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John Armstrong's opinion: Don't mistake Ardern's talks with Green Party for kindness

Don't be fooled for a moment by Jacinda Ardern's post-election embrace of the Greens.

Green Party Co-Leaders Marama Davidson and James Shaw, left, and Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern. Source: 1 NEWS

Don't make the mistake of thinking that she is motivated by reason of familial loyalty, should it happen to be that she offers Labour's ally on the centre-left the opportunity to be a participant in her new administration, despite having no need to do so.

The Prime Minister's willingness to partake in talks with the Green Party's co-leaders will likely be widely regarded as a magnanimous gesture on the part of the all-powerful Labour leader.

It is anything but.

Her sitting down at the negotiating table with James Shaw and Marama Davidson to explore potential "areas of co-operation" in the wake of the October 17 general election is motivated by one thing and one thing only - Labour's self-interest, pure and simple.

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Anyone doubting that is the case should take note of just how ruthless this Prime Minister can be.

Just ask the Greens. Ardern did not lift a finger during the election campaign to help her Government's support partner retain a presence in Parliament.

To the contrary, she adopted a finely-tuned approach designed to keep the Greens' share of the party vote just above the five per cent threshold, but no higher. She refused to pull the Labour candidate from the race for Auckland Central, thereby guaranteeing a split in the centre-left's share of the vote in the seat.

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Labour has enough seats to govern alone, but Jacinda Ardern hasn’t ruled out an agreement with the longtime political allies. Source: Breakfast

She ignored Shaw's pleas that she do some "messaging" - as he put it - to urge Labour supporters to cast their party vote for the Greens to ensure Ardern continued to hold office as Prime Minister.

Now, post-election, Ardern has begun holding talks with Shaw and Davidson with the intention of forging some kind of "co-operation agreement" with the Greens.

There are two reasons why she is doing so despite her enjoying a massive mandate to govern alone, and thus not needing to bother.

Labour-Green discussions to conclude next week, Jacinda Ardern says

First, she wants to keep the Greens in the position she has reserved for them - namely, firmly under her thumb.

Second, as much as it is the desire of any Prime Minister to be freed to run a single-party Government unencumbered by minor party partners and the constant compromises that entails, opinion polls have revealed that up to half of the electorate are averse to all power residing in just one party.

It is therefore in her interests to convey the impression she is sharing power.

In that regard, a co-operation agreement can be written in such a manner as to appear that the major party is sharing power when a reading of the fine print reveals that to be far from the case.

By way of example, take a look at the nuts and bolts of the co-operation agreement hammered out by Labour and the Greens back in 2002.

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The political commentators appeared on TVNZ1’s Breakfast. Source: Breakfast

That document was the product of circumstances not that dissimilar to those pertaining currently. Labour was very much in the driver's seat of Government, having spurned the Greens as chosen coalition partner in preference for Peter Dunne's United Future Party.

The Greens were furious at what they considered to be treachery on Labour's part. The subsequent co-operation agreement was drafted in order to appease the Greens.

It declared that the Labour-United Future Government and the Green Party shared many similar goals and would "co-operate on agreed areas of policy development and legislation in order to facilitate the implementation of a shared agenda".

Furthermore, the governing parties agreed to consult with the Greens on key legislative measures and major policy issues.

Of special note was an intention to "engage on the detail of policy" by placing separate and distinct policy matters into one of three categories.

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Marama Davidson and James Shaw say Labour will benefit from their support. Source: 1 NEWS

The first category specified the "full participation" of Green Party spokespeople in the development of policy positions with the "expectation of developing joint positions".

The second category limited discussion between the parties to "consultation on the broad direction of policy", while the third category restricted matters even further to "consultation for the purposes of information sharing without any particular expectation of developing agreed positions".

You do not have to be Machiavelli to work out that the whole exercise was an elaborate charade. While the Greens were free to submit issues that they wished be put on the agenda, the two governing parties had the power of veto to block such moves.

The co-operation agreement listed other steps to be taken to enhance co-operation, such as allowing designated Green MPs access to relevant Cabinet ministers and quarterly meetings between the Prime Minister and the Greens' co-leaders.

The prescribing of a get-together every three months was the giveaway as regards Labour's and Dunne's party's true level of commitment to the whole process.The document was less a "co-operation agreement" and more a "consultation agreement" - one which had Labour, along with Dunne, determining the outcome in advance.

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Labour got enough votes to govern alone in Saturday's election but the Greens want to work together again. Source: 1 NEWS

Not surprisingly, not much was heard about the agreement once the signing ceremony was done and dusted.

Nevertheless, it will be no surprise should Ardern offer much the same kind of deal to Shaw and Davidson - if the former has not done so already.

The pair will be told in the nicest possible way that they can take it or leave it.

It is important to Ardern's self-styled image as a consensus-building politician that she be seen to make an offer. If the Greens don't accept it, then too bad. She won't be losing any sleep.

Shaw and Davidson will know by now that they won't be sitting at the Cabinet table in a coalition with Labour. There is no point in doing so beyond making a symbolic point.

Labour would call all the shots in the Cabinet room. It would be free to veto any Greens-promoted policy.

Having been rid of Winston Peters, Ardern is hardly of a mind or mood to invite potential trouble from another source into the core institution of Government.

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Shaw says he’ll be bring what he campaigned on, including the wealth tax, into any negotiations with Labour. Source: Q+A

If nothing else, she needs the four slots in the Cabinet made vacant by the demise of New Zealand First to clear some of the bottleneck caused by the crush of her own MPs fed up with waiting for what they have convinced themselves is long-deserved promotion.

There is also no point in renewing the confidence and supply agreement with Labour which has provided the guidelines for managing the relationship between the two parties for the past three years.

For Labour to lose the confidence of Parliament and be unable to keep governing without the help of the 10 seats held by the Greens would require the major party to lose something like 15 by-elections during the next three years. There have been precisely 11 by-elections in the past 15 years - only one of which saw the candidate of the incumbent party defeated.

That leaves two options - a Labour-Greens co-operation agreement which includes Green MPs in charge of portfolios as ministers outside the Cabinet, or, a Labour-Greens co-operation agreement which does not include Green MPs in charge of portfolios as ministers outside the Cabinet.

At a pinch, Ardern might be persuaded to keep Shaw in his pre-election job as Minister for Climate Change. It would be a means of keeping the Greens inside the tent, rather than them being trouble outside - a role which they have been long practised until recent times.

Indeed, the likes of the sage and politically savvy former Green MPs Sue Bradford and Catherine Delahunty are arguing that their party is so lacking in leverage that its caucus should retain its independence and push for change from the outside rather than being silenced by Labour's dominance of whatever kind of Government is installed in the next couple of weeks.

Even that choice might well be denied the Greens.

If Ardern offers to retain Shaw in the Climate Change portfolio, it will be an offer neither he nor the rest of his party will be in a position to refuse.

If the party is shut out from having a visible and meaningful role in the drafting of policies tackling global warming, then it will have electoral consequences, especially in the courting of the youth vote.

The Greens don't "own" climate change policy. Their long being at the forefront of efforts to reduce global warming - and, moreover, long before Ardern enjoyed the thrill of what she deemed to be her equivalent of a "nuclear-free moment" - means the Greens do have a sizeable mortgage on the issue.

They simply cannot allow Labour to divest them of such a vital electoral investment.

Labour's negotiating power could hardly be stronger, however. The Greens' leverage could hardly be weaker.