This week is a job interview for Russel Norman.
The Green Party co-leader has his eye on being minister of finance in two and a half years and he wouldn’t be the first Australian or ex-communist to achieve high political office in New Zealand.
Dr Norman is very conscious that achieving his goal requires the Green s to stay well above 10% in the polls and for David Shearer, David Cunliffe and David Parker, Shane Jones and Andrew Little or Grant Robertson to have confidence that making him finance minister would not cause an immediate crash in business and economic confidence.
Although Dr Norman has no expectation of winning votes from the business community, he knows that earning Mr Shearer’s trust (or Mssrs Cunliffe’s, Parkers’ Jones’ or Little’s) depends on him mitigating public concerns that the Greens have wacky ideas about the economy.
His response to Bill English’s fourth Budget will therefore be crucial.
Partnership of equals
The alternative to a John Key/Winston Peters government, which remains the most likely after 2014, is unlike any New Zealand has seen before.
Previous coalition governments have tended to consist of one overwhelmingly dominant party backed by ministerial minnows.
The closest to an equal partnership was the National/NZ First coalition of 1996 to 1998. Even in that case, though, the bigger party still contributed 75% of government MPs.
In contrast, a Labour/Green/NZ First government post-2014 would see Labour providing only around 60% of the personnel.
Despite concerns about tails wagging dogs, New Zealand small parties have in fact been relatively temperate in their demands, making them commensurate with their popular support.
Mr Peter demanded to be made deputy prime minister and treasurer in 1996 but the size of his voting bloc arguably justified it. Similarly, Jim Anderton demanded the deputy prime ministership in 1999 but relinquished it in 2002 when his support crashed.
Based on current forecasts and polls, nobody – not even Mr Peters – has ever had as much right to demand genuine political power from their coalition partner as Dr Norman is likely to have in 2014.
After its poor treatment of the Greens over the years, shunning them whenever possible in favour of Mr Peters and Peter Dunne, Labour will have to acquiesce to their demands in 2014 or create a permanent, embittered rival on the left.
Warming to business
The proximity of real power and the overshadowing of environmental fantasies by hard economic times have moderated the Greens’ political positioning.
Back in 1996, former co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons declared trade should be discouraged for the sake of the environment. Today, Dr Norman talks about narrowing the balance of payments deficit by rebalancing the economy from consumption toward exports.
He sees particular scope for growth in exports of services, talking of Mighty River Power becoming a leading global supplier of renewable energy technology and know-how.
There is a realisation that hippy organic wineries are all very well but New Zealand needs exporters and international businesses with the scale to have global market power.
Despite leading a party of vegans, animal rights activists and foes of corporate power, Dr Norman is prepared to talk about consolidation of the meat industry.
His stance on oil exploration is to vigorously oppose it in deep water but he is softening on projects closer to shore.
On tax, Dr Norman obviously wants to sock it to the so-called rich but his emphasis will be on rebalancing the tax base away from things the Greens say they support, like wages and profits, toward things they say they opposite, including house-price inflation, carbon and oil.
Dialogue has begun with Federated Farmers, employer groups and other business networks.
Make no mistake – the Greens remain a party of the hard left whose agenda is anathema to the business community.
But if he can get messages like these out to the public this week, and over-shadow Labour’s effort in critiquing Mr English’s budget, businesspeople may need to get themselves used to the prospect of finance minister Norman.
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