The Greens have had a big week, but they didn't get all they wanted. Who stopped them? Usual suspects NZ First, or was it Labour?

What a week for the Greens. First, the agreement to take a bill legalising cannabis to a referendum, championed by Green MP Chloe Swarbrick. Then, the announcement of the Zero Carbon Bill by the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Climate Change Minister, Greens co-leader James Shaw.

But was it a good week? The Greens didn't get all they wanted - was it Labour who stopped them?

The Zero Carbon Bill creates an independent Climate Change Commission to oversee progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it accepts the UN target of limiting global warming to 1.5 per cent above pre-industrial levels. Those were always Shaw's goals.


But it makes the commission responsible to the Government of the day, not to parliament. Shaw wanted to give it a strength and standing similar to that of the Reserve Bank, and he's failed in that.

And in a major concession to the agricultural sector, the bill sets lower targets than he would have wanted for methane – the principal emissions from agriculture. Adding insult to injury, turns out the sector is still not happy.

As that starkly reveals, Shaw has not created a consensus-based framework for tackling climate change.

From the start, consensus was the whole idea. Since becoming minister in November 2017, Shaw has laboured valiantly to create a bi-partisan agreement that every successive government will build on and none will undo.

It was always a big ask, but not too big. It's been done before, perhaps most notably with no-fault accident compensation in the 1970s. Not this time.

It's been distressing to listen to the critics' responses. Katie Milne, head of Federated Farmers, wants us to believe farming is already the country's bulwark against climate change. That simply isn't true.

"The thing that we can do most," she told RNZ's Morning Report yesterday, "is that other countries pick up our technologies and do it too."

Really? We all know New Zealand's agriculture is more efficient than most, and yes, many farmers have confronted climate change with commitment and good faith. But Milne's rhetoric allows the rest to hide behind them.

With a consensus deal, she would be standing with Shaw right now, urging all her members to follow the lead of the best among them.

People will vote on a proposal for a legal cannabis market in 2020 with tightly controlled rules including special bars for consumption, special outlets for sales, and strict rules for home-grown cannabis.

As for Bridges, he fell back on the old rhetoric of pitting environmental goals against economic ones, which is precisely the kind of thinking we don't need.

And he inflamed the debate by suggesting the bill's targets would inevitably mean "culling".

It might shock a few townies like Bridges, but dairy cows and beef cattle are killed every year in enormous numbers. If it's necessary, and it's not clear yet if it will be, managing the herd back to a smaller size over time will not lead to carnage in the fields.

Again, if we had consensus, Bridges would be standing with Shaw reinforcing the value to the whole country of a resolute approach to climate change. He would be assuring farmers they will get the help they need to meet the targets.

So why did that consensus fail? Blame the usual suspects, NZ First?

Their rhetoric is all about their being the farmers' friend, which makes them unlikely promoters of a methane target higher than farmers wanted.

Was it National, slyly deciding to stay out of the deal, whatever it proposed? That also seems unlikely: Shaw and National's climate change spokesperson Todd Muller have forged a close working relationship they both say is based on trust.

But in recent weeks the Government stopped talking to National about this, which prompted Shaw to say, "I want to apologise to Mr Muller personally for some of the background process here which has not gone as I would have liked nor, in fact, as I had intended."

Golly. So was it NZ First after all, playing dark and dirty with a Greens initiative because that's what they always do? Or did Labour shaft the consensus?

There's a logic to that. Labour always needs issues that define it as being different from National, and consensus doesn't matter if your opponents are going to accept your reforms later anyway. It worked for marriage equality, Working for Families, our nuclear-free status, not to mention most of the first Labour Government's reforms to pensions, education, housing and healthcare.

But it's a high-stakes game, especially with climate change. We need National saying the right things to farmers, not stoking their resentment.

And we need a clear Labour commitment. This is not about near-incomprehensible technical issues like how to manage emissions trading. The big idea underpinning Shaw's Zero Carbon Bill is that it affects everything.

Climate change is a job for the ministers of primary industries, commerce, trade, tourism, transport, regional development, energy, housing, local government, conservation, the environment and more. All of them have to put emissions targets and other elements of climate change action front and centre in their policies.

To date, sadly, Shaw has been left to do almost all the heavy lifting. Damien O'Connor, the Minister for Primary Industries, has been helpful; Transport Minister Phil Twyford (strongly supported by the Greens' associate minister Julie-Anne Genter) has promoted options with climate change values. But that's about it.

The Greens' star communicator Chloe Swarbrick with party co-leader James Shaw. Photo / Michael Craig
The Greens' star communicator Chloe Swarbrick with party co-leader James Shaw. Photo / Michael Craig

Meanwhile, Chloe

Swarbrick had a near triumph with her own high-stakes game, the cannabis referendum decision.

A bill will be drafted, so we will all know exactly what we're voting on. The coalition partners say they will be bound by the referendum, although who knows what that means. National's Simon Bridges said on Monday that Parliament would have a moral duty to support the outcome of the referendum, but now he says National will wait to see the wording of the bill. That's an odd reversal.

What Swarbrick couldn't get approved was a bill passed by parliament, to be triggered into law by a yes vote in the referendum. NZ First blocked it.

Criticism of that failure has masked Swarbrick's massive achievement even in getting this far – with, you may have noticed, no public support at all from Labour ministers. In the process she's also become her party's best communicator.

Both the cannabis bill and the Zero Carbon Bill, if passed, will be true transformational reforms. Not just a bit more spending here, a bit more compassion there. They'll change the country.

There's not been much else on the Government's programme you can say that about. The Provincial Growth Fund, if used resiliently, will be transformational, but that's not Labour, it's NZ First.

The pivot away from motorways, to more comprehensive road safety and to public transport, will also be transformational, if it gets bedded in. But Julie-Anne Genter has been leading much of that.

It's become fashionable to say the Greens in government are not effective. This week we saw that was nonsense. As Shaw and Swarbrick revealed, despite the compromises, they're almost the only party that has, so far, led any substantial reforms at all.

And wait, there's more. A Just Transition Summit is about to get underway in Taranaki and the province will also become home to a new clean energy research centre. That's practical help to those in the forefront of change, while making the most of our scientific expertise. Both of them are Greens initiatives.