The NZ Green Party has been in parliament in its own right since 1999, yet never in government. They hope a pact with Labour and a pledge of financial prudence will change that at last. But there are detractors, some of the most critical among their own membership. Co-leaders Metiria Turei and James Shaw tell Toby Manhire why they’re convinced, all the same, that 2017 is their year, and how they’d cope with a visiting President Trump.
Photography by Adrian Malloch.
Even the venue sent a message. In the Viaduct Basin home of KPMG and Kensington Swan last Friday morning, a sea of suited accountants and lawyers bore witness to a pledge of financial fealty. The oath, inked by the Labour and Green parties in the form of “Budget Responsibility Rules” (BRR), set out a series of five fiscal commandments, which, cautioned the paperwork, were to be “read together and not in isolation”.
If not isolation, certainly inoculation. The reading the parties were hoping for most of all: Look at this, you can’t call us crazies – we can be trusted not to pull any wild fiscal moves, not to rock the economic boat.
On taking the stage Green co-leader and finance guy James Shaw cheerfully explained the relationship between the two parties. “We are merging,” he said, omitting a crucial word from his speech, and catching the bemused stare of Newshub’s political editor, Patrick Gower. “Argh. No. We are not merging. We are not merging. Sorry, sorry Paddy… We are still two separate political parties after all.”
Regaining his composure, Shaw told the breakfast audience: “I kind of get annoyed that fiscal responsibility is seen as a centre-right idea … New Zealanders want a government they can trust to deliver on their promises and they want to know we can govern responsibly alongside the Labour Party.”
The Memorandum of Understanding commits the Greens and Labour to ‘working cooperatively in order to change the government’, based on ‘good faith and mutual trust’, coordinating some activity in parliament, in policy development and campaigning. It stipulates regular meetings and an ‘agree to disagree protocol’ where there are differences in policy or strategy, but does not have force after election day.
The Budget Responsibility Rules pledge to deliver a ‘sustainable operating surplus (notwithstanding catastrophe), to reduce public debt to 20% of GDP within five years, to restart Super Fund contributions, to keep core crown spending to around 30% of GDP and to establish an independent body to ensure the rules are followed.
The Green and Labour parties might not have merged, but they have been preparing to move in together. The BRR is the initialism offspring of the MOU – a memorandum of understanding, agreed in the middle of last year, in which the two parties pledged to work together in policy and campaign to dislodge the National incumbent; an attempt to persuade that this time, when they say they’re ready for government, they really mean it.
‘We would not welcome Donald Trump’
In the leadup to the 2014 election, the Greens had tried to sell Labour on a similar pact. Labour, then led by David Cunliffe, rebuffed the approach, and the Greens weren’t happy. At the time I asked Metiria Turei, the Green co-leader, just how pissed off they were about it all. “What did I say?” asks Turei, when we meet on the eve of the budget responsibility announcement. You’d taken a deep breath, I say, gritted your teeth, and then launched into something about being separate parties and changing the government.
“We really wanted to present as an alternative government at that election and I think voters were asking us to do that,” says Turei, sitting alongside Shaw in a meeting room at the Greens’ cheap and cheerful Auckland HQ, just off Karangahape Road. “We had presented this opportunity to Labour as the only way that we could think of to deliver that practically, and no alternative was put forward. So of course it was disappointing. We had to deal with it at the time in a pragmatic way. Then we saw the election result, and we heard from our voters that one of their concerns was they did not know whether the Greens and Labour could work together in a government, which just proved our point. And so then we started the process again, with Andrew Little.”
That began almost as soon as John Key’s National Party returned to power, with an essentially undented mandate, Labour having plunged to a record low vote, and the Greens recording just under 11%, a smidgen down on the last election, but a deflating drop of a couple of points on pre-election polling. “We spent the first year basically meeting with [Labour],” says Turei, leaning across the table, “both parties figuring out how we would be able to operate together and compromise together and work through some stuff. And that’s why the MOU was 18 months after the election … good relationships take time.”
The fiscal straitjacket, as some have called it, is an extension of that. “If you look at what we did at the last election, we costed all of our policies and then we got them independently audited,” says Shaw, pivoting back on a swivel chair in a suit and tie, crisp as a stock photograph, a tapa cloth for a backdrop. “So what we’re doing is just extending that out a bit, by saying this is the approach that we’d take to the overall finances. It sort of makes sense for us to do that with the people that we’re going to be in coalition with, with any luck.”
