The standard assessment is that the 2014 election is between Labour/Green and National/NZ First.
To recap: The theory goes that Labour/Green and National will win about the same vote share, with Winston Peters holding the balance of power.
Mr Peters must then choose: Be the third wheel and office junior in a Labour/Green coalition or deputy prime minister, foreign minister and Sir Winston Peters in a National/NZ First government.
The theory assumes, on good evidence, that John Key is utterly determined to join Jim Bolger and Helen Clark’s third-term club – and, like them, will pay Mr Peters whatever entry requires.
But the theory also assumes David Shearer is totally out of his league, his party the victim of a reverse takeover by Russel Norman and Metiria Turei, and a mere observer of events.
While there is good evidence for those assumptions, consider the counterfactual: That Mr Shearer is capable of independent action, has no intention of leading a loony-left government condemned to one term, and is willing to be as ruthless as Mr Key to reach the top.
Wise heads in Labour whisper that the Greens are outperforming them in capturing daily media attention but the cost of that is more and more outlandish promises being made.
Dr Norman has tried hard to mitigate voter fears that the Greens would do wacky things on the economy. He tells fairy tales of a kiwi nirvana: clean, green, internet-based industries, powered by solar panels and windmills, with everyone on high wages as they export high-value organic products and computer software to the world.
In recent months, the façade has collapsed.
Since October, the Greens have announced they would print money to rebuild Christchurch, abandon the Reserve Bank’s price stability goal, progressively close down all mining activity, ban offshore oil exploration, prevent the expansion of agricultural production, impose higher costs on the tourism sector, nationalise electricity generation and legislate without compensation against contracts they don’t like.
They remain adamantly opposed to genetic science and are advising friendly business groups they would replace the roughly $2/tonne market-based ETS with a new $25/tonne carbon tax.
Mr Shearer knows that the Greens are no longer naïve but basically decent Coromandel hippies like Jeanette Fitzsimons. Those who now control the party are communists philosophically and entrists politically.
He also knows Labour cannot concede any more policy ground to the Greens and remain a mainstream party. The rise in unemployment and collapse in investor and business confidence would condemn him to a single term.
Experienced Labour strategists realise he must seek an alternative path to power, and one is obvious.
No Green leverage
Between the 2005 and 2011 elections, the Greens gained some leverage over Labour by flirting with National.
Their 2009 memorandum of understanding saw, among other things, the unlikely combination of Ms Fitzsimons and Gerry Brownlee develop a home insulation scheme that became the centrepiece of that year’s budget.
Those days are long gone. The Greens’ far-left political positioning means any arrangement with National – real or perceived – is impossible for both.
That means the Greens – despite Dr Norman strutting about as finance minister in waiting – have no political leverage at all.
After any election giving Mr Peters the balance of power, Mr Shearer could simply call the old charlatan and match Mr Key’s likely offers of deputy prime minister, foreign minister and a knighthood.
Labour and NZ First would not even need the magic 61 seats in parliament themselves.
All Mr Shearer would need to do – as Ms Clark did in 2005 – is apologise to the Greens, advising them sadly that a Labour/Green government just won’t work out this time. We’re all on for next time though!
Were the Greens to throw their toys, Mr Shearer would then gently suggest they try their luck with Mr Key.
The result would be beautiful for Mr Peters. He would get all the status, travel and baubles he wants, could defend his actions as the price necessary to keep the loony left out of power, and deliver final utu to National which he has never forgiven for forcing him out in 1993 and 1998.
For his party, Mr Shearer would form a government which might just have a chance of a second term, and he could always tilt back to the Greens should Mr Peters prove unreliable.
Even the Greens might see the silver lining: They could keep their supporters enthralled with ever-more loony ideas without the constraints of government.
You doubt the theory? Just ask Mr Shearer if Labour plans to go into the 2014 election promising to abolish knighthoods.