Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Are the Greens just “Labour’s little helper?”

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Are the Greens just “Labour’s little helper?”

By joining the Government, the Greens promised to give Labour the spine it needed to act decisively on housing, inequality, climate change and other pressing issues. This hasn’t happened. In fact, rather than being the progressive backbone of the current government, some allege the Greens are helping to “greenwash” Jacinda Ardern’s administration. This issue was discussed in secret at the party’s AGM last weekend. One activist even challenged James Shaw for his leadership, claiming the party had simply become “Labour’s little helper”.

What’s happened to the Green Party in power?

The question for those on the progressive side of politics, including some supporters and activists, is whether the Greens are actually achieving enough in power. The party has been taking a very low-key approach this year, decidedly not rocking the boat too much for Labour.

This approach, in which the Greens don’t pressure the Government and keep out of some of the big debates (such as the hate speech proposals), is appreciated by the Labour Party. It also hasn’t hurt the Greens’ popularity. Their last two poll results have been relatively high – 8.5 and 10 per cent. Just by existing, the Greens seem to function as a home for progressive voters who are less impressed with Labour’s continued centrism.

However, for some supporters that’s simply not enough. There have been growing questions about whether the Greens have been silenced in Government and have enabled Labour to govern in their centrist manner without any significant gains for the Green agenda. This was what many progressives, especially inside the party, feared when the Greens decided to support the new Government in exchange for ministerial jobs – see my roundup column from last year: The Green Party’s fraught decision.

Since then, there have been numerous signs that the new coalition arrangement hasn’t yielded much progress for the party and its two ministers. Co-leader Marama Davidson has struggled in her homelessness housing portfolio. In March, for example, it was revealed that in the first five months during which she had held the portfolio, she had not taken a paper to a Cabinet committee, nor issued a press release, nor engaged with the community – see Jenna Lynch’s Revealed: The multimillion-dollar cost of the Government’s emergency motel policy.

Commenting on this, Heather du Plessis-Allan questioned Davidson’s work output. Du Plessis-Allan argues that having Davidson as a minister is all about appearances for the Greens, rather than actually fixing anything for those in need – see: What’s going on with Marama Davidson?. And she draws attention to Davidson’s $250,000 ministerial salary, saying “It turns out that you don’t have to do the mahi to get the treats.”

Even now, Davidson struggles to define her role. At times, she expresses unhappiness with progress – see for example, Dan Satherley’s Marama Davidson, responsible for solving homelessness, ‘not satisfied’ with progress to date.

Similarly, despite James Shaw holding the climate change portfolio, progress in this area has been derided by many as unambitious. See, for example: Greta Thunberg enrages Kiwis with tweet targeting New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet Shaw continues to suggest that the failures to deal with climate change are someone else’s fault – see for example his opinion piece today: For decades, politicians have failed on climate. Now we face our last chance. Like the old joke goes, once Shaw finds out who the current Minister for Climate Change is, he’s going to give them a piece of his mind.

Political journalist Bernard Hickey is clear that the Greens are actually helping to “greenwash” the Labour Government, and have become a “party of government launderers”. He recently argued that James Shaw “is giving Labour an excuse and a means to do nothing significant on climate”, and that “Green voters are belatedly realising their votes were wasted”.

Hickey also tweeted this challenge to Green supporters: “How has the Greens in/with Labour changed the Govt’s policies?” He offered up his own scathing answer: “No capital gains tax. Barely any welfare reforms. Mean policies on temporary migrants. More road building. No light rail. No meaningful climate action. Delayed water standards. Cosy deals with dairy farmers. Massive increase in homelessness. 30-40% rise in house prices. Rents rising faster than wages. Barely any mental health change. Reneging on student fees promise. Less cycling/pedestrian spending. Only major achievement is $20/hr min wage. Which NZ First demanded.”

A quiet conference of defence and challenge

Surrounded by questions about the lack of Green achievements, the party went into its annual conference last weekend. With the possibility of serious dissent being aired, conference organisers chose to close the conference off from any outsiders – the media were barred from observing the weekend conference.

The bar on the media was temporarily lifted, of course, to allow journalists to watch the set-piece publicity speeches from the co-leaders. You can read the two co-leader speeches here, both of which aimed to convince voters that the party really is achieving progress: James Shaw’s full Green Party AGM speech, and: Marama Davidson’s full Green Party AGM speech.

Reporting on the speeches, the NBR’s Brent Edwards noted in his column yesterday that the “Greens have some dissension within their ranks” about the lack of progress, and so Shaw “reminded party members that to make a difference, the Green Party had to be in government” – see: National, Greens both seek togetherness – but in very different ways (paywalled).

Shaw’s speech is quoted: “If we are going to build a better future for Aotearoa, then we need to be at the table, shaping the decisions that will determine the type of world our children and grandchildren grow up in”. And according to Edwards, Shaw “made it clear that he, even as Climate Change Minister, was as frustrated as some party members by the slow progress on climate change.”

According to this account, Shaw outlined the party’s achievements so far: “passing the Zero Carbon Act; charging the biggest polluters nearly $50 a tonne for their climate warming pollution; investing in rail, buses, walking and cycling; introducing the clean car discount; and providing more dry, warm homes. But more was needed”.

