Key's game is ripping into Greens

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 08:48 19/07/2012

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Vernon Small

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OPINION: John Key was rolling his eyes for full amateur dramatic effect in Parliament yesterday.

"If anyone thinks Labour and the Greens are going to deliver stable government, they'd better think again."

It is an oldie but a goodie for National - painting the Greens as a bunch of loonies who will never be a reliable partner for Labour.

But it has been given new legs by the open hostility that has broken out in Australia between the Right wing of the Labor Party and its Green "allies".

New South Wales Labor Party general secretary Sam Dastyari has fronted the attack on the Greens there, and this weekend will propose that Labor no longer automatically favour the Greens under Australia's preferential system.

At its heart, the problem is a mixture of Green policies - and advocacy - that is unacceptable to the Right of Labor and the recognition that the Greens are moving from fringe status to mainstream challenger, especially in wealthier urban suburbs.

As far as demographics go, the Greens in New Zealand mirror their trans-Tasman counterparts. They polled highest in well-off central city seats - higher even than Labour in Wellington Central, for example - are younger and share a "post-materialist" world view.

There has been a similar rise in voter support - to 11.8 per cent in Australia against 11.06 per cent in New Zealand in the 2011 election (and consistently higher in polls since then). That has delivered 10 central government MPs there and 14 here.

Despite the parallels, there is nothing like the animosity towards the Greens among Labour MPs in New Zealand, though a simmering resentment occasionally bubbles to the surface - and in general, the further Right an MP sits in the caucus, the more scathing is the judgment of the Greens.

To some, it is resentment at the righteousness the Greens wear on their sleeves - "the robes of sanctimony" - never better illustrated than when Green MP Holly Walker described the cloak she wore during her maiden speech earlier this year as "This incredible taonga . . . woven from the feathers of Pakeha birds, including caged battery hens, who have found a freedom in death in this kakahu that they never had in life". To others it is the easy way the Greens can take a radical position on policy without - in Labour eyes - having to consider all the ramifications of implementing it.

But for Labour in New Zealand, far more than in Australia under its voting system, the lid has to be kept on any differences. They are rivals for votes, but they are also joined at the hip.

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Unless there is a major tectonic shift, Labour will need the Greens to govern after 2014. Labour on 33 per cent - or even 38 per cent - is not a viable option, even with NZ First on side.

Labour's claim to be a government in waiting is predicated on the strength of the Green vote.

Ideally, Labour needs to grow its vote at both ends - towards the Greens and towards the Centre - but there is little benefit in a full-on attack on the Greens if it does not grow the Centre-Left pie.

But it is that focus on the Centre voters - the ones who make the difference between 49 per cent and 51 per cent support for the Government - that leaves Labour looking flat-footed and gives the Greens the edge with the media.

It is easy to imagine a not-so- theoretical example. The Government announces a crackdown on welfare beneficiaries. Labour goes into a huddle. "How to respond? We don't want to get 'wedged' by National's tactic because we know public sympathy may not be with us. We don't want to appear soft on welfare . . . but beneficiaries are an important constituency for us." After mulling over the options they issue a nuanced response.

By contrast, within minutes the Greens come out swinging against the plan, labelling it "eugenics" and promising extra assistance for those on a benefit, confident of their position and that their voter base is with them.

It does not prove a Labour-Green government would be unstable, but it sets the scene for some obvious tensions, particularly over social policy and spending restraint.

As far as National's tactics go, at times it seems it is torn between hugging and mugging the Greens. Praising them can make Labour look bad by comparison. It is a tactic used by Bill English when he commends Russel Norman. Judith Collins is noticeably more more civil to Kevin Hague than to Andrew Little, even without the added spice of a defamation action.

On the other hand, ripping into the Greens is the main game. Highlighting their "extremism" can turn floating voters off a Labour government that would be beholden to them.

With National now focusing "unashamedly on growth" it is likely to clash more violently with the Greens in future.

Expect more eye-rolling from Mr Key as the 2014 election approaches.

- The Dominion Post

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