Bryce Edwards: Outrage over the idea of a National-Greens coalition

Bryce Edwards: Outrage over the idea of a National-Greens coalition

The political left and Green Party supporters are outraged by any notion of the Greens working in government with the National Party. It’s an idea that proposes the Greens use their handful of votes in Parliament to give National a majority, allowing the centre-right to govern. In exchange, the Greens would theoretically gain some hefty environmental and social policy wins.

It’s not going to happen, of course, for very good political reasons. And it would be just as challenging to rightwing supporters of National, as well as some environmentalists.

The blue-green deal

The idea of a National-Greens government has been around for a while, and it’s inevitable it would be raised in the wake of National falling short of a governing majority. But the notion has been pushed further into the arena of public debate following a petition initiated by Christchurch organic fashion entrepreneur Clive Antony – see Simon Collins’ Grassroots petition calls for National-Green coalition.

Antony explains: “I genuinely think there is common ground between the National Party and the Green Party, which could result in practical policy wins for New Zealand. Environmental issues such as carbon neutrality and social issues like child poverty come to mind.” His petition currently has 7202 signatures – you can sign it here: Show your support for the idea of a National/Green govt.

Some find the idea more plausible under James Shaw’s sole leadership of the Greens. Tracy Watkins explains: “Metiria Turei’s departure from the Greens co-leadership seems to be what lies behind National’s belief that a deal may be possible – she was always cast as an implacable opponent to any deal with National. James Shaw is seen as being more of a pragmatist” – see: National says don’t rule out an approach to Greens on election night.

Watkins explains why such a deal would be favourable for National, but argues that “National would only be prepared to make environmental concessions – the Greens’ social and economic policy platform would be seen as a step too far. Big concessions on climate change policy would also be a stumbling block.”

In fact, a National-Green arrangement doesn’t necessarily require the two parties to work together in government at all. The Greens could allow National to govern as a minority government simply by agreeing to abstain on confidence and supply votes.

For a list of some of the pros and cons of the Greens supporting National, see the blogpost, What are the Greens’ options?

Arguments for a National-Green coalition

It probably doesn’t help support for a National-Green coalition that the main proponent of it appears to be rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton. He’s been on social media stirring up debate, with tweets like: “Hi @NZGreens, you get that, if necessary, @NZNationalParty will agree to save the planet if that’s the price of 3 more years in power?” For more tweets from Hooton (@MatthewHootonNZ) and others, see my blog post: Top tweets about a National-Greens coalition deal.

In fact, Hooton has been pushing a blue-green deal for many months. Back in July he wrote in the NBR about what sort of concessions National would be likely to give to the Greens: “The emissions trading scheme would need to be strengthened and agricultural emissions included. Alternatively, the two parties might agree to tough new carbon and methane taxes to fund company tax cuts. A price on water would be obligatory and National would have to accept much more ambitious goals for clean lakes and rivers and the elimination of pests. Public transport in Auckland would be more rapidly expanded and Singapore-style GPS road changing introduced. On social justice issues, the Greens may push National to put the taxpayers’ money where Mr English’s mouth has been on social investment. More state houses would need to be built” – see: Possibility of National-Green coalition grows (paywalled).

This week, National Party blogger David Farrar also put together his thoughts on what National might be willing to give to the Greens, simply in exchange for the minor party abstaining on supply and confidence: “$1 billion over ten years for cycleways; A levy on nitrate pollution; A South Taranaki Whale Sanctuary; A levy on plastic bags; Accelerated timetable for rail to Auckland Airport; Doubling the funding for DOC; $65 million a year more for predator-free NZ; Stricter water quality standards to increase the number of water bodies rated excellent from 42% to 70%; A commitment to double the reduction of children in poverty from 50,000 to 100,000; Double the reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 from 11% to 22%” – see: What could the Greens get if they went with National not Winston?

Environmental entrepreneur Lance Wiggs has blogged this week about such a deal, arguing it’s time for the Greens to take advantage of National’s weakness: “It’s not the time to hunker down for another three years but rather the time to cut a deal, a good deal, with whatever party is going to be leading the new government.  At the moment the Greens have zero negotiating power – they have ceded it all to Labour by refusing to treat with National, and their members are not helping their own cause by reiterating the same. By painting themselves into this corner they will either end up in opposition again, with limited action on the causes that matter, or they will get what they are given in a red black and green coalition” – see: The real issue post-election is results, not dance partners.

