Greener for Harre on the other side

RED ROSES: Laila Harre.
RED ROSES: Laila Harre.

Digging through some archived photos this week we unearthed one of Laila Harre in a flowing red dress, posing on Petone wharf, clutching a bunch of red roses.

It was a fitting image - the picture was taken when Harre was a member of the Labour-Alliance government.

In her previous life, the new Internet Party leader was the Left's darling of her time, their warrior princess at the Cabinet table. Harre pursued causes with an uncompromising sense of purpose and a strident nasal twang. She got a long way by simply wearing her opponents down.

It was like that with paid parental leave, a measure over which Labour needed some prodding from Harre in the face of strong opposition from a skittish business lobby.

Paid parental leave endured but the old Alliance Party is in tatters. Most of its former activists have drifted back to Labour, the Greens or the new Mana Party. Its disintegration was predictable. The Alliance was a scattergun party, bringing together the competing ideologies of groups like Mana Motuhake, the Democrats, and NewLabour, refugees from Labour's more militant Left-wing arm.

The birth of Internet Mana - a hook-up between Harre's new party and Hone Harawira's Mana party - seems like history repeating. The sunset clause allowing them to separate six weeks after the election may be a product of Harre's previous experience.

The Greens were also there in the early days, of course. Publicly, their split from the Alliance in 1997 was an amicable one. But the reality was different; it was ugly, it was acrimonious and there was a sense of betrayal on both sides. No one in the Alliance shed any tears when their former partners, the Greens, were locked out of government in 1999.

A complete change in personnel at the Greens' top table has not changed much. The departure of the party's socialist conscience, Sue Bradford, has, if anything, revived some of the mistrust between the two movements. Overlooked for the leadership, Bradford now sniffs that the Greens have become a voice for middle-class liberals.

In much the same way that ACT's one-time purists used to view National as a Right-wing sellout, many of Bradford's peers share her disgust.

Russel Norman is almost as much of a hate figure on the extreme Left as he is on the Right. To some of those more extreme Left-wing activists, the Greens under Norman and Metiria Turei are about as far away from the "far Left" label stuck on them by Steven Joyce and John Key as you get. Some Left-wing blogs will even go so far as to call the Greens unashamedly Right-wing.

ALL of which serves as a backdrop to the less public split between Harre and the Greens ahead of her announcement as the Internet Party leader.

Harre had joined the Greens and was a key member of their strategy team. There had even been talk of her standing as a Green MP.

But there is ill-feeling in the wake of her departure from the party. One event this week offers an explanation for that. The Greens have been working toward a key environmental policy at the weekend. The announcement is in Hamilton, which makes it a sure bet that they will be unveiling a policy on water quality, a key issue for the party, which has developed a strategy for the election under which environmental policy is one of three crucial legs.

So a press release this week from Harre announcing the Internet Party's water quality policy can't be read as anything other than the spoiler it was.

That Harre would have walked away with a sizeable chunk of the Greens' policy platform and election strategy locked in her brain is not lost on anyone. Is it war? It may as well be. IMP may only be polling at a couple of per cent currently, but its pockets are incredibly deep, thanks to an internet giant with a giant-sized grudge against the Government, Kim Dotcom.

Dotcom's $3 million cheque was banked with the Electoral Commission within days of the Internet Party launch to show that he means business. Left-wing commentator Chris Trotter has referred to rumours about "whole floors of brilliant IT-geeks all beavering away; unheard of political applications; unprecedented polling capability" thanks to Dotcom's money.

Rumours maybe but given the size of IMP's bank account, and the particular skills of its rich backer, it also rings true. The Greens are now more organised, and have a much slicker machine than they did back in the day when they were still naive enough to give their opponents a free hit by dancing around a Maypole. But even so their pockets are unlikely to stretch that deep.

The threat posed to the Greens by IMP is three-fold. There is likely to be a crossover in their appeal to the same voters, though maybe not to a huge extent. A lot depends on whether voters fix on Dotcom, or Harre, as the face of the Internet Party. Unless Harre succeeds at radically remaking herself, they would seem to speak to vastly different constituencies.

IMP's resources will create a lot of noise, however, and the Greens' static polling suggests it is suffering from a lack of oxygen due to the focus on the minor parties - not just IMP, but the Conservatives. At this stage in the electoral cycle the Greens would normally expect to be climbing in support. Signs of a more aggressive approach toward the media this week suggest a sense of urgency about pushing back.

But the biggest threat posed to the Greens by IMP is that which it also poses to Labour. Its presence turns the Left-wing bloc into a rabble of competing parties and interest groups.

The Greens have been hugely focused in recent years on making themselves less scary to the average voter and presenting the Greens as a credible, known and stable partner in any future Labour-Green government (though Labour hasn't always appreciated their overtures).

That message is undermined the weaker Labour gets, and the more reliant it looks to be on IMP to get there.

But Labour is sufficiently weakened that it can't decisively rule IMP out. And given her history, Harre won't make it easy for Labour or the Greens to do so - either before or after the election if she is in a position to force her way into a seat around the table.

The Dominion Post