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Minor parties start major scrapping as polling day nears

The latest political poll shows Labour continuing to hold a strong lead over National - but it is the minor parties where things get more interesting, and where the tension is building, Sam Sachdeva writes

Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party has not always enjoyed the smoothest relationship with the business community, but the first question at a Wellington Chamber of Commerce breakfast was a sign of the times.

Why, one man complained, could he not get the TAB to let him bet on Ardern as the next recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize?

The Prime Minister laughed and dodged a direct response, but the latest 1News-Colmar Brunton poll is further proof that the goodwill won during the Covid-19 response shows little sign of abating.

At 53 percent, Labour would command a single-party majority, while the 32 percent for National is better than the 25 percent it registered in Sunday’s Newshub-Reid Research poll, but not so much so that Judith Collins has any cause for comfort.

But Ardern may shorten her Nobel odds even further if she can mediate the conflict raging away between her coalition partners, both of whom are fighting hard to ensure their political survival.

It is fair to say New Zealand First and the Greens were not natural allies before this term of government, either in policy or politicians.

Labour ran parallel negotiations with both minor parties after the 2017 election, rather than less cumbersome tripartite talks, in part because of Winston Peters’ antipathy towards the Greens - not helped by the party’s former co-leader Metiria Turei decrying New Zealand First’s “very racist approach to immigration”.

Coalition government has led to a dynamic somewhat akin to squabbling siblings, with ‘big brother’ New Zealand First rubbing their smaller brother’s face into the mud and forcing them to eat worms - or dead rats, as the case may be.

While Peters and his MPs have reveled in their Provincial Growth Fund announcements and other chunks of cash for pet projects, the Greens have at times struggled for traction on their own policy priorities.

“You know, it's funny: if you read the New Zealand First coalition agreement, what it says is to enter and pass a party-hopping bill into Parliament. We did that, it didn't say anything else - and I’m told words matter.”

Climate change legislation; a vehicle feebates scheme; cameras on fishing boats; Auckland light rail; a capital gains tax - just some of the Greens-backed initiatives either impeded or outright killed off by New Zealand First.

There have been some unlikely bonds formed, such as the friendship between Defence Minister Ron Mark and the Greens defence spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman.

But the broader relationship has been uneasy for some time, and the impending election has further soured ties.

Seemingly keen to give Peters a taste of his own medicine, on Wednesday the Greens backed the first reading of a member’s bill from National MP David Carter that would repeal the very party-hopping legislation they were obliged to support as part of the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement.

The bill will not pass before Parliament rises for the election next week, and current polling suggests New Zealand First may not be in a position to raise their objections next term - but Peters is incandescent nonetheless.

He accused the Greens of being “unstable and untrustworthy”, following that up on Thursday with a dubious claim the party-hopping law had been developed altruistically for their benefit, rather than to prevent any rebels within his own ranks.

“You know how discordant they are, the internal scrapping in the Greens knows no bounds. You saw the alternative list, it had poor James [Shaw] down the very bottom - I’m just trying to help them.”

For his own part, Shaw made it clear he was taking a page out of New Zealand First’s book in adhering to the letter, rather than the spirit, of the coalition agreement.

“You know, it's funny: if you read the New Zealand First coalition agreement, what it says is to enter and pass a party-hopping bill into Parliament. We did that, it didn't say anything else - and I’m told words matter.”

He may not have dropped his voice an octave, but the use of a classic Peters line was unmissable.

The happy coalition days of Budget 2020 seem a lifetime away. Photo: Pool.

It wasn’t an argument the Deputy Prime Minister was buying, however.

“We’re not game playing, I went in with my eyes wide open. If he [Shaw] came in with a whole lot of inexperienced people and was careless about his arrangements, he can live with his carelessness, or next time hire Winston Peters to negotiate for him.”

In truth, both parties probably benefit from the stoush. New Zealand First gets to prosecute its case for serving as a handbrake on a Labour-Green government, while the Greens show their supporters that they do have a backbone and know how to use it.

It is the latter party that is probably more comfortable looking at the polls and its electoral prospects.

Even after all the internal divisions and external dramas of their 2017 campaign, the Greens made it past the 5 percent threshold then, and have stayed just above that mark in most recent polling, 1News included (Shaw’s hysterical laughter when he learned Peters was the least-trusted party leader in its polling told its own story).

While they face a different challenge this time around - showing their supporters the compromises of government are worth it - they have the benefits of a more united caucus (despite what Peters claims) and a cannabis referendum that may turn out voters more inclined to back them.

New Zealand First remains mired well below 5 percent - rating at just 2 percent in the 1News poll - and while there is still a little over seven weeks until Election Day, there is little to suggest Peters’ usual tricks will lead to a late surge.

ACT surges

Perhaps the biggest surprise package is ACT, surging up to 5 percent and taking David Seymour’s party back to the halcyon days of Richard Prebble’s reign.

Seymour has benefitted from the chance to win over disaffected National supporters, prosecuting the Government over its perceived Covid-19 failures while the larger right-wing party has dealt with leadership changes and internal divisions.

He has also broadened his support base, expanding from his early brand of urbane libertarianism to advocate for the rights of gun owners who might not otherwise seem a natural fit for ACT.

There could be unintended consequences to bringing those supporters into the fold, and ACT has not always been the best at managing multi-member caucuses, but as far as problems go it is a good one for Seymour to have.

Seymour must also delight in tying with Peters in the preferred prime minister stakes (on 1 percent each), with the New Zealand First leader having recently threatened to take him on in the boxing ring.

But with Shaw and the Greens engaging in their own verbal jousting with Peters, the potential sparring partners are piling up.

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