Wiggs has his own detailed shopping list of big policy changes for National to agree to, which focuses mainly on substantive shifts on climate change and water issues, but also includes “Julie-Ann Genter as minister of transport, James Shaw for climate change”.

Newstalk ZB’s Rachel Smalley has also put the case for the Greens to be an independent party of the centre: “There is a very real appetite for a blue-green ideology in New Zealand – and James Shaw is the man to lead that change as the sole leader of the party. Metiria Turei was more activist then politician. She was more focused on keeping to the ideology then getting into government – but she’s gone now so Shaw should seize the opportunity, and look to lead something of a renaissance” – see: Shaw thing – why the Greens should swing in behind National.

Certainly, many view the current situation as a window of opportunity for Shaw to take advantage of both the need to rebuild, as well as his sole status as leader. The Dominion Post suggests that he should be bold: “The pragmatic Shaw finds himself at the head of a party at a crossroads; without a co-leader to temper that pragmatism he is unlikely to have this opportunity again to consider a bold new path that could create a legacy for himself and the green movement” – see the editorial, Grand opportunity for Greens to grow.

The newspaper suggests that going in with National might help the party’s rebuild: “A Green Party with the environment portfolio and a few runs on the board might not only survive but thrive ahead of the next election, picking up the people who deserted them in the previous cycle, and potentially others who have toyed with support in the past but ultimately been turned off by their lack of pragmatism and inability to compromise.”

So there are legitimate arguments for a centre-right environmental party. But this would involve either a major change in direction from the Greens, or a new party altogether. Starting a new party from scratch to achieve 5 per cent, as numerous people including Gareth Morgan, Colin Craig and Kim Dotcom have learned, is extremely difficult.

National and their supporters know that a major shift by the Greens is almost inconceivable and that the minor parties that have actually made it and survived for any length of time under MMP have all emerged from factional splits from existing parties. What they will be looking at for the next election, when National may well have completely run out of coalition partners, is a conservative splinter faction from the Greens as a new coalition possibility. Some commentators have pointed out that a very strong offer from the National party that was rejected by the Greens, would cause the Greens significant internal stress and division.

Economist Eric Crampton makes the case that a strong policy offer from National to the Greens would serve the purpose of pressuring the leftwing party: “Make the strongest sincere environmental policy bundle offer they can credibly offer. If it’s accepted, they get that coalition with the Greens. If it isn’t, it’s riven the Green Party. And if National then forms a government with NZ First instead, it gives National the ability to bat back any Green complaint about environmental policy with a reminder of what was rejected. The risk: publicly making the offer annoys Winston Peters and then brings about a Labour-led coalition” – see: For a teal coalition.

The NBR’s Rob Hosking elaborates on how a strong offer from National would at the very least call the Greens’ bluff about its claims that urgent action on climate change should be above all other considerations: “If climate change is indeed the greatest challenge facing humanity, and if  the state of New Zealand rivers is as appalling as the party says – and also if National isn’t, of its own initiative, doing anything about those things (which is, again, what the Green Party says) –  then why wouldn’t its members be prepared to make at least some sort of progress on those  issues rather than wait until 2020 or 2023 or whatever?… If those environmental concerns are truly paramount, then the Greens should be prepared to at least consider such a deal” – see: National-Greens deal won’t happen but not because of principle (paywalled).

Hosking suggests that the Greens objection to working with National is more out of politics than principle: “Such a deal would see too many of its members revolt and, already wounded, the party would either split or, if not, still struggle to survive at the next election, whether that election is in 2020 or, as is increasingly likely, sooner.  And that is simply because that, for many, perhaps most, of the Green Party members, all the rhetoric about climate change being the paramount issue of our time is so much, well, hot air.  It is a stick to beat the evil Tories with.”

