PoliticsNovember 1, 2020

The Greens are now part of the ‘governing team’, if not the government


The cooperation agreement signed this morning represents a longer-term strategy for both Labour and the Greens – they could be useful to each other in three years’ time, writes Andrew Geddis.

A few days after polling day, I wrote a thing reviewing the previous governing arrangements that parties have adopted under MMP and speculating on which one Labour and the Greens might choose to enter into for this parliamentary term. In it, I noted that:

The form of agreements between parties in government have changed over time, and pretty much can reflect whatever those involved in the relationship want it to. And there’s no reason to assume that this evolution has ended, so Labour and the Greens are entirely free to think up some sort of new arrangement for the next three years. 

And that is sort of what Labour and the Greens have now agreed to do, having put together what I’m going to call an “enhanced cooperation agreement” (or, if you prefer, negotiated a friends with arranged benefits relationship). For those of you looking for an easy-to-understand account on what is in this and what it means, Justin Giovannetti spent his Saturday evening bashing out just such a piece

In a nutshell, however, the Greens have agreed they won’t oppose Labour being in government and will actively support it in certain specified ways when it comes to parliamentary votes. Given Labour’s current three seat majority – likely to be four once special votes are counted – this promise largely seems designed more to reduce friction points in the next parliamentary term than it is to cement its position in government. It removes the risk of future headlines such as “Greens vote against Labour’s budget” or “Greens try to block urgency”. 

In exchange, the Greens get a couple of ministerial roles. James Shaw retains his climate change portfolio and moves to assist with biodiversity. Marama Davidson gets a new ministry to combat family and sexual violence and will assist on housing with a specific focus on homelessness. The Greens also get a commitment to advance joint policy in some specified, albeit relatively narrow areas where the parties have “common goals”.

But make no mistake, this agreement is all about how the Greens will slot in alongside the Labour government, rather than how the Labour government will bend to accommodate the Greens. The agreed upon areas of common policy development “represent areas where the policy and experience of the Green Party provides a positive contribution to the Labour government”. As far as Labour is concerned, the Greens are there to add value to their governing mission for the next three years, and will be allowed to participate only insofar as they do so.

That may seem a bit brutal, and you can see why apparently 15% of the Green Party delegates charged with accepting or rejecting this agreement thought it wasn’t worth the taking. But there’s still some sense to the Greens doing so. 

For one thing, the alternative to this agreement was nothing at all (or, rather, a majority governing party that views you as part of the enemy opposition camp to be ignored or repulsed as circumstances dictate). And right now there’s a planet that is burning, while people are living on the streets. For another, there’s a longer-term strategy at play. The 2023 election campaign has already begun. Given it is extremely unlikely that Labour can pull off another majority victory three years hence, voters instead are going to be deciding on whether a Labour-Green governing arrangement is a desirable proposition. It’s much easier to convince people of this claim if you’ve actually been doing some governing together over the past three years.

So, the Greens have taken what they’ve been offered. Does that then mean they’re now a part of the government?

The messaging from Labour very much is that they aren’t. The opening sentence of the agreement’s preamble reads: “The Green Party commits to supporting the Labour government to provide stable government for the term of the 53rd parliament.” But what the parties say is the case ain’t necessarily so.

After all, the Greens will have control of ministries within the overall government, meaning that James Shaw and Marama Davidson will be a part of the executive branch. Those ministerial positions then carry with them certain behavioural expectations, both personal and political. Most importantly, they are bound by “collective cabinet responsibility” in relation to those areas for which they have ministerial responsibility.

It’s also important to note that just because these individuals are ministers in a particular area doesn’t mean they then get to call all the shots in it. Rather, they can propose policies and advocate for action, but whether or not those get adopted depends on if they can get cabinet (i.e. the Labour Party ministers collectively) to agree with them. And if they can’t – if cabinet collectively decides on something in their portfolio area that the Green ministers disagree with – then they still are bound to stand behind and defend that decision.

As such, in relation to issues of climate change, biodiversity, family and sexual violence, and homelessness, the Green ministers will be constrained by whatever collective decisions get made by the other Labour ministers. Just as all those individual Labour ministers will be constrained in what they can say about any collective agreements reached with their Green colleagues.

Furthermore, what Mark Prebble has called “the iron rule of political contest” – that the government is focused on retaining power, while the opposition is focused on displacing it – simply doesn’t apply cleanly to the Labour-Green relationship. The two parties have a symbiotic (if unequal) association. The Greens simply can’t have any role in government without Labour. And while Labour can govern without the Greens this parliamentary term, that seems highly unlikely beyond 2023. They therefore have a vested interest in working constructively together in running the country.

From both a constitutional and political perspective, it therefore makes sense to see the Greens as forming a part of “the governing team”, even if from an optics perspective the Labour Party would like us all to think of them as being in sole charge. How things work matters more than what things get called. 

Nevertheless, there are caveats here. Cabinet collective responsibility only binds the Green ministers in relation to their portfolio areas. Outside of these, the Green ministers remain free to speak as the leaders of the Green Party and to advocate for their own policy preferences. And given that their assigned ministerial portfolios are relatively narrow, particularly excluding any finance or wider social-welfare roles, that leaves them a lot of room to speak out against what cabinet has decided.  

Furthermore, the agreement only commits the two parties to cooperate both privately and publicly while developing policy in quite constrained areas. Outside of these areas, there’s no expectation the parties will even consult with each other, much less agree on what to do. Therefore, don’t be surprised to see Green MPs acting as if they are in opposition to Labour with reasonable frequency this parliamentary term. Even to the extent of saying that they so disapprove of the Labour government’s budget and its priorities that they are unable to vote in support of passing it (even if they won’t then go on to vote in opposition to it).

This is a yet further loosening of the ties that bind those who are running the country. But it is one that is quite consistent with the trajectory of governing arrangements under MMP.

The idea of “support parties” with “confidence and supply agreements” having “ministers outside of cabinet” first was introduced back in 2005 by the Labour Party, New Zealand First, and Peter Dunne. That innovation saw some pretty wild claims made. Gerry Brownlee went so far as to claim the governor-general had been “hoodwinked” into accepting a fundamental undermining of the nation’s constitutional arrangements.

Of course, just three years later this form of governing arrangement was considered so useful that John Key offered it to the Māori Party, Act and Peter Dunne, while the Cabinet Manual was amended to accommodate it. Indeed, it became so much the expected form of government that Winston Peters’ demand for a full, formal coalition government in 2017 felt like a bit of an exercise in nostalgia – let’s govern like it’s 1996, baby!

Now we see a wrinkle on that innovation, with a “cooperating party” providing ministers outside of cabinet to the executive branch, but only promising a passive-aggressive “we won’t say you can’t govern, but we might not say you should” stance in exchange. Opening up the prospect that those ministers may at some point this parliamentary term refuse to cast a positive vote in support of the government of which they are a part. For some purposes anyway, if not for others.

Which is illustrative of a deeper point about government in New Zealand. The “what works?” question usually is considered more important than the “what do our constitutional precedents demand?” And this agreement is what works in a situation where one party has a dominating majority in parliament, but thinks another party might be useful to it in three years’ time.

Keep going!