By Bryce Edwards
You have to feel a bit sorry for the Greens. Because of Labour's electoral weakness they will, once again, find themselves with a very weak post-election hand to negotiate with. And they're in danger of being outmanoeuvred once again in the lead up to post-election coalition negotiations. While there's still a decent chance of a change of government, the new government might not actually involve the Green Party.
Yes, the Labour Party has its Memorandum of Understanding with the Greens, but as everyone knows, it's been explicitly designed to expire at the election - so as to give Labour the maximum flexibility to leave the Greens out of a new government if New Zealand First doesn't want them there. And there's no reason to think that Winston Peters will want the Greens involved. The mostly likely scenario is the Greens will be called upon to provide the necessary votes in Parliament to prop up a Labour-NZ First government.
The Greens won't tell us what they will do
The Greens are now playing the same game as Winston Peters - one where they refuse to give any real insight into how the party will use their votes in Parliament after the election. They simply won't say or commit to any particular type of government. Of course, they speak about their preferences, but are reluctant to be clearer about what a vote for the Greens would mean.
When co-leader James Shaw was asked yesterday to provide further details on how the Greens would deal with post-election coalition negotiations, he refused to divulge any options. Here's what he said: "Frankly I think that there's a lot of scenarios that could play out at this election and we just think everything is hypothetical until you know how many MPs each party has got... I don't think it's particularly helpful to chuck round lots of different scenarios because there are actually lots of different scenarios... Look there's a lot of scenarios I don't want to get into what all of the hypothetical situations are" - see Jenna Lynch's Green MP threatens new election if Labour goes with NZ First.
However, there are a number of options worth discussing in the event that Winston Peters vetoes Green involvement in any possible Labour-led government. Here are the three leading options the Greens will be considering.
Greens option #1: Go nuclear
Green MP Barry Coates has spilt the beans about the fact that the Greens are considering making the threat to pull the plug on a Labour-NZ First government and refusing to provide their votes in Parliament to allow a minority government to govern. He wrote about this in a blog post on the Daily Blog, and added that it could mean forcing another election - see Great Together.
According to Patrick Gower, the revelation from Coates "has shown the Greens are ready to enter a high-stakes game of political chicken with Peters. James Shaw has tried to hose this down but hasn't actually ruled this out - that's because it is pretty much the Greens' only option. The problem is, it doesn't exactly make the Labour-Green-NZ First combination look stable. In fact, Winston Peters is suddenly looking more stable than the Greens" - see: Green Party's 'nuclear' election threat shows fear of Winston.
This is all very extreme, Gower says: "It is an extreme call that demonstrates the extreme fear the Greens have of Winston. It shows us they are panicked by the current rise of Peters. It also shows us that the Greens don't trust New Zealand First. But more importantly, it shows us the Greens don't trust Labour."
According to Gower, "Barry Coates should be congratulated for showing in public what the Greens have been keeping private". But other Greens have been quietly talking about this option, too. And I'm reported in the NBR saying that "One Green MP - not Barry Coates - informed me of this earlier in the year" - see Chris Keall's Coates wasn't talking out of turn, he was revealing Greens' actual strategy: Edwards (paywalled).
I also explain that the Greens didn't want this option to be widely discussed: "The problem for the Greens has always been to keep this option quiet until after the election. They want the option in post-election coalition negotiations but don't want potential Green voters to be aware that the party could well sink the chances of a change of government."
The Greens need to come clean about this option, and give a categorical answer on whether they would ever pull the plug on a Labour-led government if they were left out of it. So far, the party hasn't been willing to do this. James Shaw has stated that "We have no intention of forcing an early election", but that's not the same as ruling out actually doing it.
Would "going nuclear" actually help the Greens anyhow? Chris Trotter thinks not - it would probably lead to a second election in which the Greens would be severely damaged: "Because there can be little doubt that the electorate would punish the Greens mercilessly for landing them with such an unwelcome Christmas present. The voters would reward the Green Party's dog-in-the-manger irresponsibility by hurling it unceremoniously out of Parliament - a place to which it would struggle to return. The Green Party vote would be swallowed-up by Labour" - see: Is Barry Coates Serious? Are the Greens really willing to trigger a second election before Christmas?
Greens option #2: Appeal for more votes in order to counter NZ First
The Greens' ideal scenario is one in which the New Zealand First vote collapses and the Greens shift well ahead of them to maintain their position as the third biggest party. In that situation, Labour might not need Winston Peters, or in any case it would be even more difficult to push the Greens aside.
The Greens seem to have decided to go hard against their rival party, and to use the strategy they think might best damage New Zealand First - challenge their progressive credentials, especially in terms of racism. This is best explained in Yesterday's Dominion Post editorial: "The Greens' attack on Winston Peters' 'racism' has an air of desperation. The Green Party is haunted by the possibility that once again Peters will shut it out of a left-of-centre coalition, just as he did in 2005. So Metiria Turei launches an assault on Peters in the hope that this will boost the Greens' vote and give it more purchase in the post-election negotiations" - see: Greens' attack on Peters gives him another excuse to choose National.
Tim Watkin also explains how this tactic is supposed to improve the Greens' image: "By attacking Winston as racist they show they're up for a fight, even if it makes Labour uncomfortable. They are saying to centre-left voters, while Labour is busy accommodating Peters and tweaking policy to fit alongside his, they're prepared to stand up to the big meanie. They are also saying that they're not naive. Indeed, they can be pragmatic and stand tough. They can attack a party one day and sit down and deal with them a few weeks later" - see: The Greens come out swinging... not just at Winston.
