Bryce Edwards: Horse trading over waka jumping

Bryce Edwards: Horse trading over waka jumping

The Green Party was briefly in the headlines late last week when one of its internal strategy documents was accidentally emailed to the media. The document contained the suggestion that the party is considering voting in favour of party-hopping legislation that the Greens strongly oppose. It might seem like a minor, if embarrassing, hiccup. However, the issue raises questions about integrity, and in all likelihood the Greens are probably going to have to vote for the legislation anyhow.

The Waka-jumping fiasco

The Green Party has a long-standing problem with so-called “Waka-jumping” laws, that seek to expel from Parliament any MP who parts ways with their political party. They see such rules as anti-democratic and impacting negatively on politicians and political representation. The problem for the Greens right now, is they have joined a government based on an agreement negotiated between Labour and New Zealand First to implement such a law.

The fiasco went public when a Green politician – presumably new MP Golriz Ghahraman – accidentally sent a strategy paper to parliamentary press gallery journalist Jo Moir, who then reported on it – see her scoop: Horse trading between Labour and Greens to get NZ First’s ‘Waka Jumping’ bill across the line.

The gist of the story is that the Greens have been trying to decide whether to vote for the bill they disagree with and, if they do so, what policy they could get out of their coalition partners as a trade.

Here’s the full introduction to Moir’s article: “An obtained email and caucus briefing note from Green MP Golriz Ghahraman reveals the party’s plans to try and get support for one of their own bills in exchange for their backing of the Government’s ‘Waka Jumping’ bill. Labour, NZ First and National have all decried a Green Party MP’s suggestion that horse trading could be used as a negotiating tactic to get a national ‘Parihaka Day’. The Green Party is considering opposing NZ First’s ‘Waka Jumping’ bill – a deal struck in coalition talks – unless Labour gives it a national ‘Parihaka Day’.”

The Greens’ strategy document is explicit in recognising that “The Government won’t have the numbers to pass the legislation without us”, and that “Opposing the bill would cause political tensions given the inclusion of the bill in the Labour-NZ First coalition agreement and the apparent importance the Government is placing on it.”

Greens under-fire for “selling out”

The Greens’ paper acknowledges that whatever they decide, their spin-doctors are going to have to work hard to justify the decision: “We will need a strong communications plan to either explain a changed position, or to front foot any political tension or risk of being seen as an unstable part of Government, if opposition went public.”

When the story broke, the Greens’ PR professionals ran the line that there was nothing unusual about what was going on. Here’s what a Green Party spokesperson said: “It’s not surprising that Labour Party and Green Party MPs are having these kinds of constructive conversations and working together; in fact, that’s what New Zealanders expect of government parties”, and “It’s commonplace for ministers and MPs to have these kind of conversations – that will continue”.

Party leader James Shaw, was also on message, downplaying the horse-trading over the issue, saying “It doesn’t sound like a terribly big deal to me” – see the Herald’s Greens seeking concessions is ‘no big deal’ – Shaw.

The Greens’ own strategy paper acknowledges that voting for the party-hopping bill would cause criticism: “Supporting the bill would be seen as changing and weakening a long standing and public Party position. It would risk criticism from our core supporters and commentators.”

Rightwing political commentator, David Farrar was quick to oblige, saying: “Nice to know what price they put on electoral law. The proposed waka jumping bill is odious as it gives party leaders huge power, effectively to expel MPs from Parliament who challenge them. If the Greens are willing to support a waka jumping bill in return for Parihaka Day, what would it take for them to support extending the term of Parliament to five years – a statue of Hone Heke?” – see: Greens will sell out electoral law for a Parihaka Day!

In contrast, blogger No Right Turn, was more relaxed about the bill and the horse-trading: “I don’t think this is worth dying in a ditch over. It sounds as if there’s been some additional limits on the ability of parties to throw out members, and if they sunset clause it for the end of the Parliamentary term, then it’s something that can be accepted in the name of getting along. And that said, the Greens should not let themselves be taken for granted, and its entirely right that they ask for something in exchange” – see: Horse Trading.

The Greens’ government coalition partners were less forgiving. Winston Peters condemned the Greens’ pragmatism, saying “We don’t sell our principles, we don’t either half-way in or half-way out. If something is sound we’ll back it … but I think horse trading on matters of principle are thoroughly bad”.

