John Armstrong's opinion: Fledgling 'blue-green' party Sustainable New Zealand clever in theory, not so clever in practice

Clever in theory; not so clever in practice.

Sustainable New Zealand founder Vernon Tava. Source: Vernon Tava

That looks likely to be the early verdict on Sustainable New Zealand, the fledgling "blue-green" political party which has positioned itself as an alternative to the longstanding "red-green" Green Party.

It could be argued that passing such negative judgement on a new political vehicle before it is even up and running is absurd.

By the same token, however, it is ridiculous to pretend that everything is hunky-dory.

If things are going to plan, then the only conclusion to be drawn is that the plan is seriously flawed.

The abiding suspicion is that the establishment of Sustainable New Zealand as a viable political force is proving to be a struggle on several fronts.

That is the impression which lingers in the wake of this week's brief foray into the political limelight by Vernon Tava, the party's founder.

The Auckland-based lawyer, business consultant and local body politician is best known for his being a dissident within the ranks of the Green Party.

He quit that party in 2015 following a Quixotic-sounding bid to become the party's male co-leader. His standing as a candidate in that contest had the purpose of giving him a platform to question the wisdom of the direction in which the party was heading.

That took courage. His analysis of the Greens' predicament was right on the button. But the party was not interested in hearing it.

His announcement back in February of his intention to form a new party whose statements and actions would be determined solely on the basis of what was best for the environment consequently received a fair amount of media coverage.

He revealed the party's name and set up a website which provided an abbreviated rationale for the need for an environmentally-focussed party which would be positioned in the political centre — and which would thus be able to negotiate with either Labour or National.

Your playlist will load after this ad

The Opposition leader cheekily reminded James Shaw about the new Vernon Tava-led party. Source: 1 NEWS

The website also allowed anyone thinking of becoming a member the means by which they could register their interest.

His flagging of the new party was followed by a puzzling silence.

A policy "outline" was finally posted on the site.

It was not so much policy but a wish-list full of environmental goals that no-one would argue against happening.

It all added up to a rather strange approach to building a new political vehicle.

Mr Tava's resurfacing this week was long overdue. It was also well-timed.

The Greens have had a dreadful few weeks. Their annual conference was a public relations disaster. James Shaw was chastised for supposedly overseeing a drift by the party to the centre. Julie Anne Genter has been embroiled in the so-called "secret letter" saga.

Your playlist will load after this ad

“Is this the kind of transparency we can expect from this Government?” National’s Chris Bishop asked. Source: 1 NEWS

Shaw has been consumed with deflecting charges that the census fiasco exposed his incompetence in failing to demonstrate adequate ministerial oversight of his portfolio responsibilities.

It all added up to a smorgasbord of opportunities for Mr Tava to get one-up on his previous political home.

He did not take it.

He instead focused on his expectation that Sustainable New Zealand was close to hitting the crucial target of 500 signed-up members required under the Electoral Act before a party becomes eligible to contest the all-important party vote at a general election.

That was never in question, however.

Mr Tava's achievement is good news for the National Party. Getting Sustainable New Zealand onto the ballot paper is a vital first step in gaining a parliamentary ally that National so desperately needs to get back into power.

The Electoral Commission's registration of Mr Tava's outfit is potentially also bad news for National — very bad news.

What will be worrying Simon Bridges and his colleagues is that it has taken more than six months for the membership of Sustainable New Zealand to reach the level required to trigger that registration.

That is hardly the stuff of revolution. And National needs the kind of revolution which would see Sustainable New Zealand comfortably hurdling the 5 per cent threshold at its first attempt.

The time taken to lift the party's membership to the required level is demonstration aplenty that the creation of an alternative "green" party does excite the electorate.

It is far more the stuff of evolution. It portends a lot of hard work for precious little reward in the short-term for Mr Tava and the yet-to-be-announced recruits to the party's cause.

The blunt truth is that Sustainable New Zealand will do very well if it gets within touching distance of 5 per cent of the party vote at the 2020 election, thereby giving the party a reasonable chance of clearing the threshold in 2023.

Keeping to that timetable will not be easy. The stark impression is that Sustainable New Zealand has yet to advance beyond being a skeletal construct and is still quite some way off being operational.

We will probably have to wait until the official launch of the party — whenever that might be — for it to start contributing to political discourse.

The prospects of transforming something not long off the drawing board into a major political force during the fast-shrinking number of moths between now and the kick-off of next year's election campaign are roughly zero.

Worst of all perhaps, the one thing deemed to be of major advantage to Mr Tava's party fails to live up to its billing.

It has long been assumed that there are sizeable chunk of voters who identify with one or other of the two major parties but whose attachment to that party is weak.

It is claimed that these voters would be willing to back a more moderate version of the current Green Party were one on offer.

Well, possibly. There is a major stumbling block which calls this hypothesis into serious question, however.

The big risk in casting your vote for a party of the centre which ends up holding the balance of power and which is subsequently willing to strike a power-sharing deal with whichever of the two major parties offers the best deal is that you get the government you don't want.

Of note is that the Greens' steadfast refusal to do business with National is something of a plus for voters on the centre-left. They know that a vote for the Greens still counts as vote for a Labour-led government.

Mr Tava will not be able to offer similar insurance to National-leaning voters tempted to back his party.

The upshot is that Labour-leaning voters can vote tactically to ensure the Greens do not fall below the 5 per cent threshold, thus guaranteeing all the votes cast for the latter party still count and do not end up being wasted votes.

The danger for National is that the likelihood that Sustainable New Zealand won't clear the threshold and votes which would have otherwise gone to National end up as wasted votes.

There is yet another problem — one that is self-made.

Having quit the Green Party for being "too socialist", Mr Tava subsequently (unsuccessfully) sought the nomination for the National candidacy in the Northcote by-election.

Such veering between extreme won't inspire confidence on the centre-left that Mr Tava can be trusted to be an honest broker during coalition talks or negotiations on other matters.

That's a pity. He is otherwise credible, genuine, committed and well-intentioned. He could yet make a positive and not inconsiderable contribution to the country's body politic.

Unfortunately for now, he has quite simply bitten off far more than he can adequately chew.