But will it work? The Dominion Post editorial says "it probably won't work, but will rather play into Peters' hands."
The hope that attacking New Zealand First on immigration will reduce their party vote share must be a forlorn one. As Labour and National have learned over the years, it usually pushes their support up in the polls. Any increase in the Green vote under this scenario will actually be largely at Labour's expense.
That won't change the basic electoral maths when it comes to dealing with New Zealand First. The brutal reality is that Winston Peters is almost certain to have much more bargaining power post-election. With Peters likely in his last political term, the chances of him opting for third place in a coalition government pecking order, or sitting it out on the cross benches are remote to say the least. It will be only too easy for National to make a better offer.
Furthermore, throwing around accusations of racism against opponents could mean a stronger focus on examining the Green Party's commitment and ability to deal with racial equality.
There's a story going around about how the Greens are currently filming election ads in Wellington, using their advertising agency, Double Denim. But apparently filming came to an abrupt halt when they realised the crowd of Green supporters that had been gathered was almost entirely white. A call was quickly made to get some Greens from the outside of the whiter central Wellington area, but this was mostly futile due to the problem that Maori and pacific voters in the Hutt Valley and Porirua are not big on the Greens.
Questions about why Pasifika activists apparently fare poorly within the Greens might also gain more currency. AUT media academic Richard Pamatatau has criticised the party for only having Pasifika candidates Teanau Tuiono and Leilani Tamu at 19 and 20 on the party list, saying "It seems the party doesn't have a problem with a New Zealand where Pacific people are left outside the boundaries of power" - see: Is the Green Party out of touch with Pasifika voters? He asks: "What does it take for talented brown people to be recognised by well-meaning but inherently Anglo-centric structures where decisions are made about and on behalf of other people?"
And some of the more emotive messaging of the Greens has also been rejected by leftwing activists. For instance, last week leftwing blogger Giovanni Tiso (@gtiso) tweeted to Metiria Turei: "Could we kindly stop emotionally blackmailing left wing critics of Labour by pleading that people are hurting and need a change of government?" She responded with tweet that Tiso then called "obscene": "I'm going to ask all of us to band together to fight the real enemy - National. And its because of the 15 kids who will die this winter." For more on this, see Steven Cowan's Metiria Turei: Vote for me or children will die!
Greens option #3: The crossbenches
The Greens seem hell-bent on getting Cabinet roles under a Labour-led government. But given that minor parties normally suffer from being involved in coalition governments, shouldn't the Greens relish the chance to avoid the fate of every other minor party that has been punished after taking Cabinet positions?
I argued in a previous column, Have the Greens gone too far, or not far enough? that the Greens would probably be better off and possibly more influential if they stayed out of government and remained on the crossbenches: "that is possibly the answer to the Greens' current dilemma - commit to being on the cross-benches, supporting a Labour-led government, on a case-by-case policy basis. That seems to be a potentially powerful place for minor parties to exist, flourish, and have plenty of influence. The problem for the Green MPs, however, is this way you don't get the Cabinet positions and baubles of office for yourself."
This strategy has also been suggested this week on the No Right Turn blog: "Sure, give Labour - NZ First confidence and supply, but unless they are offering serious policy concessions on areas of core Green interest, and policy vetoes over NZ First racism, give them nothing else. Then use their effective legislative veto to extract concessions piecemeal, and bargain hard over anything not in the Green manifesto" - see: The Greens vs Winston II.
Greens option #4: Negotiate with National
In theory, if the Greens are left out of government by Labour and New Zealand First, they could still negotiate a better deal with National. And, although the Greens have seemingly closed off the option of working with National, they haven't categorically ruled out supporting a National-led government.
This leads rightwing political commentator Matthew Hooton to write in today's NBR that the recent battles with New Zealand First show the Greens are better off - and are in fact moving towards - the possibility of working with National. In his column on the events of this week, Possibility of National-Green coalition grows (paywalled), he argues "Turei's move can only be interpreted as the first move towards the Greens taking a slightly less dogmatic position on whether they would support a Labour-NZ First coalition or National-led government post-election."
Hooton outlines what sort of concessions National would need to give the Greens: "The emissions trading scheme would need to be strengthened and agricultural emissions included. Alternatively, the two parties might agree to tough new carbon and methane taxes to fund company tax cuts. A price on water would be obligatory and National would have to accept much more ambitious goals for clean lakes and rivers and the elimination of pests. Public transport in Auckland would be more rapidly expanded and Singapore-style GPS road changing introduced. On social justice issues, the Greens may push National to put the taxpayers' money where Mr English's mouth has been on social investment. More state houses would need to be built."
He says supporters of both parties might baulk at them working together, but it would be "preferable to the indignity of paying homage to Mr Peters for three miserable years."
And although such an alignment seems rather farfetched, the same was said many years ago about the prospects of the Maori Party working with National. And there are still some voices calling for the Greens to be even more pragmatic. In fact yesterdays' Otago Daily Times editorial said "Turei has seemingly ruled out going into a coalition, or any agreement with National, well before the votes have been cast and counted. That is a mistake" - see: Electoral dysfunction.
This option is surely only a bargaining position, as it would be an extreme high-risk move in reality. The history of such bold political realignments suggests that it would work, but only once, and at great cost. The massive internal Green ructions following a decision to prop up National would likely destroy or severely damage the party before any tangible benefits would be realised. This would actually be the most nuclear of all the options against New Zealand First, but would have a suitably nuclear outcome - Mutually Assured Destruction.
Finally, for an interesting and amusing insight into one of the Green Party's co-leaders, see Steve Braunias' The great political ping-pong tournament: James Shaw's green, but soon picks up the game.