National’s tactics paying off
At this point, 17 months out from the next election, National has the luxury of two contradictory messages about the Opposition’s credibility as an alternative government.
We have already seen the first phase of the scare-the-voters scenario.
That’s the one where a weak and indecisive Labour leadership is pulled leftwards by an allegedly radical Green Party, to the point where Greens co-leader Russel Norman winds up as Finance Minister and as a consequence the wheels of commerce grind to a halt.
If that tactic doesn’t work, the opposite message is also nudging its way into the political spotlight.
It arises from the fact that Labour’s potential allies in Government – the Greens and New Zealand First – have always been basically incompatible.
Down the years, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has been masterly at using his hostility to the Greens to twist Labour to his own tactical advantage and he could well succeed in doing so again next year.
Ultimately, Helen Clark ended up choosing Peters’ party over the Greens to form a government. David Shearer may do likewise, leaving the Greens on the crossbenches with nowhere else to go but to vote with a Labour- led government from which they will have been excluded, in any meaningful policy sense.
Spooked by being portrayable as left wing, Labour may choose Winston one more time.
In the coming months, one can expect to see National’s strategists busily portraying the present government as the safe option to a Labour Party that will either be:
(a) pulled leftwards by those flaky Greens or
(b) pulled rightwards by that flaky Winston Peters.
As a government- in- waiting, Labour risks being painted as being either too radically left wing or too conservatively right wing, especially on the social issues dear to Peters’ heart.
In one sense, this aspect of National’s re-election strategy is the usual ‘‘stick with what you know’’ sales pitch of any administration nearing the end of its second term and realising that the electorate is feeling disillusioned but gun shy about the political alternatives on offer.
The fact that National can hope to depict Labour as the pull-toy for the Greens on one hand and New Zealand First on the other, is a sign of the problem that Labour leader David Shearer continues to be.
It is all too easy for Shearer’s opponents to portray him as an empty vessel for his advisers – or political expedience – to fill.
When Prime Minister John Key first raised the spectre of an allegedly ultra-left Green Party dominating Labour, the silence from the Labour camp was deafening.
Presumably, some tactical genius in Shearer’s office thought it smart not to rise to Key’s bait.
Ultimately, it was left to Russel Norman to deliver a speech to the Greens’ annual conference that, rather unconvincingly, tried to liken Key to the authoritarian figure of Robert Muldoon, someone whom few voters under 45 would recall.
Currently, since neither the Greens nor Labour seem able to mount a convincing argument that some right-wing extremists are already occupying the Beehive, National’s strategists must be rubbing their hands.
If they can win this round, how much easier will it be to sell a message that a vote for Labour next year will be a vote for Winston Peters?