Greens' fears of old enemy colour views

POLITICAL WEEK - VERNON SMALL

Last updated 09:11 02/06/2008

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It was there in the conference subtext and official speeches from co-leaders Jeanette Fitzsimons and Russel Norman – the Greens believe Labour is bad, National worse.

Not quite Father Coke and Mother Pepsi, despite Dr Norman's repetition ad tedium.

On the other hand they are sick of being Labour's "gimme" on support, and hanker for a more independent and principled stance that . . . under some circumstances, even if only to give Labour the organic raspberry . . . gives them some show of a deal with National.

Delegates at the Greens' annual conference in Auckland this weekend wrestled, in a consensual way, with how to express that feeling in a process during the election campaign and after.

The debate was so long (behind closed doors) that it squeezed out a Saturday session on "other topical issues" and ran through to yesterday's annual meeting.

Finally they resolved, as Dr Norman put it, to "announce our preferences for post-election negotiations prior to the election" but wait for more policy – particularly from National it seems – before saying so. In the meantime, and beyond, they remain "an independent party of principle".

It sounds anodyne, but does mark a major shift from the 2005 campaign, when the Greens at the same point in the cycle made it clear they would back Labour on confidence and supply – just in case their predominant Left-leaning base deserted them for fear of a Brash-led National administration.

Whether it makes a lot of difference in practice is a moot point.

Labour's policies are still closer in almost every regard to the Greens' than are National's. Moreover, National has decided the Greens are the last cab off the rank, behind even the Maori Party, in any government-forming talks.

However they slice it and dice it, there is no real chance of the Greens ever preferring National over Labour. Pretending otherwise defies the policy reality and electoral mathematics; if National needs the Greens to form a government it is almost certain an alternative Labour administration could be more accommodating to the Greens.

What will probably emerge is a preference for negotiating with Labour – even a willingness to enter a coalition because, as Dr Norman made clear, they do want to be in government.

As far as National is concerned it looks as if the limits of any deal would be some areas of agreement on policies, and perhaps some sort of support agreement that might stretch as far as an abstention.

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Apparently the delegates were less exercised by the pre-election process than how the party would ratify any post- election deal. Traditionally suspicious of their leadership leading, rather than consulting, some delegates were concerned that either the talks would have them stretched out as a welcome mat for Labour's fourth term or – maybe worse – see them dragooned into any sort of deal with the old enemy, National.

In the end, though, the polls – which yesterday confirmed National's lead at anywhere between 15 and 27 points – may make only the second of those options relevant. Virtual irrelevance (as distinct from being shafted by Labour) is a situation the party has not had to face for 12 years.

If National's huge lead survives to the election campaign, the Greens can potentially benefit in two ways. Disillusioned Labour voters who cannot bring themselves to vote National or any other centre-Right party, could come across. Or Green-leaning Labour voters who think the game is up for Helen Clark and her party may vote in line with their true political colours, knowing it cannot affect the overall result and might deal the Greens a stronger post-election talks hand.

The latter probably deals the Greens out of government and any real influence, so it is a chimera.

The third scenario is the one Greens worry about. It comes about if the gap between red and blue narrows so much there is a chance – even a sniff of a chance – that Labour could win. Then even primarily Green voters could abandon ship. It puts them under the 5 per cent threshold and out of Parliament.

In general, though, small parties – be it Values in the 1970s or ACT in 1990 – have tended to flourish when their big party allies are on the way out.

So, on balance, the Greens can look forward to a stronger vote this time than in 2005 and the possibility of bringing in impressive new candidates on show at the conference such as West Coast DHB chief executive Kevin Hague, long-time activist Catherine Delahunty and suave internationalist Kennedy Graham.

Ms Fitzsimons gave the conference a hint of how the party would pitch to expand its vote from the 5-7 per cent it has achieved at elections to its peak of 8-10 per cent in polls between votes.

Showing the party is prepared to adapt to a more hostile climate, she outlined a push for "affordable" food through a "food revolution" that included a call to Fonterra to trim its domestic margins on cheese, milk and butter and for the Commerce Commission to investigate the supermarket ownership duopoly.

Of course, food is not a new issue to the Greens. It has been a strand in the party's policy basket for many years, represented by the so-called "Sue Kedgley mums" concerns over safe food, organics and food labelling.

The modification this time around is the recognition that price is now a major factor for consumers.

Pricey food might also be crowding out climate change and peak oil messages for households worried about more immediate – if not more important – issues than saving the planet. In a recession – if that's what this is – eating cheaply may be more of a concern than acting locally and thinking globally.

And you do have to wonder how the traditional Green message would go down with the stretched middle classes; that high fuel bills ought to go higher, in the interests of setting a price for carbon, incentivising households and encouraging innovation.

Attacking the farmers' co-op, by calling for it to be a good Kiwi, putting a resource levy on irrigation water, as Dr Norman suggested, and excoriating "dirty dairying" may win some votes among the Greens target voters.

But as for making the Greens a more appealing partner for National – which at last check had a fairly strong rural support base? No show.

On that score, the Greens have called their own bluff.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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