For four parties: the year of the pivot

Parliament kicks off today for a year that is pivotal for all parties there except (maybe) one-MP parties and New Zealand First.

The Maori party has to pivot from its high-profile founding leadership to, or towards, one which will struggle to build profile. Tariana Turia said last month she is going at the 2014 election and Pita Sharples should, too, but he wants to stay.

Te Ururoa Flavell and Rahui Katene want their jobs. Behind them are some more promising up-and-comers but they are not yet MPs.

The test of the new leadership will be whether, after the slide in 2011, the party can win the eighth Maori seat likely after the post-census Maori option.

Good news: Labour is not (yet) attracting strong Maori candidates. But to win off Labour weakness is not strength and the Maori party has not looked strong since it broke with Hone Harawira.

That is its pivot: to end the drift and recapture its promise as the “Treaty partner in Parliament”.

The Greens’ pivot is from specialist minor party to a broad-based third party, to make good its ambition of 14-15 per cent in 2014 to top its 11 per cent in 2011.

This requires more than savvy presentation that won Russel Norman and some other MPs bigger billing in 2012 than Labour counterparts. The policy platform will need to reach more towards the centre. And partnership in a cabinet is a tough, compromising business.

The transition needs highly skilled management to avoid the realist-fundamentalist split that bedevils ideals-based parties (for example, the Alliance in 2001-02).

Labour, meanwhile, aims to stake out a distinct position binding environmental and economic policy to marginalise the Greens and drive their poll support down to 7-10 per cent, which would define it to voters as a very junior partner, on which basis Labour hopes to build a coalition-in-waiting next year, as it did with the Alliance in 1999.

But Labour itself is on a pivot.

One dimension is the leadership. This will be tested again next Monday when David Shearer must seek caucus endorsement, on pain of an election involving party members and unions if 13 MPs demur.

This is not a left-right fight — November’s challenger, David Cunliffe, is not left. The real issue is whether Shearer can overcome his limits of knowledge of New Zealand, Labour and politics and his hesitant media habits enough to undermine John Key.

Shearer’s display of fighting spirit in November-December, backed by a strengthened staff and expert help to uncover the inner David to the media and public are a start. But he has a long way to go.

Labour’s bigger pivot is from the schism of the 1980s via the Clark-era recentralisation to a restatement of Labour “values” and, on the back of those, policies to fit the 2020s. That is no easy task in the turbulent 2010s (which are not just an extension of the 2000s). This restatement is patchy so far and more putative than path-breaking. Success or failure will influence how long and confidently Labour could lead a government.

Success depends heavily on how bold Shearer’s shadow cabinet reshuffle is (in which Grant Robertson has a significant role). Key’s (almost cavalier) firing of ministers has been noticed. There is some indication Shearer will be tough on oldies and non-performers and promote newer MPs with promise.

But Key was firing from strength. Shearer doesn’t have such strength yet, even if on Monday he sees off the non-endorsers and even if there is no vote.

National’s pivots are quite different.

Last year the cabinet aimed to set out markers for action on which to invite judgment in 2014. This year it wants definable progress on those initiatives to counter the charge that it is inactive versus Labour’s promise of active, “hands-on” government. And that has to be done amidst continuing fiscal stringency and pressure on officials for innovative management and advice (known as “better public services”, recently externally assessed).

For all that to work Key has to lift his political management. Last year there was a litany of messes, including mishandling the Treaty dimension of the asset selldowns and the education muddles.

Key is said to have got that message.

He operates through two superministers who are complementary in personality, political style and management, Bill English and Steven Joyce (with lead ministers of portfolio clusters below them). The thickest line in that Key-English-Joyce triangle is from Key to GDP growth project manager Joyce. But English oversees a range of political vulnerabilities where “results” are needed, from welfare reform to housing.

So the English-Joyce line across the triangle’s base has to be solid. If it frayed to dots and dashes Key would have to take charge as executive Prime Minister, not just chair of the board.

The good news for Key is that the line is solid: they consult continually. So National might well pivot far enough from “personable leader” to “results” to get its coveted third term. This year might tell.