MMP and the Greens — a complex conundrum

OK, so Helen Clark’s heading for a second term in November. But with the Alliance split and the Greens stamping their feet, what sort of government will she have?

Come to think of it, what sort of government would Bill English have if he pulled off a win?

The answer is in one sense the same for both: coalition partners or supporters on their flanks that pull them away from the centre, without the balancing mechanism of centre parties common in European systems.

For the moment New Zealand First is supplying that. When Clark’s allies play up, he often steps in, to back urgency to expedite the government’s legislative programme or, in the case of the Michael Cullen superannuation scheme, to back a major bill.

But there has been a foretaste of what might come in the next Parliament if he is not there. Peters joined the Alliance and Greens against the Singapore free trade agreement, forcing Clark into National’s arms.

New Zealand First is not strictly a centre party. Its policies are a grabbag of policies from all over the political spectrum, not a compromise between Labour and National.

But Peter Dunne’s United Future, which is a true centre party, can’t crack 1%, no matter how many parties it absorbs or merges with — most recently the former Christian Democrats. In any case, it is nearer National than Labour .

Dunne is a victim of 70 years of ingrained political culture of “ins” and “outs” which scrap over the centre ground. Who has won the centre has won government.

That culture has survived MMP. The electorate appears to have been rearranging Parliament’s shambled furniture into an “ins” and “outs” configuration, a left group and a right group.

There is a high possibility New Zealand First will fade out in November. Only a miracle will get it over the 5% threshold. If National eliminates leader Winston Peters’ 1999 63-vote margin in Tauranga, New Zealand First will be a goner.

But the Greens might productively pray for Peters to hang on. Had Katherine O’Regan got those 63 votes in 1999, Labour-Alliance would have had a majority and the Greens no leverage.

Current evidence points to Labour winning more votes in November and the Alliance losing votes. They might well balance each other off and end up with around the 1999 total percentage of the vote (46.5%).

If votes for minor parties stay around the 1999 total of 6% and a losing New Zealand First gets 4%, the “effective” party vote would be 90%. So 46.5%, being more than half of 90%, would win a majority. Peters’ performance in Tauranga may be pivotal.

If Labour-Alliance falls short of an outright majority and doesn’t have Peters around, Clark will have no fallback when the Greens play hardball. And henceforth they will. They think they have been too lenient as Labour has, they say, drifted rightwards and pushed down the priority list the programmes for which the Greens won funding in Budget negotiations.

Most debate centres on what the Greens would do in coalition. But this is unlikely. The Greens’ conditions — which include control over some portfolios, a detailed coalition agreement and referral back to a delegate conference for consensus decision — would be too difficult for Labour. The Greens are unsure about coalition anyway and may well find it more productive squeezing out concessions on the basis of qualified support for the Budget.

This would be all the more attractive if Labour-Alliance stayed a minority and New Zealand First disappeared. Then, when the Greens put on the hard word, Clark would have only National and ACT to turn to (and Dunne, but with one seat he could not make the difference between minority and majority, unless — very unlikely — his seat is an “overhang” and the seats total thus 121).

Even if Peters disappears and Labour-Alliance gets a majority, the Alliance’s own difficulties with the “right-wing” Labour party (beside which, de facto, stands leader Jim Anderton) might undo that majority at some point and so restore the Greens’ leverage.

Should Clark be bothered? Maybe not. Free trade and wars are assured because the right cannot oppose them. Her contentious measures are mostly left-leaning and the Greens are left on social and environmental issues. And if the Greens just abstain, that is still a win in Parliament.

But there will be excitements. The Greens are a rising anti-establishment brand, not yet tainted with power. Clark will need to nurture them.