Green leadership struggles

The Greens' choice for its next co-leader will have interesting implications for the future of the party, in terms of its political positioning. But the process of leadership change call into question its ability to survive in government, and its viability in future. 

Why I'm sticking with TOP

Image attribution:

There have been a flurry of resignations from The Opportunities Party and within the party, and some candidates have felt the need to publicly declare why they are leaving.

But I'm staying with the party, and I'd like to explain why.

I like Gareth Morgan and I agree with him

I find Gareth very likeable in person: he has a gruff charm that masks a softer, caring, side. He really does care about the future of New Zealand.  He can see, very clearly, that our society has been going off the rails for the past few decades and has no realistic plan for the future.  

Finding himself suddenly very wealthy, he chose to use his wealth for good. He first created the Morgan Foundation, to develop workable and effective policy solutions for some of our most pressing social and economic problems. And then, after a series of governments failed to heed those ideas, he started The Opportunities Party as a vehicle to get those solutions adopted in government.

Not many wealthy people would make those sorts of choices, and it speaks volumes for the sort of person he is, that he made that choice. 

Gareth is also very smart. In stepping down from the party leadership role he has demonstrated that the party is not just about him and his own ideas.  That sets him apart from a number of men who have started political parties in the past, including Bob Jones, Winston Peters, Jim Anderton, Roger Douglas, and Peter Dunne.

Gareth lacks some of the qualities required of a successful politician. In particular he says what he really thinks, rather than what people want to hear, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly - two qualities are a big part of a politicians job. 

But he also understands that. His time as TOP leader served a particular purpose: he used his public profile to get TOP up and running.  It won 2.4% of the vote in this year's election, which was more than all the other "also ran" parties (those that fell below the 5% MMP threshold) put together. 

So TOP is now "on the radar" of public consciousness. His time as leader has served its purpose and has now run its course.  The challenge now is to grow TOP into a party that will be a serious contender in the 2020 general election.

TOP's purpose

TOP was formed in late 2016, the National Party was disinterested in making meaningful change and the Labour Party looked too weak to win government.

The prospects for introducing real, fundamental, and much-needed policy change seemed poor: the Labour party was lingering at below 30% in the opinion polls, the Greens were stuck at around 12% and NZ First was polling around 10% (but with no clear indication whether they would support another National-led or Labour-led government).

This followed nearly 27 years of slack, slow, and/or self-interested policymaking by the establishment parties and their various coalition partners.

The last really radical change made by a New Zealand government were the brutal welfare cuts in Hon. Ruth Richardson's 1991 "Mother of all Budgets". Those cuts were a social and economic disaster that no subsequent government would reverse, or replace with something better.

New Zealand languished under another eight years of the Bolger/Shipley government, then nine years of Helen Clark's careful incrementalism, followed by eight more years of John Key's do-little populism.

Changes that evidently could be made, and needed to be made, were not: house prices rose relentlessly in comparison to median incomes. Carbon emissions rose constantly.  The rich got much, much, richer while homelessness and poverty increased. Clark's Labour government made attempts to address some of these issues, with the Emissions Trading Scheme and the Working for Families tax package, for instance, but those initiatives worked better in theory than practice.

TOP emerged into that context: seeking to change this pattern of lethargic and complacent government, and to make some meaningful and much-needed changes.

During the course of the election campaign the context changed. In a few weeks, during July/August 2017, Jacinda Ardern was elevated to the leadership of the Labour Party and Metiria Turei resigned from the Greens leadership, leaving James Shaw as the party's sole spokesperson.

The Labour/Green grouping then gained enough support and credibility to put Winston Peters and his NZ First Party in the "kingmaker" position, helped by the National Party running a campaign that sought to become a majority government without a substantial coalition partner.  It had closed the door on Winston Peters with its television advertisement, and (possibly) by leaking details of his superannuation payments.

