John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Greens want serious tilt at power

Green Party co-leaders Metiria Turei and Russel Norman. Photo / Getty Images
Green Party co-leaders Metiria Turei and Russel Norman. Photo / Getty Images

As a delegate speaking at the party's weekend conference aptly put it, the Greens are no longer just seriously radical. They are now radically serious.

The play on words summed up the mood of the annual gathering of close to 200 party members at the Hutt Valley's Silverstream Retreat, a one-time World War II American military hospital turned convention centre.

Indeed, the Greens are now very serious. And about one thing - power.

The conference was the party's first real opportunity to celebrate last year's electoral success in securing a record 14 seats in Parliament.

"Well done us," Roland Sapsford, one of the party's long-serving organisational presidents, declared in his speech farewelling the role.

It was a statement of fact, not one of self-satisfaction. Last year's triumph was a very different story from 2005 when, according to Sapsford, there was "genuine anxiety" within the party about its future after its MPs dropped in number from nine to six at that year's election only to be followed by Rod Donald's untimely death.

Sapsford pointed to the party's subsequent much improved financial health, the high penetration of its electronically delivered releases and newsletters, and how the party had built its "brand' by doing politics differently and thereby building credibility and integrity which was reciprocated by voters trusting the Greens.

However, amid the equally ebullient chit-chat between delegates over gluten-free scones, washed down with camomile tea, was a strong undercurrent.

The Greens have been patient. Very patient. No longer. They want power.

That was plain from a Young Greens-produced video played to the conference which had a number of party activists being asked on camera where they expected the party to be in 20 years'.

Almost without fail, the reply was "in Government". What they were really saying was "we want to be in Government now".

It is still the best part of 2 years until the next general election.

The opinion polls so far are offering only a hint of the possibility of the Greens and Labour having the numbers to form a coalition Government.

However, having watched a procession of small parties crash and burn after going into Government, the Greens are wisely focusing on what precautions need to be taken in advance to avoid making the same mistakes.

A closed-door "fitness to govern" workshop explored such questions as the number of seats the party needed to win to obtain adequate representation around the Cabinet table to ensure the party did not get rolled by Labour on crunch decisions. Likewise the question of which portfolios to seek.

If any party is likely to encounter major difficulties with coalition politics, it is the Greens.

The party hierarchy is acutely aware the pressures and compromises of governing risk driving wedges between Cabinet ministers, MPs outside the Cabinet and the wider membership, for whom sticking to party principles is paramount and who seem to be already clinging to the Greens' charter outlining those principles for protection.

The party leadership is accordingly looking at procedures to ensure the wider party is consulted properly before policy changes are made. Another option on the table is for one of the two co-leaders to stay outside the Cabinet and maintain a strong voice in ensuring the party is not compromised by Cabinet decisions.

Some might see the Greens' positioning themselves for victory this early as somewhat presumptuous.

However, party protocols on restraints on the power of Cabinet ministers, Green or otherwise, have to be hammered out long before they are needed.

Waiting until MPs roll up at Government House to be sworn in as ministers is simply too late.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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