Once were radicals. The Greens in goverment.
By Richard Harman (author)
Last year was a pretty good year for the Greens.
Finally, after 22 years in Parliament, they were in government.
Yet paradoxically for a party which has its roots in the protest movement and still likes to propose radical change, its approach to politics proved to be remarkably conservative.
They are not given to big bold political gestures and unlike NZ First who seem to prefer confrontational politics, their whole strategy has been to move slowly and cautiously closer to the centre of power.
It is a strategy which is beginning to pay off.
There have been big wins --- the end to irrigation funding; the ban on offshore oil exploration; the move away from funding motorways; funding for conservation measures and a more aggressive scrutiny of foreign land purchases.
There have also been losses --- mostly in the fisheries area and mostly at the hands of New Zealand First whose strong pro fishing industry views tend to have prevailed with the Labour Minister, Stuart Nash.
And there have been rats to swallow; most notably the waka-jumping legislation.
But ultimately their big win is climate change which the party's co-leader, James Shaw, presides over as Minister in Charge.
There can be few, if any, countries in the world where a Green minister drives the country's climate change policies.
But Shaw is no wild-eyed eco-warrior.
In fact, his commitment to a sustainable bipartisan policy makes him almost unique among Ministers in the Ardern government in that he works closely with his Opposition counterpart, Todd Muller.
Though Muller is often spoken of as an eventual National leader, his own politics derive more from people like Jim Bolger, Bill English and Chris Finlayson than they do the more full-throated Judith Collins style of National in opposition.
But there will be limits to how far he can go and that test is about to come.
We should know this year whether National wants to back off supporting the climate change goal of net zero emissions in 2050 because they would oppose Shaw including agricultural emissions in the target.
He is playing his cards close to his chest, but there is a hint that he is not confident he can continue to keep Muller on side.
“I want to give the Nats the benefit of the doubt," he told POLITIK.
“They may not ultimately vote for the bill, but they've certainly engaged in the process in good faith.
“You know we are heading in the same direction and yes there is a debate, but it is around the edges rather than the fundamental principle.
“I don't want to speak on behalf of the National Party but they they they represent that fairly traditional more economically conservative world view; sort of erring on the side of caution about imposing additional cost on the economy.
“That may or may not be necessary.
“And so I guess that's where the political interpretation of the facts and the science and the economics comes into play.
“And so the debate is not and has not been just around Methane and whether it needs to come down or how much by or do you offset the difference or those kinds of things.
“ But also genuine. good faith concerns the New Zealand economy and our ability to keep tight against our competing nations and those.
“I think those are valid concerns. You've got to you've got to address those. You can't just kind of blithely ignore them.”
This is typical Shaw; an almost Zen-like refusal to be rattled by ordinary political passions.
Sometimes he seems so detached from the day to day political fray that he sounds more like an academic observer.
Even his analysis of the party’s anguished vote for the Electoral Integrity Bill finds positives after what was obviously some strong-arming by Labour on behalf of New Zealand First against the objections of some of the Greens most iconic figures like Jeannette Fitzsimons and Keith Locke.
“The nature of the coalition and confidence and supply negotiations were that we essentially guaranteed each other's agreements and so on and we didn't necessarily know what each other's agreements fully contained," he said.
“Yes it was a really tough with the kind of debate inside the party but also again the vast majority of members understood that what we got in return was the ability to govern and to execute on our confidence and supply agreement and the vast majority of people I think felt that while they were not wholly comfortable, actually that was just part of the reality of this of being an MMP government.
“The funny thing is that I think in some ways that whole episode did us a favour and not in ways that I recognised at the time.
“But because it occurred there was always going to be something of this nature which was always going to be hugely uncomfortable for us and being part of a government and of being a minority. I
“But it was a very containing matter.
“It actually only affects the lives of 120 people and finding new and creative ways for us to lose our jobs.”
Obviously, it was more than that, but Shaw's ability to rationalise away issues of intense passion and political power playing may be part of the reason why his party survives into another term in Parliament.
He knows very clearly who the Green voters are. And they are not the same people who vote for National or Labour.
They are younger; they live in the inner city and are most likely to work in public sector jobs.
It may be a narrow demographic, but as far as the Greens are concerned, it may just be big enough.
After all, they are not trying to be the biggest party in Parliament.
One of the mistakes the big parties make when they look at the smaller parties – the Greens and NZ First – is to misunderstand the way a niche party behaves.
Though neither of those parties would admit it in public; five per cent gets them back to Parliament and makes them players in any government formation process.
In a way, that gives them a lot of room in which to move. They are not continually looking over their shoulders wondering whether that day’s press statement may have lost them votes.
Shaw also believes that the role of the small parties in this government is different compared to the Clark and Key government.
“New Zealand First and the Greens are much more integrated into the government.
“We’re on all of the cabinet committees.
“We look at all of the cabinet papers.
“We try to offer our perspectives on as many of those things as we can."
Maybe, but you don’t have to spend too long around NZ First MPs to get the impression they regard the Greens as what you might call fruitcakes.
Even within the Beehive, there has been a concern, intensified after the election of Marama Davidson as co-leader, that the Greens were unstable and more akin to a student protest movement than a political party.
Predictably, Shaw finds a positive in the distinctiveness of both the Greens and NZ First.
“All three parties bring a different perspective to the government," he said.
“My way of looking at that is that yes that makes it hard work sometimes but it actually also means that by the time you get something through cabinet that you've considered all of the issues that are most important to most parts of New Zealand and that is I think ultimately more robust than if it was just one party's view. “
But the party has shown an ability to bite back.
The refusal of the party organisation in 2017 to allow Kennedy Graham and David Clendon back onto the list after they resigned in protest against Metirira Turei’s admission of welfare fraud indicated that the grassroots were more radical than the MPs.
Shaw publicly backed that decision.
But in April last year, he appeared less enthusiastic about the election of Marama Davidson as co-leader and the defeat of the more moderate, more conventionally “green” Julie-Anne Genter.
Much of his speech announcing Davidson’s win was a tribute to Genter.
But was the Marama Davidson election a warning; a reminder from the party's grassroots that they are a radical party committed to change.
Are they becoming frustrated with the constraints of government?
Shaw thinks not.
“You know the funny thing is that the vast majority of our membership actually gets it,” he said.
“My experience I travel around the country, I try to meet with the local branch and pretty much everywhere. I would say people are pleased with the progress and recognise that some of these issues are complex and also know that we're not the majority party and that those things are negotiated.
“There are hot button issues obviously that pop up, and we're getting better at proactively talking to our supporters about those kinds of things, and ways that you know can help them see why we've landed we've landed.
“But I think some of the anxiety that you saw earlier in the year has really dissipated and that's because we are making really good progress.”
So much progress, it seems, that the party is now talking about considering a full coalition with Labour after the next election.
The Greens have begun to understand (and enjoy) being in Government.