Could a Labour-Green-NZ First Government work?

by Jane Clifton / 01 November, 2012
A coalition of the left is still a hard idea to swallow, writes Jane Clifton.
Winston Peters, David Shearer and Russel Norman

Two’s company, three’s a crowd – except under MMP, where it’s called a coalition. Even if your fellow leaders are people you would not willingly take so much as an elevator ride with. Which is why the body language recently when Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First called a joint press conference, was so excruciating. David Shearer and Russel Norman sat close together, modelling the supposed natural fit of Labour and Green – but their determinedly fierce smiles betrayed the underlying discomfort of the exercise. “See, we’re happy! Really!” was not the optimal demeanour for the announcement of an emergency inquiry into the supposed manufacturing crisis.

At a pointed remove was Winston Peters – sitting just off to one side as if leaving a space for a phantom fourth coalition partner, albeit a tiddler. Classic Winston code: he left enough space between himself and the other two for it to be noticed – but not enough for it to be rude. He, too, smiled in a rather alarming way, considering the gravity of the situation. It was as though the trio were more preoccupied with demonstrating that they could play nicely than how they could somehow get to the bottom of the currency crisis. The polls are telling us this could be the first rehearsal for the real thing: a Labour-Green-NZ First Government next year. But in this case, practice is never going to make perfect. Behind the smiles, the compatibility among these parties is invisible to the naked eye.

Within hours of that press conference, the Greens announced they would not be supporting a Labour bill on same-sex couple adoptions, because they preferred their own version. Labour in turn had adopted what could only be described as a “patronise with extreme prejudice” response to Holly Walker’s anti-lobbying bill. And it’s plain as a pikestaff from their respective statements about the currency situation that there aren’t the makings of a useful working agreement there either, notwithstanding their collegial inquiry. Winston reckons we can basically just ordain what our currency is by telling the Reserve Bank to pull finger. Russel is leading the charge for quantitative easing. Labour’s David Parker appeared to have an out-of-body experience when asked directly if he would either ditch the Reserve Bank Act or expand the money supply. He preferred soothing talk of “pulling levers” and “looking at options” to do with the official cash rate.


Could they work together? Stranger things have happened. In a previous incarnation, Winston spent many happy evenings over the whisky bottle with his erstwhile arch-enemies Jim Bolger and Bill Birch. And despite the fact they made him Treasurer, he never so much as pulled a rude face at the Reserve Bank building all the time he had the theoretical power to pursue his passionate monetary beliefs. Equally, Tariana Turia, once a scary, divisive and vehemently anti-Tory figure, has melded harmoniously into the National Government. Jim Anderton decimated some of Labour’s electorate strongholds when he formed NewLabour – yet a few years later he was back in the tent with the evil spawn of Sir Roger Douglas, quietly refraining from undoing any of the Rogernomics reforms, and even being given his own bank to play with. Exhibit D, John Banks, is still tolerated by National, although he could hardly have done more to make himself expendable.

Long experience of unlikely MMP bedfellows tells us Winston is secretly a bit of a pussycat. A high-maintenance one, for sure, demanding expensive baubles like Gold Cards and subsidies for the racing industry. But generally he doesn’t go looking for fights. Again, he was profoundly silent on monetary reform during his time in Labour’s coalition. Aside from a brief rampage against free trade with China, he did his job as Foreign Affairs Minister in an exemplary fashion. He didn’t say “F@#$%” and he didn’t bump into the furniture and, most importantly, he did exactly what the real Minister of Foreign Affairs, Helen Clark, told him to do. Yet somehow his love of theatre always fed his urge to be a drama queen. His coalitions inevitably ended in tears.


The real risk in this potential coalition is the seemingly irreducible animus between Labour and the Greens. Labour wants the Greens as a strictly green add-on. It cannot conceive of sharing power in the mainstream of policy making, and it will want to constrain even the framing of the environmental reforms it would make. Naturally, the Greens will not consent to being treated, as in the past, like an easily disciplined pet accessory, thrown a few treats, such as insulation subsidies and special care for rare snails. Norman has made no bones about his ambition to ditch the National-Labour economic orthodoxy. From monetary policy to welfare to tax, what the Greens want bears little relationship to the ballpark Labour is accustomed to working within. And that’s without even starting on the emissions trading scheme.

Even at the prosaic level of working in Parliament, where they are almost always on the same side of issues, the two parties do not entirely trust one another. Despite the personal equanimity of the respective leaderships, this is a relationship that can only get uglier as the election approaches. They are after the same vote and the Greens are no longer classifiable as a minor party. It has already done serious, bedrock damage to Labour’s vote. The over-arching risk is that although many centre-leaning voters will have gone right off National by this time next year, few will feel confident about voting for anyone in the Labour-Green-NZ First alternative because it will be so hard to conceive of their achieving a functional relationship.


Still, at least they can all agree that the Prime Minister has made their lives a lot more fulfilling recently. The public may be wearying of hearing about the Kim Dotcom fiasco and the ineptitude of spies. But the lifting in Opposition spirits was palpable this week when, asked in Parliament what he’d talked about during a meeting with a deep-sea mining multinational, John Key began, “My memory of the meeting …” Key’s unreliable memory has become a recurring motif in National’s troubles. Initially, his inability to remember his investment in a winery and the odd other inconvenient flutter was shrugged off. But by the time Key professed not to be able to remember a 130kg billionaire giant who had annexed a virtual principality in his own electorate, it became clear the PM’s memory would be an election issue. Prime ministers have chiefs of staff, appointment secretaries, press secretaries, electorate agents and all manner of aides. Perhaps he needs yet another staffer to jot down all the salient things that happen to him: an Aide Memoire.
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