Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: The strategically smart Greens

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Greens co-leaders Metiria Turei and Russel Norman. Photo / Hagen Hopkins
Greens co-leaders Metiria Turei and Russel Norman. Photo / Hagen Hopkins

The Greens have shown us why they're still amongst the smartest operators in politics.

Their conference in the weekend was highly successful, with the new 'climate change tax switch' positioning the party well for the upcoming election.

By moving just a little bit more towards the centre, and by reinforcing their growing reputation for pragmatism and mainstream credibility, the Greens are well placed to differentiate themselves from a more crowded electorate market to their left.

It's the promised tax cuts for business that really stand out as something new for the Greens. This tax cut policy allows the party to make a pitch for voters in the middle of the political spectrum, or perhaps even to the right. As John Armstrong points out, 'Best of all is that they can go into the election claiming they are the only major party (so far) promising specific tax cuts. Take that, National. The Greens can play your game too' - see: Excitement the mark of a party whose time has come.

Of course, the business tax cuts come as part of a larger climate change tax switch, which has garnered the Greens much media attention.

Armstrong praises the strategic smarts of the new policy: 'In one deft stroke, the policy has the Greens saving the planet, helping the poor, giving big carbon users an incentive to be more efficient, while stimulating investment in more sustainable industries'.

The Greens' climate change U-turn

The Greens are also just as capable of making pragmatic U-turns as any other political party. That's what the party's new policy on climate change amounts to. Their bold new initiative is to abolish the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which is something the Greens have staunchly defended for many years. While others pointed out the problems and shortcomings of the ETS, the Greens continued to give it the 'green tick'. In a brazen U-turn the party are now making strong criticisms of it, and campaigning on replacing it with a carbon tax.

The fact that the Greens are suddenly focused on climate change again is also something of a turnaround. At the last election in 2011, the Greens hardly mentioned this issue, instead prioritising 'jobs, rivers and kids'. This time, it looks like climate change is to be their main campaigning weapon.

The new policy is also notable because of its orientation towards agriculture. The Greens have always been in a quandary about whether or not to exempt agriculture from any climate change emissions scheme. At various times the party has argued both in favour of and against exemptions. Finally, the party has found a way to bridge its contradictions and inconsistencies by giving some farmers an exemption, while providing dairy farmers with only a partial exemption.

Some environmentalists will see this as far too much of a compromise, and one that makes their policy too mild to be effective. After all, nearly half of New Zealand's emissions come from agriculture, and nearly half of those are from dairying. So from this perspective, the Greens are providing farmers with a huge subsidy with the pragmatic argument that they can't afford it - see Radio NZ's Greens exempt sheep, beef farmers. One environmental group has labeled this a 'huge concession'. Additionally, the Greens have strategically decided to provide an exemption for air travel, making the tax less electorally risky.

Widespread support for the Greens' carbon tax switch

There will be fairly strong public support for the carbon tax, especially as it has been smartly designed in the context of a 'tax switch' - something the Greens have clearly market tested - see Andrea Vance's Greens launch climate change policy for details of the results of the UMR polling on the policy.

The most notable support for the Greens' carbon tax switch has come from the rightwing Matthew Hooton and the Taxpayers Union. But they're not the only ones. David Farrar has blogged to say that 'overall the proposed carbon tax does have some merits over the current ETS' - see: The Green's carbon tax. Farrar's biggest worry is that future governments could use the tax as a 'cash cow'.

Economist Matt Nolan says that he broadly agrees with the policy - see: Greens carbon tax. But Nolan does have some questions - especially about what the Greens argue in terms of payments for Kyoto liabilities. He calls for a more robust consideration of the whole issue and what the carbon tax is attempting to achieve, saying that it is not clear that this policy would achieve much.

Rob Salmond approves of the new policy, saying that 'A carbon tax is simpler to administer, and just as fair'. But he does suggest that the Greens' policy might make for a less equal society, especially if it leads to a less progressive tax system and one in which wealthy inner-city residents are further advantaged. Salmond worries that ultimately by going down this path, the Greens 'would drive lower income people into homes further out from the city, forcing them to pay the carbon taxes their higher income compatriots can avoid' - see: Carbon tax?.

The Greens shift to the right

Although it has gone unnoticed, the new Green tax switch policy amounts to a major shift to the right for the Greens as it jettisons the Green policy of making people's first $10,000 tax-free. That is reduced now to just $2000, removing what had been the Green's most progressive policy for dealing with economic inequality.

At the same time, by introducing a new carbon tax, those on lower incomes will be significantly worse off. Not only will the price of dairy products, petrol and power go up, but essentially anything that has to be transported. But as the Greens know well, those on low-incomes don't tend to vote Green, so it is an electorally smart shift for the party.

Martyn Bradbury goes as far as saying that 'It's a genius strategy that is a deep raid into National Party territory'. He argues that this move to the right is due to increased competition on the left: 'the Greens have sensed and responded to the challenge of the Left becoming more crowded and have decided to directly challenge National's Blue Green urban liberal voter block while maintaining their environmental core vote' - see: My apologies to the Greens - why the Carbon Tax is a genius move.

Other commentators at the Green conference noted the more moderate nature of the party. Andrea Vance, like Bradbury, suggests that with the arrival of the Internet Mana Party, 'Where else is there left to look, but the centre?' - see: Once upon a Green party conference. She notes that, more than ever, 'the Green machine is so slick, so corporate'. And in policy terms, too, there's a more moderate approach: 'Parliament's third largest party is so mainstream that yesterday, its keynote announcement was an extension of a recently signalled National party policy'. Furthermore, Vance says, 'It's a family-friendly, centrist package - in line with a raft of policies announced by National and Labour this year. Surprisingly, it's universal, not just targeted at low-income families'.

The climate change tax switch wasn't the only policy announced by the Greens. A much more leftwing policy of extending free doctors' visits to teenagers will also be popular - see Andrea Vance's Free doctor visits for under-18s - Greens.

The Greens have put forward some strong arguments in favour of free doctors' visits, and have challenged the National Government to answer the question 'Why stop at age 13?' But surely the Greens could be asked the same question. Their own logic dictates that the scheme should be extended to all ages.

Finally, for some humour on the Greens' policy announcements, see Fundamentally useless' Greens propose inflation-powered windfarms.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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