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NZ POLITICS DAILY: Have the Greens gone too far, or not far enough?

Ever since entering Parliament, the Green Party has been evolving in a more moderate direction, shifting toward the middle of the political spectrum and becoming increasingly pragmatic.

Wed, 07 Jun 2017

The Greens desperately want to be part of the next government. But there’s a strong likelihood that, following the election, they will once again be locked out of power. This could be the result of a National government returning to power – something the Greens have committed not to support.

However, it’s becoming increasingly recognised that it might yet be a Labour-led government that quashes the Greens’ hopes. The memorandum of understanding between the Greens and Labour expires on election day, and Labour refuses to commit to including the Greens in any government it forms. And considering Labour is almost certain to need NZ First if it has any chance of forming a government, the likelihood of Peters vetoing the Greens is high.

Have the Greens moderated too much for their own good?
For a sign that the Greens might have finally gone too far in their evolution towards the mainstream or political centre, it’s worth reading Gordon Campbell’s scathing blog post about recent decisions made by the party – see: On marketing the Greens.

This critique is notable because Campbell normally writes favourably about the Greens. It seems their new levels of ultra-pragmatism and ambitious tactics are a step too far for him – he condemns that the Greens, along with Labour, have “chosen to move themselves to the right. It looks like a road to nowhere.”

Campbell laments “there is a valid question mark over whether the Greens of 2017 are what they once were” and says “it is not quite so evident what the current Greens stand for, beyond getting into government.”

He points to a run of conservative decisions made in the Greens: “The problematic North & South cover has been well enough hashed over. This could be put down to an isolated error of judgment, except that it seems to have been an intentional part of the party’s positioning strategy. It has also been of a piece with (a) effectively signing up with Labour to the current government’s economic settings, via the Greens’ embrace of the so-called Budget Responsibility Rules and more recently by (b) the Greens voting for National’s Budget.”

For the ultimate examination of whether the Greens are “selling out in order to finally win power at this election”, it’s worth reading Mike White’s cover story for the May issue of North & South magazine, which has just been published online – see: Are the Greens still scary? A political power comes of age.

White’s main point is an acceptance that the Greens have ditched their radicalism, and are no longer a party of outsiders: “There are few activists in their parliamentary ranks now. They talk an effortless business language. They wear suits. They’ve had two decades in Parliament and been our third-largest party since 2008. The Greens have become mainstream.”

I’m quoted in White’s article, suggesting that this shift away from radicalism to find more popularity could in fact be counterproductive, given we’re going through a more radical period of politics: “Although the Greens come from a tradition of being quite anti-authority and anti-establishment, I don’t think they channel that any more, and the anti-establishment mood of 2017 around the world and in New Zealand is quite different to what the Greens represent. Mostly it’s a mood that’s against people like Green MPs, quite frankly.” And I suggest that, instead, it’s New Zealand First that “stands to gain the most from any New Zealand version of that sense of discontentment.”

Similarly, Massey University’s Claire Robinson suggests the Greens are now “Labour-lite” and “really struggling to find another competitive position” since they have shifted away from their niche.

Should the Greens go further, and uncouple themselves from Labour?
Mike White’s North & South article also introduces the idea that the Greens might be wise to become more independent of the Labour Party – effectively pulling out of their election-year alliance. By positioning themselves as tied to Labour, and unable to work with National, it’s suggested that the Greens have reduced their political leverage and influence.

Most of all, it means that the Greens are hostage to whatever Labour and New Zealand First want to do in forming a coalition government. Matthew Hooton suggests the Greens don’t yet realise that they will be the losers from any Labour-NZ First coalition: “It’s quite cruel. They think they and Labour have reached this agreement. Poor old Greens. It’s all a bit tragic, really.”

Hooton explains: “Even if they get 15%, they’re destined for terrible disappointment. There is no scenario under which Labour and the Greens would have enough support to govern alone. So Winston Peters is required. That means the Greens will be shut out. And they’ve ruled out supporting a National-led government, so they will be done over once again and there will be absolutely nothing they can do about it.”

The harsh reality is Labour will be negotiating to form a coalition with NZ First, who will also negotiate with National, and the Greens have absolutely no bargaining power. They could, it has been suggested, threaten to withdraw the necessary “confidence and supply” votes that would allow a Labour-NZ First coalition to govern but this would effectively hand power to National to form a government. And given the Greens are campaigning to “change the government” this would be an anathema to Green voters.

