POLITICS Political Shades of Green

The Greens are outliers in the parliamentary system. Their challenge for the next year is to become serious policy players.
Since 1999 the Greens have supported Labour-led governments. In return they have won some policy payoff, most notably in land transport, where the Government adopted environmental sustainability as an objective and incorporated demand management and energy conservation.
But otherwise wins have been limited. On their most urgent policy position, genetic modification (GM), the Greens failed. Greens think GM was casualty of the election outcome. If they had been crucial to the Government’s majority, they think they could have forced Labour to extend the moratorium on applications for commercial release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
No matter. If after the next election Labour is forming government and the Greens are crucial to majority, they might still force halt on GMOs.
Maybe. Tail-wagging-the-dog ultimatums do not wash with other politicians and most voters. That’s what derailed the Greens in 2002 when they thought they were on their way to capturing 10 percent of the electorate. Instead, voters trooped to United Future to ensure the expected Labour government was not dependent on the Greens.
That was after an election campaign in which the fiercest mud throwing was between Labour and the Greens – much of it thrown because of their respective stands on GM.
Result: the Greens ended up less influential than United Future. They still got their points recorded on land transport strategy and legislation. But United Future has enjoyed priority in consultation and opportunities for peddling influence.
Greens have been mulling this over. The campaign committee last year developed some strategic proposals vis-a-vis Labour which have been discussed round the country. Strategy will be talking point at the Greens conference in early June.
The central issue is whether to insist on some cabinet posts. Sitting at the cabinet table gives continuous and direct influence on policy and, equally important, influence over implementation of agreed policy. Even the modest programmes the Greens won in budgets from 1999-02 often languished because the Greens did not have the ministerial authority to drive the bureaucrats.
But they would not take cabinet posts at any price. If they are just five-percent party after the next election, they will be swamped. They want twice that or more.
It’s not just matter of numbers. The Greens are party of principles. They decide whether to support legislation by whether it accords with their principles. So they have backed labour laws but opposed the foreshore and seabed legislation.
This sometimes infuriates Labour politicians who like to cut deals. If Green ministers sat at the cabinet table, they would have to cut deals, in some cases in transgression of their principles. Even if they remained outside the government as committed support party, they would have to support many decisions they disapprove of.
Before accepting cabinet invitation they would want more detailed coalition agreement than the Alliance had in 1999 and the Progressives have now. That does not mean sprawling document like the one National and New Zealand First signed in 1996. The Greens would, however, want fair amount of detail in cold print to which the senior political partner could be held to account.
Even if they remain committed support party outside the Government the Greens would want deeper agreement than they have now. Otherwise, they would just support it on case-by-case basis – as they do now.
There are complications. One is United Future, which thinks the Greens are unrealistic extremists and which might be needed in addition to the Greens to hoist Labour to working majority. If Greens were in the cabinet, United Future would probably withdraw general support from Labour and vote on the merits of bills and procedural issues.
Then there is Labour’s position. Helen Clark prefers minority government with outside support to complicated coalitions. She could probably accommodate United Future at the cabinet table but the principled Greens are different matter.
Which leaves the Greens in fix. Clark knows she can count on their principles leading them to support those parts of her social, environmental and energy policy opposed by the parties of the right and United Future. She also knows the Greens cannot work with National government, at least not yet. The Greens are stuck with Labour. So Clark can probably count on the Greens providing working majority. That’s politics.

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
Email: [email protected]

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