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The New Zealand Greens’ Long Road to Government

By James Shaw , Roderick Kefferpütz

Since October 2017, the New Zealand Green Party is, for the first time in its history, part of the government via a confidence and supply agreement. We spoke with James Shaw, co-leader of the New Zealand Greens and Minister for Climate Change about the challenges for the Green Party in government, their successes and setbacks, their cooperation with the European Greens, as well as the state of the international climate change negotiations.

Roderick Kefferpütz: You’re six months into this new government with Labour and New Zealand First, is it too early to talk about successes?

James Shaw: We have achieved more in these last six months than we have in the previous 18 years that we were in Parliament in opposition. So far there have been at least three major announcements of the government, which we played an essential part in.

One was the rebalancing of transport investment in New Zealand. Historically about 90 per cent of all transport funding has gone to motorways. Now we announced that this funding would be rebalanced making significant investment in public transport, particularly in light rail and in our major urban areas, where we also have a big programme for electric vehicles. Transport is an issue that we’ve been campaigning on for many years and finally we’ve been able to make a change here. This is big and it will transform our transport infrastructure and cities.

Second was the winding down of investments in large irrigation schemes. The New Zealand dairy sector has seen a massive growth over the last 20 years. Most of that has been driven by industrial scale irrigation schemes in areas that are pretty dry and rather unsuitable for farming animals. While the last government put tens of millions of dollars into support schemes in advancing these irrigation systems, we managed to actually wind them down. This is a big change for us.

And the third success, which made international headlines, is that we announced an end to the offshore exploration for oil and gas. This really was a huge deal.

We will also announce our budget soon, which holds more successes for us Greens.

We have achieved more in these last six months than we have in the previous 18 years that we were in Parliament in opposition.

This all really shows the benefit of being in government.

What about setbacks? Have you had to agree to some policies you disagree with?

There’s been one major issue, which we have found quite difficult. The other coalition partner, New Zealand First, wants to pass an electoral integrity bill. To put it in layman’s terms, this bill would basically allow a party to trigger a process of ejecting one of their own Members of Parliament, if he or she departs from party line too much. We used to have such a bill previously but it expired in 2005 and New Zealand First wants to bring it back. The argument against it is that it limits the freedom of speech by Members of Parliament and MPs feel that they can’t depart from party line because they are then at risk of being thrown out of their party and therefore being thrown out of parliament.

New Zealand First really fought for this and made it a condition for their support for the government. Therefore, in spite of the fact that we as Greens oppose this bill, we are obliged to support it if we want the government to stay functional.

That’s a common challenge that Green parties in government face. Greens in government have to compromise and be pragmatic, but the party grassroots can disagree with that and might want to stick to fundamental positions. To what degree do you find yourself in such a position?

Yes, that exists. As I highlighted with the electoral integrity bill. And this won’t be the last issue where we face this. There will be compromises on things that will annoy various parts of our base. However, my sense is that the majority of our voters are actually pretty pragmatic and just want us to get these wins. And that’s the key. They have to know that we are getting those successes for them. That’s the challenge of a support party in government in general. We have to be able to communicate the difference that we are making in government.

Going back to the basics: What’s exactly your role in government? You have a particular position of being part of the government as a support party but not sitting in on cabinet meetings. How does that work?

New Zealand has a number of innovations in the electoral and governmental system that enable us to have flexibility in government formations. Essentially there are two types of agreements. The first is a full coalition agreement where the parties are in cabinet together and every decision that cabinet makes is supported by every member no matter what party they are from.

The other type of agreement is a confidence and supply agreement. Here you are technically supporting a minority government by guaranteeing that the government can pass their budgets. But you are not necessarily going to agree to every piece of legislation or decision.

We are in a hybrid of both agreements. We have a confidence and supply agreement but we also have Ministers. These, however, do not sit in cabinet. So we observe full responsibility for our portfolios but we don’t have to observe responsibility outside of these. So we can actually disagree with the government on other issues.

Virtually every party that has been in a coalition government, no matter whether on the right or the left, doesn’t make it out the other side in one piece. That’s the challenge.

The countervailing force is of course that there is a relationship to maintain between us and the coalition partners. So if we disagreed with them all the time, then they’d be in a bad mood with us most of the time and therefore wouldn’t want to help us get our stuff through. So if we disagree with them, then we discuss it behind closed doors. And if we want to publicly disagree with them, then we have a no-surprises rules and then work out a communication strategy for that. That way everybody knows where we stand and when we disagree with them but we also don’t undermine the integrity of the government.

And you don’t then work with the opposition in those areas where you disagree with the other governing parties.