For the Greens especially, in parliament for 18 years yet never in cabinet, the challenge is to present as a party intent and ready for ministerial warrants. “We do acknowledge that we have not been in government yet so people don’t know what the Greens will be like in government,” says Turei.
Shaw: “They’ve got no idea how awesome we’re going to be.”
Turei: “That’s right, yeah. So what we’re doing is we’re giving them some parameters that we’ve put around ourselves. To help them to understand the kind of economic direction that we want to go in, and the fact that we understand what government actually means. It means compromise by both parties. It means constraints and we can live within a budget. These are things that we need to be clear with the public about because they haven’t had the opportunity to experience it with us yet. Our communication to our potential voters is that we understand that there are constraints that are necessary.”
As long as we’re talking compromise, try this: The Greens are in government and Donald Trump is coming to town. Do you meet him?
“We’ll discuss it when that happens,” Turei says.
“I’d be surprised,” says Shaw, “if any New Zealand government of any shade …”
Turei and Shaw chorus the end of the sentence: “… would invite Donald Trump.”
But let’s say he wanted to come.
“I think they’d probably lose the memo,” says Turei.
You can’t lose a tweet.
“We would not welcome him,” Turei resolves. “What we would do in response to his visit I just can’t say, but we certainly would not welcome him, and his misogyny and his racism.”
‘Now and then Winston tries to give us a slap, but that’s just his way’
Both the budget responsibility pledge and the memorandum of understanding are in large part defensive gambits, designed to spike the guns of the National Party’s formidable campaign tanks. Steven Joyce, mastermind of successive general election triumphs, has acknowledged that the 2014 prospect of a many-headed alternative government, particularly one featuring Internet-Mana, was a gift to his team, as articulated in the television advertisement showing a crew of unruly rowers struggling to steer a dinghy. Originally intended to run for a week or two, it was extended through most of the campaign.
Even without a Dotcom-shaped intervention, National will of course roll out that message again. The unknown is whether Labour and the Greens, buttressed by an MOU and a BRR, can better withstand it.
Yet still – and this is the last nautical metaphor, I promise – the perennial buccaneer of New Zealand politics lurks on the horizon. Record immigration, anxiety over foreign ownership and an anti-globalisation mood around the world should augur well for Winston Peters and his New Zealand First Party in 2017. The polls leave no doubt: it would take a dramatic shift in fortunes for Labour and the Greens to take the reins without them.
Could all three parties work together?
“Oh yeah!” Turei scoffs.
“Yeah!” adds Shaw.
They juggle the response like a hot potato.
“We – it – oh, sorry,” says Turei, throwing to Shaw.
“No, go for it, go for it.”
“It’s, I mean, it’s 12 years since the 2005 election and Winston and we and Labour have all changed since then,” says Turei. “Winston is keeping his options open, I think you would have noticed. He is much less critical of us than he has been in the past. You know, now and then he tries to give us a slap, but that’s just his way. And we have had constructive working relationships with him over the Keep Our Assets campaign and the manufacturing inquiry so we know better how to work with him, which we had never done before.”
That 2005 precedent is salient, and still a little raw. Then, Helen Clark snubbed the Greens, despite conspicuous cooperation during the campaign. The Greens, led by Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald, were denied any ministerial places, and a deal was done instead with NZ First. In 2017, there is an MOU, but that expires on election day, leaving Labour free to do that all over again, the Greens gazumped, snookered: they could hardly enter an alternative arrangement with their National Party nemesis, so marooning them on the cross benches.
“That’s a scenario,” acknowledges Turei. “What we have now, though, with Andrew Little coming out and saying we’ll be the first that will be called and they’ll talk with us first about forming a government – we’re satisfied with that. I think that makes sense … and in politics you can’t really expect much more than that I don’t think.”
But back to the prospect of a new kind of three-way handshake – we know that they get on with the Labour leadership, that camaraderie is paraded, but Winston?
