The Greens have calculated it is better to be inside Labour’s big tent pushing for change than on the outside looking in, Sam Sachdeva writes

If there was any doubt about where the real power resided in the Labour-Greens “cooperation agreement”, you needed only look at the venue for the signing ceremony.

In 2017, Jacinda Ardern put pen to paper with Winston Peters and James Shaw in Parliament’s Legislative Council Chamber, a neutral venue of sorts reflecting the (relatively) greater parity between Labour and its two smaller partners.

This time around, Shaw and his Greens co-leader Marama Davidson made the trek up to the ninth floor of the Beehive and the Prime Minister’s boardroom – a reminder that after three years in power and securing a parliamentary majority at this year’s election, this is well and truly Ardern’s Government.

Yet despite that commanding performance, offering a limited deal to the Green Party was a no-brainer for Ardern and Labour.

Shut them out, and they risked being pressed from both the left and the right over the next three years, while giving the Greens a ready made pitch to left-wing voters for the 2023 election.

The agreement allows Labour to signal their liberal bona fides while still making it clear who is in charge, and appearing more moderate in comparison – a useful tool if the party is to keep the former National voters who turned red for the first time this year.

The calculus for the Greens was a little more complex, not least because of the requirement that a 75 percent supermajority of delegates sign off on the arrangement.

It is easy to understand why an overwhelming majority of Greens delegates backed the deal, calculating it is better to be pushing Labour leftward inside the tent than yelling fruitlessly outside it.

Any faint hope of total unanimity was probably scuppered by the preliminary result for the cannabis referendum showing the No vote had triumphed, coupled with Ardern’s confirmation she had voted Yes – while declining to make that fact known beforehand.

Fairly or unfairly, there is a sense among some on the left that the Prime Minister chose to put Labour’s electoral prospects above a cause she believed in, with any sense of good faith towards the Greens damaged accordingly.

Then there is the substance of the agreement itself: ministerial roles for Shaw and Davidson, yes, but in fairly constrained areas and with little else besides.

In place of concrete policy commitments, there are “agreed areas” with “common goals” including climate change and child poverty – both areas where the Greens did not always actually agree with Labour’s progress in the last term.

Even with greater ability to agree to disagree, it is easy to see why some on the party’s leftmost flank might fear being handcuffed to Labour’s more conservative instincts in the eyes of the electorate.

After all, the Greens were less effective than New Zealand First at distinguishing themselves from the Government last term, despite possessing a more permissive agreement in that regard.

But despite all that, it is easy to understand why an overwhelming majority of Greens delegates backed the deal, calculating it is better to be pushing Labour leftward inside the tent than yelling fruitlessly outside.

‘Running out of time’

While there is still much more to do on climate change, Shaw did make some meaningful progress last term through the Zero Carbon Act and other measures, while as a ‘mere’ undersecretary for family violence, Jan Logie was arguably the Government’s secret success story.

Now, Shaw will be able to push ahead with his agenda while Davidson will pick up Logie’s work, but with a ministerial warrant and the associated resources to effect change.

In principle, the agreement should provide ample room for the Greens to assert their own identity and make public displays of disagreement with Labour where they deem it necessary – creating a “win-win” as Davidson calls it (although whether the caucus will fully exercise those liberties, or if they even want to, is another matter).

The party’s ability to increase its share of the vote after a term in government shows it can not only survive, but even thrive despite the demands of collective responsibility.

The Greens will have a chance to show their independence soon enough: with Ardern naming the rest of her Cabinet on Monday afternoon and holding the first Cabinet meeting of the new administration on Friday, the relative post-election lull will give way to a second-term government presumably keen to make the most of its mandate.

“We are running out of time,” Davidson said of making progress on climate change and inequality.

We will learn soon enough whether the Greens – and Labour – will make the most of their time in power.

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

Leave a comment