Why the government still pays heed to the Greens

This time last year a rift opened between Labour and the Greens. It dogged them through the election campaign and docked votes from both.

For the Greens, it also wiped hopes of cabinet seats. It meant less influence, since Labour can get a majority without them.

The rift was over genetic modification (GM) and was triggered by the Greens’ well-foreshadowed (but nevertheless surprising to Labour) walkout on the bill which legislated an end this coming October to the moratorium an applications for release of GM organisms.

When the moratorium ends, some Greens have declared, greens with a small g and maybe even some with a big G will resort to the extraparliamentary politics of direct action — including sabotage. Greens feel GM is so critically important to humanity’s future that they do not shrink from the electoral consequences.

This is the absolutist politics of true believers. It usually sinks small parties which practise it. Only revolution, by its very nature anti-democratic, could bring us the green nirvana in short order. Parliamentary politics, which is a calculus of numbers, is of quite a different order.

And, GM aside, the Greens by and large play the game. They know they cannot advance their programme except by persuading a big party which can lead a government and only Labour qualifies. So for the most part the Greens patiently work away at incremental gains.

And they have something to look forward to.

This term their leverage is limited. Helen Clark has made United Future No 1 helper and wants that party around for future governments. Labour will trumpet United Future “victories”, such as the late removal of cultural and landscape legacy from the resource management amending legislation earlier this month.

But Clark cannot be sure United Future will deliver her a majority after 2005. Polls have already marked it down heavily (to a 3 per cent average in the past month), more heavily than National’s allies, ACT (6 per cent) and New Zealand First (8 per cent) — the Greens are at 5 per cent. And United Future has a long way to go yet to build a nationwide party on the ground.

So Labour cannot afford a cavalier attitude towards the Greens in this term. In any case, it needs the Greens for some of its legislation — workplace and Kyoto law would not pass without them. And Labour needs the Greens in the next Parliament to mop up votes on the left so they don’t go to waste.

Now stir in a mild reprise of 2000, when business cut up rough over tax and workplace reform and Clark recognised that, if that put up the shutters on investment, her social democratic ambitions were unrealisable.

Over the past six months, in less stridently than in 2000 bit firmly nonetheless, business lobbies have again been instancing impediments to investment: the Resource Management Act (RMA), the Land Transport Management Bill, electricity, the infrastructure generally.

And, as in 2000, the message has been heard. Hence Michael Cullen’s infrastructure group of ministers which is redeveloping policy on roads, energy, water and the RMA.

Hence, too, assurances from Paul Swain of significant changes to the Land Transport Management Bill to ease the rules on private-public partnerships — including a “conditional yes” early in the process to reduce the likelihood a project will be canned after expensive preparation — and to soften the labyrinthine consultation clauses.

And hence the attempt (see the Business Herald May 19) to find a way to reconcile national interest and local democracy in the Resource Management Act.

On all of this the Greens will have to give ground. But they will also be a constraint, for the reasons given above.

But isn’t Labour cruising at 50 per cent in the polls? No matter what mistakes it makes, doesn’t its popularity seem unshakeable?

Well, yes. But there is a point in every government’s life when voters’ presumption turns from positive to negative.

This does not mean there is then a sudden drop in the polls. It means that over time each negative event will register more strongly than when the presumption is positive and over time ratchet the polls down.

The first Labour government reached this watershed only after about seven or eight years, the second after about six months (the Black Budget), the third after about 18 months (the oil shock) and the fourth after three years (the stockmarket crash). The Bolger National government got about eight months (the Mother of All Budgets).

Clark shrugs off such spectres. Over-eager commentators have already proclaimed several false turning points in her government’s life. So it would be unwise to jump to any conclusions.

But stir in these factors: an electricity shortage; a slowing economy; Treaty rumbles; National’s tougher pitch on welfare and its gradual laying of firmer policy foundations; a lift in Bill English’s performance.

And add a new GM rift with the Greens. We might just be about to reach that watershed point. But don’t bet on it.