Frustration within the Greens over perceived disregard for their Memorandum of Understanding partner is increasingly coming to the surface. Will it aid or enfeeble the smaller party, wonders Toby Manhire.
At the Back Benches debate in Auckland last month, a Green Party supporter held aloft a sign that declared, on a green background “Campaigning against climate change since last century”. And, on a red background, “Campaigning against climate change since last weekend”.
That “last weekend” was, of course, the Labour Party campaign launch, where new leader Jacinda Ardern had told a smitten Town Hall that climate change is “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”. Ardern rejected suggestions that this was a tactical appeal to Green voters to decamp – climate change should be at the forefront of every party’s thinking, she said.
But for many in the Greens, with bruises still raw from the treatment of Metiria Turei – who had resigned the co-leadership of the party after making a bold confession about lying in relation to benefit claims, and who had been implicitly repudiated by Ardern’s announcement she would not have had Turei in a Labour-led cabinet – it certainly felt like a land grab.
The Greens have strived, however, to avoid getting into a scrap. They had long ago hitched their wagon to the Labour star – and, apart from anything else, Labour did at last resemble a star. But resentment at the sight of Labour monopolising the zeitgeist has grown. More to the point, there’s a sense that they’d been used as a kind of policy unit for the resurgent main party of opposition, only sharpened by the sight of polls which suggest that the Greens are a long way from feeling safely above the critical 5% threshold.
To them, Labour’s apparent cool indifference to the plight of a political sibling really stings. It’s only made worse by the knowledge that, as Simon Wilson wrote on the Spinoff yesterday, “there are many in Labour, including several of their senior MPs, who would prefer to go with NZ First”.
And today, it spilled over into the world’s leading forum for diplomatic chat, Twitter.
It concerned the two parties’ climate policy unveilings, with Labour seen by some to have attempted to gazump the Greens’ big announcement on Sunday with their own on Friday, and began with Auckland Labour councillor Richard Hills’ exasperated tweet. “I love my Greens whanau,” he wrote. “But ‘Labour is stealing our policy’ one day, then ‘Why is Labour not in line with our policy?’ the next day.”
In response, Greens staffer Deborah Morris-Travers wrote: “Could have been collaboration that saw Greens announce climate policy and Labour welcoming it instead of trying to beat it with half-arsed version.”
Hills’ response: “That’s ridiculous. So the lead opposition party is not supposed to have a policy on the biggest issue facing our world?!”
Morris-Travers – who until recently was the Greens’ chief of staff – countered: “Of course they should but doing a rush job to try and get something out on Friday before the Greens on Sunday is petty.”
At this point Neale Jones, Labour’s chief of staff, leapt in. “Deborah, there was no rush job. I told Greens personally well in advance of our policy plans, as I always told you. Only change was venue.”
Morris-Travers: “Media perception was different to that. Either way, as I always said, Neale, mutual respect is necessary and I think people are right to question where Labour is at.”
Jones: “Media perception sure, but accusation could go both ways. Both parties had planned climate policies for same time, we discussed and were cool.”
The Memorandum of Understanding – signed 16 months ago by a quartet which, with one exception have since exited the leaders’ office – may not have evaporated entirely, but today it in practice amounts to very little.
Having soared to the point where they are polling higher than National in a head-to-head race, Labour appears to regard its arrangement simply as an undertaking to inform the Greens of their policy release plans, and, probably, to make their first phone call to the Greens should the numbers suggest they could govern together. The truth of it is probably not so much that they want to extinguish the Greens – arguably there could be some medium-term advantage to Labour in doing so, but in the short term to see 4% wasted vote wouldn’t help. In many ways, in a casually cruel Don Draper style, the truth might be that right now Labour just doesn’t think about the Greens much at all.
Certainly the MOU pledge “to investigate a joint policy and/or campaign to advance our purpose” feels like a distant oath.
The tensions between the parties have been festering for some time. Labour annoyance at the Greens’ approach peaked when Turei launched an attack on Winston Peters, followed by the benefit fraud confession – though, such is the serpentine path of this campaign, that led to the Greens’s surge in the poll, which led to Labour’s slide, which led to Andrew Little’s resignation, which led to – well, you know this already.
But while the Greens very much do not need their personal animosity towards their MOU partners coming to the surface – and no one has been more determined to keep a lid on all that than solo co-leader James Shaw – policy is altogether a different matter.
Labour’s approach to deep-sea drilling and coal mining has been attacked already by the Māori Party. Ardern’s refusal on RNZ this morning to rule out approving new developments in either was leapt on by Greenpeace. “If climate change is our nuclear free moment, then oil, coal and gas are the nuclear bombs. Today Jacinda had an opportunity to walk the talk, but she failed.”
That’s a line already being echoed by Green supporters. I haven’t seen it yet being expressed by Green candidates, who presumably feel bound by pledges of amity, or the broader “relentlessly positive” mood. The critique was implicit, certainly, in Shaw’s speech on Sunday, in which he said that “anyone who says they want to take real action on climate change, but at the same time wants to keep looking for new coal or oil, simply isn’t serious” – with a nuclear-free analogy chucked in for good measure.
But whether this message resonated beyond their core supporters is another matter. Keen to push their own climate credentials, and keen to assert themselves as something more than a limpet on the Labour rock, and facing the not insignificant risk of, you know, electoral obliteration, Shaw and his senior colleagues may need to rethink their commitment to politeness. Better a broadside on a matter of principle, surely, than a tide of personal antagonism.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.