Jacinda Ardern, on becoming Labour's leader, promised that her government would take bold positive steps and make a real difference. There are early indications that it might. But it remains to be seen whether the new government really has the will, and the competence, to bring about the significant changes that New Zealand urgently needs if we are to be a fair, sustainable and successful nation in the 21st century.

I have doubts. Twenty-seven years of policy lassitude from the two major parties has left me angry, anxious and impatient. I haven't fully trusted Labour since the neo-liberal revolution, ushered in by David Lange's fourth Labour government.  I worry that the Greens will self-destruct; their inability to manage their own affairs, based on wonky internal systems, processes, and culture, could be their undoing.  And of course we can't be sure whether New Zealand First will continue to support a progressive government after the next election.

Finally, there's the prospect of a resurgent National Party government in 2020, continuing to deploy the "win at all costs" tactics of centre-right parties around the world: careless and callously indifferent to the effect of  their game-playing and populist rhetoric on civil rights, civility, and the practice of responsible democratic governance.

So the current government might surprise us all, by becoming more than the sum of its parts.  But that does not solve a bigger problem, which is the weakness of party politics in New Zealand.

The Possibilities of Opportunities  

As a "start-up" party, TOP is not beholden to its own history and entrenched culture.  It has the opportunity, over the coming months, to remodel itself.

TOP has significant points of difference from other parties in the way we make policy, and talk about it, which provides a solid foundation on which TOP can continue to build.

We influenced the 2017 election campaign by focusing on policy. We promoted the message that policy matters most: what a government promises to do, and what it delivers, are more important than than personalities and corporate image.

We have explained what the problems are, and the solutions to them, in online videos. We have engaged party members and citizens in policy discussions, particularly on cannabis and alcohol law reform. We've treated voters as competent adults, able to understand and engage in complex policy issues such as taxation reform.

The challenge for TOP, over the next three years, is to become as good at 'doing politics' as it is at making policy - and also to become even better at making policy.

We can put even more effort into informing citizens about policy issues and engaging them in policy development, and generally engaging more people, more effectively, in the democratic governance of our nation.

The party has the opportunity now to consider the role of political parties in our political system; applying the same depth and clarity of thought that we have already applied to developing economic and social policy.

We must consider what role a political party should, ideally, play in facilitating and strengthening the relationship between citizens and their government. We can identify what a really good political party should be like, and then become like that.

TOP has the capacity to become something different: not just another political party, in the same mould as the existing parties, but a fundamentally new, and better, type of political party.

That prospect excites and interests me, more than any other aspect of New Zealand politics, right now. And so I'm sticking with TOP, intending to help make that happen.

Credible threat: a National-Green coalition

Common interests

The Green party, Labour and National all have a common interest in having the Greens and National seriously explore a coalition agreement.

Various right-wing pundits and commentators have been promoting this coalition idea and sceptics have, probably rightly, said they only want it to weaken Winston Peters' hand in coalition negotiations.

But when you think about it more deeply, the strategy would work equally well for the Labour party and, surprisingly perhaps, most of all for the Greens.

At the moment, Winston Peters holds all the cards:

  • He can extract a high price for supporting National.
  • He can play off Labour against National, to get the best deal for himself as long as Labour can keep the Greens on board in a three-way coalition.
  • In negotiations with Labour he can promote his interests at the Greens' expense, playing down their interests to the point that they are almost, but not quite, ready to walk away.
But if the Greens and National start seriously discussing a coalition deal, the whole dynamic will change:

  • New Zealand First can't get more from National than National is willing to offer the Greens.  This puts Peters in a "dutch auction" position where he has to bid for less than what the Greens would take, to earn National's favour.
  • He can't play off Labour against National as effectively. He has to seriously consider how a three-way coalition with the Greens and Labour will work as a genuine partnership, or see the Greens go with National and shut him out altogether.
  • The Greens will be in a much stronger bargaining position with Labour and New Zealand First, in negotiating to form a centre-left government.
This scenario works surprisingly well for Labour.  If Jacinda Ardern intends to form a stable and credible coalition it needs Greens and NZ First to play nicely with each other, and for both to work well with Labour.  If the Greens are able to walk away from the negotiating table, NZ First has to play nicely or lose.

