Bryce Edwards: The logic of the Greens’ question-time giveaway

Bryce Edwards: The logic of the Greens’ question-time giveaway

Even many Green supporters are bewildered and unhappy about James Shaw’s announcement that the party has given away their allocation of parliamentary questions to National. On the face of it, this highly unusual decision to help the National Party looks mad, and certain to have negative repercussions for the Greens and the government.

There may, however, be method in their madness. Below is a discussion about some of the possible motives behind the unorthodox decision.

A principled approach to democracy and parliamentary reform?

Greens co-leader James Shaw has been very clear about his principled reasons for giving up the party’s allocated parliamentary questions to the National Party Opposition. As he explained on Monday, “Well we’ve said for many years that we felt patsy questions were a waste of everyone’s time. Now that we’re in Government we have the opportunity to make a small gesture about how we reform Parliamentary process” – see Finn Hogan’s Green Party split over James Shaw handing questions to National.

In this interview, Shaw admits that some supporters are unhappy with the move, but “there are people who are really partisan and they’re really tribal”. And he challenges those who espouse the need for political reform, but are against it if it benefits others: “if you only believe in the principle of reforming question time when you’re in Opposition and not when you’re in Government then you don’t really believe in the principle”.

It’s a good argument, but many supporters question whether taking this principled stance needed to involve giving more power to the National Party. As Claire Trevett writes, “foregoing patsies may be seen as principled but it does not necessarily mean a party should give its questions to the enemy to use instead” – see: The Green Party’s patsies Prohibition. Trevett points to a Green volunteer tweeting sarcastically about being “really glad that my hard work will be reflected in Judith Collins getting more airtime in Parliament.” Alternative suggestions have included crowdsourcing the Greens’ questions to the public, or just not using the allocated questions at all.

Nor will a principled approach necessarily see the Greens rewarded with greater electoral support. This is discussed best by Henry Cooke in his article, Greens leader James Shaw doesn’t want politics to be war, but it is. He points out that politics is intrinsically dirty and tough, and that scrupulous fairness and principles around process won’t resonate with many who just want effectiveness from the Greens. On the other hand, less partisan voters might appreciate the attempt to be different: “Plenty of people hate how politics is done in this country”.

Cooke also points out how the giveaway of the questions dovetails with other recent Green initiatives to improve integrity in the political system. This point is also taken up by Jo Moir, who emphasises that the Greens quickly need to differentiate themselves more from Labour and New Zealand First, and their campaign on issues of democracy and accountability might prove strategically smart – see: There’s nothing charitable about the Green Party’s deal with National.

Some commentators have commended the Greens on their principled stance. The No Right Turn blogger, says “The purpose of Question Time is not for the government to praise itself or attack the opposition through patsy questions, but to hold the government to account. And that’s a necessary task, whether you like the current government or not. Governments which are not held to account get lazy and incompetent, which is bad for everybody. While National won’t be asking the sorts of questions the Greens would ask, and will ignore establishment issues, they will at least be approaching things from the outside and a position as a critic – which is something the Greens simply cannot do any more as a support party with Ministers outside Cabinet” – see: Holding the government to account.

Making a virtue of having their hands tied in government?

In jettisoning their parliamentary question allocations, the Greens are essentially admitting that they aren’t properly able to use those questions to hold their own government to account. In one sense, this decision therefore rids the party of an awkward charade that the party has been having to go through, of asking patsy questions each week in Parliament. In fact, this issue lays bare the bigger reality that the party isn’t really able to pretend to be outside of its own government anymore. The Greens are facing up to the practicalities of being part of the coalition.

It’s probable that the party’s decision is not entirely altruistic, but helps the party avoid being between a rock and a hard place. A New Zealand Herald editorial argues, “The Greens’ leadership has taken this decision in their assessment of the Green’s interest. They want the party to be seen to be inside a government, not taking a critical attitude to the Government in Parliament every sitting day” – see: Greens want to be a governing party, not a questioning one.

But couldn’t the Greens just “ask harder questions” rather than patsy ones? That’s the challenge being put by a lot of the political left. Former Green MP, Keith Locke, makes this argument well in his blog post, Why Green MPs shouldn’t give their parliamentary questions to National. He suggests some examples of questions and topics the party should be focusing on in order to put the heat on Labour and New Zealand First. And he uses the example of Hone Harawira asking tough questions of National when his own Maori Party was in coalition government.

That last example is, of course, illuminating. Harawira’s critical stance within government couldn’t be maintained. Inevitably, when parties in government apply public pressure to their own coalition, it produces various forms of destabilisation. Any useful questions asked by the Greens – anything probing at all – will ultimately be very badly received by their coalition partners.

New Zealand First aligned blogger, Curwen Ares Rolinson, has written about this, saying “were the Greens to *actually* put serious heat and/or screws upon the Labour-NZF Government they nominally support, then the Media would start blowing it out of all proportion into some sort of over-hyped ‘collapse of the Government imminent’ campaign” – see: On The Greens’ Transition From Voice In The Wilderness To Ventriloquism Through Handing Their Questions To National. He argues that the decision by the Greens will be well-received by New Zealand First and Labour, as a sign the Greens won’t make trouble for the new government.

The Greens seem to have accepted that having signed up to be in the government, the public role of holding their own side to account is untenable. Having made the decision to take ministerial roles, they simply can no longer pretend to be in opposition. For blogger Steven Cowan, this is reminiscent of the Greens also signing up to Labour’s Budget Responsibility Rules, which imposed constraints on both parties being able to shift too far away from National’s fiscal policies – see: The cyan party.

Cowan points out that just as the Greens can no longer hold the government to account, they also can’t criticise the prime minister for refusing to put up taxes, even if, as the Ardern admitted in the weekend, it limits their fight to reduce child poverty.

Influencing the current Green Party co-leadership contest?

James Shaw’s highly unusual announcement has occurred right in the last stages of the Green Party’s co-leadership race, in which Marama Davidson is up against Julie Anne Genter. And some are arguing that the timing is no coincidence.

For the best argument about how the question time decision might impact on the co-leadership race, see Chris Trotter’s Questioning the Greens. He argues that, rather than being motivated by democracy, it’s the pragmatic wing of the party (the so-called “realos”) attempting to undermine the chances of Davidson (from the “fundis” wing) winning the contest.

Here’s Trotter’s main point: “One of the more substantial planks in Marama’s election platform has been her argument that as a Green MP without ministerial responsibilities, she will be well-placed to raise the issues, and voice the concerns, that are exercising the Green Party membership. How would that be done? Well, she could ask questions of the Labour-NZ First Coalition Government… But, just how effective could Marama be if there were no questions to ask? The idea of putting a muzzle on the Greens’ fundi faction would have enormous appeal to those realo members of the party determined not to blow this long-awaited opportunity to demonstrate that Green Ministers can make a real difference.”

Finally, if you’re confused about all this debate over parliamentary “question time”, and “patsy questions”, Henry Cooke has put together an excellent explainer – see: What is Question Time, and do we need it any more?