Jane Clifton: Minority report

by Jane Clifton / 21 July, 2012
A Labour-Green coalition could make the Maori-National water tiff seem a storm in a teacup.


Whatever else it achieves in politics, the Maori Party will have established one immutable rule: being a junior coalition partner is about as edifying as playing Madge to Dame Edna. For the umpteenth time in its frequently humiliating partnership with National, the party is in a no-win situation. Despite its blameless handmaiden services, it has been clouted from on high by the rudest imaginable gladioli. Prime Minister John Key’s peremptory dismissal of the Waitangi Tribunal’s powers was an insult of daring magnitude. He may as well have said, “Oh, and by the way, you do realise the whole basis of our system of addressing Maori grievance is a hoax?” But aside from trying to lace its usual harrumphing with extra menace, the Maori Party is powerless to get redress. Every minority party in government will confront this choice: stay in the face of mortal insult and look poodley, or stomp out of Government and render itself irrelevant. Either way, the party’s vote will take a hit.

It’s this seemingly inevitable dynamic that has always deterred the Greens from signing up for Beehive leather – and the reward of a much-fattened vote tells the story more clearly than anything else. As soon as a party enters the compromise zone of the executive, the dream melts away. The answer – albeit imperfect – is for majority governing parties to be extra careful not to put their little friends in these terrible positions. This won’t always be avoidable, and a bit of rough theatre is actually necessary from time to time so the minor party can differentiate itself from the common herd. But this water rumble, already a headache, need not have escalated this fast – to rioting-in-the-streets talk – had Key been more judicious in his patter. It is technically true that no government can ever be bound by a tribunal’s ruling. But until now, no government has ever been tactless enough to point this out. The usual soothing rhetoric is that inconvenient tribunal incursions can be “worked through with Maori”.

Key’s blurt shows how preoccupied he is with the success of the first energy company float. Not a good sign. If the mixed-ownership model is such a great idea, the float process should be robust enough to withstand the entirely predictable intervention of Maori claimants. In reality, one sniff of iwi-wrought complications and investors will be placing their bets elsewhere. In trying to steady the market by talking tough, Key has caused the opposite effect: furious fighting talk from Maori interests that has almost certainly spooked potential investors more quickly and lastingly than if the usual euphemisms had been employed. Although the Labour Party and Greens are enjoying this accidentally manufactured scrap from the sidelines, they will also be taking anxious notes. Given the persistent strength of the Green vote, the dynamics between it and Labour in government will be even trickier than those between Maori and National. The polls show a Labour-Green coalition is fairly likely – but with a big discount in the humility/suck-it-up quotient we’ve come to expect from minor partners. With a bedrock vote of about 10%, the Greens won’t be doing minor. It’s likely they will be much less gracious in the art of compromise over core issues than the Maori Party has been. Because, not to put too fi ne a point on it, the Greens are all core. And with a vote count potentially a respectable third of Labour’s, they will  be extremely assertive.

Policy talks are unlikely to be a matter of, “We’ll give you one hector’s dolphin sanctuary, a sowcrate ban and Len’s train set – now run along and let the three Davids see to the economy.” The Greens’ current iteration is at least as much centred on economic and fiscal imperatives as on conservation and sustainability. In vain can Labour argue that too much Green in the mix is apt to lower New Zealanders’ standard of living, or imperil the momentum of economic growth. Green philosophy is: yes, that’s right, bring it on. We need to accept less growth, less financial wealth, less stuff. We will be the richer for being poorer. The bottom line is that the Greens have a radically different definition of “standard of living” from the other parties. So, although the main event in politics at the moment appears to be the future of the mixed-ownership model, and whether either Maori or petition-mobilised public opinion can derail it, the more important battle is for votes on the left and centre-left. It’s war – but thus far only a cold war. Labour resentment at the Greens’ success has only occasionally spilled out, such as when its MP, Clare Curran, lamented Green “encroachment” on the traditional Labour vote.

She promptly had the bejesus beaten out of her by luminaries of the leftwing blogosphere. But she alighted on the right psychology. Unless Labour does, at least privately, characterise its problem as the cannibalisation of its vote by unproven interlopers, it could end up with an unwieldy left flank to deal with in government. Green supporters are signing up screeds of young supporters, readily drawn to its idealism and anti-corporatism. Labour’s challenge is to frame a campaign of attack politics that is subtle enough not to look desperate and/or hostile, but that cuts through to the brute, practical outcomes inherent in the Greens getting policy dominance. Are New Zealanders ready for a compulsory downshift, less wealth and slower growth? That’s the new battleground. If there’s any Labour squeamishness about attack politics – and after all those failed muggings of Key, one would suspect not – the party must recognise that’s exactly what the Greens have shrewdly been running for years. By implication they lump not just the Tories, but Labour as well, into the camp of heedless planetendangering ignoramuses. However, at its special caucus this week, what did Labour focus on instead? A feel-good but potentially mess-maximising move to let its members have a say, possibly the biggest say, in the party leadership. A nice gesture, and it’s always hard to mount a sound case against wider democracy.

But this change poses a big risk of an MP unpopular in the caucus – a handy definition, by the way, for poor leadership credentials – being foisted on the caucus. Let’s just tactfully observe that David Cunliffe did not win the last leadership vote because most MPs were not ready for his leadership style. Under the new rules, impatience with David Shearer’s – admittedly unique – low-impact approach to auditioning for PM could enable a panic spill, causing even more dark-heartedness among disgruntled MPs who would then be expected to play nicely as a Government. Cunliffe is overseas, but is doubtless keeping an ear to the ground – though good luck to him in decoding the curious preponderance of knitted tank tops on male Labour MPs at the caucus retreat. What were they trying to tell us? That they’re so intent on “rolling up our sleeves”, they’ve dispensed with sleeves altogether? Or is this style, which a fashionista could only describe as the Mummy’s Boy Look, a subliminal appeal to the knitting woman’s vote?

American presidential candidate Rick Santorum made the woolly vest a campaign issue – but it didn’t do much for him, sartorially or electorally. Labour was punished on Twitter with various unflattering “vested interests” and “in-vest-ment” quips. But the watchword with this ill-advised choice of leisurewear is vest-igial – could that be Labour’s fate on the left of New Zealand politics?

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