The Greens aren’t shying away from their role in a future government. Jacinda Ardern will be the leader, but they’ll be the conscience for Labour, Marama Davidson and James Shaw tell Justin Giovannetti.
The promises from Green Party co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson this election can be boiled down to something simple: they’ll give you the Jacinda Ardern you want.
Whether they’re walking the streets of Wellington or giving a speech on a marae, the co-leaders told The Spinoff during a wide-ranging interview that the audience doesn’t want to hear much that’s negative about the Labour Party. Nor do they feel much of an urge to criticise, unlike Labour’s coalition partner New Zealand First.
Instead, they say they’ll bring substance to back up the Labour leader’s “kindness”.
The Green Party, which has been a minor partner to Labour with a supply and confidence agreement over the past three years, has sometimes struggled to attract attention during an unexpectedly long election campaign.
Recent polling has them above the 5% threshold needed to get back into parliament. If that holds, the Greens could finally be near the centre of power in a left-leaning government (the party has never sat at the cabinet table). But first, they need to keep their supporters excited. It’s been a slog for the co-leaders as meetings with voters have revolved around two themes: Covid and Jacinda.
“What has cut through is when we manage to be the more progressive voice to the kindness that she absolutely exudes,” says Davidson, sitting on a grey couch in an office overlooking the Beehive. “We’re the substance to that, we’re the policies and solutions to that. That is where we can get some results.”
“For the Māori communities, Jacinda just has an incredible ability to ooze something that attracts people to her spirit. I see it on the ground, I see it at marae, I see it with my old people,” she continues.
“People want us to be in partnership with her and with Labour,” says Shaw, as Davidson nods vigorously. They say Labour supporters want them in there to give Ardern some steel, while Green supporters want them in there with Labour to make lasting change.
‘There’s no need for negative campaigning’
In an election campaign where Labour and National have been pulled to the centre, looking to appeal to the widest swath of the electorate, the political terrain has been open on the left. The Greens have moved there to capitalise on left-leaning voters who might want more, with promises like a proposed $8 billion universal basic income. However, Shaw says the voters haven’t quite followed them.
Where the Greens could be disappointed about the lack of progress on certain issues over the past three years – namely the failure of Kiwibuild, light rail in Auckland and welfare reform – the co-leaders shake their heads when asked if they’ve felt the urge to point at the scars.
“We can’t be. I’ve been speaking a lot to this particular concept: I’m not into Judith Collins and what she’s offering. That’s definitely out for me. I really respect and want Jacinda Ardern to be the leader, but here’s where we would add more to what she’s offering. That’s where the campaign is,” says Davidson.
Earlier in the election, Davidson and Ardern both appeared at an E tū union event. “I told them that Jacinda raises the mana of essential workers, but it’s the Greens that will pay them more. There’s no need for negative campaigning because I don’t feel negative,” she adds.
There’s something freeing in the role that they’d see for themselves in a Labour-Green government, according to Davidson. Where Ardern is a consensus politician by instinct, who feels the responsibility to speak for all New Zealanders, the Greens can speak for their left-leaning base.
A recent example from Davidson was the Black Lives Matters movement in the US. Where Ardern had to speak in muted and diplomatic tones, the Greens could take a stand against police killings. According to Davidson, they got some winks of encouragement from Labour. In that case, the Greens could say what ministers couldn’t
That continues in the areas the party says are its priorities, which are “the climate crisis, biodiversity crisis and the crisis around deepening poverty”. Those priorities were set before Covid-19 and the party has released thick policy proposals to tackle all three. In the past, Shaw says they’ve tried to produce policies that they thought they could realistically get through a government.
This year, they’ve decided to aim higher.
“We got a lot of feedback last year from people telling us that wasn’t credible, because if these crises are as big as people say they are, we actually need a set of solutions that deals with them at the scale of the challenge,” says Shaw.
‘We don’t do bottom lines’
Covid-19 hasn’t made them slow down. According to the Greens, Covid has made it easier, not harder, to tackle the country’s problems.
“Weirdly, since Covid-19 and we began flooding the economy with liquidity, in a way we literally haven’t done before in all our history, we’re looking at why we don’t apply that stimulus to those problems, because that way we can make them go away,” he says, snapping his fingers.
“If you don’t do that, then future generations of taxpayers will end up paying twice, once for all the debt from Covid-19 and again to deal with all those crises. That’s become the story of our campaign, an odd confluence of what we had started with before Covid-19 and how those two things have dovetailed together. We might have had less of an opportunity to fix those things before Covid-19 showed up,” according to Shaw.
