Bryce Edwards: Will the Greens flourish or wither in 2018?

Bryce Edwards: Will the Greens flourish or wither in 2018?

This year will be crucial for the James Shaw and the Green Party. They are going to face serious challenges during their first ever year in government and it’s not yet clear that they will be able to navigate these successfully.

The party ended 2017 in great spirits, finally joining government after 21 years in Parliament. It gained three ministerial positions, a host of policy wins, and generally the party is receiving positive media coverage.

Therefore, it’s easy to forget that the Green Party was nearly wiped out just a few months ago. The party struggled during the election campaign, mired in controversy, and suffered a significant decline in support, dropping from 14 MPs to just 8. Having scraped over the MMP threshold – getting just over 6 per cent of the vote – the party was expecting to lick its wounds and spend 2018 recovering from its setbacks.

After finding itself in government, the option of slowly re-grouping and re-evaluating is no longer available to the Greens. Instead the party faces the challenges of participating in government – a task that will bring many opportunities, risks and rewards.

Challenges for the Greens in government

The Greens’ first challenge is simply staying alive – the party needs to retain enough support to stay in Parliament at the next election. In this regard, conservative political commentator Liam Hehir wrote a must-read analysis last month on the challenges facing the Greens in government – see: Greens risk losing ground in 2020 as Labour takes their share of votes.

Hehir looks back at how the Greens have performed in recent elections, disputing James Shaw’s assertion that the party’s “natural level of support is about 10 or 11 per cent” of the vote. The evidence suggests, instead, “that the party’s natural level of support is closer to 6 per cent, with the party getting a boost of four or five points when Labour does exceptionally poorly. I don’t know anyone who thinks Labour will receive less than 30 per cent of the vote in 2020.”

The Greens will – like all minor parties in coalition government – face problems retaining their identity, and will inevitably suffer from some supporters believing they have been too compliant and compromising in government. According to Hehir, the signs are already there: “if the last few months have confirmed anything, it’s that the Greens are different now. Despite being excluded from cabinet, the party’s chief aim seems to be pleasing Labour. Under current conditions, that means appeasing New Zealand First. We saw early signs of this when the Greens agreed to the sidelining of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, which is opposed by New Zealand First. Initially surprised by the move, the party eventually acquiesced… Now it appears that the party will do an about face on the ‘waka jumping’ bill being pushed by Winston Peters. Until recently, the Greens had maintained a principled opposition to such laws.”

Hehir points to James Shaw’s extraordinary recent statement of how compliant the Greens will be in the coalition: “Our policy is what the Government’s policy is. So now we’re in Government, we need to do what Government policy says.”

This is all a long way from when Shaw blogged after the election to explain that the Greens were going to have maximum freedom within the new coalition arrangement – see: Confidence and Supply = ???

Back then, Shaw explained what the coalition agreement means for the Greens freedom to speak out and vote only for what they agree with: “Basically we won’t criticise Government policy that we had a part in making! In other areas, we may agree to disagree… On issues where we don’t have agreement, we can vote from our own position… 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.”

But early on, others identified that the Greens would still face problems retaining their identity, especially given that Labour under Jacinda Ardern was pushing a stronger environmental message, and because the Greens also no longer “owned” the child poverty agenda – see Nicholas Jones’ Greens’ roller coaster stops in Government: ‘Nothing short of remarkable’. In this report, former MP Keith Locke explains some of the problems his party will face, and suggests there is a “chance to present a clear difference in other areas such as foreign affairs, defence and intelligence services, and how to address New Zealand’s booming prison populations.”

Other problems for the Greens

The Greens are now in the uncomfortable position of being accused of selling out their principles. Even National’s Nick Smith has been able to highlight the party’s capitulation on the waka-jumping bill, saying: “I am particularly astounded by the Green Party’s support for this law change. They described a near identical bill in 2005 as one of the worst to ever come before our Parliament. It is hardly acceptable for the New Zealand Green Party to be the champions of human rights and democracy abroad while voting for erosion of these values at home” – see: House of representatives or party poodles?

Similarly, on the question of the new Trans Pacific Trade agreement, although the Greens have stated their opposition to the new version – see Newstalk ZB’s Winston supports TPP but Greens still holding out – it’s not clear to what extent the party will speak out, or whether they will even vote against it in Parliament (rather than just abstain in the vote). And if the party doesn’t mobilse protests on the streets over the TPP – as it has in previous years, when National was in power – there will be questions about the Greens’ resolve and values.

A number of other internal issues have been troubling the Greens over summer. It was reported that the party is now broke, and is making appeals to members so that it can pay off its debts – see Mei Heron’s Green coffers bare after election campaign.

