Deal with Jacinda Ardern’s Labour party is proving toxic for New Zealand’s Greens

Metiria Turei, the former Green party co-leader, left parliament more than four years ago, resigning from the co-leadership and the party list after right wing lobby groups, with an able assist in the form of the parliamentary press gallery, led a ruthless campaign against the former lawyer for admitting that she once had to commit benefit fraud to feed her young family.

The admission came in a landmark speech condemning New Zealand’s miserly welfare system. Struggling families were paid far too little to survive, something policymakers had known for decades, with examples ranging from Turei’s own to anonymous sole parents who were coming forward to describe how they spent $380 van die $480 in assistance from the State on rent alone. Turei and the Greens were promising to lift the rate of sole parent support, remove sanctions, and make other necessary and progressive reforms to the welfare system in order for people to meet their basic needs.

Four years after that speech the assertion that families are entitled to enough to meet their basic needs seems uncontroversial. This year the Labour government is lifting benefits between $32 en $55 a week, indexing future increases to wage growth, and lifting what are called abatement thresholds, so that beneficiaries can keep more of what they earn in part-time and other forms of work. Kortom, Turei was vindicated. Those right wing lobby groups, the press gallery, and even a number of her own Green Party colleagues who drove Turei to resign for her “dishonesty” appear now, not even half a decade later, out of step with the facts and the times.

This is the kind of political and personal bravery that is unimaginable in the current Green party.

Turei’s stand saw the Green’s bleed off more of Labour’s vote. Andrew Little, the then Labour leader, lost confidence in his own ability to lead Labour and a last-minute plea was made to the then Labour deputy leader Jacinda Ardern. Die rest is, as the cliche goes, geskiedenis. Today the Greens struggle to break the 10% ceiling Turei and her co-leader Russel Norman were so regularly breaking in the 2010s. Part of this is because, according to a good number of former members, the party’s timidity in government. The Greens provide the Labour majority with confidence and supply – meaning they’re obliged to vote for the budget and in confidence motions – and in exchange co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson occupy ministerial roles outside cabinet.

In one sense, it’s a sweet deal. The Labour government doesn’t need the Greens, but the party still receives something anyway. However the deal is proving toxic within the party. Under the inter-party agreement, the Greens are free to criticise Labour outside their portfolio areas. In practice this is rarely the case. Shaw and Davidson are smart enough to know that progress in their portfolios relies as much on good relationships with the minister of finance and his closest advisers as it does on simply “being right” on the issues or having the public on side. That means the Green co-leaders are, for the sake of making progress, often hostage to the whims and wishes of their far larger partner.

In most cases this is probably fine. The two parties agree on more than they disagree. But in the policy area that cuts right to the Greens’ identity – climate change – it is a disaster with the minister of climate change, James Shaw, defending and enacting the government’s line. Not the Green party’s line. This means balancing regressive farming interests with progressive environmental interests. It means taking account of the vocal business community that Labour seems so often to fear as well as taking account of the “just transition” arm of the union movement. This is, natuurlik, what a good minister does. Balances competing interests. But an effective minister does so and then takes a position that aligns with their politics.

Shaw and many Green party members find this increasingly difficult as Labour, to pick one example, insists on “voluntary” inclusion of agriculture in the Emissions Trading Scheme. It becomes more farcical as Shaw, whose party’s political identity is staked on lowering emissions, meekly defends New Zealand’s increasing emissions because, wel, he’s the minister of climate change. This is the price a party of government pays for the limited decision-making power it gets. As the Māori party found out between 2008 en 2017, policy is made primarily in cabinet – the decision-making body where they exercise no sway outside limited committees.

The Māori party example is instructive. The party went from five seats in 2008, their first year in government, to three seats in 2011, and then two seats in 2014. Come 2017 they were gone. But at the last election, after a good deal of rebuilding networks and changing strategy, the party came roaring back with two MPs who won their seats against Labour’s incoming tide. Hoekom? Because the party rejected the idea of joining government and embraced opposition politics. Labour was at the height of its powers and, for Māori, a party was needed to hold the major left wing force to account on issues from Ihumātao to housing prices. This is where the Greens can take their inspiration from Metiria Turei again. In 2016 the former Green party co-leader said that house prices must drop.

Almost six years later, as every suburb in the country records a median house price increase, where is the opposition party brave enough to say the same again?

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