All eyes are on Winston, but still there’s a clamour for a National-Greens coalition. Simon Wilson looks at why the idea has such appeal and what it might mean for politics in this country.
It’s like when your parents say they really like your music. Only they wish the words were a little easier to understand, or there wasn’t so much swearing, or darling does it really need to be so loud?
I’m talking about the hopes of National Party voters that the Greens might become more ‘likeable’. It’s as if they know something good is going on over there, but rather than find out by going Green, they’d rather the Greens came over to them and were more blue. But is that how it works?
The policy alignment between Labour and NZ First suggests a change of government is more likely than not. The swing to Labour and the Greens reinforces that: it’s been calculated at 6.37%, delivering the prospect of a comfortable 63:57 majority for a Labour/NZ First/Green government. The question now is, what will National do to wrest back the initiative?
The option it has been road testing solidly for the last two weeks is a deal with the Greens. National’s core leadership have barely mentioned it, but they’ve had cheerleaders and mischief makers, as well as good honest souls, all hard at work promoting the idea. And perhaps to the surprise of the left and right, it resonates with a lot of voters.
It’s not going to happen. Well, it’s extremely unlikely to happen anytime soon. And of course that’s not quite the same thing as saying never. But it’s clear the idea has almost zero support among Green Party members and supporters. There is no chorus of people who voted Green and now say they would like their party of choice to lean on the National Party to do a deal.
But it seems a remarkably large number of National Party members and supporters are keen on the idea. Some would rather the Greens than Winston. Others would rather the Greens anyway: many right-leaning voters clearly believe a good dose of environmental passion would do the National Party a world of good.
This is the resurrection of the old idea that the Greens are everyone’s second favourite party. If we had an STV voting system, where you rank your party preferences, the Greens would probably never be out of government.
But we don’t. So why is this idea apparently so popular among National voters? What are they really calling for?
That depends who you ask. Pundit David Farrar has argued that National could give the Greens all sorts of policy concessions without undermining their own worldview too much. Farrar is the National Party’s pollster. He’s a member of the party and while he doesn’t speak for it, he has a close relationship with many people in its senior ranks. When the National Party wants to float an idea informally, he’s one of the vehicles they use to do it.
Farrar’s list of 10 concessions includes doubling the DOC budget, faster reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and $1 billion over 10 years for cycleways. He promotes the view that the Greens and National are not as far apart as people might think.
Matthew Hooton takes a different tack. He says that if the Greens really do believe fighting climate change is the most important political task right now, it follows they should be in government to do it. He says it’s hypocritical and naïve for them to stay in opposition when they don’t have to.
Hooton doesn’t argue this because he agrees with them. On the contrary, he’s argued for years that activists overstate the threat of climate change and that there is little point in our doing anything much about it – see, for example, here, here and here.
Hooton is a member of the National Party but he does not speak for it, either officially or unofficially. His interest in a National-Greens deal is motivated by either a) a burning desire to keep NZ First out of power, b) a dispassionate interest in good governance, or c) a desire to fuck with the Greens. Or d) all of the above.
Outside the party, commentators like The AM Show’s Duncan Garner have argued that the Greens are stupid not to talk to National – because they could be in government tomorrow FFS! He appears to be motivated primarily by what you might call the Māori Party worldview of politics: the only way to make things happen is to be in government. (And yes, he chooses to dismiss what you might call the fate of that worldview: it is a high-risk strategy that could wipe you out at the next election.)
Former National cabinet minister Wayne Mapp comes at the issue a different way: he’s called for a new ‘blue-green’ party, and quite rightly noted that it would probably do quite well in Epsom. Especially now ACT has become so demonstrably irrelevant.
Mapp believes the new party could be built on the back of The Opportunities Party (TOP), and says it would be “primarily focused on the environment”. That suggests he has not read TOP policies, which range in depth through all parts of the economy and society. Further, as party leader Gareth Morgan repeatedly told us, they include many economic and social reforms that are more radical than anything the Greens or Labour have proposed. A capital gains tax on all capital gains, just for starters.
Mapp’s idea is for a new TOP, perhaps with a leader who is socially acceptable enough to invite to dinner with your National Party relatives. But TOP never wanted to ramp up environmentalism while allowing National free rein on the economy. Quite the contrary: economic changes were at the very top of its agenda.
Lurking beneath the idea of a blue-green accommodation, however it’s expressed, is a wish for the Greens to stick to environmental issues and care less about social issues. Many commentators, including former Green MP Nandor Tanczos, have rightly pointed out how much that misinterprets what the Green Party is and has always been. (Tanczos also argues that a blue-green alliance should be considered at some stage – but that it would be far more palatable with an incoming government.)
Misrepresenting the Greens as solely interested in the environment is similar to suggesting National is not interested in fighting poverty. It’s simply not true. Yes, I know, cue howls of outrage. A whole lot of people believe National’s ‘commitment’ to reducing poverty, building more affordable homes and reforming the welfare state is nothing but a cynical response to problems it can no longer ignore.
It’s easy enough to see where they’re coming from. National did badly misjudge the extent of the housing crisis and it maintains a punitive culture in welfare agencies. Years after Bill English described prisons as a “moral and fiscal failure”, National is building more of them.
