There is a lot of talk in the media and in the public at the moment about the merits of a National / Green coalition. It is not a new idea but this post-election there seems to be a deliberate and concerted effort to push it.
National, of course, would love to have a second option strengthening their hand with New Zealand First. It is important to understand, though, that this is not just coming from the Nats. People are increasingly concerned about our looming social and environment crisis and some see it as a way to make progress even if we don’t get a change of government.
Let me state clearly at this stage that I do not think James Shaw should be ringing up Bill English to discuss coalition options. To support the National Party to become a 4th term government would be both impossible in practical terms and politically suicidal.
Impossible because any coalition agreement needs ratification by 75% of the party and there is more chance of Winston retiring gracefully from politics.
Suicidal for a multitude of reasons. First, people voted for the Greens on the clear understanding that we would not support a National Government. To do so would be a complete betrayal of our voters, akin to NZ First going with National in 1996 (for which they got badly punished). Second, it might be worth the risk if we could shape the trajectory of an incoming government. To bolster a government almost certainly in its last term, a government that has shown such disregard for both the environment and our growing social inequality, just before their support collapses, would be a tragic mistake. Third, to make such a move without lengthy preparation and discussion inside the party would tear the Greens apart.
Note I did not say ‘because going into coalition with National kills small parties’. Coalitions are always dangerous for small parties but there are many lessons to be learned from the demise of the Alliance and the Māori Party, and from the zombie resurrection that is ACT.
Entering into a coalition with National right now would be a disaster for the Greens and one from which we might not recover. But as I first said in 2008, at some stage in the future we must be prepared to seriously consider the idea.
The tactical negotiating reason is compelling enough, in my view. Labour is currently the only option for the Greens but the same is not true in reverse. Labour doesn’t owe the Greens any favours, and the fact is that Labour will never respect the Greens until we recognise that truth. Rather than expecting a guaranteed relationship with a party that we aggressively target for votes and constantly criticise for not being enough like us, we need to recognise that Labour will give us just as much as they need to, to stay in power. Having an unconditional promise of support means that they don’t have to give us very much at all.
To put that another way, players only respect other players.
But even if the Greens are ourselves content in our current codependency, there is a more fundamental problem. If Greens cannot carve out a constituency beyond the ‘left of Labour’ cul de sac we are in, we will continue to play out the dynamic of this election over and over, soaring in the polls only as long as Labour is doing badly, but dropping back to 5% as soon as Labour turns left again. Or finds a charismatic leader. We may be mighty in opposition, but we will always be puny in coalition until we stop relying on discontented Labour voters for support.
This does not mean giving up our principles. Green politics is, and always has been, as much about social issues as environmental ones. I attended the first Global Greens conference in 2001 when the Global Charter was decided. What struck me was how the pillars of Green politics are essentially the same everywhere – ecological wisdom, social responsibility / economic justice, peace / non-violence, and local decision-making.
The idea that Green should “stick to the environment” is confused. It shows a deep misunderstanding about what Green politics is, what the environment is, and what human beings are. But does a commitment to social responsibility mean the Greens are left of Labour? Or a left-wing party at all? What does it even mean to be ‘left wing’ in Aotearoa New Zealand today?
Some people on the left think being left means you care about other people and being right means you are selfish. Some people on the right think being left means you are economically illiterate and being right means you are clever. It is sadly common in political debates for people to assume that their opponents are either stupid or morally deficient or both. My experience is that most people from either side are neither.
In fact, if you look at the fundamentals, there is very little genuine political difference between National and Labour. What we have now is more in the way of different political clans, held together by a sense of shared identity (often inherited) rather than by any coherent political core. It is in that way that the Greens have become tied to Labour. Not because our principles demand it, but because of a sense of kinship.
Because if you look at the most fundamental Green concerns: climate change, protection of waterways, child poverty, growing inequality, protecting civil and human rights, tāngata whenua rights, the last Labour government was barely more progressive than National. In fact the main argument used against ever forming a coalition with National – that their economic agenda is fundamentally at odds with a Green agenda – applies just as strongly to Labour.
It might be that Labour is more willing to address these fundamental issues than National, but that would require us to play hard-ball in our negotiations. You can’t do that when you have given your bargaining chips to the other side before you begin. Our current position on coalitions guarantees that we can never do more than greenwash a Labour government.
The problem is that we have bought into an inadequate conceptual model of politics that kind-of works in a First Past the Post political environment but which starkly reveals its flaws when confronted with the political diversity of MMP. This is the idea that political philosophy can be represented in one dimension on a straight line between left and right.
A left / right continuum is simply incapable of representing Green politics. Our most defining issues don’t figure on it at all and neither are the solutions to them a simple application of any one ideology, whether ecosocialism or green capitalism. Both the left and the right have valuable contributions to make to this discussion, but more important for the Greens is the opportunity to articulate uniquely Green solutions as the third point in a left / right / green triangle.
If we take ‘left’ to mean a collectivist orientation and ‘right’ to mean an individualist orientation (which is the only definition that seems to make sense) Green politics is not simply about adopting left social policies and applying left ideas to environmental problems. It is a fundamentally different way of understanding those problems, based on an ecological worldview. When we understand how human society operates as an ecology, when we see how ecological principles can be applied to foster a better education system, or health, or in addressing poverty and inequality, then we are able to offer real, green solutions. This is the approach some leading edge thinkers are already taking in economics, in industrial design and in community development and it has the potential to transform our politics as well.
To illustrate: in order to build a more robust support base and grow the vote for a progressive government, the Greens need to stop trying to poach Labour voters and identify new constituencies. There are around 450,000 small businesses in Aotearoa employing 5 people or less. Self employment speaks to core Green ideals of supporting local economies, building self-reliance and personal autonomy, helping people lift themselves out of poverty and fostering stronger linkages between businesses and the social ecological communities in which they are located. I know a great many small business owners who support the ideals of the Greens but who don’t connect with us a party because we are not speaking to them.
There are actually lots of Greens who are small business owners – probably a disproportionate number compared to either National or Labour. Both National and Labour tend to focus on large corporate bureaucracies and play little attention to how their policies impact on small businesses – who as we know are New Zealand’s biggest employer. For years the Greens put loads of effort into trying to woo the unions. It would be worth putting the same effort into understanding how to support a sustainable, resilient and regenerative business ecology. Certainly no one else is doing much in that space.
Escaping our ‘left of Labour’ trap is not about ‘moving to the centre’. The very notion of a centre sitting half-way between Labour and National is irrelevant when we locate ourself on a triangle. Neither is it about ‘abandoning our principles’. Rather it is about embodying them in their entirety. What they cannot mean, though, is relegating ourselves to the periphery of power just because we are committed to giving Labour a free run.
I expect that Labour will always be a preferred coalition partner for the Greens. We share more values with them than we do with National. And I think it will be a while before the Greens are self confident enough to even find out what might be on the table in a coalition discussion with National. Maybe what is on the table would never be enough, but I think that just asking could make all the difference.