“Oh, I really like him,” says Turei. “He’s annoying as hell and all those things. But he’s given me really good political advice in the past. And you’ve just got to admire his tenacity, actually. I admire his tenacity, his staying put. For a Māori man in New Zealand politics, he’s been there for a really long time, and I don’t agree with him on lots of stuff, I’ve had huge arguments with him in public about his more racist views, but …”
Do you think he’s a racist?
“I think he definitely has racist views, and I’ve told him on more than one occasion how distasteful I find that, but those are his views and that’s our political disagreement.”
OK but there are political disagreements and there are racist views. That’s not a red line?
“So we’ve had Helen Clark over the Foreshore and Seabed make some pretty terrible statements about Māori. We’ve had other politicians who’ve done similar. But we are in the business of the art of the possible in politics and we have to be able to work with people across the political lines, whether we agree with them 100% or 80% or 40%, and that is the reason why the Greens remain in parliament, is because we’re committed to working with people, even if we disagree with them on lots of stuff.”
‘People won’t necessarily try to take me out. It won’t be a coup’
The Spinoff’s appointment with the Green leaders falls precisely six months before polling day.
“Woohoo! Six month a-vesary,” says Shaw, rocking in his chair, to the percussion of Green press chief Claire tapping in the corner at her laptop and Spinoff photographer Adrian circling, snapping.
He has another try. “The pre-nup? No. The pre-versary?”
“Six months, is that all we got?” says Turei, as if she doesn’t know better than anyone precisely how long they have got.
Turei, whose path to the Greens included candidacies for both the McGillicuddy Serious Party and the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, is approaching 15 years in parliament, close to a third of her 47 years.
At 43, Shaw is only three and a bit years her junior, but a comparative novice as an MP. Less than a year after entering parliament in 2014 he became male co-leader, succeeding Russel Norman, who departed to head up NZ Greenpeace. Shaw, who had a long stint in London working in management consultancy before returning to Wellington and the Greens, edged out a more experienced rival in Kevin Hague, who has since left to lead Forest & Bird.
How does Turei find leading with Shaw differs from leading with Norman?
Shaw feigns a nervous laugh. “Do you want me to step outside? Do you want me to step outside?”
Surprisingly, Turei appears not to been asked this before. She pauses.
“I’m shorter,” offers Shaw, who now looks genuinely nervous.
“That is true,” says Turei. “Which is quite helpful, one might say, for photographing.”
Somehow we digress into discussing Norman’s post-parliamentary facial hair.
“I cannot grow a beard anything like Russel’s beard,” says Shaw. “it’s phenomenal. It’s an extraordinary beard. I look ghastly with a beard, look like I’ve been run over.”
Turei has been thinking on the question. “They have a very similar interest and approach to our economic policy,” she says, “and the broad economic transformation we need to make, which is really helpful because that is not one of my strengths. One of the advantages of co-leadership, and the same with leadership and deputy leadership, is to have people who have different experience. Russel and I didn’t always agree on things, but what we had was a really solid relationship, where we had each other’s backs.
“And,” she is quick to add, “the same with James. James is a different personality. He talks differently and we operate slightly differently … There are some areas around economics and inequality and housing and things like that where we share a bit more. But you just work with different people … I think the job in co-leadership is to work with your partner’s strengths but also, if they do have weaknesses – and I won’t go into any – to have their back on their issues, too.”
How close did she come to chucking it in? Would she have jumped if Norman hadn’t first?
“I don’t know. I think it’s,” she says, before a long pause. “I think it was right for one of us to go, in this last term, but I’m not – but – yeah – so.”
But you thought hard about whether or not to stay? “Yeah, I always do. I was certainly disappointed, and I suspect Russel was, too, with the result. We had quite high hopes for doing better than we did, and it’s very hard not to take on the full responsibility for that. And we are largely responsible for that, because we are the key political communicators of our party. And so that makes the three or four months after an election quite difficult, often. But that’s just one of the hazards of the leadership role.”
She can’t or won’t say whether this will be her last campaign. “Don’t know. I don’t know. After the election I’ll talk to the party about whether they think it’s time for me to step down. I’ve been here quite a long time. Fifteen years. So it’s not like I haven’t made a big contribution. But I do think that in order for there to be a good transition to a new generation, whether it’s a caucus or a leadership, people who’ve been around for a while like me have to step back.
