Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – The Green Party’s fraught decision

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – The Green Party’s fraught decision

The Greens are at a crossroads. The direction they take in the next few days may have significant consequences, not just for the country and the shape of the Government, but also for the future of the Greens themselves.

Currently, the Labour and Green negotiating teams are behind closed doors coming up with a deal, which will then be taken to Green Party delegates on Friday night to endorse or reject. This requires 75% of Green delegates to agree.

It’s high stakes, because any deal taken to members is non-negotiable and likely to put the Greens either into government (with ministers outside of Cabinet) or afford them a looser arrangement with less responsibility. Rejecting Labour’s offer would put the Greens outside of government power. Whatever option is chosen will come with both costs and rewards, and will likely open up divides within the party membership.

Why Labour wants the Greens

There is an assumption that Labour doesn’t need or want the Greens as part of the Government because Jacinda Ardern already has a majority of votes in Parliament. Any inclination to include the Greens in a Labour-led government is being viewed by some as magnanimous or kind. For the best explanation for why this couldn’t be further from the truth, see John Armstrong’s latest column, Don’t mistake Ardern’s talks with Green Party for kindness.

According to Armstrong there are two reasons that Labour strategically wants the Greens within the government: “First, [Ardern] wants to keep the Greens in the position she has reserved for them – namely, firmly under her thumb. Second, as much as it is the desire of any Prime Minister to be freed to run a single-party Government unencumbered by minor party partners and the constant compromises that entails, opinion polls have revealed that up to half of the electorate are averse to all power residing in just one party. It is therefore in her interests to convey the impression she is sharing power.”

Armstrong points out that Jacinda Ardern is generally ruthless when it comes to the electoral interests of her party, and this was often in evidence during the election campaign. And ultimately any offers from Labour to the Greens will be underpinned by Labour having all the leverage, with Ardern saying “take it or leave it. It is important to Ardern’s self-styled image as a consensus-building politician that she be seen to make an offer. If the Greens don’t accept it, then too bad. She won’t be losing any sleep.”

What is likely to be offered to the Greens

Essentially the possible offers boil down to either ministerial positions outside of Cabinet, or some looser arrangement that involves less governing power for the Greens but also with more independence for the minor party.

The latest speculation is that Labour will only offer two ministerial positions: for co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson. Having Davidson with ministerial power would be very useful for selling the deal to party activists, who generally want to see Davidson have greater influence, especially because they trust her more to keep to the more radical traditions and principles of the party. So, it would be an apt move by Ardern to offer a promotion to her.

Such an offer would be less than what the Greens got after the last election, and would mean current ministers Eugenie Sage and Julie Anne Genter would be demoted. David Williams writes about this today, saying a demotion for Sage, while retaining Shaw, would suggest that Labour wanted to shift more towards the centre in this new term: “Showing Sage the door, however, would speak volumes about our next Government’s potential embrace of pragmatism and incrementalism” – see: A tale of two Green ministers.

Williams’ argument is that Sage, as Minister of Conservation and of Land Information, has been prepared to “rock the boat”, while Shaw has been more centrist: “Where they differ, perhaps, is Shaw’s willingness to cut a deal – seemingly against Green ideals. This time last year, Shaw backed an agreement with farm leaders for the agriculture sector to self-manage its methane emissions. As political website Politik put it, Shaw staked his political reputation on it, as he defied his own party’s election manifesto and a recommendation from the Interim Climate Change Commission.”

In another article, Williams also reports the view of Kevin Hague (former Green MP, now head of Forest & Bird), who says this about the dangers of Sage being dropped: “Whoever they put in would have 10 percent of the experience, knowledge, and skill that Eugenie Sage has in that portfolio area. So imagine that minister’s next three years if Eugenie Sage is not in the government and is instead critiquing what the government’s doing. If you start thinking through the practicalities, it’s strongly in Labour’s interest to actually do a deal that works.”

One option supposedly being considered by the Labour-Green negotiators is what Ardern has called a “consultation agreement”, which is what the Greens signed up to with Helen Clark in 2005. This “saw the Greens not committed to supporting Labour on confidence and supply but consequently without any Ministerial positions” – see Richard Harman’s Greens’ high stakes game carries a big risk. In this arrangement, “The Government promised to consult with the Green Party on a range of issues”.

For more speculation on how the negotiations are going, see leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury’s The latest from the Green-Labour negotiations. He suggests the talks aren’t going so well, with Labour currently offering little, and the Green membership getting ready to reject it.

Why the Greens should stay out of the new Government

It might be in the interests of the Green Party to stay out of Labour’s new government. This point of view is well explained by David Williams in his article, Why standing apart is good for the Greens. He suggests the party will be more able to “keep their distinctive voice, and can raise their voice when they disagree”. And he reports the view of former co-leader Russel Norman (now of Greenpeace) who says “You can influence things from the outside” and he’s highly critical of what the party achieved during the last coalition by being inside the tent: “They were in the Government and achieved very, very little.” He argues that the party also had to “defend the indefensible” such as keeping farmers out of the emissions trading scheme.

Long-time leftwing commentator Gordon Campbell has also put forward the arguments for the Greens retaining their independence: “The Greens barely survived this last term in government. Signing up again could well be suicidal, long term. It might have made sense if the voters had delivered a sufficient number of Green MPs to make them essential for Labour to govern. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the Greens are just an optional extra. That’s a major problem” – see: On why the Greens shouldn’t join the government.

