There used to be a school of thought on the centre right side of politics that the best way to neuter the Greens as a political force would be to let them have a spell in government. Then, according to the argument, they would show themselves to be so extreme and so wacky that they would never be elected again.
Well, the Greens are now part of the government, and things have not turned out quite the way those centre right speculators might have wished. Rather than being extreme and wacky, the Greens, on the whole, have been responsible and mainstream. In part, this is due to the Greens’ leadership – particularly James Shaw who is both personable and reasonable – and Ministers like Eugenie Sage and Julie-Anne Genter keeping pretty much to the middle of the government’s road, although co-leader Marama Davidson threatens to go off the tracks every now and then. But, in reality, a bigger reason for the Green’s cautious approach so far, is the chain mail blanket of constraint called New Zealand First which smothers them within the coalition.
The Greens’ problem now is not being so radical as to scare the living daylights out of those nice people in the middle class who vote for and financially support the Greens because they want to keep their native bush outlook in the leafy suburbs and quite like the fact that tui, kereru, and even kaka are becoming much more visible in their neighbourhoods. Rather, their challenge is to appear radical enough to continue to attract the support and activism of the more hard-line environmental idealists on whom they have relied for so long. The Greens’ responsibility in government will be sorely testing their patience. This, coupled with the now traditional loss of support all government support parties suffer, means the Greens can no longer take their presence in the next Parliament for granted, the way they were used to before 2017.
This week’s historic announcement regarding the transition of agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme is a good example. This is a significant announcement, given the long term intransigence of the agricultural sector to such a move. The announcement is a small step, admittedly, but it is an important step in the right direction, and it, and the emerging consensus that led to it, are worthy of celebration. But, instead of plaudits for engineering a step forward, the Greens are being criticised by many normally regarded as in their core constituency, including a former co-leader, for not going far enough, being too timid, and still allowing agriculture generally a near free ride when it comes to taking responsibility for its emissions. Compounding this frustration is the announcement that because of a provision in Labour’s coalition deal with New Zealand First, there will be a 95% discount rate meaning that by 2025 agriculture will be required to meet only 5% of the cost of their emissions. Whatever hope there may have been for more progress after the review group’s report has been dashed completely by Labour’s earlier agreement with New Zealand First to limit the cost to farmers to just 5%.
Once again, as has been the case so many times since 2017 on issues of importance to them, the Greens have been left looking a little silly and somewhat politically inept. The question that now raises is how much more humiliation the Greens’ rank and file membership will be prepared to accept before walking away altogether, and simply transferring their support to Labour. Some will stay the course, appreciating that saving the Green brand ranks higher than temporary achievements in government, but others will become more disillusioned, and will start to question whether being part of government is actually worth it, or whether it is doing more harm than good.
The problem is New Zealand First, not the Greens. But the Greens had the power within their own hands after the last election to have avoided this occurring. It would have been an enormous risk to do so, and would have been extremely difficult to sell to the membership base, or even promote to it, but the best thing the Greens could have done to preserve themselves long term would have been to have formed a coalition with National after the last election.
A National/Greens coalition would have had an outright majority in the House, so there would have no need to involve New Zealand First in any way. They would have been left to moulder in irrelevance on the Opposition back bench, and left to disintegrate. That would have established a largely tripartite structure for the future – National and Labour, with the Greens as the permanent party of government, the swing party that could switch between the two over the years, but always ensuring that the Green agenda was part of the government agenda. Had the Greens been prepared to consider such a scenario, National would surely have leapt at it, and would have been prepared to cede virtually the entire environmental agenda to the Greens, so desperate were they to remain in office. James Shaw, not the present incumbent, would have been Deputy Prime Minister, calling the shots on regional development in a considered and environmentally sustainable way, not the crude, pork-barrel way it is happening right now. But, instead, we have ended up with a very inexperienced and not especially talented Labour-led government where the considerably less talented, serially erratic New Zealand First holds all the cards, leaving the rather more competent Greens to just chip in now and then from the sidelines. And National desperately trying to invent a new Blue-Green party to be its salvation in 2020.
Of course all this would have been far easier said than done, and the reluctance of the Greens’ leaders to even consider the proposition for a moment, let alone allow it to go anywhere near the party membership was absolutely understandable and unsurprising. It would have required a level of devious determination and imperviousness to criticism that would have been far too great for most people to even contemplate. And the Greens, as they were once prone to repeat with nauseating frequency, always have been a party of principle, which meant the idea was never a goer.
However, as things have turned out, the irony now is that the earlier wishes of the centre right speculators may yet come to pass, not because the way the Greens have behaved in government has scared the horses, but rather because their timidity and impotence has left their supporters to wonder what was the point of voting for them after all.
Greens, seized of the urgency of the climate change debate, in particular, may well decide that cutting out the government middle person altogether, and putting time and money instead into the likes of activist groups like Forest and Bird and Greenpeace (which they already control) is a far better and more direct way to take action to save the planet, than relying on the politicians, even the Green ones.