4 June 2015
For a moment earlier this week I found myself in agreement with the Greens’ new co-leader James Shaw and his call for the government to work with other parties towards an agreed emissions reduction target as part of our approach to curbing the impacts of climate change. After all, Shaw seems such a sensible chap, and many other countries are moving in this direction, so it seemed a not unreasonable idea to try to work towards such a consensus in New Zealand. At last, I naively thought, the Greens are shedding their dogmatism and have worked out that the way to work with other parties is to co-operate with them, not to badger and harangue them.
But it was only a brief lapse on my part. The more Shaw pushed his ideas before a clearly uninterested Prime Minister, the more it became clear that John Key was not being asked to sit down and talk about a commonly agreed target, but to just adopt the Greens’ pre-determined target. The Greens, after all, as they smugly keep reminding us, are a party of principle, so can never be wrong. All of which explains why as the oldest of our newer political parties they are the only ones never to have been part of a government, and why both National and Labour have been extremely wary of working too closely with them. Their sanctimony would simply be too much to bear. Those who had hopes Shaw might be the circuit breaker will have been sorely disappointed by the outcome of his first foray. Nothing has actually changed, it seems, and the Greens are as isolated as ever.
The big loser out of all this is the environment – the cause the Greens profess to care so passionately about. New Zealand needs an influential Green Party, but will probably now go in to the next round of climate change discussions with a very modest emissions reductions target. UnitedFuture and the Maori Party have shown some environmental credentials, as their stands on seeking to prevent National’s attempts to gut the Resource Management Act have shown, but with only three seats in Parliament between them cannot at this stage sustain the influence a mainstream environment party would have.
Here is the problem in a nutshell. Many New Zealanders care passionately about preserving our environment and worry that successive governments have not been doing enough in that space. Yet these same New Zealanders do not want to put their heads above the environmental parapet, because some of the extreme (and often not-environment related) positions the Greens have taken over the years have attracted so much ridicule and scorn.
I think James Shaw instinctively understands this conundrum, and wants to change the perception, but I doubt the wider Green Party will let him. He has already discovered this week that the moral high ground is not always the place to be if you want to make real change in politics. It is fine if you just want to make a statement, and never be held to account for it, something the Greens have thus far been past masters at. But if you want to achieve things in politics, you have to be prepared to get on the same ground as others, and work alongside them patiently, compromise by wretched compromise if need be, until you finally achieve your objective. Moving the Green Party onto that space will be James Shaw’s biggest credibility challenge.