Image: The Spinoff
Image: The Spinoff

PoliticsOctober 20, 2020

Will Labour swipe right on the Greens to govern?

Image: The Spinoff
Image: The Spinoff

With the government set to take shape in the next few weeks, Labour and the Greens will have to decide on the nature of their relationship for the next three years. Andrew Geddis takes us through the options at hand. 

Without even knowing the final election result (there are about 500,000 special votes still to count that are very likely will change Saturday’s results), we can say two things for certain about the next government: Jacinda Ardern will be its prime minister and Labour will be at its core. 

But exactly what shape might this future government take? In particular, what role – if any – might the Green Party play in it? 

From a constitutional perspective, there’s only one real rule. To form a government, you need the support of a majority of MPs. Saturday’s result means that Labour has this all by itself, meaning that Jacinda Ardern has already rung the governor general to say she’ll be advising on the shape of her government “in two to three weeks”. No need to be waiting on Winston in 2020.

Beyond this one concrete rule, the cabinet manual recognises that things are pretty loose and easy: “The process of forming a government is political, and the decision to form a government must be arrived at by politicians.” Whatever arrangement parties want to come to regarding what their government will look like is for them to agree.

There are, of course, some practical considerations relating to the shape of any such governing arrangement. In particular, there’s a strong expectation (sometimes still referred to as a “constitutional convention”) that all ministers who serve in the government will be “collectively bound” to support that government’s decisions. But that expectation stems more from the reality of governing and the need for those involved to speak with one voice. It applies irrespective of the nature of the governing arrangements in place.

Therefore, the primary driver of the shape of the next government is going to be political calculation on Labour’s part. That calculation begins from the point that Labour doesn’t need the Green Party to govern – their 64 seats (possibly 65 after specials) is the single-party majority under MMP that many of us never thought we’d see. But Labour still may want the Greens involved in some way, shape or form; if not because they require their support now, then because demonstrating that such a governing arrangement can work effectively may be important come the 2023 election campaign.

What, then, are the options for Labour to offer and for the Greens to think about agreeing to? And, in a likely vain effort to spice up discussion of constitutional law and practice, what are some increasingly stretched analogies to inter-personal relationships we can apply to each one?

James Shaw, Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters ahead of Budget 2019 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

A Labour-Green Party coalition government

This is what existed from 2017-2020 between Labour and the New Zealand First Party, as Winston Peters constantly was at pains to remind everyone (at least up until the election campaign began when he began telling everyone how shit that time had been). In a coalition arrangement, both parties form “the government” together. Each has ministers that sit in cabinet and collectively decide the government’s policy on all matters, which obviously increases a party’s ability to progress policies that they like (and, just as importantly, stop policies that they don’t). 

Note, however, that even a full coalition arrangement doesn’t mean that the two parties have to agree on everything. They can include in their coalition agreement an “agree to disagree” proviso whereby on some specific policy matters they can take different public stances. However, making too frequent use of this clause obviously undermines the whole point of being in government, so it’s very much the exception to the rule that sticking together works better than squabbling.

Think of this sort of coalition arrangement as a full political marriage, complete with both individuals involved operating a joint bank account, choosing schools for their kids, and even taking on a double-barrelled last name.

Chances of this occurring: Minimal-to-zero. As Jacinda Ardern has repeated approximately 10,000 times since Saturday night, Labour has “a mandate to govern”. It simply isn’t going to share that mandate by creating a full coalition partner in a hybrid “Labour-Green government”. 

A Labour government, with the Greens agreeing to ‘enhanced confidence and supply’

This is what the Green Party had with Labour from 2017-2020, and what National had with the Māori Party and United Future between 2008-2017. These “support parties” weren’t formally in government, but their MPs gave their votes in the House of Representatives to permit the “governing party” to form a government. In exchange, the governing party agreed to progress a number of the support party’s policies, and individual members of the support party received ministerial posts in areas of particular importance to the support party. 

