IT IS POSSIBLE to want something too much. The New Zealand progressive community’s hunger for power – so shamelessly on display since Election Night – has led it to treat Labour, the Greens and NZ First as unambiguously progressive entities capable of working together without fault or friction. That they know this assumption to be false has not prevented them from presenting a Labour-NZ First-Green Government as unequivocally “a good thing”. Consequently, there is now a real danger of a coalition of contradictions being brought into existence: a forced parliamentary alliance with the potential to be as politically unedifying as it is electorally short-lived.
As by far the most progressive member of the tripartite alliance in prospect, the Greens will be expected to make the most wrenching compromises and concessions. They will discover very rapidly just how vast the discrepancy is between NZ First’s and Labour’s pro-environmental rhetoric, and any willingness on their part to join with the Greens in rolling-out the practical policy measures necessary to give it effect.
The differences between the Greens: a party rooted in the most sophisticated layers of metropolitan New Zealand; and NZ First: a party drawing it most steadfast support from the country’s smallest towns and rural servicing centres; is unlikely to be limited to the best means of tackling climate change and cleaning up the rivers. The Greens and NZ First will find that they are not only at odds over what constitutes practical policy, but that, culturally, they have almost nothing in common. Metiria Turei spoke no more than the truth when she described NZ First as a “racist” party. Quite how the Greens will cope with the sexism and homophobia that is reportedly rife within their newfound ally’s ranks will be agonising to observe.
The Greens’ relationship with Labour is likely to be even more fraught. Disagreements are always sharpest between those who believed themselves to be in accord on the issues that matter most – only to discover that they aren’t. Jacinda’s promises about eliminating child poverty notwithstanding, Labour is not about to abandon its policy of keeping in place a regime of strong “incentives” to “encourage” beneficiaries to move “from welfare to work”. There will be no bonfire of MSD sanctions under Jacinda. Nor will there be a 20 percent increase in beneficiaries’ incomes.
The one election promise Labour will keep and, since the Greens foolishly signed up to it as well, the promise their junior partner will also be expected to honour, is the promise to abide by the self-imposed restrictions of the Labour-Green “Budget Responsibility Rules”. Since these amount to a guarantee that National’s undeclared austerity regime will remain in force across whole swathes of the public sector, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Budget Responsibility Rules will become an extraordinarily divisive force within any Labour-NZ First-Green coalition.
Having denied themselves the ability to raise income and company taxes before 2020, the Labour Party has effectively turned itself into a massive economic brake on its own, and its potential allies’, policy expectations. Unless the Greens and NZ First can persuade the likes of Grant Robertson and David Parker to avail themselves of hitherto out-of-bounds financial resources, this ‘progressive austerity’ will soon turn the coalition into a bitter collection of thwarted hopes and dreams.
Small wonder then, that, according to political journalists Richard Harman and Jane Clifton, there is a growing faction within both the National Caucus and the broader National Party to walk away from any deal with NZ First. Convinced that the coming together of Labour, NZ First and the Greens can only end in bitter disappointment and, ultimately, coalition-dissolving division, they are arguing that it is better to allow the “three-headed monster” to demonstrate its utter incapacity to provide “strong and stable” government for New Zealand. “Give them enough rope,” runs this argument, “and in three years – or less – they will have hanged themselves, and National will be back in the saddle and ready for another very long ride.”
It would be an enormous error for New Zealand’s progressive community to convince itself that the deep contradictions embedded in the manifestos of Labour, NZ First and the Greens can somehow be overcome. Far better for Labour and the Greens, the two parties who are, at least theoretically, ideologically compatible, to spend the next three years developing a suite of progressive policies capable of making a real difference to the lives of the many – not the few.
Right now, with the progressive community’s desire for political power so unreservedly on display, it should be very, very careful what it wishes for.