The outliers in the system

The Greens are outliers in the parliamentary system. Their challenge for the next year is to become serious policy players.

Since 1999 the Greens have supported Labour-led governments. In return they have won some policy payoff, most notably in land transport, where the government adopted environmental sustainability as an objective and incorporated demand management and energy conservation.

But otherwise wins have been limited. On their most urgent policy position, genetic modification (GM), the Greens failed.

Greens think GM was a casualty of the election outcome. If they had been crucial to the government’s majority, they think they could have forced it to extend the moratorium on applications for commercial release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

No matter. If after the next election Labour is forming a government and the Greens are crucial to a majority, they might still force a halt on GMOs.

Maybe. But tail-wagging-the-dog ultimatums do not wash with other politicians or most voters. That’s what stopped the Greens in their tracks in 2002 when they thought they were on the way to 10%. Voters trooped to United Future to ensure the expected Labour government was not dependent on the Greens.

That was after an election campaign in which the fiercest mud-throwing was between Labour and the Greens — much of it over GM. That is, the fiercest battles were fought between two parties which were supposed to be allies.

Result: the Greens ended up trailing United Future in influence. They still got their points recorded on land transport strategy and legislation. But United Future has had priority in consultation and opportunities for influence.

Greens have been mulling this over. The campaign committee last year developed some strategic proposals vis-�-vis Labour which have been discussed round the country. Strategy will be a talking point at the conference in early June.

The central issue is whether to insist on cabinet posts. Sitting at the cabinet table gives continuous and direct influence on policy and, equally important, influence over implementation of agreed policy. Even the modest programmes the Greens won in budgets from 1999-02 often languished because Greens did not have the ministerial authority to drive the bureaucrats.

But they would not take cabinet posts at any price. If only a 5% party after the next election, they would be swamped. They want twice that or more.

It’s not just a matter of numbers. The Greens are a party of principles. They decide whether to support legislation by whether it accords with their principles. So they have backed labour laws but opposed the foreshore and seabed legislation.

This sometimes infuriates Labour politicians who would just like to cut deals. If Green ministers sat at the cabinet table, they would have to cut deals, in some cases in transgression of their principles. Even if they remained outside the government as a committed support party, they would have to support a lot of decisions they disapprove.

So if in the cabinet they would want a far more detailed coalition agreement than the Alliance had in 1999 and the Progressives have now. That does not mean the sprawling document National and New Zealand First signed in 1996 but the Greens would want a fair amount of detail in cold print to which the senior partner could be held to account.

Even if only a committed support party outside the government the Greens would want a much deeper agreement than they have now. Otherwise, they would just support it on a case-by-case basis as now.

There are complications. One is United Future, which is a scathing critic of the Greens as unrealistic extremists and which might be needed in addition to the Greens to get Labour to a working majority. If Greens were in the cabinet, United Future would probably withdraw general support from Labour and vote on the merits of bills and procedural issues.

Then there is Labour’s position. Helen Clark prefers minority government with outside support to complicated coalitions. She could probably accommodate United Future at the cabinet table but the principled Greens are a different matter.

Which leaves the Greens in a fix. Clark knows she can count on their principles leading them to support much of those parts of her social, environmental and energy policy opposed by the parties of the right and United Future.

She also knows the Greens cannot work with a National government, at least not yet. The Greens are stuck with Labour.

So Clark can probably count on the Greens providing a working majority. That’s politics.