Now that David Shearer no longer has to worry about a knife
being plunged into his back - at least not for a while - he
needs to tackle another longer-running attempted putsch of a
very different but equally serious kind.
Along with other colleagues, the Labour leader is getting
increasingly perturbed by the ever more brazen campaign by
the Greens to try to displace Labour as the major party on
The worry is not that the Greens might succeed. As last
weekend's two television-sponsored polls showed, Labour is
still the default option when swing voters tire of National.
The worry is that the Greens' behaviour risks working against
both parties' wider interests in defeating National in 2014
and securing the keys to the Beehive.
Despite putting in a stellar performance in 2012, the Greens
are averaging around 12.5% in all polls - only marginally
above the party's showing at last year's election.
In contrast, Labour is now averaging 33%, compared with 27%
at the election.
The Greens' objective is to shift those ratios more in their
favour. But the reality is that the party is having to put in
an awful lot of effort just to stand still.
That is partly why Labour had been relatively relaxed about
being pinged by the Greens. Labour's muted reaction, however,
seems to have only encouraged the Greens to further test the
limits of Labour's patience - the latest example being an
incendiary opinion piece in last Monday's Herald written by
the Greens' co-leader, Russel Norman.
The previous day's polls threw such articles into sharp
relief by indicating that a Labour-Greens governing coalition
was now a distinct possibility in the next Parliament. That
is not the first time such an outcome has been picked up by
pollsters. But it is the first time such a result has been
registered by the One News-Colmar Brunton poll or the 3
News-Reid Research survey and thereby conveyed to a mass
Labour was consequently aghast at Dr Norman's subsequent
announcement that he was angling for the job of minister of
finance in any Labour-Greens coalition formed after the 2014
Labour saw Dr Norman's intervention as poor judgement and a
ham-fisted grab for power when the occasion cried out for
both parties to show some decorum and highlight the many ways
they could work together in the national interest.
Mr Shearer immediately ruled out any prospect of Dr Norman
getting the senior finance role, saying that would go David
Parker, Labour's finance spokesman.
It is worth noting that Dr Norman did not make installing him
ahead of Mr Parker as a bottom line. It is more likely to
have been an opening bid for post-election negotiations - one
which the Greens could trade off in return for concessions
from Labour elsewhere.
But the damage has been done. The thought that the Greens
might be given even a junior finance role - as would seem
likely - is enough to give many voters the heebie-jeebies.
Such an eventuality requires voters to be slowly acclimatised
well in advance of it happening. Handed a political gift,
National spent the week revelling in telling all and sundry
that Dr Norman had appointed himself to the senior role.
The episode has also left the hugely negative impression
that, at the first sign of a turn in the polls in their
favour, the two parties were immediately squabbling over the
perks of office.
In the Greens' defence, their efforts to push their vote past
the 15% level are not just guided by what they can screw out
of Labour in coalition-formation deliberations.
They have also watched a succession of other minor parties
being destroyed by participating in or propping up
No-one knows how that can be avoided. But one theory is that
a more even share of MPs might give the minority partner more
control of the major one.
The Greens are also handicapped by only being able to deal
with Labour. While still trying to develop further
memorandums of understanding with National on areas where
they can work together, the Greens reluctantly accepted ahead
of last year's election that they could not give formal
backing to a National-led government.
The consequent fear that Labour would marginalise them had
the Greens warning they were not going to be Labour's
''little brother''. True to their word, their MPs have worked
harder and smarter than many in the Labour caucus.
The Greens are assertive. They are decisive. They are media
savvy. They take uncompromising, yet often popular positions
which Labour, as a major party seeking to attract wider
support across the spectrum, cannot match.
Take the Greens' push to ban deep-water oil drilling. Labour
says it would allow such drilling as long as there are
adequate safeguards - a position designed to satisfy both
environmentalists and the commercial world.
But it satisfies neither. The environmental lobby may like
the safeguards, but they still do not like the drilling. The
commercial lobby likes the drilling, but considers the
safeguards to be prohibitively expensive.
Being always forced on to the defensive in this manner has
been source of frustration for some Labour MPs, most notably
He has spoken out against the Greens, most recently
criticising them for opposing the development of Northland's
resources such as possible oil and gas reserves, which could
help cut spiralling Maori unemployment.
The Greens are suspicious that Mr Jones is acting as a
mouthpiece for the Labour leadership. While his putdowns are
not officially sanctioned by the leadership, neither is he
being rebuked for going public with such criticisms.
Mr Jones has upset some in the Labour caucus by infringing on
their portfolio responsibilities. But other MPs are quietly
Mr Shearer, meanwhile, is understood to have given several
senior spokesmen greater rein to criticise the Greens if they
seem too out of line with Labour's thinking.
There's concern that Labour did not distance itself clearly
from statements Dr Norman made several weeks ago advocating
the use of quantitative easing - the de facto printing of
money by government.
Essentially, the Greens are the tail that is wagging too much
on the end of a rather distracted and sometimes slow-moving
In the end, it is down to Mr Shearer to give the Greens the
occasional flick to remind them who is the senior partner in
the relationship. But it is a delicate matter. Still, expect
a tougher line from Labour from here on.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald