The Green Party caucus for 2020, minus Steve Abel who might make it in on the special votes (Justin Giovannetti)

The Green party should think twice before accepting a deal with Labour

Forest and Bird’s Kevin Hague recently wrote that the Greens and Labour should work together for the benefit of the environment. Here Justine Sachs argues that a seat at the table isn’t worth selling out the party’s soul.

As a Green Party member, I am wary of the Greens being subsumed by Labour’s historic majority and mandate. In a strong Labour-led environment, it is difficult to see how a minority Green presence, even in government, will be able to advance its kaupapa and policy priorities. In the last term, this was a struggle for the Greens, and there was significantly more leverage available to them – think about how agricultural emissions failed to be included in the Climate Change Response (Zero-Carbon) Amendment Act.

Should Labour present a deal with meaningful inroads to achieving Green policy priorities – particularly for housing, climate and inequality – by all means, they should take it. But if they do not, the Greens should be prepared to walk away. These are uncharted waters for the left and centre-left and the Greens should not just assume that going into government will deliver the most for their voters.

Clearly, there are benefits to making a deal with Labour. Can the Greens really afford to sit in opposition for three years while the climate change and inequality crisis continue apace? Is it better to have a seat at the table than risk being shut out completely? I think the real question to ask is whether the Greens can afford to spend valuable political capital getting a seat at the table, only to find that that it’s the kids’ table and the adults are making the real decisions elsewhere. Climate change and inequality are global crises that threaten all our futures. Can we afford to waste time on incrementalism and the illusion of “centre-left unity” in times like these?

The Greens must commit to a long-term strategy. We need to think beyond three-year terms and flash in the pan victories that excite voters on election night but ultimately fail to deliver the change that they need and want. Let’s focus on building power, not just electorally but in unions and social movements.

Labour has a mandate, but its pivot to the right suggests that the mandate will not be spent on the kind of transformative change necessary. It is up to the Greens to push Labour left, and this will be far easier to do from the outside in opposition, where they are allowed an independent and critical voice. Labour is pushing the narrative that it won a historic majority under MMP because it captured former National voters by veering right. I don’t think this is true – Labour’s excellent Covid-19 response reminded people of all political stripes that government can be a positive force in their lives when it works for the people. Enacting policies that meaningfully improve people’s lives is rewarded by voters. That’s the lesson I have taken from this election.

Ultimately, asking the Greens to accept whatever deal is offered is a proposition driven by fear and risk aversion; a “take what you can get, we might not be in this position again” stance. To that I answer that nothing great comes without risk. Pundits and politicians scoffed at the idea of Chlöe Swarbrick winning in Auckland Central. They said that it was risky to spend energy on a doomed campaign rather than fighting to survive in the party vote. Thankfully, instead of listening to pundits and accepting what the polls told them, Chlöe changed the polls.

Chlöe Swarbrick (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The Greens are in a difficult position. At the start of the election campaign, things looked bleak; many believed they might not be returned to parliament. But what we saw was a late-in-the-game “green wave”, with polls rising and grassroots enthusiasm aplenty. Narratives about why and how the polls moved often suit people’s preconceived political biases, but the real story is not so clear cut.

When the chips were down, people said the Greens had failed to differentiate themselves from Labour. It’s true – the Greens disappeared into the background during the Covid-19 response as Labour took centre stage. The biggest story for the Greens was the self-inflicted wound of the Green School.

So how do we explain the party’s surprising showing, with 7.6% of the party vote and Chlöe’s against all odds victory in Auckland Central? Labour voices say New Zealanders rewarded the Greens for being collaborative governing partners and that they will punish them should they decide to be “paid protestors” in opposition this time around.

I don’t think this narrative tells the whole story of the Greens’ election showing. The late green wave came after the Greens began to distinguish themselves from Labour through their advocacy for legalising cannabis and enacting a popular wealth tax. This shows that Green voters are not merely an extension of Labour’s base but a significant constituency with a political agenda of its own that has not been taken seriously by Labour. Those voters deserve an independent and effective voice in parliament.

The nature of this historic election is unlikely to be repeated. It would be wise for the Greens to understand that Labour’s current popularity is not sustainable. Instead of allowing themselves to be neutralised and watered down, they should maintain their independence and be confident knowing that Labour will need to knock on their door again, and probably very soon.

That is the power and leverage from outside of government, as a productive and constructive voice to the left of Labour. This is what I mean by long-term strategy. The Green Party is here to stay, their voting base is young, enthusiastic and growing. It is vital to nurture and build on that energy.

But I’m not dogmatic. If Labour offers the Greens a good deal which materially meets the needs of its constituents – say, the promise of a wealth tax, climate action and action on housing (in other words, a real partnership) – we should take it. If not, we should be prepared to walk away with our heads held high.




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