To make matters much worse, in December Green Parliamentary staffers made an extraordinary move to convey their unhappiness in a letter to their MPs, citing “complaints of low morale, bad communication and unfair treatment” – see Mei Heron’s Greens letter reveals ‘damage to staff morale’. The letter was leaked to the media, which reported parts of it such as: “MPs and senior staff should now be fully aware of the damage to staff morale created by this drift away from Green kaupapa… They should also know that the manner in which Green staff have been treated has already diminished the reputation of the Green Party.”

There have also recently been a number of reasons to question the quality of new Green MPs and candidates. Last week, one commentator blamed “quality control” in the selection process – see Paul Buchanan’s Do the Greens have a candidate vetting problem?

And the cloud of Metiria Turei’s benefit fraud confession still hangs over the party, with continued questions being asked but not answered – see Kelly Dennett’s Silence over Metiria Turei’s alleged benefit fraud investigation irks.

On top of all of this, there is the challenge of selecting a new co-leader to replace Metiria Turei. More on this in another column.

Shaw’s “frogwhistling” speech

Many of the challenges for the Greens were apparent in James Shaw’s State of the Planet speech on Thursday. In fact, Shaw dealt with these challenges very adeptly in a speech that was obviously very carefully crafted in order to send a message.

Of course, all politicians’ speeches are crafted to “send a message” – but some are more sophisticated and subtle than others. In the classic case of populists and reactionaries, “dog whistle” techniques are used, which involve deliberately using language and phrases that that don’t mean much to others, but are picked up by those in the intended audience. In the case of the Greens, however, you might say – as one blogger has today – that Shaw was “frogwhistling” – sending important messages to core and potential Green supporters. And the Green leader himself was reported as saying that the speech was aimed, not at “middle New Zealand” but at supporters.

So, on one level, James Shaw’s speech can be seen as a speech about “saving the planet” and inequality, and how the Greens will do politics differently to other politicians. But there was much more to it than that. Shaw managed to get two main messages out to supporters about being in government: 1) The party will be bold, ambitious and radical, and 2) Supporters will have accept compromises and defeats.

These dual messages are covered best by Thomas Coughlan’s Newsroom column, Campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. In this, Coughlan draws attention to the more radical aspects of Shaw’s speech, especially his focus on criticising neoliberalism and the existing economic framework. For example: “The party seeks to capture the current anger with the economic system. Introducing Shaw, new MP Chlöe Swarbrick spoke rousingly of the discontent of a generation that had watched the ‘wheels fall off neoliberalism’. Shaw took up this refrain, quoting Winston Peters’ campaign launch: ‘this is the end for neoliberalism’… Shaw even gave some detail on what this post-neoliberal economics might look like. He name-checked popular Cambridge economist Kate Raworth as the source of his model.”

But the converse of Shaw’s Zeitgeist-channelling boldness, was a lowering of expectations about the need to capitulate on certain issues: “Potentially risking the wrath of the party’s large, loud and proud activist base, he gestured towards the idea that being in coalition will mean the party compromising on certain dearly-held views. He told the faithful to “focus unrelentingly on the big things that put [the] architecture [of the new economics] in place” and ‘not to sweat the small stuff’, which could possibly be a cue to Green Party faithful that compromises may be in the pipeline. Labour and New Zealand First are used to campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. The Greens have rarely, if ever, had to change gears in the same way. Shaw’s speech was a gentle reminder to the party that they may have to.”

Some of the radical aspects were also emphasised by Claire Trevett, who reported from the meeting that Julie Anne Genter is soon to unveil, alongside senior Transport minister Phil Twyford, a new initiative which Shaw said would “radically shift investment in our transport systems” – see: Green leader James Shaw tells supporters compromise needed to achieve goals.

On the other hand, Trevett reported that “Shaw has warned supporters to prepare to compromise and ‘swallow dead rats’ if the party is to get what it wants in government.” Trevett elaborates: “It was a message to the party faithful to prepare to swallow some dead rats – early on in the new government there was some internal friction after the party had to agree to support NZ First’s Waka Jumping Bill, a concept it was opposed to. It has also effectively had to put progress on the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary on ice at NZ First’s behest.”

For more on the Greens new openness to compromise and collaboration, see Audrey Young’s Elation at winning power has given way to reality of compromise. In this, Young explains how James Shaw wants the Greens to reach out to the National Opposition, especially on climate change, in order to help bring about enduring consensus. See also, Isobel Ewing’s James Shaw: Greens have to befriend enemies to save environment.

Some Green supporters have been incredibly enthusiastic about James Shaw’s speech, especially in terms of the ideology and Green theory that he pointed to – see for example, The Standard’s Greening the government: economics. In contrast, Max Rashbrooke is less convinced, and raises some questions about Shaw’s arguments and philosophy – see: Some thoughts on Shaw’s state of the nation speech.

Finally, in case you missed it, for the best account of the challenges facing the Greens during last year’s election campaign, see Danyl Mclauchlan’s excellent post-election analysis Inside the campaigns: how the Greens survived Jacindamania.