Recent polls have indicated that Labour won’t be able to govern alone following National gaining some support under Judith Collins. If Ardern wants to return to her ninth-floor office, she’ll need the Greens. But that hasn’t translated into an attempt at muscle-flexing from the party’s co-leaders.
The Greens say there won’t be bottom lines from them this campaign. Two weeks ago, Green candidate Julie Anne Genter told a small business panel that the party’s proposed wealth tax would be a bottom line in coalition talks with Labour. Genter then retracted her statement.
Along with the Green School episode, Genter’s comment was one of the more damaging stumbles for the Greens this campaign. There’s a cringe from the co-leaders when Genter’s mistake is brought up.
“It really was a slip of the tongue,” says Shaw. “Every election for at least the last 10 years we’ve had this mantra that we don’t do bottom lines and part of that was looking sideways at New Zealand First who have about 49 bottom lines. We’re not interested in that. What we’re interested in is a series of policy priorities, putting them on the table and looking at them. If you have all these bottom lines it becomes meaningless and you start negotiating through the media in advance of the election result.”
Instead of bottom lines, the party proffers “top priorities” – things they really, really want to do, but the co-leaders say they’re leaving things open for what election day delivers.
The other harmful part of Genter’s misstep was that it seemed to show the Greens drawing a line in the sand – wealth tax or no coalition – only to then wipe it out hours later. The episode fed into the view that the Greens didn’t exercise enough muscle over the past three years.
New Zealand First, meanwhile, accomplished many of its goals, including billions for the provincial growth fund. As for the Greens, the party’s agreement with Labour in 2017 called for an overhaul of the welfare system. Instead, they got a conversation that went nowhere.
“That’s the thing, the tax system is stuffed,” says Shaw. Unprompted, the two leaders speak at the same time in harmony: “We are serious about it.” They break into laughter. “Should we say it again? We’re very serious,” Shaw finishes. They want a wealth tax, it’s at the top of the heap.
‘We don’t want to be in government with them again’
There’s one thing that won’t appear in a coalition government with Labour. Don’t call it a bottom line, but it’s to do with New Zealand First. For a number of minutes, we talk about Labour’s coalition partner. At points, it feels like a therapy session. Shaw takes off his glasses and rubs his face when memories come up. It’s clear both of them have been exhausted by Winston Peters.
Two weeks ago, New Zealand First’s pugilistic candidate in Northland, Shane Jones, continued his party’s rhetorical assault on the Greens. “I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure the Greens do not survive,” he told Newshub.
Both Jones and Peters have spoken repeatedly about the Greens this campaign. Peters has called the idea of a coalition between the Greens and Labour a nightmare, inexperienced and “cloud cuckoo land”. The centrepiece of New Zealand First’s campaign has been that they will be a “handbrake” for the Green Party’s ideas if returned to parliament.
“We don’t want to be in government with them again, whether they’re in parliament or not,” says Shaw. He then realises he’s never discussed this before and looks at Davidson. Does she agree? She smiles and nods with a face that reads: obviously.
Everything that’s been achieved over the past three years has had the consent of all three parties, according to Shaw. They actually agree on a lot of things, but there are just a few areas where they don’t. And they really disagree on those areas, adds Davidson. Among them commercial fishing, mining and capital gains tax.
“And it’s politics,” says Shaw, the glasses coming off. “Often we come into contrast and contradiction with New Zealand First and that’s where it comes from. It’s politics”.
“And we’re not good at it,” continues Davidson. “No, it’s just authentically not our style. I can’t get up and do a Shane or Winston quip. I wouldn’t be able to try.”
Then the answers start coming out without prompting.
“We’ve found the experience in government with them very frustrating. We’d prefer not to have that,” says Shaw. There’s a long exhale.
Davidson begins to explain that they don’t quite understand why New Zealand First has spent so much energy attacking them on the campaign trail. The incumbent deputy prime minister’s party has seen its support drop to 2% and political oblivion seems increasingly likely.
“Some of it was operational,” continues Shaw, thinking back over the past three years. “You win some, you lose some and that’s fine. But stylistically they had a way of going along with something … agencies would go away, they’d do consultation, they’d develop policy options, those things would go through cabinet, you’d get to the very end of the process, we’d be ready to introduce legislation, and New Zealand First [would] go, ‘No, no. We aren’t having any of that.’ We just always felt like if they’d told us that two years earlier we wouldn’t have wasted God knows how many millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of peoples lives doing all this work,” he says.
“I think that they were just disorganised and chaotic. I just found it draining. It’s not good for New Zealand to have that inefficiency in the heart of government.”