Reality is biting for the Greens in government. After their memorandum of understanding with Labour expired on election day, they should have played a little more hard to get, writes Peter Dunne.

The first post election conference for a small party acting as a Government support partner is always difficult. While the MPs want to celebrate the policy successes they have secured as part of the support deal, the membership at large inevitably wants to express its dissatisfaction with some of the policy concessions made to secure the deal in the first place.

Principles versus pragmatism is always a difficult line to balance, even more so when the party in question is the Greens.

For years now, the Greens have lectured other Government support partners about their behaviour, and have unctuously reminded everyone that they are the “party of principle” that would never stoop to compromises of the type support partners often have to make. So there is delicious irony in watching the Greens, now in government after many years of being left on the shelf, struggling to reconcile political reality with their much-vaunted principles and sanctimony.

The Greens’ problems began way before the last election – not with the fallout from the Turei incident but with the memorandum of understanding they signed with Labour some time earlier.

The party of principle naively thought it was demonstrating openness and honesty by such a move. In reality it was leg-tying itself in such a way that it was inevitable it would be taken for granted and largely ignored by Labour in any Government formation process, as it was, because Labour (and more acutely New Zealand First) knew the Greens had effectively declared they had nowhere else to go.

In such circumstances, the Greens left themselves with no option but to take whatever crumbs of office were offered. As a result, the post-election jockeying centred on getting New Zealand First on board. With Peters’ long -known, unyielding “winner take all” approach, there should have been no surprise that the Greens would be left peering woefully through the dining room window while Labour and New Zealand First sat down to the feast.

Of course, the Greens will counter, as their leaders did to their conference, that they have made substantial environmental gains – and they have – through their deal, but, unlike New Zealand First’s “cash in hand” approach, they are all commitments for the future, which, no matter how worthy they are, can easily be watered down if circumstances change, or Labour’s environmental enthusiasm wilts. However, were that to happen, the Greens’ subjugation to firstly Labour and more latterly New Zealand First, means it would not be credible for them to then walk away from government, without a terminal loss of mana.

Their high horse of principle has well and truly bolted

Now all this could have been avoided had the Greens been more canny, played a little harder to get, and honoured the wording of their memorandum of understanding with Labour that it expired on election day, leaving them free to at least dally with National, if not finally reach an agreement with them. After all, National and the Greens would have been a majority government, without any need for New Zealand First (or ACT for that matter). National would been so keen for power again to have given them virtually anything they wanted, which would have not only established the Greens as New Zealand’s pivot party, likely to be in government more often than not, but also and equally importantly would have finally rid New Zealand politics of the turbulent priest party.

But, no, the party of principle could not bring itself to do that, so now has to live with the consequences.

Every small party that supports a major party in government pays a political price for doing so, especially if it is seen to have compromised on core principles. Even under First Past the Post, that was the case – Social Credit never recovered from its about-face to support the Clyde Dam legislation in 1982. UnitedFuture suffered for the compromises it made in supporting Labour’s social agenda in 2002-05, and ACT lost ground when its supporters felt it was too soft on the Key/English government’s economic pragmatism.

The Greens’ cave-in on the party-hopping (or ‘waka-jumping’) legislation is perhaps the most dramatic u-turn of all. There is no doubt the ramifications for the party will be deep and long-lasting, both internally and in terms of external perception. No longer will the Greens be able to pitch themselves as the “party of principle”, the one shining light of integrity in an otherwise generally tarnished political environment. The cave-in will strike hard at the party’s activist base, potentially impacting on fundraising and the willingness of members to trudge the streets on its behalf at election time.

It is such a pity, because, individually, the Green Ministers are amongst the most talented and able in the Government, certainly vastly superior to all the New Zealand First offering, and most Labour Ministers as well. But, as Bill English will ruefully testify, competence alone does not win elections.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Greens therefore need to find an issue to stand up to their partners on. However the blind faith they have shown in Labour, before and since the election, makes that virtually impossible. So, the best the Greens can hope for is a more independent approach to the next election. But even that is fraught with difficulty – it would simply allow New Zealand First to present itself as the paragon of stability and reliability, and the Greens as the unpredictable and untrustworthy ones.

While the Greens may have brought themselves a little more time with their moderately successful conference, they have not yet resolved their self-created problem. Their high horse of principle has well and truly bolted, leaving them now having to play politics just like everyone else.

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