But those things do not indicate a permanent refusal to deal with poverty. Under Bill English, social investment programmes are being fashioned into a comprehensive strategy for helping individuals and communities overcome the barriers to progress.
The debate about how well social investment works, or even if it works at all, is complex and important. (My analysis of that is coming very soon.) But even if you believe it doesn’t work, that’s not the same thing as saying the government has turned its back on social issues.
In schools, in healthcare agencies, in prisons, among small children, among the at-risk youth not in education or training (NEETs), in community housing schemes – these days, wherever you go in communities facing deprivation, you will find programmes to target help where it is needed most and people running those programmes who clearly believe they are, or can be, effective.
And yes, they will also tell you about underfunding, about a persistent lack of joined-up services and a lack of skilled, trained, experienced operators. They will tell you that too many people in the government and the public service see the exercise in actuarial terms: it’s a numbers game and it lacks humanity. These things are true too. There is no question National has neglected the whole wide field of welfare, and that its attempts to deal with it now are badly compromised by a refusal or inability to understand what it’s like to live in poverty.
But it is wrong to think that some future deal between National and the Greens should involve the Greens giving up their focus on social issues so that National can forget about them as well. That is simply not where the National government is at.
In fact, if National retains power this week, its signal achievement over the next three years will almost certainly be the weaving of social investment deep – perhaps inextricably deep – into the fabric of the welfare state. Poverty is now top of Bill English’s agenda.
For the Greens, therefore, the challenge of working with National is not to give up on that stuff – it’s to double down on it, to develop meaningful policies in relation to National’s social investment approach.
Because a Green Party – or a blue-green party, for that matter – that didn’t care about social outcomes would be profoundly irrelevant. Every other credible party cares. Why wouldn’t they?
So what else does the call for the Greens to work with National represent? There’s an extremely pernicious answer to that question and it’s this: environmentalism should be limited to conservation. Saving endangered species (provided they don’t live where you want to drill). Keeping the walking tracks free of rubbish, beautifying the lakes and rivers, restoring wetlands, recycling rubbish, reducing our use of harmful chemicals. Banning plastic bags.
These things are important and need doing, for sure. But they do not ask us to change our behaviour very much, let alone to live our lives in different ways.
They do not address the biggest green issue – reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They leave intact the government policy that we can build our way out of traffic congestion with more roads: they invite us to keep driving at every chance. They ignore the current rush to convert unsuitable land to industrial-scale dairying through the use of irrigation: they insist we should stop asking if there will ever be too many cows. They confound attempts to develop either an effective emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax. They allow the continued mining of fossil fuels and the continued decline of forestry. They frustrate utterly the aim of a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.
Over the weekend, Conor English, ex-Fed Farmers and brother of Bill, said on Three’s The Nation that the National government has been “the greenest government we had ever had”. If you’re going to tell a porky, make it a really big one. What did he mean? The policy to make New Zealand predator-free by 2050 is admirable – but how can a government committed to that not take climate change seriously?
The awful irony of all this is that most people already do take it seriously. The green movement worldwide – it’s bigger even than Al Gore – has basically succeeded in getting a critical mass of governments, corporates and citizens to accept the need for radical reforms to reduce the damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions. New Zealanders appear to agree, and so does our own government: that’s why it signed the Paris Accord.
We are no longer debating the what. Just the how.
It’s worth remembering that there already is a blue-green movement in this country (in broad terms, they are market-led environmentalists) and its adherents do not believe we should stick to conservation while dialling it back on climate change. Take just one example: the campaign to limit agricultural irrigation in the South Island’s Mackenzie Country has been led by groups like Ecologic, whose executive director, Guy Salmon, is a former National Party candidate for parliament.
And yet, we’ve had all those complaints that the Greens are dumb for not dealing with National. Why? To blunt the battle against climate change and drive a wedge deep into the Green Party itself?
It’s unlikely most people who think the idea has merit see it that way. But among the people who have led the call, some do. Sowing disarray in the green movement is exactly what they are after.
If you think New Zealand should be saved from a government with Winston Peters, don’t ask the Greens to make it happen. It’s unreasonable to expect the Greens to risk destroying themselves just to help National out of a spot.
Instead, ask National why they haven’t tried to make it happen.
Is it a core philosophy for the National Party to be a slow follower of the worldwide movement to fight climate change? Of course not. They’ve done that merely because it’s been politically convenient in the here and now.
Is it a core philosophy for National not to care whether all citizens have a reasonable chance in life? No, it’s not. They’ve already moved past that.
Is it a core purpose for National to ramp up fears among rural voters of an urban/rural divide? I’d say no to that as well.
On the contrary, National could be a party that seeks to build a grand coalition of town and country to fight climate change. Couldn’t it? This, after all, is probably the biggest task facing the government, not only now, but into the foreseeable future.
So what’s the offer National might make to the Greens that they just could not refuse?
Because while the sympathies of Labour and the Greens are obviously closer right now, the potential does exist for National to govern with the Greens. One day. It’s so unlikely this election, but what of the next, or the one after that? To make it happen, National has a question to answer, and it is this: how is it going to change?
Unless, of course, I’m wrong and we wake up tomorrow or the day after and discover they’ve both gone and quietly done an astonishing deal already. It would have to be truly astonishing and I have to say I’m not expecting it.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.