What, then, is the difference between this sort of arrangement and a full coalition? Well, the support party ministers don’t get to sit around the cabinet table and take part in deciding all government policies. They only participate in cabinet subcommittees, deciding matters relevant to their individual portfolios. Support parties also retain some more freedom to criticise the government – their ministers, for example, are only bound by collective responsibility in regards to their particular portfolio areas. This gives the support party less power and influence, but greater capacity to differentiate itself from the governing party’s actions.

Think of this as the political equivalent of a polyamorous relationship where you know your partner is seeing other people and are cool with that, as long as you get your regular date night, their help to renovate your kitchen, and you’re generally treated with the respect you deserve.

Chances of this occurring: Pretty reasonable, you’d have to think. The Green Party’s ministers have done a good job over the last parliamentary term in a ministerial team that wasn’t overstocked with high-achievers. And if you want to demonstrate to the electorate that Labour and the Greens can govern together in a responsible and stable manner, then you actually have to, you know, do some combined governing along the way. 

Greens Party co-leaders Marama Davidson and James Shaw greet supporters during the Greens Party’s election night function (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

A Labour Government, with the Greens agreeing to ‘confidence and supply’

This was the original “part of government but not really” model from MMP’s early days, as demonstrated by the agreement Labour reached (but never actually signed) with the Green Party in 1999. In essence, the support party agrees to give its votes on confidence and supply matters in exchange for the governing party keeping them informed about policy proposals and giving them the opportunity to contribute to the budget and other policy processes in areas of particular interest.

Think of it as the political equivalent of being someone’s Lovefool – you’ll provide everything they need for their emotional and material wellbeing, in the hope that they’ll listen to you and maybe consider your feelings once in a while.

Chances of this occurring: Zero. There’s a reason these sorts of agreements disappeared from our political scene in the mid-’00s. It’s the same reason every good friend gives whenever they hear the claim “but I’m sure they really care for me, even though they’ve maxed out my credit card, won’t return my texts, and is cheating on me with that floozie Peter Dunne”.

A Labour Government, with the Greens agreeing to an ‘enhanced co-operation agreement’

This is what Labour gave to the Greens in 2005 after NZ First blocked them from having even a support role in the government. Under this agreement, Labour agreed to generically “consult” with the Greens over the government’s plans, while the two parties agreed to co-operate more closely on certain agreed policy and budget initiatives. In addition, several Green Party MPs became government “spokespersons” on particular policy issues and were thus granted direct access to, and the support of, departmental officials. However, these positions fell short of a full ministerial role; ultimately there was no real decision-making power attached to them. 

Think of this arrangement as the political equivalent of showing just enough romantic interest in someone so they don’t ghost you, while making it abundantly clear that, for the moment, ain’t nothing gonna break your stride.

Chances of this occurring: It’d be a pretty cold power move by Labour in that it says to the Greens “we’ll tolerate you for the sake of the future, but the next three years are really all about what we want”.  So how likely is it that a Jacinda Ardern who was prepared to rule out both capital gains and wealth taxes for the sake of political victory will be this ruthless? Yep, it’s that likely.

A Labour Government, with the Greens agreeing to a ‘co-operation’ arrangement

This is all that was offered to the Greens back in 2002, when their votes weren’t needed for Labour to govern (in coalition with Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition and with support from the United Future Party). Basically, all it consisted of was a promise that the Green Party would be consulted in certain policy areas with the hope of reaching some agreement on how to proceed, with ancillary guarantees that Labour Ministers would regularly meet with their Green counterparts for briefing sessions. 

It’s the political version of agreeing to schedule a fortnightly cup-of-coffee with a business colleague in order to see if there are any areas of synergy that you can mutually operationalise for future development.

Chances of this occurring: If this is all Labour offers up to them, the real question is whether the Greens will tell them to shove it up their jumper and go full oppositional!

A Labour Government, with the Greens agreeing to something else entirely

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. 

I thought of calling this the political equivalent of a dating app in order to try and appear edgy and cool, but frankly, I think the analogy has well and truly fallen apart by now. So, let’s just say that it will be what it will be and leave it at that. 

Chances of this occurring: As it’s a new thing that hasn’t happened before, it’s pretty hard to predict. But we’ve never had a single-party majority government before, either, so perhaps a new situation calls for a new governing response.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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