“People won’t necessarily try to take me out,” she laughs. “We’re not quite like that. It won’t be a coup. But the contribution I can make that is useful will come to an end, and I need to make sure I make room for other people to take over. That’s just part of the leadership role: stepping forward when it’s time, stepping back when it’s time.”
‘People are going to be disappointed … They’ll cope’
With a crucial election looming, a more immediate challenge emerges. Contrary to many impressions, the Greens’ roster of MPs has one of the oldest average ages in parliament. A handful of older MPs have left already or will do at the election, but there are almost as many old-timers that aren’t budging, which is bad news for a stack of first-time candidates, among them former Auckland mayoral candidate Chloe Swarbrick, human rights lawyer Golriz Gharahman, television personality Hayley Holt and former diplomat and writer Leilani Tamu. While the draft list, determined by members at a recent party congress, is not yet public, talk is that only one of them may be feeling confident about winning a parliamentary place.
Do the leaders push for renewal, lobby for the newbies? “Yep,” says Turei. “The party has done that, and we talked about that a lot at the campaign conference that we’ve just had. Because there is so much new talent. And this is always the difficulty with success, is we have a lot of new people, young and old, actually, who are incredible people, and we have a really fantastic caucus who are working really hard and we have to somehow …”
“Jam them together,” Shaw interjects.
Turei: “…find how to work it and get it together. People are going to be disappointed. That is just the nature of the process of having to split people into a list. And everybody knows that, too, and they’ll all cope.”
‘We have and have always had a lot of activists in our caucus’
One of the old Green guard who is standing down is Steffan Browning. On the eve of the Labour-Green fiscal love-in, he has generated awkward headlines, having staged a protest during John Key’s parliamentary swansong.
What happened? The co-leaders laugh uncomfortably, exchanging glances.
“Steffan put a post up on Facebook during John Key’s valedictory speech, with a glass of pinkish fluid and said something along the lines of ‘more blood on John Key’s hands’, so it was sort of related to the [Hit and Run] book that came out …”
Turei leaps in. “Steffan has spent much of his adult life really committed to security issues, to peace issues, and is really involved in that community of people. He knows people who were involved in the writing of the book and the community is really responsive to that. So for him this is a really passionate and deeply felt issue.
“He misjudged what he did, and he’s been told by us that it was a misjudgment and it doesn’t represent the whole of the party or the caucus. But this is just the thing when you have really passionate people who have got expertise in intelligence and security issues, and other areas. Sometimes people just make misjudgements.”
Was it Browning, too, who caused a stir a few years ago when he backed the idea of the World Health Organisation using homeopathy to treat Ebola in Africa?
“Yes. He did. Yes he did.”
Does he – how to put this – represent a side of the party, a fringe within the party that you’re trying to move on from?
“No. No, I don’t think so,” says Turei.
Shaw: “That’s to do with personal temperament.”
“Much more than political bent, if you like.”
“Yeah, but …”
“So we’re not trying to shape that, but, you know …”
“People kind of, you know, can be a bit over-excited and make misjudgements, and actually …”
“And we all do it …”
“In politics, the longer you are in it, the more you’re going to do it,” says Turei, grabbing a thread. “It’s just the nature of the beast. But, so, no, I don’t think it’s about the community, it’s just that there is a community in our party – there are lots of different communities in our party, and they all want to be represented, and they all need to be, and so our list does tend to be quite broad in that sense. And some people have the temperament for parliamentary politics and some don’t. One of the things is we have and have always had a lot of activists in our caucus. And that’s fantastic, they’re actually incredibly important, both because they’re excellent campaigners on issues but also they keep us connected to a whole grassroots network of people that otherwise politicians just tend to abandon. And we just cannot possibly abandon those people because they are why we’re here.”
‘Patience for opposition is running out’
There was no sign of the activist wing at the BRR launch. It is a safe bet that many of those who cheered at Browning’s bloody glass in parliament would have choked on the fiscal breakfast, with Andrew Little expressly calling for a “smart government, not necessarily a big government”. While the invited audience in Auckland last Friday were broadly impressed, other observers were appalled.
The most biting criticism came from a former Green MP, Sue Bradford. The financial announcement amounted to the Greens “nailing their colours to the mast of neoliberal capitalism”, leaving many, like her, without anyone to vote for. “This is the death knell for the Greens as a left party in any way, shape or form. They are a party of capitalism. They’re a party that Business New Zealand now loves.”
