Labour/Green relations: don’t weaken the independent Green voice

By Keith Locke

The following article was published in The Daily Blog, 20 October 2020

There has been much discussion about how the Greens should position themselves now they are not needed by Labour to form a government.

The proposals range from no formal Labour/Green agreement to the Greens having Ministers in the Cabinet.

Having Cabinet Ministers has the obvious plus of Greens being able to initiate and guide progressive reform in their portfolio areas. But it also has a big downside in that Green Ministers can only work within the limits of what the Labour Cabinet will allow, and Labour’s perspectives are, overall, a lot more constrained than those of the Greens.

Another downside of having Green Cabinet Ministers is that the party’s ability to criticise the policies of Labour Ministers is inevitably constrained, to one degree or another. We saw this happening in the last term when the Greens gave away the opportunity to ask critical questions of Labour Ministers during Parliamentary Question Time. Worse still, the Greens handed over their allocated Oral Questions to National. This was shocking to me, and contrary to the Green practice, during the Clark government (1999-2008), of using Question Time to hold Labour Ministers to account. I was a Green MP during that time and every Question Time we were asking hard (and often embarrassing) questions of Labour Ministers. We didn’t hold back on our criticisms of Labour even when in 2005 two of our MPs (Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford) were given government spokesperson roles in the areas of Energy Efficiency and Buy Kiwi Made, respectively, as a result of a confidence and supply agreement with Labour. Outside of those two policy areas we were able to challenge Labour as much as we liked, and put up alternative policies. It should be noted that in 2005 Labour needed the Greens’ confidence and supply agreement as an insurance policy, because its government, which excluded the Greens, only had a one seat majority.

The Green Party (like the Values Party before it) represents a radical alternative to both Labour and National’s promotion of growth-oriented capitalism, which in recent times has taken on a neo-liberal form. Labour, with a voting base among the less well-of, is more oriented to progressive reform than National, but it is reluctant to go too far, lest it upset the big end of town. That was illustrated in the election campaign when Jacinda Ardern said she would resign before she would take on board the Green’s proposed wealth tax. She even said it was off the table in any post-election negotiations.

Now that Labour doesn’t need the Green votes to govern, it will probably be even less accommodating to the Greens. But there are still ways the two parties could work together, perhaps with a cooperation agreement. This could facilitate Green access to Labour Ministers, the spelling out of certain areas of joint work, cooperation in the House and Select Committees, the promotion of private members bills, etc.

Of course, the Greens should support all the good Labour reforms, and try to push Labour to go further, helped along by the Green MPs tapping into community campaigns, as they have always done. But this also means working with the grassroots to oppose Labour when it is wrong. Some of these issues are tough for us, because Labour, like National, is wedded to the US-led global capitalist order. In this respect, for instance, the Greens should continue to campaign strongly for New Zealand to be more independent and to withdraw from the Five Eyes military/intelligence alliance. The Greens should also be telling the public that dealing with the climate crisis requires radical change, well beyond the largely business-as-usual Labour approach.

We shouldn’t fall into a trap of thinking that the Greens can always do more from the inside, with a Cabinet post, than from the outside, helping to lead a popular campaign. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t. I’m thinking, for example, of new Green MP Ricardo Menendez March, fresh from leading the Auckland Action Against Poverty activist group. He would probably get more change by linking as a Green MP with various welfare lobby groups, and using Parliament as a platform, than he would as Social Development Minister starved for cash by the Finance Minister, as has been the case with the current Social Development Minister, Carmel Sepuloni.

Getting enough money would be a problem for any Green Minister. While the Labour government has been splashing the cash to deal with the economic impact of Covid-19, it will still be operating within neo-liberal austerity orthodoxy for most departmental spending.

That is one of the reasons why, in the current circumstances, the Green caucus should not do any deal with Labour that limits its MPs’ ability to criticise Labour and promote the Green alternative. That probably means foregoing the opportunity to have a Green Minister or Ministers.

We should celebrate the Greens election result. And one conclusion we can draw from Chloe Swarbrick’s victory in Auckland Central is that it is possible, in the right circumstances, to prevail over both Labour and National. The Greens are not an “ad-on” party for Labour. I’m worried that pushing for Ministerial positions, when the Greens haven’t got any leverage with Labour, makes the Greens look like an “ad-on” party, and a bit desperate.