Green Party ministerial picks might be a good yardstick for the next Government’s ambition. David Williams reports

Opinion: A downpour of predictions has spurted from political pundits on possible Labour-Greens cooperation in the next Government.

Despite Labour being able to rule alone, we’re told there have been “fruitful discussions”.

Former United Future Party leader Peter Dunne, writing in Newsroom, predicts a loose cooperation and consultation agreement is probably in the offing.

There’s also a view that Labour will want to form a coalition, however loose, to ensure they have some potential partners at the next election, when its share of the vote will almost certainly drop.

Former Green MPs Keith Locke and Catherine Delahunty prefer the cross benches, arguing the Greens are best to stay away from power.

Last night, Newshub advanced its earlier story – that a formal coalition deal is off the table – by reporting it’s “likely” Green Party co-leader James Shaw has been offered the climate change portfolio. The story doesn’t mention other Green ministers Eugenie Sage and Julie Anne Genter.

Discussions, fruitful or not, should be concluded by Friday, after which Green Party members will vote on any deal.

If Labour decides to re-appoint some Green ministers but not others, that might give us an insight into how bold the next Government intends to be. I think it would be telling if Shaw was embraced by Labour while Sage was left out in the cold. To me, that would signify a Government that is more likely to play nice, and rely on incremental change, rather than be prepared to make hard decisions, and step on toes, when it comes to climate change.

Deals and ideals

In the last Government, Shaw, with the Climate Change portfolio, was more prominent, and ushered through the Zero Carbon Bill and the creation of the Climate Change Commission. Sage, meanwhile, secured a huge budget boost for the Department of Conservation and promised to shake up the management of Crown pastoral leases in the South Island’s high country, including scrapping tenure review.

Where they differ, perhaps, is Shaw’s willingness to cut a deal – seemingly against Green ideals.

This time last year, Shaw backed an agreement with farm leaders for the agriculture sector to self-manage its methane emissions. As political website Politik put it, Shaw staked his political reputation on it, as he defied his own party’s election manifesto and a recommendation from the Interim Climate Change Commission. (Green groups were upset as they weren’t briefed.)

“I am a strong believer in consensus-based decision-making and the principle of appropriate decision-making,” Shaw said. “In other words, nothing about us without us. We could have forced the sector into a pricing regime that it was completely allergic to. But, ultimately, that would have been unsustainable.”

Sage, as a former Forest & Bird staffer, and Environment Canterbury councillor, knows conservation well – probably as much, if not more, than many of the people reporting to her.

Kevin Hague, the ex-Green MP who heads Forest & Bird, said last week if Labour installed its own conservation minister they would have “10 percent of the experience, knowledge, and skill” of Sage. “So imagine that minister’s next three years if Eugenie Sage is not in the government and is instead critiquing what the government’s doing.”

Veteran West Coast environmentalist Gerry McSweeney, who sits on the New Zealand Conservation Authority, wants Sage to serve another term. However, some community leaders there would prefer a Labour minister, RNZ reports.

Sage has been willing to rock the boat at times – and they’ve felt it on the West Coast. Honourable mentions include whitebait protection and the promise of no new mines on conservation land (which wasn’t kept, considering at least 15 new mines, including many on the West Coast, were approved in the parliamentary term).

In February 2018, months after being installed as Land Information Minister, Sage (with the then-Associate Finance Minister David Clark) blocked the sale of 19 hectares of West Coast land to Australian coalminer Bathurst Resources.

A few months later, Sage and Megan Woods, the Energy and Resources Minister, rejected an application from Rangitira Developments Ltd to mine for coal on West Coast conservation land. (In July, the High Court dismissed Rangitira’s application for a judicial review.)

Last year, Sage rejected OceanaGold’s bid to buy 178 hectares of farmland near Waihi for a new gold mine tailings dam. But a second application was approved by Labour ministers Grant Robertson and David Parker. Former Green MP Catherine Delahunty called that “sabotage”.

While Sage’s record on mining is hardline, on agriculture (as the Green Party spokesperson) she’s well-respected by farmers, according to Shaw.

Where does this leave us?

There’s pressure on this Government to be transformational. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set that expectation herself in the 2017 Speech from the Throne.

Transformation can’t happen, surely, without ministers who know what they’re doing and are willing to push into reasonably uncomfortable territory. To take a principled stand. Some commentators say appointing Green ministers would ensure Labour’s long tail of inexperience (it has 22 new MPs this term, after the provisional election count, and many existing MPs were backbenchers last time) won’t be exposed.

But maybe transformation isn’t the plan anymore. After the election, Ardern said Labour would govern for all New Zealanders – possibly a sign of a more centrist agenda. Some in the Labour camp, who want to keep as much of the political centre as possible at the next election, might see Sage as too troublesome.

As John Armstrong writes for 1News, it’s in Ardern’s interests to convey the impression Labour is sharing power. Offering a few ministerial posts – outside of Cabinet – is merely symbolism, Armstrong says.

It seems unfair to say offering Shaw the climate change portfolio would be just for show. But clearly it doesn’t cost Labour much. Showing Sage the door, however, would speak volumes about our next Government’s potential embrace of pragmatism and incrementalism. These traits could be damaging as the country faces its climate change obligations, through an ambitious Paris Agreement target only 10 years away.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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