Comment: A potentially fatal act of political cannibalism

Metiria Turei announcing she would not resign as Green Party co-leader, but would rule herself out of being a cabinet minister. Photo by Sam Sachdeva.

Metiria Turei's revelations about her welfare fraud successfully helped the Greens eat into Labour's support and energise its base, but this act of political cannibalism may prove fatal for Turei, and potentially for the chances of a centre-left Government. Bernard Hickey comments on the unheavals within and between the two main centre-left parties and what it might mean for who will be in Government after September 23.

Turei's political gamble in her speech to the Green Party annual conference on July 16 certainly seemed to have paid off in the first few weeks. Her carefully stage-managed update to her personal story elicited sympathy among many centre-left voters and sparked an intense debate about the punitive nature of much of our welfare system. Support for the Greens rose around five percentage points to record highs and Labour's support fell around the same amount to record lows, effectively delivering the death blow to Andrew Little's leadership.

"Today’s announcement is very personal to me. I’ve thought a lot about what I was going to say," Turei said on July 16 in that speech, which also announced a Green Government would increase benefits 20 percent and end the punitive measures around work and relationships for those on benefits.

It was a deliberate ploy that used social policy -- rather than the environment -- to lift the Green share of the centre-left vote and increase its power in any post-election negotiations. It effectively tore a chunk out of Labour's base and dragged the Green brand even further to the left and away from the 'Green' part of the party.

The trouble is the attempt to consume that chunk is now proving toxic for both Turei and the Greens. It is an open question about whether it dooms the chances of a Labour-Green-New Zealand First Government. Ironically, the bite that killed Little's political career has given Labour a much better chance of leading a Government, while achieving the exact opposite of Turei's original ploy.

"Nobody wants to be defined by a lie," Turei said on that day. "Nobody – whether you’re a politician or a solo mum," she said of her lies to MSD.

Unfortunately for Turei, she is now indeed defined by that lie and the other lies she did not reveal in that careful retelling of her story.

The forced revelations on Sunday night that she deliberately registered as living in a house in one electorate -- the house of the father of her daughter -- while living somewhere else so she could vote for a friend cast her political judgement and character in a much darker light. The detail about her mother living with her as a flatmate while Turei was financially independent also muddied these waters. Trust is hard won and easily lost when stories shift beneath the voters' feet.

Turei must have known that her personal living arrangements would come under intense media scrutiny and that her story had to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The justification of the welfare fraud was initially sympathetic when it appeared she had nothing else to hide. The continued justification of the welfare and electoral fraud, along with the refusal to step down as co-leader, have now turned that chunk of extra support into poison, and not just for the Green Party.

Attempting to build a fire wall

Jacinda Ardern's decisive comment on Friday that she would not accept Turei in her cabinet was an attempt to build some kind of firewall between Labour and the Greens without completely burning the bridge of the Labour-Green Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to change the Government.

Last night's resignations by Kennedy Graham and David Clendon from the Green Party list in protest at Turei's actions and their proposed expulsion from the caucus and party have added a new element of toxicity into the mix.

Until last night, Turei could at least claim there was unity in her party behind her stance and the adjustments to her story. That was clearly not the case. The bitterness and rancour underneath the treatment on the way out of Graham in particular was caustic for the Greens' brand for civility and consensus. The party's youth wing co-convener, Meg Williams, tweeted: "Fxxx Kennedy Graham and David Clendon tbh". Green Party general manager Sarah Helm suggested they had resigned because they were unhappy with their list positions and had not been active campaigners.

Graham, an MP for nine years and the brother of National Party cabinet member Sir Doug Graham, was a staunch and loyal Green Party member with strong track record on climate change issues and foreign affairs. He did not deserve to be slandered on the way out. Clendon, also a three term MP, did not have quite the same profile, but the smearing he received also added poison to the mix.

Turei again refused to resign before the Green caucus meeting on Tuesday, saying she had the backing of the rest of the caucus.

But pressure is intensifying on Labour to try to dissociate itself from the chaos and toxicity seeping from the left end of the centre-left spectrum.

'Relentlessly positive' despite the facts

Ardern stood by the MOU in a news conference in Parliament on Tuesday morning, but refused to comment any further on the Green leadership, saying only that it was up to the Greens.

Her answers lacked the clarity and decisiveness of Friday and showed how far she had been backed into a corner by the turmoil within the Greens. She said she had not spoken to Turei and is clearly trying to put distance between them, saying only that discussions between Labour and the Greens were happening between staffers or MPs. She portrayed discussions between Grant Robertson and James Shaw as accidental.

She said she was focused on Labour and said she would deliver stability as the leader of the Labour Party. She was also forced to abandon any sense of negativity towards the Government, saying she had cautioned Deputy Kelvin Davis about his characterisation of National's Bill English as having the personality of a rock and Jonathan Coleman as "Doctor Death". She also announced Labour would not pursue National with any further questions on the Todd Barclay affair.

'A dinghy of chaos'

But those comments about stability rung hollow and have served only to strengthen National's appeal for stability and to contrast its 'sleek rowing eight' with the opposition's circling and jostling in a dinghy of chaos.

English was quick to highlight the chaos.

"There’s some real pressure on the left wing parties and they are getting themselves in quite some mess. They are all tied together – Labour and the Greens have a memorandum of understanding so it affects all of them," English told reporters in Parliament.

Labour and the Greens are joined at the hip and I imagine it is a real concern. It looks as if with the turmoil on the left, Labour may have to take a view on Metiria Turei," he said.

"I think the attitude to your mistake matters as much as the mistake. In this case, though, Labour and the Greens are putting themselves forward as an alternative government and it is all looking pretty messy and they have to sort that out."

The other player who will be crucial in this mix is Winston Peters. He has never been that keen on the Greens as a partner in a wider three-way coalition and Turei's benefit fraud and welfare reform ideas don't play well with his appeal to conservative and provincial voters. He has yet to stake out a clear position on Turei's involvement. If he does rule out her involvement in a three-way coalition, then the pressure on Turei to resign for the good of the party will be intense.

But it's not all good for National

However, it's not one-way traffic for National.

There is a chance that the Green vote collapses below 10 percent and the left part of the centre-left vote that Turei had won through late July shifts back to an Ardern-led Labour, possibly with an extra dividend.

A Labour on 35 percent or higher would make a much more attractive partner for Peters in a two-way Government, if Peters were to get 15 percent or more on September.

Unintended consequences have been a theme of the last six weeks. There may be a few more to come in the remaining 46 days to the election and the 66 days before Peters' self imposed deadline of October 12 (the returning of the writs) for when he decides as kingmaker who the Government will be.