What do the Greens really want?
By Richard Harman (author)
Greens Leader James Shaw is an unusually complex politician.
In an environment where most rhetoric is dumbed down to TV news sound bite level, Shaw likes to engage in intellectual abstract discussions about policy.
And he did so last week in his annual “State of the Planet” speech with its call for a radical re-orientation of New Zealand and its economy towards sustainability in every dimension.
But just when you thought you might be listening to yet another unrealistic Greens polemic; Shaw delivered one of the toughest real politik warnings to his party about the need for discipline that we have heard from any member of this new Government.
However, that bit may have fallen on some deaf ears.
Just 48 hours after he spoke Green MP Golriz Ghahraman was making some wild claims about the GCSB and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance which the Prime Minister has made clear she supports.
But in fact both the abstractions and the call for discipline spring from the same source.
The Greens will have to fight to stay in the political game.
On the one hand, their three key policies --- clean water, action on climate change and the relief of child poverty --- are now also Labour signature policies.
And on the other, the road to the political wilderness is littered with small parties who could not manage their relationship with a much bigger party they supported in Government.
Think the Alliance and ACT. Both imploded and both ceased to be relevant.
So Shaw’s fight for ongoing relevance is built on two platforms.
First, he wants to redefine what the Greens stand for.
And then he wants to make the party a coherent and disciplined political force.
His speech last Thursday relied extensively on a series of new economic thinkers who look to a post-materialist society.
He particularly cited Kate Raworth an Oxford University academic theory who has advanced a theory of what she calls the doughnut economy.
Raworth’s doughnut consists of two rings.
The inner ring of the doughnut represents the resources we need to lead a good life: food, clean water, housing, sanitation, energy, education, healthcare, democracy.
Anyone living within that ring, in the hole in the middle of the doughnut, is in a state of deprivation.
The outer ring of the doughnut consists of the Earth’s environmental limits, beyond which we inflict dangerous levels of climate change, ozone depletion, water pollution, loss of species and other assaults on the living world.
The area between the two rings – the doughnut itself – is the “ecologically safe and socially just space” in which humanity should strive to live.
The purpose of economics should be to help us enter that space and stay there.
“The Greens in Government will be using these new models of economic thinking that balance economic and environmental and social outcomes to guide us in our decision making,” he said.
As an examp[le he said not just electricity, but transport fuel and industrial heat as well – would be drawn from entirely renewable sources like wind and solar, with zero pollution going into air, soil or water.
“That's why the goal of 100% renewable energy generation is in our confidence and supply “agreement.
We would have zero waste to landfill: waste would be designed out of industrial processes, and what little waste remains would be captured and reused, refurbished or recycled.
“ Eugenie Sage is currently reviewing the Waste Minimisation Act to achieve this outcome.”
But Shaw applies this new economic theory further than just to the environment.
“Rather than crossing our fingers and hoping that GDP growth would trickle down into poverty alleviation, we’d be distributive by design, consciously building models of commerce that systematically increase wealth across the widest possible base, so all of our people benefit."
What is different about Shaw’s prescription is that he is calling for fundamental structural change to the economy.
But though the Greens have a supply and confidence agreement with the Government, their input into Government decisions is plainly limited.
“I just think it’s about leadership and vision and get that good economic modelling that’s been done and saying let’s do that.”
But he had to concede that the party had wanted the 90-day employment trials scrapped entirely.
There the Greens came up against NZ First, and the Government opted to go along with NZ First by allowing the trials to continue for firms employing less than 20 people.
There will be an ongoing friction between the Greens and NZ First.
The Kermadec ocean sanctuary is already an issue, and the Greens have given way to NZ First on the waka-jumping legislation.
On the other hand, there are already rumbles of concern in NZ First about how Green Conservation and Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage might interpret some parts of her portfolios.
Shaw knows how important Government management will be and he is calling for tight discipline from his caucus.
First, we will need to focus unrelentingly on the big things that put this architecture in place and not sweat the small stuff
“ There are lots of very worthy but small issues that could easily distract us from the already Herculean task in front of us.
Second, we will need to learn the give-and-take of coalition government more than ever before, but also model to our coalition partners the benefits of collaboration.
“We are not the Government alone, but no party is.”
And then perhaps the most important point – Shaw (like many Green supporters) wants the party to be in Government long enough to make real changes.
“We will need to be in Government again after 2020, and in Government more often than not for the period of the great transition," he said.
“The reforms we’re going to make in this term we will need to protect and nurture, as well as correct and embellish and add to in the future.
“The Green Party is the party of the sustainable economy.
“While the ideas and proposals we’ve put forward and championed for the better part of four decades are now gaining increasing currency amongst other parties, we will need to continue to take the lead if this is going to become a reality over the coming decades.”
Altogether, Shaw has offered a bold redefinition of his party.
He may find a sympathetic ear within Labour.
Ironically as he was speaking in Wellington, Environment Minister David Parker was in London meeting with Lord Adair Turner, the former Merrill Lynch banker and chair of the British Finance Services Authority who has been suggesting a rejection of the pre-financial crisis economic orthodoxy of neo-classical economics which saw as its objective the maximisation of growth, assuming a direct link between per capita income and welfare.
Turner goes as far as to propose that central banks should “print” money during a recession to promote growth rather than relying on reducing interest rates.
From his tweets, Parker sounded impressed.
“Really enjoyed meeting @AdairTurnerUK in London. Author Between Debt & the Devil. Ex head FSA. Chair Institute for New Economic Thinking begun by Soros. Shared many views. Int’d in what we’re doing in NZ re inequality, housing, foreign buyers, monetary policy. Fantastic guy,” he tweeted.
We may be seeing the beginning of the first real political challenge to the economic orthodoxy popularised as “Rogernomics”.
If that is the case, even the baby would have to take second place.