"Boy, this party hopping bill is bad for the Greens – it brings them into the realm of dirty, down in the ditch politics. That's not where their brand wants to be. At all." This was the reaction on Twitter of Andrew Geddis to the news that the Greens had done a complete U-turn in favour of Winston Peters' so-called Waka-jumping bill.
Geddis, who specialises in electoral law at the University of Otago, but also comments frequently on party politics, is someone who the Greens might normally listen closely to. He's written extensively about how much of a problem the waka-jumping bill is. Along with plenty of other academics and critics, he has described the legislation as a method that will allow party leaders to expel difficult MPs from Parliament, and generally act to make parliamentarians more conformist. And, supposedly, the Greens agree with him.
In fact, historically, the Green Party has been the party most vehemently opposed the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill. For example, former co-leader Rod Donald famously described it as the most "draconian, obnoxious, anti-democratic, insulting piece of legislation ever inflicted on this parliament." He explained that it was "designed to gag outspoken MPs and crush dissent", and that it represented everything the Greens opposed.
Donald's co-leader at the time, Jeanette Fitzsimons, has recently spoken strongly against the current version of the legislation, saying earlier in the year that "it offended the freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and freedom of association".
Therefore, the Greens' decision to support the bill they have long opposed is a landmark moment in the party's shift from a party of protest and principles, to one of power and pragmatism. And it really is a big deal – because if the Greens had chosen not to vote for the bill, it wouldn't be implemented, as New Zealand First and the Labour don't otherwise have a majority to get it passed into law.
The Greens themselves have repeatedly used the expression "swallowing a dead rat" when attempting to explain the U-turn. This is a slang phrase exclusive to New Zealand politics that describes a decision to take an action that goes against core beliefs or principles in order to obtain another pragmatic goal.
Were the Greens forced to vote for the waka-jumping bill?
There is no credible evidence to suggest the Greens had no choice but to vote for this legislation. Nonetheless, some in the party are attempting to suggest that, although their coalition agreement with Labour doesn't refer to the policy, it essentially has tied the Greens' hands on such issues.
For example, co-leader Marama Davidson has justified the about-turn, saying it was done in order "to uphold the confidence and supply agreement". She admits that the document doesn't specify this, but says it does insist that they act in "good faith with Labour", and this means they need to vote for the bill. Davidson elaborates, saying that the party-hopping bill "is in Labour's coalition agreement with NZ First which requires us to operate in good faith" – see
Newstalk ZB's Barry Soper replies to such claims, saying "That's simply not true. There's no mention of it in the agreement, so her explanation's more of an excuse than reality" – see:
But the total demolition of the Greens' argument that their hands were tied came from a devastating source: "Former Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, who was part of the negotiating team, said earlier this year the agreement did not in fact force the Greens into supporting the bill" – see Henry Cooke's Greens will vote for waka jumping at third reading – but aren't happy about it
Current co-leader James Shaw has also previously indicated there is nothing that binds the party to support the bill, suggesting there was "no guarantee" they would support it and there was definitely a chance that his party would decide not to vote for it. It would simply depend on what MPs and members decided was best.
Furthermore, late last year Shaw wrote a blog post about potential "dead rat" issues, reminding supporters that his MPs won't vote for anything they don't agree with: "Put simply confidence and supply means we will vote for the Government's budget and super important changes to NZ law, votes on the policy wins we achieved, and some technical ones – like the big set piece debate happening next week called the Address in Reply. We also agreed that Green Ministers will be bound by 'collective responsibility', in their portfolios and in areas where there has been full participation in policy development. Basically we won't criticise Government policy that we had a part in making! In other areas, we may agree to disagree" - see: Confidence and Supply = ???
Shaw also said: "We still have the room to retain our identity and disagree with the government when we differ. We can stay true to our values while also having the opportunity to make real change".
These messages are all a long way away from the current official line that there was "no choice". So, what reasons are there for the Greens to do a U-turn which kills off their political integrity?
Capitulating to coalition pressure
The most obvious explanation for the Greens' U-turn is that the party has given into pressure from Labour and New Zealand First. Green MP Eugenie Sage has been fairly upfront that their decision is about keeping their coalition partners happy and retaining stability: "It's legislation that I don't like, but when you're in coalition there are some things you have to do as part of the coalition agreement… It wasn't part of our confidence and supply agreement, but it's important to another coalition party" – see Anna Bracewell-Worrall's Greens turn their back on waka-jumping position in the name of the coalition
Rightwing blogger David Farrar therefore explains that the U-turn is about satisfying Peters: "The Greens are not contractually obliged to vote for this bill. They are choosing to do so because they value keeping Winston happy more than they value their own principles" – see: Greens sell their souls to Winston
TVNZ political columnist John Armstrong also says the "inevitable" Greens' decision was all about keeping the coalition government stable: "If the Greens did not back the party hopping measure, that would have been regarded as a slap in the face for Peters - someone not accustomed to being on the receiving end of swipes of any sort. Furthermore, the last thing the new government wanted was an early test of its stability. That meant somebody had to back down before everyone got their backs up" – see: Greens 'swallowing a dead rat' to vote for waka jumping law no great surprise
Of course, a much more positive take can be made on this strategy. Blogger No Right Turn says it's a capitulation of principle that is worthwhile because it allows other important policy progress to be achieved: "Winston wants this bill, so Labour wants this bill. So if the Greens want this government to keep existing - and to be able to implement policies like banning offshore drilling, banning mining in the conservation estate, and setting a robust target on climate change - they need to vote for it. It's that simple. Whether the policies they get for this compromise are worth it is an exercise for Green voters - but personally, I'll hold my nose and stomach it" – see: The price of change
Horse-trading for other green policies
The best evidence that the Greens have simply "horse-traded" their support for the bill in order to win some other policy trophy actually comes from the MPs themselves. Late last year the party produced an internal strategy paper on the question of whether to vote for the bill. This pointed out that the party was free to vote against it, but that they might be able to win some trade-off by agreeing to vote for it. This strategy paper was, of course, accidentally leaked, which I covered in my earlier political roundup column, Horse trading over waka jumping
John Armstrong still sees this horse-trading as underpinning the Greens' decision. He says that "Peters owes the Greens a favour", and therefore the issue of whether the Greens made the right decision to capitulate is not so important: "The far more relevant question – especially given the fast mounting argy-bargy between New Zealand First and the Greens surrounding the potential ban on new mining operations on the Conservation Estate on the West Coast of the South Island – should now focus on exactly what concessions, if any, the latter party has managed to extract from Peters in return for the help they have given him on the touchy subject of party hopping."
Speculation will therefore continue over exactly what the Greens have negotiated from Labour and New Zealand First in exchange for their votes. For example, former Act MP Heather Roy has blogged, asking: "it is a trade-off, but for what? What deals have been done within the current Green caucus in return for resuscitating this dead rat in the bottom of the waka?" – see: The Price of Principle and Political Prizes
Roy has a few suggestions about what might have been traded within the coalition, and argues that the public should be told: "Has Jan Logie been bought off with her 10 days leave for domestic violence sufferers? Or Julie-Anne Genter with light rail to Auckland airport or equal male/female representation on boards, James Shaw with zero-carbon by 2050? Surely there is a prize for abandoning a previously important principle. Come on 'most transparent government ever' – it's show and tell time."
Finally, Geoff Simmons thinks that the Greens' decline in integrity will come back to bite them, with its "bad karma", and has some theories on why the anti-democratic legislation isn't causing more concern to the public – see: 'Waka jumping' is the wrong name for this junk law. Here's five better options