As the Greens get ready for their annual conference, its MPs may be preparing for tough questions from supporters after taking some lumps in recent months. The party may need to fight its corner more often if it is to survive and thrive in government, Sam Sachdeva writes.

The wind was whipping her hair all over the place, but the grin on Eugenie Sage’s face was unmovable.

Ahead of a beach clean-up at Lyall Bay with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week, the Associate Environment Minister announced the Government’s plans to ban single use plastic bags, proclaiming: “The Green Party is in government for days like these.”

One reporter said it was the happiest they had ever seen Sage – little surprise given the unpopular decisions she has had to front in recent months.

The expansion of a Chinese water bottler’s New Zealand operations, signed off in her role as Land Information Minister, caused a backlash from Green supporters.

Last month, Newsroom’s revelation of a mining exploration permit granted inside a Maui dolphin sanctuary caused former Green co-leader Russel Norman to ask of Sage, “What’s the Minister and what’s the Department of Conservation doing?”

Sage has suggested her hands were tied when it came to both decisions, but that hasn’t stopped Green activists from feeling a sense of betrayal.

Little wonder she snapped when questioned about new information on the Nongfu Spring decision this week by Newsroom, delivering a riposte worthy of her coalition colleague Winston Peters: “If you want to sit in this seat, then perhaps you should stand for election.”

She and her fellow Green ministers will find plenty more armchair politicians at the party’s annual conference in Palmerston North this weekend.

Airing of grievances

The party prides itself on its consensus-driven politics, but that means the airing of grievances is as sacrosanct as at Festivus, and there will be gripes aplenty at the AGM.

Of course, the big picture isn’t as bleak as some sniping may suggest.

The Greens were on six percent in the most recent polling, and have MPs within the executive (if not Cabinet) for the first time in their history.

Sage’s plastic bag announcement is a small example of the movement taking place on bigger issues, such as the development of the Zero Carbon Act and increased funds for public transport and conservation.

There is certainly room for improvement, though.

Part of that is getting used to life in government, and balancing ministerial responsibilities with political workloads.

In co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson, the Greens balance a buttoned-down minister with a party firebrand free to speak her mind.

It seems similar to the Maori Party under Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox, a combination which didn’t lead to electoral success (albeit with different factors at play).

Shaw has only been in Parliament since 2014 and Davidson since late 2015, but both have quickly had to deal with a heavy workload.

Avoiding the shadows, finding the spotlight

Then there is the issue every junior coalition partner faces, of significantly distinguishing themselves from the major party without creating instability.

Sage and her colleagues could perhaps take a page out of Peters’ penchant for self-promotion, rather than his knack for taking digs at the media.

When the Greens do get policy wins, it feels like they don’t get the spotlight in the same way New Zealand First does with its billion trees, billion-dollar annual fund for the regions, and proverbial perpetual endowment funds.

That’s in part due to Ardern eating into the Green vote after becoming leader last year, emphasising issues like climate change – “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”.

Of course, caring for the environment is a topic big enough to share – but it does mean announcements like the decision to end oil and gas exploration earlier this year seem attached to Ardern, rather than the Greens.

The Prime Minister is perhaps mindful of that: at the plastic bag announcement, she made a point of acknowledging Sage’s work before anyone else.

A dead rat or two may be palatable, but the Greens must show they can choose their own cuisine when they want to.

It doesn’t always seem apparent, but the Greens do only have a confidence and supply deal with Labour rather than a full coalition agreement, which should allow them to speak their mind more forcefully (notwithstanding “good faith” provisions).

The party has put its foot down on occasion, such as when it decided it couldn’t support the CPTPP trade deal despite the (admittedly modest) changes to the original agreement won by the Government.

However, that was a decision with little downside, given National had already committed to giving Labour the numbers it needed to get the deal through Parliament.

On a more pivotal issue, the party hopping bill which many in the Greens despise, MPs said they were bound to support the legislation (a claim which is disputed); Sage called it “a dead rat we have to swallow”.

A dead rat or two may be palatable, but the Greens must show they can choose their own cuisine when they want to.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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