This works well for National most obviously because it restricts New Zealand First's negotiating position. But it may have a more profound effect on how National operates in government, depending on what Bill English wants, how badly he wants it, and who his friends are in caucus. Because a National-Green coalition deal that would work effectively, would have to also change how this National government operates.  

And that could works for the Greens: maybe they can't change the government altogether, but they can substantially change how this National government operates, and that might be enough.  But they would need to draft a coalition deal with National strong enough to overcome their own membership's anger at the past nine years of National government. 

Game Theory

For the second scenario to work, a coalition deal between Greens and National cannot be a non-credible threat

The idea of a "Credible Threat" comes from a branch of economics called Game Theory, which deals with interdependence in business strategy; situations where the outcome for each participant depends on the choices of all:
Strategic moves. A player can use threats and promises to alter other players’ expectations of his future actions, and thereby induce them to take actions favorable to him or deter them from making moves that harm him. To succeed, the threats and promises must be credible.
In other words, if all the other players in this coalition-building game want to limit NZ First's options and make them play nicely, then a National-Green coalition deal must be a realistic possibility. 

If National and the Greens appear to be bluffing, Winston holds all the cards.  If not, then everybody else is in a stronger position.  So let's imagine what such a National-Green coalition deal might look like.

A Framework Deal

Start by taking the top five ranked members of the Green Party list: James Shaw, Marama Davidson Julie Ann Genter, Eugenie Sage and Gareth Hughes. We will make them all full cabinet members.

Make James Shaw the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Climate Change (replacing Paula Bennett in both those roles), and promise him that National will support the development and enactment of a Zero Carbon Act within 24 months (before the 2020 budget is due, so the Greens can withdraw confidence and supply if the Act is not passed by then).

Make Marama Davidson the Minister of Social Development (Social Welfare) and promise that she can implement the whole of the Greens “Mending the Safety Net” policy in the first and second budgets (2018 and 2019).  She would replace Anne Tolley in that role.

Make Julie Anne Genter the Minister of Transport. Drop the Roads of National Significance policy, bring rail under the control of the NZTA, and allow JAG to redirect transport funding toward the development of a low-carbon transport system.  This is the "low-hanging fruit" for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand; much easier than dealing with agricultural methane emissions. She would replace Simon Bridges in that role.

Make Eugenie Sage Minister for the Environment, replacing Nick Smith. Give her free rein to implement the Greens "Clean water, great farming" policy.

Make Gareth Hughes the Minister of Local Government, because of the overlap with Environment in terms of land use planning rules and implementation, and allow him implement the Greens' proposed "Every House a Home" policy.

At this stage, you've still got Jan Logie and Chloe Swarbrick sitting on the bench, and possibly Golriz Ghahraman too, after special votes have been counted.  

I suspect Jan Logie would be uncomfortable at the Cabinet table in a National government, but could be considered for an Associate Minister role outside of cabinet. Let's her take Social Housing off Alfred Ngaro. Please.

Swarbrick and Ghahraman are new to parliament, but might take up under-secretary roles, in which they can learn the ropes.

In essence the deal has to be strong enough for the Greens to take it back to a Special General Meeting of their party and have it approved by the membership.  That won't work unless the Greens are very confident they will get genuine policy wins on both their social and environmental policies. 

Giving substantial roles to the entire Green caucus, and empowering them to deliver significant policy outcomes that span both environmental and social outcomes might just do it.  Fortunately the Greens have a talented caucus and strong, carefully considered, policy statements to take to the table.


The Greens need to make it a condition of the deal that Bill English remains Prime Minister for the duration of the term, and is not replaced by (say) Judith Collins or Steven Joyce.  