Campbell sees the Greens in Government being swamped and silenced, and getting the blame for the shortcomings of the next three years: “Arguably, the Green Party can (a) better defend their principles, (b) retain their identity and (c) be a more feisty advocate against Labour timidity and Act Party populism alike, from a position outside of the tent.”

He believes the Greens risk becoming a party of insiders, disconnected from their community activism, and that the lessons the Greens should be taking are instead from the significant victory in Auckland Central: “Chloe Swarbrick won Auckland Central by running on the track carved out by the Green Party of old – as an outsider against two machine politicians from two virtually indistinguishable parties of the mainstream. She didn’t run as an insider promising incremental change. If the Greens turn their back on the Auckland Central example and settle for relative impotence inside government they will put themselves right back in the MMP danger zone again in 2023.”

Blogger No Right Turn also says that the last term in Government wasn’t a successful exercise for the party, and by going into government again they risk simply “implementing and overseeing Labour policy” – see: The Greens and Labour.

This all comes at a cost: “Being a good team player means not criticising your political partners, and in particular, not spending the next three years reminding Labour’s supporters and voters generally of what the government could or should be doing. Which is fine, if you’re actually getting real policy out of it. But its not something you give away for nothing, or next-to-nothing (which is what the Greens arguably got last term).”

Former Green MPs are also speaking out publicly to warn the party not to fall into the trap of government. Keith Locke told RNZ that they should “remain critical of Labour while also working constructively with it” – see: Green Party should avoid Cabinet positions and remain an independent, critical voice – former MP. According to Locke, inside government his party “would not have any leverage and there would be an implicit understanding that the Green caucus would soften its criticism of the Labour government.”

Similarly, Catherine Delahunty went on RNZ to say: “I think the greens should go hard for independence right now and not become subsumed into any form of deal with Labour that actually mutes their ability to speak out” – see: Greens better off independent – Former Green MP Catherine Delahunty. The former MP believes the party shouldn’t take any ministerial positions and should instead focus on pressuring the Government to be more transformational: “She said the Greens became too risk-averse in the previous term when the party was part of the government and what she wants to see is some radicalism from the new MPs.”

Party activist Justine Sachs says entering into government would mean “selling out the party’s soul”, and they are better to focus on work outside of Parliament and government: “Let’s focus on building power, not just electorally but in unions and social movements. Labour has a mandate, but its pivot to the right suggests that the mandate will not be spent on the kind of transformative change necessary. It is up to the Greens to push Labour left, and this will be far easier to do from the outside in opposition, where they are allowed an independent and critical voice” – see: The Green party should think twice before accepting a deal with Labour.

The difficulty of the decision was clearly outlined by Matthew Hooton on the day after the election. He suggested the party is in a bind, as it either has to throw its lot in with the “Ardern juggernaut” and potentially neutralise itself, or stay out of government and be powerless – see: Triumphant Greens face difficult choice on Government role (paywalled). The decision is highly fraught: “if the Greens get the decision wrong, in last night’s triumph may well lie the seeds of a disaster in 2023.”

Here’s Hooton’s case for the Greens staying out of government: “The radicals will rightly point out this also involves existential political risk. When push comes to shove, the Greens will still have no real power over Labour, but their ministers will be bound by Cabinet collective responsibility, obliged to publicly support decisions they don’t agree with. Green ministers will be in danger of doing little more than applying a Green stamp to Labour’s agenda, to the extent it turns out to have one.”

Why the Greens need to be part of the new Government

In the above column, Hooton also makes the case for the Greens taking up a role in government: “Outside the Government, they are no more than a taxpayer-funded pressure group with the use of Parliament’s platform. That may be enough for the radical side of the Green coalition but its other supporters want outcomes. For wiser heads, the Greens have no real choice but to opt for a more formal agreement with Labour, assuming Ardern offers one. To have any real power at all, they need to be ministers who operationally control departments and budgets, and attend Cabinet committee meetings as equals with their Labour rivals.”

BusinessDesk’s Pattrick Smellie acknowledges there is a risk for the Greens in entering government by having ministers outside of Cabinet, but says there are also risks with abstaining: “if the Greens sit on the cross-benches without influence and snipe for three years, they risk just as much being blamed for failing to exert maximum constructive influence without being suffocated in the embrace of a formal coalition. After all, if the climate emergency is so urgent, how is it served by three years of tactical and ultimately impotent Opposition? On balance, it is very difficult to see how the Greens can do other than seek ministerial posts under arrangements that will look very similar to the confidence and supply agreement reached after 2017” – see: Labour and the Greens: an inevitable embrace (paywalled).

Journalist Selwyn Manning argues there is a need for the Greens to fulfil the mandate of voters who want them to take up positions in government and carry out their policy promises – see: Of negotiations, opportunities and an obligation to voters to govern.

Manning’s main point is that abstentionism would jeopardise the newfound position of Green power: “to shy away from an opportunity to assert its core environmental and climate policies, to abandon the ability to inject itself into the new Executive Government’s priority policy settings – then it would relegate itself into legislative insignificance and potential political oblivion by 2023. It would also pay-waste to the ministerial experience, gains and momentum that its members of Parliament established during the 2017-20 term.”

Similarly, see Rod Oram’s What the Greens could bring to a two-party government. He argues that the “Greens could play two important roles in a two-party government: more innovative ideas than Labour has offered, and strong ministerial talent”.

Finally, for a detailed constitutional take on the various potential governing options for the Greens, through the lens of dating and relationships, see Andrew Geddis’ What sort of relationship might Labour and the Greens agree on?.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.