Opposition to a National-Green coalition

There has been outrage from many Green supporters about the very idea of blue-green cooperation. This is most evident on twitter, but for similar indignation, see Martyn Bradbury’s Why the National-Green Government idea is a desperate joke and The only way is Winston. In the latter, Bradbury says, “They’re Greens, so supporting dolphin-murdering, river-poisoning, National-Park-mining environmental vandals is off the table, even if you ignore the commitment to social justice”.

Gordon Campbell epitomises leftwing opposition: “Of all the media diversions during campaign 2017, the recurring call for the Greens to consider a coalition deal with National has had to be the most ridiculous. Usually, the call goes hand in hand with the equally brain-dead notion that the Greens should decide to become only an environmental party, and forget all this Commie social justice nonsense. For starters: most of the Greens starkest conflicts with National are over the environmental issues, such as climate change, river pollution, intensive dairying etc” – see: On the election result, and likely road ahead.

Campbell argues “National would be inviting the Greens to take all the risks, while it pocketed the gains from such an arrangement. It won’t happen, ever.”

Blogger Caleb Morgan suggests that the Greens should simply put their strong environmental demands to National, and “National would refuse this offer. And then maybe people would stop trying to make “blue-green” happen. Or at least realise it’s not Green stubbornness stopping it happening. It’s National’s near-total lack of concern for the environment” – see: Blue-Green is not going to happen, and it’s not the Greens’ fault.

Perhaps it’s more than just policies that inhibit any chance of a National-Green cooperation, according to former Green candidate David Hay, who says “these two parties are profoundly divided by values, world view and ideology” – see: The National-Green coalition fantasy.

Hay argues that, to get the Greens on board, National “would have to offer the Greens a bulletproof coalition agreement which delivered some of the transformational social, economic and environmental changes sought by the Greens – along with seats at the Cabinet table for Green party ministers to drive those changes through. And that is unthinkable. Pure fantasy. It will never happen.”

Mary-Margaret Slack makes a comprehensive argument against the Greens doing a deal in her article, Could a National-Greens coalition work? After surveying different views on the difficulty of such an alignment, Slack concludes: “National would likely use the Greens as a footstool, which would only hurt them. Where, then, would an independent voice for the environment and a fair society be? No-one wants to be a footstool, no-one deserves to be a footstool, and voters sure don’t want their core beliefs to be used as a footstool”.

This idea that the Green’s own sustainability would be under threat from a deal with National is argued strongly by Duncan Greive in his opinion piece, The sad fate of the Maori party shows the Greens what awaits pragmatists. He admits that “the Greens and National are currently as politically compatible as they have ever been” and that “it’s not at all implausible to imagine English agreeing to far more ambitious targets on both poverty and emissions reduction – the two core Greens planks in the recent campaign – in exchange for a fourth term.” But he says a deal would never happen because even “an extraordinary deal – even one which saw radical and structural change on the issues they care most about – would spell the end of the Greens. Because they would be tied to every other decision made by National. And that would likely be enough.”

Even if the caucus were in favour, Green MPs would have a Herculean task convincing the party members to approve any deal. As Tracy Watkins says, “The Green Party’s dilemma in stitching up a deal with National would be tenfold. Its grassroots activists and supporters are all left leaning and a deal with National would cause it to implode. The Greens rules are also an impediment to Shaw negotiating a post-coalition deal as the grassroots voted pre-election that they would only support a Labour government. It would be seen as a huge betrayal to do anything else” – see: The Green Party also hold the balance of power, but they don’t seem to want it.

Perhaps the strongest argument against the Greens considering having anything to do with National is the simple fact that they campaigned strongly on “changing the government”, and to prevaricate on this would be democratically dishonest. Given that the Greens so strongly ruled out working with National, those who voted Green would have a strong grievance with the party.

Finally, conservative political commentator Liam Hehir agrees that it would be impossible for the Greens to suddenly hitch their wagon to National: “an accommodation with the Great Satan would be disastrous in practice. The party’s slow transformation from an environmentalist party with socialist tendencies to the reverse can’t be quickly undone. Accepting any kind of indecent proposal from National would alienate a large part of the base.” But he thinks that further down the track, the Greens need to look at various new options, including as an independent party less aligned to Labour – see: Greens have decisions to make about their future focus.