They need to show their membership and people who voted Green that they might not change the government, they will be significantly changing this government 

Taking the top five Green Party list members as full cabinet members would almost certainly require Bill English to do a cabinet reshuffle.  As the Chair of Cabinet he has to make the group work together effectively. 

It would be in his best interests to demote some of the harder right ministers from the Key government and replace them with moderates and "blue/greens" from his caucus. If he wants a framework deal with the Greens to present a credible threat, then he might signal such changes before the close of negotiations.

To make this deal a genuinely credible threat, Bill English and the National Party have to take a significant risk with their own caucus, membership, and voters, acknowledging that the Greens would be taking an enormous risk with theirs.

The Green Party might not actually go into coalition with National. I think it highly unlikely.  But I also think they will be doing a great favour to themselves, to their potential coalition partners, and to New Zealand as a whole, if they seriously explore the possibility with National.  

And it might be best that they start doing that immediately, while Winston Peters is still playing hard to get.

Opportunity Costs

All parties have to consider what could happen if the Greens and National are not prepared to talk about a credible coalition deal. 

Both Labour and National have paid a high price to have Winston Peters in coalition in the past: he has a penchant for taking top jobs for himself. New Zealand First simply doesn't have the same depth of talent as the Greens in the top positions on his party list - they tend to be solid, rather than sparkling.  

And really, hasn't everybody enough of Winston Peters throwing his weight around by playing "kingmaker"?  I certainly have.

Doing Green or Being Green

Hon. Peter Neilson - a man who did things.

I few months ago I met a very nice man by the name of Peter Neilson, who was, for a while, a cabinet minister in the Lange-Douglas Labour government. He told shared his theory that any politician had to make a basic choice, between Doing or Being.

Somebody who was content to merely Be a politician (or a Prime Minister) could expect a long and comfortable parliamentary career.  But somebody who sought to Do something with their parliamentary career would soon make sufficient enemies that they would not last long.

You can think of Hon Fran Walsh introducing homosexual law reform, or Hon. Sue Bradford and the "anti-smacking" law as examples of politicians who did things but didn't last long.  And the Rt. Hon. Sir John Key as one who didn't do all that much, but lasted for three terms.

And so to the Greens.

If you haven't been a member of the Green Party you might not know there is a significant proportion of the party membership that values being green over doing anything green in parliament.

I recall an AGM session some years ago at which the party was presented with the results of an internal poll. This said that about 50% of the members thought the Greens should always be "the conscience of government" rather than striving to be in government.

The poll also showed that about 50% (one suspects roughly the same 50%) thought the party should position itself to "the left of Labour", while the other half thought that it should be "neither left nor right but ahead".

Now this might have changed over the past 5 years or so. And I hope, for New Zealand's sake, that it has.

The Greens have an opportunity, following these election results, to be part of either a Labour-NZ First-Green coalition government or to be part of a National-Green coalition government.  They have an opportunity to actually Do something.

I hope that the party membership has changed, and that many more people have joined who think that being in a political party means more than just expressing your commitment to the green cause and living a green lifestyle.

Because just being Green is not enough. The issues that face New Zealand are urgent and too important to leave in the hands of the establishment parties, who have led us to where we are now.

I want the Greens to get into government, and to do some things that matter. For a change.

The National-Green Coalition Fantasy

I understand why some people want a National-Green coalition government.  But it's pure fantasy.

Various commentators and pundits want the National Party to govern - but without Winston Peters and New Zealand First.  The most recent example, as I write this, is an editorial for  echoing Rachel Smalley in the New Zealand Herald.

They look at the Greens as National's only other possible coalition partner, and put forward reasons why the Greens would benefit from such an arrangement.

But these reasons are unrealistic at the most profound and basic level. For the benefit of pundits and commentators who don't understand this, here's a Politics 101 lecture on the differences between the Greens and National.

