Lining up Greens for a role in the cabinet

Two years ago at its Queen’s Birthday weekend conference the Green party agonised over whether to go into the government if asked. There will be no such agony this coming weekend — at least not at the leaders level.
Metiria Turei and Russel Norman are clear: if their side of politics gets the numbers in the next election they will be in a Labour-Green cabinet, provided only that they do not have so few MPs they lack real influence.

This weekend they will promote a “fit to govern” strategy, then roadshow it round the branches and settle it at an end-of-year hui — with the usual grassroots accountability.

Two years ago the Greens debated whether to downscale their position on backing a National-led government from “extremely” unlikely to “highly” unlikely. They did downscale, partly because the 2008 memorandum of understanding (MOU) with John Key had worked well on insulating houses and five smaller initiatives. But this term they could not find enough common ground to extend the MOU.

Since then the Greens’ anti-National rhetoric has got shriller. They and Labour have several times lined up, notably on housing, the manufacturing “crisis”, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) fiasco, the convention-centre-for-gambling-licences deal and state-owned enterprise selldowns — plus a high-profile joint launch of a policy to buy all the electricity off the generators to cut the cost to consumers.

In this way a two-party coalition-in-waiting is growing organically. Occasionally, Winston Peters joins. His public comments are more often nearer the Labour-Greens’ line than National’s.

In 2011, given John Key’s stratospheric popularity and Labour’s hangover after nine years in office, voters did not perceive an alternative government. They spread their votes. Now a Labour-Greens alternative government is becoming visible. That is not to say voters will go for it. But there will likely be a serious contest of personalities, policies and ideas.

But this contest is not just across the divide, against National and its ragtag lot. It is within the coalition-in-waiting.

National does not have an own-side contest. The Maori party is buy-able with small beer. John Banks and Peter Dunne are in Parliament only because National dealt them in and that would likely apply if National reached out for Colin Craig. (Hence National’s anti-democratic self-interest in blocking MMP reform.)

On the Labour-Greens side there is one big point of agreement: that the economic policy orthodoxies of the past 30 years have frayed and root-and-branch rethinking is needed. They agree also on greater weighting to environmental and biodiversity issues in the context of economic and other development and on the state doing more for the less-well-off.

But there are also large differences.

The biggest is that the Greens see themselves as a vanguard to a different way of living and see Labour as essentially adjusting the orthodox. For example, Greens say, to the extent Labour subscribes to “environmental economics” that is still GDP-based thinking — producing and consuming more. The Greens’ “ecological economics” centres on maintaining stocks of resources and biodiversity, both, they say, under threat.

The Greens’ logic is that eventually voters will see they are the way, the light and the truth, as voters in the 1930s Depression came to adopt Labour’s social democracy.

But Labour, like National, knows most voters, at least for now, don’t subscribe to that way-light-truth and have an atavistic desire for more things, including more fossil fuels.

So, while Labour is ramping up its environmental positioning in a series of seminars got up by Maryan Street (who on Saturday promised to repeal Amy Adams’ big resource management changes), it is promising a nicer “more”, not fundamental change. Labour can be innovative — Davids Parker and Cunliffe have been searching out old and new ideas to supplement market-think — but not revolutionary.

There are many lower-level differences. The Greens are economic nationalists (so is Winston Peters) and Labour (mostly) backs free trade. Norman wants quantitative easing and backs Reserve Bank funding of the state. Labour thinks that won’t work here. The Greens are far more peace-oriented and took a harder line on the GCSB.

There is also electoral tension. The Greens want more than their current 14 seats in 2014, to get more leverage; Labour wants them back to 10 seats or so — but not so low they risk a sub-5 per cent vote in 2017.

The Greens well know the withering cost of compromise to every small government-support party since 1996. But they also know they have to get their hands dirty in government if they are to bring a wider span of voters to their way-light-truth. And they are bigger and much deeper-rooted than previous support parties.

So this weekend they start a new phase in the 40 years of green national politics since 1972. There hasn’t been anything vaguely like it since 1931.