After swallowing dead rats early on in government, the Greens ended 2019 with a palate cleanser in the form of flagship climate legislation. Co-leader James Shaw spoke to Newsroom about the Zero Carbon Act, meeting supporters’ expectations, and his hopes for the 2020 election.

With Jacinda Ardern’s Labour and Winston Peters’ New Zealand First gobbling up publicity, life as the coalition’s third wheel could seem a little dispiriting for the Greens.

Yet Green Party co-leader James Shaw says 2019 has more than met his expectations – due to the work of his caucus, but also a late victory for the party in Parliament.

“Somebody said, ‘Has it been a good year?’, and I said, well it has now – it didn’t feel like it until six weeks ago when we passed the Zero Carbon Act, but all of that grind came through and it was worth it.

“And so in retrospect, it’s actually been a fantastic year, even if it was really tough along the way.”

Some of those tough moments have been provoked by the high expectations of the party’s supporters, and the disappointment when their MPs have been perceived to fall short.

Murmurs of discontent within the Greens’ ranks came to a head on the eve of the party’s annual conference in August, when 2017 candidate and policy co-convenor Jack McDonald very publicly stepped down from his roles citing “the centrist drift of the party’s direction” under Shaw.

Shaw was careful in his response at the time, but is less reticent now.

“There is a small group of people for whom the compromises of government are too great to bear, and Jack was sort of a leading voice of that. But when you compare that to our supporter base broadly…our polling has been rock solid since the election – it’s actually marginally up, and reasonably consistently up for about the last six to nine months.”

It was always going to be tough, he says, for a party that had never been in a position to test its principles and purity against the compromises of government.

Zero Carbon compromise worth the win

That unease over policy concessions for political palatability was most obvious in Shaw’s efforts to pass the Zero Carbon Bill into law, with concerns about the modesty of methane reduction targets and the decision to leave agriculture out of the Emissions Trading Scheme for the foreseeable future.

The Government did not need National’s votes to get the zero carbon legislation across the line – would it have been better to wield power in the interests of the strongest possible law, rather than yield it in the interests of consensus?

Not so, says Shaw, who points to the success of similar legislation in the United Kingdom which passed with bipartisan support a decade ago, and has resulted in emissions reductions of more than 40 percent since.

Having that sense of certainty and continuity around climate policy is vital for businesses and investors funding projects with timelines spanning decades; Shaw mentions a call he received from Fraser Whineray, the chief executive of Mercury Energy, less than a week after the Act passed.

“[Whineray] said that as a result of the bipartisan support, their board decided to double the size of the new wind farm just outside of Palmerston North. They had resource consent for the whole thing, but the board had only said ‘Half the turbines’, then that went through and they said, ‘Great, do the rest, because we know which way this is going now’.”

Like the Paris climate deal, the Zero Carbon Act contains “ratchet-up clauses” to crank up ambition at set intervals, but puts the responsibility for devising the new targets in the hands of the Climate Change Commission – theoretically depoliticising the process for a potential National government.

Shaw has some sympathy with critics, saying he himself isn’t happy with some of the compromises that were required, but argues the benefits of being one of the first countries in the world with the 1.5 degree warming threshold written into legislation is worth it.

Another contentious compromise, albeit one that was put in place before the Greens entered government, was the adoption of Budget Responsibility Rules, along with Labour, before the 2017 election.

The Budget Responsibility Rules have become a punching bag for the Government’s left-wing supporters, but James Shaw says they were a necessary evil to win public trust before the last election. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Sold at the time as a way to show the public the left-wing parties would not spend like drunken sailors, the rules – in particular, the commitment to reduce core Crown debt to 20 percent of GDP within five years – have come to resemble a millstone around the Government’s neck.

The Greens decided to abandon the rules at the next election, while Finance Minister Grant Robertson has tweaked the debt target to a range to provide greater flexibility, but Shaw – who devised the 2017 proposals with Robertson – says they were needed to signal the intentions of a Labour-Green government.

“If you can remember the political circumstances at the time, we were pushing the proverbial uphill vote-wise between us, and the overriding narrative at the time economically was, you know, get rid of debt and all that kind of stuff…

“Having a fiscal strategy across the two parties to be able to assure the public was important – especially because the Greens had never been in government, and there was this whole mythology about us being kind of kooky and dangerous which I think now we’ve managed to disprove.”

Shaw says the rules should be seen as a reflection of the conditions at the time, before the parties knew about a changing economic cycle, steadily dropping interest rates, and – most importantly – the scale of the infrastructure deficit.

“[In] both housing and transport, the pressures were kind of obvious, but both the scale of that…combined with the effective under-investment in hard assets in particular, and health and education and defence, which is really expensive, was pretty astonishing.”

While the party has made it clear it is now against “arbitrary targets” such as the 20 percent debt level, more work has to be done on what to replace them with.

Shaw floats the idea of setting a ceiling rather than a floor for debt levels – not to hit the roof, but to set an upper limit beyond which any further borrowing could prove dangerous.

“Treasury had an estimate out saying about 30 percent is probably, if you move too much above that then if there was an earthquake or GFC that would impact your ability to borrow to deal with it. And the fact that they’ve done that thinking I think is really helpful, but the Green Party doesn’t have a position on that.”

“For the first time ever we’re able to run on our record, and people do forgive us for not being quite as available as we were when we were in opposition.”

It will need a position soon, with the 2020 election less than a year away. The simultaneous cannabis referendum – along with one on euthanasia – provides both potential risks and rewards for the Greens, but Shaw says the party is “not going to sweat that too much” as it focuses on its main campaigning.

“I think we’ll definitely do better than we did at the last election. It wouldn’t surprise me if our vote didn’t lift that much, but frankly, you know, a couple of points delivers us two or three more MPs, and when you’ve got eight, that’s a substantial increase.”

Dashing the hopes of all the (potentially mythical) blue-green coalition enthusiasts out there, Shaw all but rules out a shock switch from Labour to National should it have the power to go either way.

“I’m pretty comfortable with the government I’ve got, and it’s hard to imagine that we would have a better arrangement with National on…climate change, housing, water, biodiversity, waste, I mean, you name it.

“Because we are more aligned with Labour on those things, they let us do more on those things than we would do with National, so I just don’t understand the logic of it at this point in the cycle.”

The Greens may not have to juggle dual negotiations with the two parties, but a number of their MPs will have to balance their ministerial workloads with campaigning – not least Shaw as co-leader.

His fellow co-leader Marama Davidson has been helpful in that regard, he says, handling party work while he focuses on ministerial issues – but in an election year that has to change.

He has already started to work more actively with the party’s campaign committee, with the passing of the Zero Carbon Act and the introduction of emissions trading reform to Parliament removing two pieces of work that had consumed “just a colossal amount of my time and energy over the last two years” – not that the party’s voters would object.

“Green supporters want to see us delivering on what we said, and with the work that I’m doing on climate change, the work that Julie Anne [Genter]’s doing, particularly in transport, that Eugenie [Sage] is doing in conservation and waste, I think for the first time ever we’re able to run on our record, and people do forgive us for not being quite as available as we were when we were in opposition.”

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

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