There are few things more annoying than being snookered. I was well into writing this blog when the Guardian published a column on the same subject and with a similar conclusion.
The columnist Morgan Godfery, is a progressive political and unionist activist currently employed as an academic at Otago University.Cooperation agreement with Labour toxic for Greens
I respect Godfery but kept writing anyway as our analyses are not quite the same. He contrasts the Greens now with when the events leading to the standing down of former co-leader Metiria Turei (with James Shaw) occurred over four years ago.
In my view he over-glorifies Turei’s role at the time, doesn’t consider the bigger loss of support the Greens suffered in the polls immediately after the first good result he refers to, and doesn’t acknowledge the uphill battle leadership that the blindsided Shaw impressively provided in the subsequent 2017 general election.
But I agree with Godfery’s overall assessment of the position of the Greens now and his linkage with the cooperation agreement with Labour. It is toxic for them.
The cooperation agreement
Following the October 2020 general election, despite being able to form a majority government in Aotearoa New Zealand’s 53rd Parliament, Labour negotiated a cooperation agreement with the Greens. It was achieved quickly and without acrimony.
The agreement included the two Green co-leaders Shaw and Marama Davidson (Turei’s successor) becoming ministers outside Cabinet. Shaw continued on as Minister of Climate Change and also became Associate Minister for the Environment (biodiversity). Davidson became Minister for the Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence and Associate Minister of Housing.
Green co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson
The main areas of cooperation between the two parties are climate, environment and child and community wellbeing issues. The Greens committed to supporting Labour on procedural motions in Parliament, including select committees, and not opposing it on matters of confidence and supply.
The agreement appears to have been strongly endorsed by Green members in 2020 but earlier this month strong signs of internal dissension emerged over the way it was affecting the effectiveness of their party.
The most recent point of contention was Labour’s late December decision to delay the release of the Emissions Reduction Plan to May, when it was originally due by the end of 2021.
Both Shaw and Davidson strongly defended the agreement in a subsequent Newsroom interview. Co-leaders defend agreement with Labour
Currently the polls, give or take, have Labour leading National by around 8-9% and the right-wing ACT slightly ahead of the Greens (both around 10-11%). Until last September Labour was well ahead. But since its misstep in lowering Auckland’s Covid-19 alert lockdown levels too soon and its subsequent poorly messaged u-turn on its previously successful elimination of community transmission strategy.
This Labour bleeding accelerated with National’s replacement of its unpopular leader Judith Collins with Christopher Luxon in December. In summary, Labour is on the decline although possibly stabilising, National is moving up largely at the expense of ACT which is on the descent, and the Greens are slowly moving upwards at the expense of Labour.
If an election were based on these polls, we would have a Labour-Green coalition with a comfortably but not overwhelming majority and a strong right-wing opposition. This suggests that Godfery’s assessment of the cooperation agreement as toxic for the Greens is premature.
Loss of Green voice
But is Godfery premature in making this call? I think not. It is not just Labour’s vote that has bled from a very high peak. The margin between the two main potential coalitions has also narrowed slowly but steadily, particularly since last September to around 6-7%. If this downwards trend continues then both Labour and the Greens have every reason to sweat.
A big problem with the cooperation agreement is that it has not delivered the Greens tangible visible gains that would make a difference in people’s lives. But the problem has had a worse effect; the muting of the Greens political voice.
Their co-leaders are muted and this has flowed through to its MPs. They have several capable MPs with impressive backgrounds, particularly environmentally and in social justice work. But they are too low profile.
On climate change it is difficult to distinguish Greens from Labour despite Jacinda Ardern’s promise in the 2017 election campaign to be transformational, especially over this vital issue. Her government simply has not been transformational, thereby undermining the Greens’ credibility.
The Greens have less political presence than ACT which they must turn around. They are taken for granted by Labour’s leadership. Godfery’s Guardian column was stimulated by rising internal membership dissatisfaction.
Unless the Greens recover their voice this dissatisfaction will become corrosive like rust leading to a downwards confidence spiral like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Withdrawing from a cooperation agreement does not mean withdrawing from a cooperative relationship on specific issues. The Greens have done this in the past with the Helen Clark Labour led government and to a lesser extent in the early days of the National led government.
But dropping the two ministerial portfolios would free up the Greens, including its co-leaders, to give much more public voice in areas such as climate change, conservation, housing, incomes and social justice where they are more progressive than Labour. Nor should the Greens be locked into Labour’s procedural conduct in Parliament including select committees.
If the Greens were to adopt this approach (ditch the agreement and reclaim their voice) they would become much more effective and publicly credible on these and other issues.
Voice is more effective and transformational that muteness. Its time for some voice green-shoots to sprout.
Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Political Bytes