Similarly, Justice Minister Andrew Little, who is responsible for the waka-jumping legislation, described Greens’ idea as “cheap horse-trading”.

On Friday morning, I went on TVNZ1’s Breakfast programme to analyse the situation. I argued that the leak of the strategy document was of great public interest, because it’s not often that the public gets to see how politicians operate and think behind the scenes – we are normally only privy to their polished speeches and parliamentary debating. Given all the political spin and carefully choreographed political communication, voters don’t often know how politicians really make decisions. That makes the leaked paper about how the Greens are thinking about one of the government’s core 100-day programme priorities fascinating and useful.

Furthermore, I said that the core message of the Green’s strategy paper is the lack of integrity in how the party has been dealing with the problem of the coalition government introducing a piece of legislation they disagree with. It suggests that the Greens are willing to “sell out” their principles quite easily – see the four-minute interview on TVNZ1 Breakfast’s Facebook page: Is the honeymoon over for the new coalition?

Can the Greens really vote against a founding policy of their own government?

The leaked strategy document suggests the party is free to vote against their own government whenever they like: “our Confidence and Supply Agreement gives us the independence to choose to vote against it”. And this assertion is in line with other public statements by the party about their involvement in the coalition.

James Shaw has even blogged about this, in an attempt to clarify the party’s role in the new government: “Put simply confidence and supply means we will vote for the Government’s budget and super important changes to NZ law, votes on the policy wins we achieved, and some technical ones – like the big set piece debate happening next week called the Address in Reply. We also agreed that Green Ministers will be bound by ‘collective responsibility’, in their portfolios and in areas where there has been full participation in policy development. Basically we won’t criticise Government policy that we had a part in making! In other areas, we may agree to disagree.”

Shaw also says “We still have the room to retain our identity and disagree with the government when we differ. We can stay true to our values while also having the opportunity to make real change” – see: Confidence and Supply = ???

There are two questions about this: how often will the Greens be able to vote against their own government without causing instability? And, does the “agree to disagree” clause in their coalition agreement actually apply to the core policies adopted in establishing the new government?

On the frequency with which the Greens can afford to vote against Labour and/or New Zealand First, Shaw himself says it will be very rare. According to Stacey Kirk, Shaw sees the “agree to disagree” clause as a “safety valve” and “he anticipates the valve would only be for extreme options” – see: Greens policy grab-bag: Where are they rousing for a shakeup?

Kirk reports that, although such clauses have been commonly used in previous governments, “it might be exercised a bit differently to previous iterations. It’s the nuclear option if things got really bad.” And Shaw is quoted arguing that the Greens might in fact never vote against government legislation, because bills of such a contentious nature simply wouldn’t be introduced to Parliament without the Greens approval: “I also don’t think that they will, that they’ll get to that point. Because in this arrangement, you actually need all three parties to agree before legislation can even make it to the house.”

There have also been suggestions that the fine print of the coalition agreement obliges the Greens to act in a way that allows the Labour-NZ First agreement to be implemented. This is best conveyed by Claire Trevett who explains that, while Greens believe they are free to pick and choose what they want to support, “Labour has a rather different view of that. For when the Green Party signed up with Labour, it promised to ‘act in good faith to allow [other] agreements to be complied with.’ It had effectively signed up to support everything in NZ First’s agreement, as indeed has NZ First to the Greens’ agreement” – see: Return of Jacinda Ardern a relief for Coalition Red.

Trevett also suggests that the waka-jumping discord might be the first sign of ongoing problems for Labour: “This one will not necessarily ease with time for it involved the first of what is likely to be a number of policy conflicts between NZ First and the Green Party.”

Finally, it’s worth clarifying whether the Green Party is actually part of the coalition government, given that its ministers are outside of Cabinet and the party only has a “Confidence and Supply” agreement with Labour. Because of this ambiguity, many commentators and politicians have been inclined to refer to the government as a Labour-NZ First government, or even a “minority government”. But this is nonsense according to Dean Knight, a constitutional law expert at Victoria University of Wellington. See his authoritative article, Clearing up some coalition confusion.