What the Greens might do to the next Labour government

Stand by for the Labour-Green government. It is just one of many possible combinations but it is distinctly possible. It is one with important implications for business.

The Greens’ impact is already visible in the outcome of the agreement after the 2002 election to cooperate on transport legislation. The Land Transport Management Act bears the marks in its extensive consultation requirements, accent on sustainability and demand management and exhortation to walk and cycle.

And that was in a Parliament in which the government can win confidence votes without the Greens. In fact, the Greens have put down a no-confidence motion on the Budget.

If the Greens are crucial to a Labour government after the next election, they aim to achieve a step change in influence, either through posts in the cabinet and/or a tightly written policy agreement.

They want influence principally in four areas.

One is genetic modification (GM), which has slipped off most people’s radars but not the Greens’.

The Green leadership does not want a repetition of the stoush with Labour during the 2002 campaign, which cut both parties’ votes. But the Green leaders are just as determined as in 2002 to maintain this country’s GM-free status.

They reckon that no organism will be approved before the election. None has yet even been applied for. Were one to be before the Environmental Risk Management Authority within sight of the election, the Greens reckon the government would call it in to avoid electoral discomfort — many middle class Labour supporters agree with the Greens on GM.

The Greens calculate that it should be fairly easy to armtwist Labour into barring GM releases through the next term. This is despite the fact that they have lost one of their arguments with the lifting last month by the European Union of its GM moratorium.

Labour’s problem is that it fears an international reputation for anti-science among investors, business and scientists. That would undermine its attempts to boost research.

The second area is “safe food”, another issue which resonates with many of Labour’s middle class supporters.

The Greens want much tougher food labelling than the Australian-dominated Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has laid down. They made that a core item in their conference at Queen’s Birthday weekend.

How Labour could deliver that is unclear, short of withdrawing from FSANZ, which would create a major rift with Australia. In any case Labour is sensitive about business’s compliance cost needs which would rise.

Labour would also have difficulty with the Greens’ third focal area: energy. Again, much was made of this at the conference.

The Greens want much more effort — and government spending — on energy conservation and demand management, which they think the government, through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, has dawdled over. For instance, they want all state houses to have solar panel heaters and they want faster movement on damp-proofing and insulating state houses.

They also want much more emphasis on alternative forms of electricity generation and condemn the now seemingly inexorable drift towards greater use of coal.

They will aim to highlight what they believe to be an approaching apocalypse for oil-dependent economies because discovery of new oil reserves is now lower than consumption. Uncertainty in the Middle East and high prices, if they persist into the election period, may give this message wider appeal than in recent past elections.

The fourth area is roads. Greens are prominent in anti-motorway movements. By stopping road development, they hope to drive people on to more energy-efficient public transport and freight on to more energy-efficient trains.

This would spell obvious trouble for Labour with business, which is chafing at an inadequate roading system. It would also spell trouble for Labour with middle New Zealand, which values its car-driven individual mobility highly.

There is, of course, a lot more in the Greens’ locker that would worry business, not least an enthusiasm for vastly more social spending. The Greens, for example, want the whole of the government’s “working for families” package implemented this year. They want no-fees tertiary education. On the revenue side they want energy taxes and the full cost of “externalities”, such as pollution and waste, charged to companies.

Moreover, they are more sympathetic to the unions’ position on labour legislation than the government. They think the Resource Management Act is too soft and their members are among the most active opponents of large projects. Their foreign and defence policy would turn the Australians and Americans apoplectic. They flatly oppose free trade agreements, especially the one with China.

Add all that up and you get a party which is seriously at odds with Labour, to a far greater degree than ACT is with National and both United Future and New Zealand First are with either Labour or National.

So why have the Greens been making it clear over the past two years and again at their conference that they want to be in harness with Labour?

Because they recognise that, to the extent they can get any of their programme implemented, only Labour is likely to do it. The fact that Labour went much greener on transport than it would have done unprompted makes the point.

The Greens are playing a long game. Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons once talked of a 200-year programme. Such a programme can be achieved only in instalments.

So if they are in the box seat after the next election — that is, if Labour can form a government only with the Greens’ active involvement or support or at least acquiescence — they will leverage only some instalments. The Greens’ leaders have learnt to be practical.

For the Greens this involves a difficult balancing act.

They are still in many ways more a movement than a party and its members hold strong and largely non-debatable views. Though the tone of a strategic plan approved by the conference at Queen’s Birthday weekend is a clear statement that at the least the Greens are now a party in addition to a movement, the compromises of hard politics would undoubtedly lose members.

There is another balancing act: between being in the cabinet or settling for providing assurance on confidence and supply from outside (as United Future does now).

The preponderance of Green opinion, at least at the conference level, is that the party needs at least 10 per cent (12 seats) to avoid being swamped inside the cabinet.

But staying outside reduces the scope for influence because battles can be more readily started and won in the constant interaction in the Beehive.

Either way, the Greens would want a definitive and enforceable policy agreement covering at least their priority areas. This could prove difficult to negotiate, especially since the Greens are committed to taking any agreement back to a delegate conference for approval if it involves an agreement to back confidence and supply.

Getting to 10 per cent requires a third balancing act.

If the Greens push points of difference hard, that will appeal to confirmed greenies but not to the wider constituency they need to get the extra 3 per cent above their 2002 figure. The loss of support when they went hard on GM in 2002 is a sobering lesson.

But if they soften their stance to pitch to a wider constituency, they risk supporters, especially young people, staying away from the polls for lack of something convincing to vote for. The 2002 non-vote was a preoccupation at the conference.

There would be a fourth balancing act if the Greens held the key to Labour holding office or not: Labour’s.

Labour would rather not be beholden to the Greens and if it is, would rather run a minority government than have the Greens at the cabinet table — and especially not if they demanded a free hand in some portfolios as they mused before 2002.

This unease would be all the greater because Labour would like to keep an anchor in the centre — and United Future cannot stand the Greens. Too close a tie to the Greens would send United Future into National’s camp. And Labour desperately does not want to have to lean on New Zealand First one whit more than it now occasionally has to.

So if Don Brash misses on his first try for Prime Minister, it could be a fascinating third term for Helen Clark. But it would be no fun for business.