Dialogue: Good start, but Greens still face a rocky road

By TIM BALE*

It's good to be Green. A year after squeaking into Parliament, the party's seven MPs are entitled to celebrate.

Their achievements may look modest, but only if such things are measured solely in terms of Government dollars spent rather than agendas set or support stored up. As the bargaining over the new health legislation showed, the Greens may also be beginning to change the way politics work here.

Any such shift, however, plus the experience of their sister parties elsewhere in the world, makes it difficult to predict which way they will go in the next election.

Let's start with their achievements. First up would have to be co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons' toughening of the Government's electricity reforms through a public watchdog and a cap on unpopular fixed charges. All a useful illustration that Green values and the material interests of ordinary people can be complementary rather than contradictory.

Work on other bread and butter issues - notably Sue Bradford's determination to beef up the Employment Relations Act, helping students claim the community wage and cutting the stand-down period for beneficiaries - met with a less favourable response from the Government.

But it may help the Greens attract some of the natural constituency of the near-defunct Alliance.

The same can be said of agenda-setting work in more "post-materialist" campaigns that have so far failed to attract genuine Government backing, like Nandor Tanczos' work on cannabis decriminalisation and Keith Locke's efforts on international treaties, Indonesia and West Papua.

It might also be true of an emerging campaign, most closely associated with Rod Donald, against the gung-ho globalism reflected in the Government's rush to sign free trade agreements with almost anyone who will have us.

But while the Greens' stance should help them to stand out from Labour and show up the Alliance, the real trick will be to get voters to understand that getting co-signatories to match our labour and environmental standards has as much to do with preserving local jobs as it has with laudable, but predictable, solidarity with the world's poor and oppressed.

Bio-security is another area with considerable potential for the Greens to demonstrate the link between their natural instincts and the material interests of much of the country.

Almost daily discoveries of various noxious nasties add weight to Ian Ewen-Street's argument that environmental policing is vital to the integrity and the future of New Zealand's crucial primary industries.

But sustained support from these primary industries is unlikely, because of the Green's commitment to state-aided organics and their resistance to logging and genetic modification.

Strangely, public debate over genetic engineering seems to have dwindled in recent months. While continuing to tout the royal commission as one of their big achievements, the Greens have gone quiet on the issue that seemed to offer them such traction with middle New Zealand.

This may have something to do with the workload of Sue Kedgley, one MP closely associated with the issue. She has had her work cut out for her recently on the health legislation.

Which brings us to the wider argument and the evidence from abroad. For a year, fearing that MMP might be discredited by even a hint of a return to the pathological wheeling and dealing of 1996-99, the Government and the Greens stuck to policy pledges and promises of support to an extent that would shame most first-past-the-post parliaments. Suddenly, however, they have stumbled into exploring the full potential of proportional representation - a potential realised for a while now by many of Europe's green parties.

In Sweden, the Greens have been helping to support a minority Labour Government since the election of September 1998, in which they took 4.5 per cent of the vote.

As if to illustrate that you don't have to be formally in government to get what you want, they've made good use of a system that allows non-government parties a big role in policy and law-making to notch up a fairly impressive list of achievements: swapping higher taxes on fuel and nuclear-generated energy for tax relief on employee development, getting budgets which include environmental indicators and lifting purchase and road tax on electric vehicles.

In Finland, the Greens have been part of a five-party Government after getting 7 per cent of the vote in elections in March last year, and in Belgium they are in the rainbow coalition of neo-liberals and socialists that formed after the June 1999 elections at which the Greens managed to score an impressive 14 per cent of the vote.

Although tensions are emerging, both countries provide examples of Greens working effectively across the left-right divide.

Just as importantly, opinion polls and local election results seem to show that being in government doesn't necessarily mean that (as seems to have happened in Germany, where the Greens have come close to self-destructing over compromises on eco-taxes, nuclear energy, welfare cuts and foreign policy) you will lose visibility or votes.

In France, as in Germany, there are tensions between realist and fundamentalist Greens to the point where some of the latter are recommending a vote against the budget of the Government in which they share. But the party's high-profile environment minister, Dominique Voynet - one of only seven Greens in a parliament of nearly 600 MPs - is a reminder of the advantages of office over opposition.

She has used threats of resignation to gain control over nuclear safety and limit government concessions on fuel protesters. And it was she who persuaded fellow Europeans to stand firm against American intransigence at the recent climate change conference at the Hague.

A formal share in power isn't everything, especially if New Zealand's policy and law-making become less adversarial. But going into a coalition government after the next election is still an attractive option.

On the other hand, being landed with, say, a purely environmental portfolio in that government, while it may help the Green Party to retain its brand identity, could stymie efforts to widen its concerns and with this, its support.

Without lifting themselves a little clearer from the 5 per cent needed to stay in Parliament - unless of course they can hold Coromandel - that's something the Greens can ill-afford to do.

* Tim Bale lectures in European politics at Victoria University's school of political science.

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