The Greens come out swinging... not just at Winston

Winston Peters won't mind the Greens showing a bit of fight. Rather, Metiria Turei's attack on his "racist" politics is more likely to rattle the cage of another party and send a 'pragmatic' message to voters.. 

Well, you can't say the Greens haven't had plenty of time to mull it over. And it looks like they've decided they're not going to die wondering. Metiria Turei's crack at New Zealand First's "racist, divisise politics" looked like a calculated attack at a time the cameras would be on her, and it sent a message to more than just Winston Peters.

At the party's (early) campaign launch in Nelson on Sunday, Turei took a swing at New Zealand First, saying she doesn't like the way the party does politics or its "worst excess" when it comes to playing the race card. She said it on TVNZ's Q+A, she said it at the conference and she said it a few more times on RNZ's Morning Report this morning. 

It certainly got the headlines she was after, as journalists laid out the political importance of such an outburst in the MMP environment. The 'change of government' stance the Greens espouse, relies almost certainly on a three-way arrangement between them, Labour, and New Zealand First. Not necessarily in that order. So while on one hand the Greens leaders have gone out of their way to display to voters a relationship with Labour of peace and order, they've just kicked their hindlegs at their other potential stablemate. 

Why would you do that? Why suggest unstable government on the left? It looks like a mixture of calculation and desperation. 

The point of the Memorandum of Understanding with Labour was to look like a government-in-waiting. Whereas the centre-right vote in New Zealand has zeroed in on National under John Key, on the left it is splintered across at least those two parties, and seemingly irreversably so. For now, at least. Voters are clearly wary of a disunified government and so this was a pitch to earn trust, promote stability and get voters thinking of them as a 'two-for-one' deal.

That way there would be no surprises, no panic and a serious mandate if they were able to cobble together a majority and, for the first time under MMP, have the biggest party left out of government.

While there are plenty who question the logic of this thinking (including my co-host Mr Espiner on the fabulous new RNZ politics podcast Caucus), I get the appeal.

Problem is, it hasn't worked. Less than three months from election day and voters have hardly warmed to the red-green combo. Pundit's poll of polls has them combined at 42 percent, still behind National. RNZ's more recently updated poll of polls (which also includes some different polls) has them further back at 39 percent. Those are not winning positions. They would need every inch of New Zealand First to win. And if they look weak, New Zealand First will be far from eager to champion the duo.

For all Peter's warning after Turei's attack, that there could be "consequences" (as in, being left out of government) a few harsh words won't make or break that trio. Peters has called the current National government every name under the sun. Just a few weeks back he was labelling Bill English and liar and demanding he resign.

Sticks and stones. It's not as if Turei hasn't thrown this punch before. Back in 2013. And even just a couple of months ago.

It's not new and numbers will out. It's telling that upon his re-emergence from his ambassadorial slumber, Shane Jones – who once talked about the Greens as "mollyhawks" and worse – played down that division as ancient history.

New Zealand First doesn't want Labour or the Greens to be too weak, least of all because it could leave the party with little leverage over National. Worst of all, it may render them irrelevant again, as it did three years ago. No, Winston wants some muscle on his left, so may quietly welcome Turei's shot.

But the Greens aren't showing their guns to give Peters more negotiating power. They're having a swing because they are determined not to be bystanders this time. Critics say they should court the right-wing vote by not ruling out National, but that really isn't up for discussion any more. They see the supposed bunch of blue-green voters out there just waiting to be wooed as modern day mirages. Mythology. 

But they're not giving up. So they're sending a message that they won't be cowered. While it may tarnish their holier than thou image a little, I suspect they can live with that. By attacking Winston as racist they show they're up for a fight, even if it makes Labour uncomfortable.

They are saying to centre-left voters, while Labour is busy accommodating Peters and tweaking policy to fit alongside his, they're prepared to stand up to the big meanie. They are also saying that they're not naive. Indeed, they can be pragmatic and stand tough. They can attack a party one day and sit down and deal with them a few weeks later. They can play by the Peters playbook just like him. Heck, it might even earn some wry respect.

That's an interesting message to be sending voters, because it's saying the Greens won't accept being third wheel in this deal. Not without a fight anyway. It's a message that demands to be taken seriously and, as Turei kept saying like a stuck record on Report (she really has to mix up her language a bit), it's an appeal for a kinder, more progressive change of government.

So sod Winston. Those who may be the most perturbed by those comments are the poor blighers in Labour. They did the MOU so they didn't have to worry too much about the party's left flank. [Losing buzzer noise].

Its failure to win support means the Greens now know they're going to have to chance their arm themselves. If Labour can't win National voters away, then perhaps it can win a few. Equally, if Labour can turn it around – or if its New Zealand First starts to cut into the National vote and bring them down a few points – and a change of government begins to loom large, it wants to be big enough to fight its corner.

So more than any election in New Zealand's history, this is looking like a four-way fight for voters. National is well ahead of any rival, but with no friends of substance the battle for swing voters over the next 10 weeks will be fierce between all four parties.

No-one is going to take a backward step.