OPINION: It is a toss-up which is more embarrassing for the Labour Party – former associate immigration minister Shane Jones' explanation for granting citizenship to a shadowy Chinese millionaire with multiple identities or leader David Shearer's initial acceptance of that explanation.
According to Mr Jones he granted citizenship to Yong Ming Yan, otherwise known as Bill Liu, because an official told him Mr Yan would be arrested, executed and his "organs harvested" if he returned to China.
According to Mr Shearer, he chose not to take action after speaking to Mr Jones about the case because the process by which the former minister ignored official advice appeared "considered and proper".
It was not till others pointed out the incongruity of Mr Jones' claims that Mr Yan's life was at risk if he was denied citizenship and Mr Yan's claims to have fostered better relations between New Zealand and China that the Labour leader decided to stand Mr Jones down as a party spokesman and ask the auditor-general to investigate.
However, Labour's problems go far deeper than Mr Shearer's timorous leadership and Mr Jones' quixotic approach to his ministerial responsibilities.
While Labour's leader and senior spokespeople um and ah about what they would do differently from the Government, its putative ally, the Green Party, is eating its lunch.
Having shed itself of the nutty Sue Bradford, now helping the Mana Party plumb public opinion poll depths, its 14 MPs are bringing a previously unseen focus to environmental issues.
There will be many who shudder at the prospect of the introduction of a carbon tax, and the other tax changes proposed by Green Party co-leader Russel Norman in a pre-Budget article in last week's Dominion Post. The party's philosophical objections to major roading projects and its feel-good plans for state-owned power companies are equally alarming.
However, there is no disputing that the Greens know their stuff and are arguing from a position of principle. The contrast with Labour could not be starker. It is apparent every day – in Parliament during question time, and on the airwaves.
The Greens are sharper and more intellectually rigorous. Labour's MPs give the impression they are waiting to be told by their researchers what the public thinks about an issue before taking a position. The Greens, on the other hand, are setting out to change public opinion.
It is unlikely the environmental party will ever gain enough mainstream support to dominate a government. The trade-off inherent in their policy between prosperity and the environment limits their appeal.
But while the Greens continue to expose the inadequacies of their Labour opposites, there is little prospect of Labour reasserting itself.
Labour needs to deal with its historical baggage and sort out what it stands for quickly. Otherwise it might as well forget about the 2014 election and start planning for 2017.
- The Dominion Post