Green MPs faced up to party members in Palmerston North to talk about the challenges and rewards of being part of the Government, Thomas Coughlan reports.
When James Shaw took to the podium at Palmerston North Boy’s High School this weekend, he addressed a very different conference to the one held a year ago.
The Parliamentary wing of his party is at half-strength, down from 14 MPs to just eight; a year ago it lost a popular leader just weeks out from an election; and for nine months it’s faced the odd, but damaging accusation of party MPs ignoring members.
After suffering their worst election result in over a decade, this could have been a mournful Greens conference — and no doubt parts of it were. There was a closed session called “learning, healing – strengthening,” where many concerns were certainly aired.
But Shaw’s speech wasn’t about licking wounds, instead he told the party that despite the fact it hasn’t had a poorer showing in an election since 2005, it’s never been a better time to be Green — the bloodbath was worth it.
It’s Good to be Green
The party constitution is the most democratic of any party in New Zealand. Its membership, not just its MPs, decided to join Labour and New Zealand First to form the coalition Government.
As a party of Government, the party has had to, in the words of National’s Nick Smith, get used to the taste of dead rats. It has signed-off on the expansion of bottled water exports and committed to voting for the toxic waka-jumping bill.
Shaw’s message to the party was clear: its membership made the right choice, and in 2020 they should make that choice again.
“You gave us the chance — in Government — to realise the dream of a country where our natural heritage and our communities are at the heart of decision-making,” he said.
Reading between the lines, Shaw was pushing the choice to go into Government back onto the membership, reminding them that for all the dead rats, this was and is ultimately their choice.
In or out
It only takes five minutes with a Green MP or member to know a “Teal Deal” with National will never really be on the cards — “I can’t believe that this is still a thing, it blows my mind,” said Shaw when asked.
That leaves the party with the choice of propping up Labour-led Governments and getting its hands dirty, or sitting on the sidelines ideologically pure but painfully without power.
Both Shaw and co-leader Marama Davidson used their AGM speeches to justify the party’s decision to opt for the former, not a return to the latter.
“I think, actually, we’re even stronger in our values now that we’re in Government,” Shaw said.
“Not just because we actually get to deliver on them, but because they’re being tested. Every day.”
The message from today was that the party made the right choice in getting its hands dirty.
Shaw talked of volunteering for the Greens in the 1990s, reminding the crowd that policies the party has campaigned on for decades such as light rail, cycle ways, waste minimisation and climate change have become Government policy.
Did it work?
Shaw sidled off stage to a standing ovation and great loud applause, at which point the media were “invited” to leave the conference for a media silo, adjacent to the auditorium where the main conference got under way.
The rest of the conference was remarkably closed, with media only welcome to attend two sessions on Saturday. One more will be open to media on Sunday.
Some of the party’s well-known rifts were no doubt aired in these closed sessions.
Moments before Shaw spoke, former Green MP Sue Bradford told Newshub Nation she hoped the conference would produce a memorandum barring its caucus from voting for the infamous waka-jumping bill.
Bradford shares her opposition to the bill with former leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, who was present at the conference.
Fitzsimons emerged to tell media her well-known opposition to the waka-jumping ran deeper than the bill itself, alluding to unpopular changes that were being made to the way the party was governed. These changes had not been widely canvassed, she said.
Newsroom understands Fitzsimons was alluding to a change in the way the party draws up and implements policy.
Currently, party membership exerts a great deal of control over caucus. The changes could weaken this, recognising that ministers are bound by their responsibilities to the Crown as well as to the party.
“I’m more disappointed that the party rules were changed to mean that we can now do that legitimately any time we want to. I think that is much more serious,” Fitzsimons said.
“The rules change is not about that bill, it’s a general principal and I’m not quite clear at the moment how much of that is public,” she said.
A bottled water ban
Media were permitted to rejoin the conference after lunch for a speech by Davidson.
Davidson’s co-leadership was meant to allow the Greens to continue its tradition of protest, while being in Government.
As a co-leader who is not also a minister like Shaw, Davidson’s role is seen as giving the more radical wing of the party a voice while Shaw deals with the many compromises of Government.
I am so proud of my role as a non-ministerial co-leader,” Davidson said.
“It is my job to lead our engagement with communities and with our membership – to always be a champion for our kaupapa and the flaxroots of the movement.”
But so far, the most prominent distinction between the two appears to have been over the use of certain unpopular words and today, Davidson used her speech to defend the work of her ministerial colleagues.
She even used her speech to announce what may become Government policy. The Government will now consider whether to include water take in a review of the Overseas Investment Act.
This could open the way for banning overseas companies from purchasing land to bore for water to bottle and export.
The policy will need Labour and New Zealand First support if it is to be implemented, but if successful it would prevent a repeat of one of the party’s most unpopular compromises, Eugenie Sage’s decision to approve the expansion of the Chinese-owned water bottling operation, Otakiri Springs.
But that’s a big if —and as party members learned today, it’s likely to require a lot of compromise with Labour and New Zealand First.
Shaw and Davidson were both quick to say the party was happy where it was.
“We’re nine months into a nine-year Government. I am very happy with the Government that we’ve got and long may it continue,” Shaw said.
But whether Green membership is up for another nine years of compromise is quite a different story.