Like Judith Collins at her National Party conference, the co-leaders were under pressure from activists, and hence resorted to a call for unity. According to Brent Edwards: “It seems uncanny that, despite giving such different speeches to their respective annual conferences, National leader Judith Collins and Greens co-leader Marama Davidson ended almost exactly the same way. Collins told her party followers: ‘And remember we are better together.’ Davidson finished her speech with: ‘We get further, and we get there faster, when we move together’.”

When she wasn’t talking up the Greens’ achievements, Davidson chose in her speech not to criticise Labour’s lack of progress in government, but instead to focus her firepower on the less relevant National Party, especially in terms of “culture war” issues. See, for example, Derek Cheng’s Green co-leaders unleash scathing attack on National Party.

Left-wing commentator Steven Cowan was less than impressed with Davidson’s speech and its simplistic allegations of racism, labelling it “a string of ‘woke’ buzzwords”, and explaining that her adherence to “race reductionism dovetails nicely with the Green’s centrism” – see: Marama Davidson: What’s class got to do with it?. He complains that the Greens have become subservient to Labour, and are failing to put forward alternatives that might benefit the working class, instead focusing on woke concerns.

Also writing from the left about the conference, Martyn Bradbury lampooned the fact the Greens were having such a zen conference when they were in a government failing to deal with some big problems: “Marama soothed, James soothed, we all soothed. It was less a party conference and more a yoga session focused on deep breathing. Only middle class people enjoy being this present. It was so soothing you would be forgiven into thinking that we don’t have 190 000 kids in poverty, 4000 in motels, 22512 on emergency housing wait lists, a spike in inequality not seen since feudal times, generations locked out of home ownership and a planet on fire” – see: Green conference vs Blue conference 2021: So many feelings.

A left-wing challenge to James Shaw

Shaw was challenged for his male co-leadership position at the conference by Dunedin software developer James Cockle, and unsurprisingly this failed. For details of why Shaw was being challenged, see Alex Braae’s James Shaw facing Green co-leadership challenge from Dunedin activist.

According to this, “the challenge reflects wider rumblings of discontent within the party membership over the pace of action on climate change and social justice issues, particularly with the Greens playing a subordinate role to the governing Labour Party.” Shaw’s challenger “says the party has become too timid on the great challenges facing humanity.” Cockle declared his intentions for the Green Party: “I’m running to pull it back to the left.”

The conference vote was 116 for Shaw, 4 for Cockle, and 20 “no confidence” votes – see Derek Cheng’s Challenge to James Shaw’s Green Party co-leadership fizzles at AGM. As Shaw himself explained, the combined 24 abstention and Cockle votes were about the same proportion as the number of members who voted last year against the Greens going into coalition with Labour.

Green leaders promise change

The co-leaders also answered questions about the Greens’ lack of progress by promising to push Labour to move faster on a progressive agenda. Spinoff political editor Justin Giovannetti reports that “the two co-leaders sketched out a plan for the next two years, one where they are simultaneously in government and critical of it” – see: James Shaw wipes floor with rival as Marama Davidson lets rip at National Party. Davidson explains the strategy further saying: “We have the Greens in government, but also not in government.”

This approach is meant to allow the Greens to both work inside constructively while speaking up loudly from outside of Cabinet. However, this strategy has been used numerous times by the Greens to defend their arrangements. For example, Davidson even ran her 2018 campaign to be co-leader on the basis that she would be the outspoken leader that contrasted nicely with Shaw being the insider and constructive leader.

This approach clearly stopped once Davidson became a minister. However, Davidson argued in April that she is continuing this approach, and that “she feels ‘empowered’ as a Minister while continuing to work with the same grassroots organisations” – see Jo Moir’s The Greens’ new relationship with power. According to this article, the Greens maintain “the ability for MPs outside of the executive tent to fight for much more”.

Potential changes to the way the Greens operate were discussed behind closed doors at the weekend. The big leadership debate was really about whether the party should continue to have rules to ensure a dedicated male and female co-leader. Some argued that the dichotomy should be in terms of ethnicity instead of gender – see, for example, Dan Satherley’s Green co-leader Marama Davidson says party leadership should reflect ‘Te Tiriti representation’.

For more on the Greens’ ongoing representation debates, see Jo Moir’s April article, Hints of new leadership model for Greens. As to whether this is about improving representation or getting Chlöe Swarbrick as a co-leader alongside Marama Davidson, see Heather du Plessis-Allan’s Is personal ambition behind the Greens’ latest kooky idea?. However, we don’t know what was decided because the party co-convenors wouldn’t answer journalists’ questions on the outcome.

Finally, there are rumbles in the Greens that rather than getting rid of James Shaw, it’s Davidson who needs to go. And recent poll results back this up, with Chlöe Swarbrick surging ahead of both Davidson and Shaw in popularity – see Amelia Wade’s James Shaw shrugs off leadership challenge, Chlöe Swarbrick features in preferred Prime Minister rankings.


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.