In courting businesses and the centre ground, the party was “completely abandoning the huge number people who are in desperate need in the areas of housing, welfare, jobs and education”, Bradford told RNZ’s Morning Report. The party, she lamented, was following the example of other Green parties around the world who had propped up rightwing governments. “At what price power,” she railed, “if you sell out everything that your party was originally set out to achieve?”
“I disagree with her analysis,” says Shaw when asked for a response to the Bradford broadside. Since losing out to Turei in a contest for the co-leadership and leaving parliament in 2009, “she has had a history of saying that sort of thing,” he says in a phone interview.
“I think if you read the documents it’s actually Keynesian, not neoliberal, and I reject the idea that fiscal conservatism and fiscal responsibility are the same thing,” he adds. “Governments of every shade have to be fiscally responsible, no matter what their political leanings. This document is a pretty classical, Keynesian fiscal framework. And it’s only because we’ve been living within a neoliberal economic framework for the last 35 years that anything that even vaguely resembles it is labelled as that.”
Bradford may have been the most prominent, but she was hardly the only dissenting voice. Many of the party membership who bewailed an immigration policy, announced overhastily last year, that would cap net migration at 1% of the population including returning New Zealanders, are today aghast at what they see as a similarly unprogressive cap on state spending.
Shaw accepts the Green leaders have some convincing to do. “We are going through a process of running seminars and that kind of stuff so that people can understand it. Because I think a lot of people who have got concerns have simply not understanding what it does and doesn’t allow us to do. And that’s completely understandable. If someone presented something like that to me, and I didn’t have a good grasp on the figures behind it, I would have concerns, too. That’s only natural. So we’re going through that.”
For much of the time since assuming the co-leadership, Shaw has been appearing before business audiences, if not quite attempting to woo, hoping to disabuse them of any impression of the Greens as their sworn enemy. With a CV that includes a business degree and stints at PWC and HSBC, Shaw can speak their language, and by most accounts he has impressed. Even John Key seemed to kind of admire him – it was clear enough, watching the former prime minister square up against Shaw at Question Time that he just couldn’t summon the same venom he’d directed so delightedly at Russel Norman.
By that measure, Bradford’s suggestion that New Zealand businesses might have come to love the Greens is a signal of success rather than betrayal. Maybe, I put it to the co-leaders on the eve of the Auckland event, the problem is that a big chunk of their activist membership base are intrinsically, unshakably oppositional: they abhor the very thought of compromise; government is almost by definition a sell-out.
Shaw bats this away. “The Green Party has been in parliament since 1999, but we’ve never been in government,” he says. “My sense is that patience for opposition is running out. And that is because in all the time that we’ve been in there, our emissions keep going up, the rivers keep getting worse, inequality keeps increasing and so on. So people are saying, actually, if we want to make a difference to those things, we have to be in government, we actually have to.”One of the times the Greens came close to government was 2002. Then, following a campaign clouded by a book about genetic engineering (the author was someone called Nicky Hager) the Greens refused to relent on GM, and that was that. Is aversion to compromise the root cause of the Greens’ repeated failure to reach government?
“No,” says Turei. “It’s about making sure that when we go into government we’re ready, we’re strong in that government and we have the plan for how we’re going to survive and build in that government.
“I think actually the Greens have been wise, the previous leadership has been wise in not going into government too soon or too small, because all of the small parties that we have seen go into parliament have failed, largely, after a term or two, they’ve certainly reduced their vote significantly. I think that Jeanette and Rod, in 2002, when they had a chance to be in government, I think they were right not to.”
‘Why would we choose to support the tail end of a National government?’
Then there’s the objection from another direction. Why would the Greens hitch their wagon to a Labour star, especially one that has rarely glittered in recent years. Why not keep a line open to National? Quite apart from dramatically strengthening their hand in any post-election negotiation, that would provide options for, say, a centre-right voter alarmed about climate change.
“Because National is too far from us. One day they may resolve some of their problems and move towards a position that is more acceptable,” deadpans Turei. “But at the moment they really are quite extreme, and they’ve been getting more extreme under John Key.”
(John Key is mentioned a few times by the leaders during the interview; Bill English never gets a look in.)