First, the Greens:

The Greens' political beliefs are expressed in their charter, which recognises that their are Limits to Growth and that a fair and safe future for humanity will rely on social justice, democratic decision-making and non-violence.

The Limits to Growth thesis is well-known amongst those who pay attention to what's going on in the world.  It predicts that industrial civilisation as we know it will collapse during the course of the 21st century if we don't make some dramatic changes. Soon.

That thesis is based on a systems dynamics model, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1970's, which explains how the human species has overshot the ability of Earth's ecosystem to support our population size and our level of economic development, and what the consequences could be.  Unfortunately, the model is proving accurate so far.

At their very core, the Greens understand the self-destructive trajectory of modern industrial civilisation. They are fearful that human beings, under pressure, are likely to resort to totalitarian government, warfare and/or civil war, and even genocide, in pursuit of survival and self-interest.  And history has too often proven them right.

The Greens want to avoid the worst possible outcomes predicted by the Limits to Growth model, and create a sustainable, democratic and peaceful future. Not just for New Zealand, but for humanity as a whole.

The parts of the Green Party charter that refer to social justice, appropriate decision-making and non-violence are all about avoiding a dystopian future, as people all over the world inevitably struggle to adapt to resource shortages, climate change, and shrinking economic output.

But not everybody gets this, including many members of the Green party itself.  There is a solid faction within the Greens of people who see Social Justice in the Greens charter and think "Socialism!" and support the party to advance the cause of 20th century left-wing politics.

Some of these left the Labour Party to join New Labour in the late 1980's, which then morphed into the Alliance Party. Then, when the Alliance collapsed, they joined the Greens. Some are more recent arrivals.

The take-home lesson here is that the Greens are not merely tree-hugging environmentalists, concerned with saving a few dolphins, who want to enjoy swimming in unpolluted rivers.  They are revolutionaries who see economic system as dangerously dysfunctional and in need of urgent and profound transformation.

Then, National:

The National Party and its members either don't understand the Limits to Growth model, or don't want to.

That's not because they are stupid. Far from it - the National Party membership tends to be well-educated and capable - but they are instinctively cornucopian, and motivated by self-interest.

Some National Party members are environmentalists because they are conservative, or astute business managers: the environment is a treasured heirloom that should be kept in the family, or an asset that needs to be maintained and developed to ensure its future productive capacity.

But others believe fundamentally in their right to freely use the earth's resources - as much as possible and as quickly as possible - to enrich themselves (or all of "us" as New Zealanders).

They are all conservatives, in the sense that the world they inhabit is the world as they have known it, and as they want it to continue in the future.  They support the status quo because the current state of affairs has served them well and they are, or want to be, life's "winners".

For National Party people, politics is about looking after yourselves, your friends, and people of your own kind.  They favour nationalism and the interests of their "tribe".  If people struggle in life, it is most likely because of their own flaws and shortcomings.

Other peoples' problems are their responsibility, not ours - so if New Zealand's contribution to global warming is insignificant compared to the contributions of other nations, we have little or no obligation to support international efforts to reduce it.

A Coalition. Really?

So here's the problem: these two parties are profoundly divided by values, world view and ideology.  

There is only one pathway by which the National Party could entice the Greens into coalition. It would have to be so grimly determined to hang on to power that it would sell its very soul to the Greens: putting the interests of the world and future generations before the interests of themselves, their supporters, their members and the current crop of MPs.

They would have to offer the Greens a bulletproof coalition agreement which delivered some of the transformational social, economic and environmental changes sought by the Greens - along with seats at the Cabinet table for Green party ministers to drive those changes through.

And that is unthinkable. Pure fantasy.  It will never happen.

But if it did happen, it wouldn't look like the picture at the top of this post. It would look like this:

Housing indifference and inequality

New Zealand's housing market represents economic and social mismanagement on a grand scale. Neither of the establishment parties has effective policies to address the problem.
I say "a plague on both your houses".