Duncan Garner made a good argument in the weekend for the Greens changing their strategy, saying that by limiting themselves to only working with Labour they have assigned themselves “as Labour's Mini Me. They closed off their options and became Labour's little plaything” – see: The rub of the Greens – the party that's become Labour's play thing.

Here’s Garner’s key point: “Yes, they're a strong voice in opposition but surely they want to be in power one day – don't they? But they've chosen to work only with Labour. Apparently, National is evil, too Right-wing, doesn't care about the environment, has made our rivers dirty and the list goes on. But I wonder what life would be like if they hadn't thrown their lot in with just Labour. What would a Blue-Green government look like? Imagine if the Greens had left the door open to prop up either of the big parties in office? Is Labour really that economically different from National? Why couldn't the Greens have been truly independent and said 'We'll keep both the bastards honest and just fight for our principles and influence in any government we can be part of?'”

Last week, Garner also asked the new Green list stars, Chloe Swarbrick and Golriz Ghahraman, about this – see Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s New Green candidates not keen on National coalition.

And Barry Soper believes the recent split between the Greens and Labour over National’s Budget is significant, suggesting it shows if the Greens “were free agents they could easily have hooked up with National, which given their Budget vote, they don't loathe as much as Labour does” – see: Biggest mistake Greens made was linking with Labour.

Soper says that the Labour-Green MoU has been shown to be weak, given how the parties dealt with the split over the Budget: “it’s a pretty obvious breach but the agreement's unlikely to be worth the paper it's written on with the Greens again facing the prospect of not even being the bridesmaid and certainly not the bride. If Peters is the groom, and there's every indication he will be, there'll be no posies for them, they won't even be part of the congregation. Providing the numbers are there, the invitation list will be confined to Labour and New Zealand First.

Would moderating more be a disaster for the Greens?
The idea of moving further into the centre and entertaining the prospect of working with National is madness according to Newstalk ZB’s Alex Braae, who says, although such “logic is appealing,” ultimately it would destroy the Greens' reputation as a party of principle – see: Greens would be fools to court National.

Braae suggests the Greens’ core brand is “about purism over politics.” For many voters, “the Greens are the one party that hasn't yet tried to screw them. This strategic maintenance of principled stances matters far more than any tactical decision ever could.”

He believes going into government with National would end in tears: “Trading principles for power as a junior coalition lackey is a fools' game, because it doesn’t last. For it to work for the Greens, they would have to extract huge concessions from National in areas like agriculture and tax. Realistically, they’d find themselves tainted by government, with almost nothing to show for it. How could they then go back to their base and ask for another chance?”

In fact, for the Greens to go into any coalition – Labour or National – could be a disaster for the Greens. And the difficulties for minor parties is very well detailed and explained in Liam Hehir’s column, What's a small political party like Greens to do?

Hehir points out: “Since the advent of MMP, no such party has become the main support partner in government in one election and then emerged at the next with more than 5% of the vote. In fact, this electoral trauma occurs with such regularity it could almost be considered the iron-law of New Zealand politics.”

The strategy for most minor parties in government has been to go into a quasi-coalition in which they take ministerial positions but stay out of the cabinet. There is some logic to this strategy, but as Hehir points out, it hasn’t actually worked for the minor parties. And anyway, Hehir argues “the Greens don't seem to have an appetite for the ‘in the government, but not of the government’ conceit of recent years.” Hehir concludes that, ironically, the best thing that could happen for the Greens might be for Labour and NZ First to leave them out of government entirely.

In fact, that is possibly the answer to the Greens’ current dilemma – commit to being on the cross-benches, supporting a Labour-led government, on a case-by-case policy basis. That seems to be a potentially powerful place for minor parties to exist, flourish, and have plenty of influence. The problem for the Green MPs, however, is this way you don’t get the cabinet positions and baubles of office for yourself. This is why it’s a less appealing option for the ambitious new type of MPs running the party.

Finally, for a satirical take on what the Greens have been doing recently, see my blog post, Recent cartoons about the Greens.

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NZ POLITICS DAILY: Have the Greens gone too far, or not far enough?