When being small is most certainly not beautiful

Matt Robson’s contribution to last week’s debate on the Gambling Bill spoke volumes — but not the volumes he would have liked.

Robson wanted tighter controls than the new law imposes. He said he had hoped that working with the Greens he might have got that.

Instead, Labour’s leadership had to turn to United Future for a majority for the bill.

This is despite the fact that Labour’s council, which runs the party outside Parliament, passed a resolution close to Robson’s and the Greens’ position. The Greens’ Sue Bradford made much in Parliament of a leaked copy.

But by then Bradford had taken up an opposition stance. So Robson could not work with her to change the bill in the ways he, she and Labour’s council would have liked.

Robson’s impasse with the Greens echoed the problem he and fellow Progressive Coalition MP Jim Anderton had with many of their colleagues in the Alliance in the 1999-02 Parliament.

It is a problem common to small flank parties such as the Greens and the Alliance. Such parties are dedicated to an ideology or at least a set of firm principles, the advancement of which is their reason for being. But to make progress they have to piggy-back on a large, much more pragmatic party, support it on centrist positions and do deals that compromise the principles.

Consequently, they oscillate. The resultant tension can be very destructive. It tore apart the Alliance in 2001-02. It split the German Greens who are in harness with the Social Democrats.

In both cases “realists” stayed in the game and “fundamentalists” were sidelined.

The Greens here have not yet faced that crunch. That awaits them when they do join a government — as, on current evidence, looks distinctly possible after 2005 (despite the Prime Minister’s recent over-the-top abuse of them).

Robson and Anderton have chosen realism. But realism, too, is no easy route.

Fundamentalists’ advantage is that voters are more likely to have a clear perception of what they stand for. There can be few who do not know the Greens are resolutely against genetic modification.

Deal-making realists, by contrast, present a fuzzier image. They might make gains, as Robson has with his drive for four weeks minimum holiday, which now looks likely, even if not until after the next election. But deal-makers struggle to register their gains with voters, who see what the government does through the prism of the larger partner and its Prime Minister.

This is all the more so when the deal-makers are in a tiny minority. That is Progressive’s predicament as it goes into its first conference this coming weekend.

If Progressive is not to biodegrade to Anderton’s single Wigram seat in 2005, it has both to develop a membership that can campaign across the country and to work out how to distinguish itself from Labour in the public’s mind — that is, to make itself useful to voters by adding a dimension Labour on its own does not.

The Labour leadership is cultivating United Future to reach across the centre and squeeze National out of government. For Labour’s left-leaners this poses a dilemma: being perpetually in government is attractive but shacking up with United Future’s moral conservatives is not.

For those Labour left-leaners, Progressive and the Greens — mostly on different issues but sometimes on the same issue — provide surrogate representation (for instance, on GM) and even win some battles they want won.

But that is in-house. Can Anderton and Robson also persuade voters they add value?

They claim a membership, not all paid up, of around 2000. But that is mostly in their home towns, Christchurch and Auckland, and a few centres where there are enthusiasts. They need a much broader spread.

And they are submerged in Labour. Even commentators see them as not much more than a wing of Labour — as in fact they once were, before they split in 1989. The Alliance presents a much more convincing differentiation from Labour — and has even managed (as Labour has not, despite some internal discussion) the first issue of a journal debating left ideas, Red and Green.

But the Alliance is not in Parliament. Anderton and Robson are. That gives them resources. And they know how to organise. So don’t write them off yet.

* Speaker Jonathan Hunt is now under near relentless attack from National, ACT and New Zealand First. The latest has been that police should not have had access to tractor cowboy Shane Ardern without Parliament’s say-so. Parliament rules itself as the highest court in the land.

Tradition supports the opposition parties. But is tradition right in the twenty-first century? The privileges of Parliament, which allow total free speech, are a hangover from its battles for independence from the king centuries ago. These days, those privileges are turned not against the Crown but at times to protect MPs from the people.

Why should Ardern not be charged if the police think he broke a law just because he did it in Parliament? Time for a rethink of tradition.