No. The distance between us and the National Party is huge. Just because we disagree with the government doesn’t mean that we would agree with National.

What main challenge do you see for the Green Party for the rest of the legislative term?

We’ve been in opposition for 20 years now and virtually every party that has been in a coalition government, no matter whether on the right or the left, doesn’t make it out the other side in one piece. That’s the challenge. We only just scraped into parliament with 6 per cent in the last election. And we have the next election coming up in two and a half years.

In addition to that, we have a very popular Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who in many ways resembles the Green Party core voter constituency. This makes governing with her a lot easier, because we don’t have to fight them on everything as they agree with us on a lot of stuff. But the challenge is maintaining our own brand. Distinguishing ourselves from her and her Party might be hard.

So what’s your strategy there?

The last six months we have been preoccupied with setting up a government, creating processes and systems, hiring staff and getting our policy agenda rolling. Now it’s time for us to develop that strategy and roll it out. And part of that is getting a lot better in communicating with our voters.

We are also conducting several rounds of research to understand our voter base better. The game has changed. Historically the trend was that when Labour was doing badly, we did well because the frustrated left-wing voters would abandon them and then join us. And the reverse would happen. That’s not terribly useful when you’re in a coalition and you just swap votes between you.

So we are developing a strategy to work out our core constituency and political base which could stand at 10+ per cent. Historically we have been polling on 12 per cent. The goal is to get back to that level.

How do you define the Green Party in New Zealand? In Europe, I’d say, there are fifty shades of Green, some Green parties are very ecology-focused, some more social, others perhaps socially more conservative.

We are an environmentalist social democratic party.

So would you consider yourself left-wing?

I don’t. I hate the left-right spectrum on principle. I think of myself as a Green. But I would describe the Green Party as a left-wing party in the traditional sense of that spectrum. I just think that this spectrum is a 20th century construct and that it isn’t terribly useful in the 21st century.

To what extent are you cooperating with Greens in Europe?

We’ve had quite a lot of contact with Green parties in other countries through the Global Greens Federation. For example, at the UNFCCC in Bonn last year, we had a breakfast where different Green representatives came together. We’ve also had contact with the British, German and Swedish Greens. About 18 months ago, we also had one of our MPs join the Global Greens conference in Liverpool and meet with GroenLinks, the Dutch Greens, to learn some lessons from their very successful campaign with Jesse Klaver. She also returned with lots of notes on how to survive the experience of being in government from both the German and the Swedish Greens. We also have good contacts with the Canadian and Australian Greens.

As Climate Minister, how do you see the current state of play of the international climate negotiations, particularly after Trump took the US out of the Paris agreement?

It’s never anything other than very difficult. And that’s what it’s been for 25 years. After President Trump’s Paris announcement there is actually a real mood for more action. Instead of countries feeling like pulling out as well, it actually made them want to double-down on their efforts. Countries like France, Germany, Canada, and China are playing bigger roles, and smaller countries such as Norway, Costa Rica, and the Netherlands are also driving for ambitious outcomes. I take hope from that.

As a small, independent country, we can help find solutions across the different positions held by others in the UN negotiations.

The other thing is of course that the US hasn’t actually withdrawn. They have signalled that they will withdraw unless they can get a better deal. And so the possibility remains that when 2020 comes around they may have changed their mind and stay in. Perhaps with a different commitment. In the meantime, it’s important to recognise that we still have US businesses and state governments taking action.  Obviously I think it would be better to have the US in the Paris Agreement than out.

What role does New Zealand play in the international negotiations?

New Zealand is ambitious for global action on climate change and the economic transformation required to deliver this. In our Pacific region, many of our partners are at the forefront of climate change impact. We want New Zealand to become a net zero-emissions economy. The Paris Agreement, and the UN meetings to support it, can amplify the voices of smaller countries and offer a forum for leadership where size doesn’t matter, and where good ideas are valued and shared. We are working hard in the negotiations to make real progress, as part of groups such as the High Ambition Coalition and the Cartagena Dialogue, and in support of Fiji as it presides over the UN negotiations this year. We want to prosper through safe, sustainable, low-emission food production, and New Zealand’s agriculture sector is making good progress in improving its emissions efficiency, through technical solutions and improved management practices. We are sharing what we’re learning with others in the negotiations and elsewhere, for example through the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture and the Global Research Alliance. Finally, as a small, independent country, we can help find solutions across the different positions held by others in the UN negotiations. That’s one of the reasons why New Zealand’s Climate Change Ambassador was chosen as the co-chair of the UN’s work to develop guidelines for implementing the Paris Agreement. In my view, this all adds up to a small country making a big impact overall.

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The New Zealand Greens’ Long Road to Government

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