opportunity? In the absence of anything more substantial from them, it can only be concluded the occasion was designed to show the two parties are getting along very well these days. But since the public had no reason recently to doubt this, a strenuous declaration of peace and harmony can only cause people to suspect the opposite. That would probably be wrong, The Labour-Greens agreement should be taken at face value. It means each party recognises it needs the other to have any chance of displacing National at the next election.

For Labour, this is a significant admission. It means the party gives itself little chance of beating or even rivalling National's vote next year. It must be resigned to running a distant second. This is an admission neither major party would make lightly, for they know that under MMP no party coming a distant second has yet become a government. It is of course perfectly possible for the second, third and possibly fourth placed parties to form a government, but it has not happened in New Zealand yet and neither major party will be anxious to lead the first coalition of that kind.


It would be a government that no single party could dominate. If that sounds attractive in theory, it does not inspire public confidence. National's campaign advertising at the last election portrayed its rivals in a disorganised, disputatious boat and National will be eagerly looking forward to repeating the theme. Now that Labour has agreed to run in tandem with the Greens, it needs to show the electorate that together they could form a sustainable government.

The Green Party, even its antagonists would agree, is nobody's patsy. Its position to left of Labour leaves it no choice of coalition partners but it wants power on its own terms. That is the reason Helen Clark preferred to deal with the parties of Peter Dunne and Winston Peters. Likewise, Mr Little probably has those alternatives in mind when he declines to give the Greens a promise post-election.

It is now 20 years since the first election under MMP. In the seven elections so far, only one has presented the voters with a pre-conceived coalition, and that was little more than a nod and wink before the 1999 election. Labour and the Greens will be hoping this time they need do no more.