It’s all moot, argues Shaw. “If you get to this election and we were in a position to choose – to support a fourth term National government or a new, progressive, Labour led government, why would we choose to support the tail end of a National government, given how little in common we’ve got in policy, versus what a new Labour led government with whom we’ve got a great deal more in common? Not a perfect match, right, there’s clearly differences, otherwise there wouldn’t be a different political party, but it doesn’t make sense to say, certainly at this point in history, that we would do that.”
“I would also just say,” adds Turei, “it’s not that we haven’t tried to work with National when we do have common ground. We had the MOU with them a few terms ago. After that we went through our various policy positions and we found some things that we had some common ground on, and we put another paper to them, saying, well, you know, here are some other areas where we could help make some progress, if you’re interested. And they weren’t. And that’s fair enough – you don’t have to be. They had the Maori Party and ACT and United Future sewn up so they didn’t feel that they need to work with us, and that’s fine, but our job in this place is to get stuff done, make good green change. And we’ve been prepared to work with others across the board to do it.”
‘It’s moved on from the polar bears on a block of ice floating around the Atlantic’
For advocates of green change, the highest priority, towering above all else, must be tackling climate change. And yet the New Zealand Greens sometimes seems reluctant to foreground the issue in its campaigning, opting instead, most notably, to emphasise cleaning up waterways – alongside the other policy banners of jobs and kids – as a kind of tributary to a wider environmental push.
“What’s really interesting is that people don’t want us to talk about climate change in the sort of ‘temperatures rising, end of the earth’ kind of way, because it’s disempowering,” says Shaw. “They do want us to talk about it in terms of ‘how do we fix it?’ So we talk about jobs – and this election we’re going to be talking a lot about energy, transport and agriculture, because those are the three highest emission sectors in the country but they’re also the ones where there’s the greatest economic opportunity.
“And so – I’m going to get very nerdy about this, but it’s actually really exciting. If you take an economic development approach to it, and you say, let’s invest in clean agriculture and clean energy and clean transport, it’s jobs-rich, it’s investment opportunities, it’s entrepreneurialism and new technology and all that kind of stuff. And you get to solve climate change. That’s where the discourse is. It’s kind of moved on from the polar bears on a block of ice floating around the Atlantic ocean sort of thing.”
Turei: “I hate seeing those images, they make me sad. But that’s the thing: people largely agree with us that it’s human-induced, that we can do something about it, so that’s why we don’t have to have this big picture conversation to the same degree that we did 10 years ago, because actually we are not in a position of having to argue that it’s real, we’re now in a position of being able to present the solution of what we’re going to do about it.”
‘We’re committed to not saying crazy shit just for the sake of headlines’
For the Green Party, the challenge is more often getting airtime and column inches at all. Their research, says Shaw, suggests that they garnered just 1% of campaign coverage in 2014. “Frankly it was staggering, it was a miracle that we actually held our vote… The media narrative tends to go in one of two directions. There’s the ‘who gets to be PM – is it red team or blue team?’ story, and then the other is, ‘Hey, look at all these crazy people over here’, whether it is Kim Dotcom or Colin Craig and so on.”
“Or TOP,” chips in Turei, in a dig at Gareth Morgan’s Opportunities Party.
The Greens seem deeply unimpressed with the newcomer.
“They are not going to steal our votes,” hisses Turei, half-joking
As for campaigning, however, “We’re really committed to not saying crazy shit just for the sake of getting headlines,” says Shaw. “But we’re also not one of the parties that’s going to provide the future prime minister. So as a kind of responsible, sober party that is committed to achieving big policy gains it can be, in craziness of the election season, to carve out a narrative there.”
Next morning, at the swanky Viaduct Harbour function room a couple of kilometres down the road and a world away from K road, the first part of the narrative, Operation Inoculate, is going well even before its begun. There’s a double-page spread of the Herald business section laid out like a grin across the table seating the parties’ top MPs. The headline: “Red, Green & Responsible”, illustrated by a cartoon superhero in a green suit with a red tie.
As a summary, that could hardly have suited the allied parties better. Yet presenting a persuasive case to the business audience is just the start. Shaw and Turei next need to convince their own members, New Zealand more broadly, and then the deal-makers in post-election negotiations, that their time for governing is now.
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