The Green Party is in uncharted waters having signed a cooperation agreement with Labour. While some MPs are enjoying their newfound political freedom, co-leader Marama Davidson is fighting the restraints that come with holding ministerial office.
Having finally got their head around a more formal supply and confidence arrangement with Labour and New Zealand First last term, the Green Party now finds itself in a foreign land of interpreting a cooperation agreement.
In some ways it isn’t just National undergoing a rebuild – the Greens are also starting from scratch with newfound freedoms in Parliament under that agreement.
Those Green MPs spoken to by Newsroom all agreed that this parliamentary term is the “best of both worlds’’.
They also agreed the New Zealand First coalition with Labour last term made life unnecessarily difficult for their own party.
“I don’t think anybody in New Zealand First would mind me saying this, but you could talk to all of them individually and think you’d got a conclusion and then they’d have a caucus meeting and come out with something totally left field,’’ Swarbrick says.
“Nobody could anticipate what happened in that room but there is a greater stability in the process of negotiations these days and it’s more evident how the chips are going to fall when things like member’s bills are drawn,’’ she says.
At a ministerial level, Newsroom understands it was less the leadership of Winston Peters causing havoc in negotiations and more his staff.
Swarbrick says it took most of the last term for the Greens to work out the “political dance” it was playing and just as it was making sense there was an election, and with that came change.
A new kind of leadership
For some in the party, the cooperation arrangement has brought a new sense of freedom while others continue to juggle government and party.
Genter is walking in a new non-ministerial world after the Greens only secured two ministerial positions this term – Shaw and Davidson are ministers outside of Cabinet.
In contrast, Davidson, a well-documented activist used to the frontlines of protest, has switched that freedom for cabinet responsibilities and a place within the government executive.
Davidson doesn’t see it as being restraining though, and hopes she’s paving a new path for ministers by continuing to speak out about the inaction of Government while also being tasked with making change.
She told Newsroom she feels “empowered” as a Minister while continuing to work with the same grassroots organisations.
In Parliament Question Time she used her first ministerial question to declare the Government wasn’t doing enough to fix the housing crisis and that she wasn’t at all satisfied with the status quo.
Swarbrick says the typical ministerial role isn’t a mould Davidson fits and she and her colleagues are enjoying watching their co-leader reshape the job to fit her own shoes.
Genter agrees and says it’s “really important and powerful for someone like Marama’’ to take on a ministerial role in a way that is completely different to career politicians.
“There’s no question her public presence will be different than it was before,’’ she says.
But on the flip side the mana she will bring to her own communities by holding the role will be significant as well.
At the time the cooperation agreement was being negotiated there was a strategic conversation within the Green Party that took place about the allocation of ministerial roles.
It was accepted that if one co-leader was a minister and the other wasn’t, it would risk doing damage to not only the leadership model but the party as a whole.
That resulted in Davidson stepping into a ministerial role and Genter and Eugenie Sage – both ministers in the previous government – returning to the backbench.
Genter says she’s grateful for the privilege of being a minister given how “improbable” it was as an “immigrant to New Zealand’’.
There are things she’d do differently but her experience also aides her in the way she asks questions of ministers in the House and pursues work programmes.
Genter and her fellow backbench colleagues get the bulk of the primary and supplementary questions in Parliament under a new regime.
Last term, the Greens decided they’d truly had enough of patsy questions (those soft ones thrown at ministers on topics already well canvassed) and instead handed them to the National Party to use for the purpose of holding the Government to account.
“That was a bit of an experiment and it definitely didn’t work out. Our members weren’t happy with us giving our questions to the Opposition,’’ Genter says.
“It was probably a little too principled for people to understand.’’
The Greens have reclaimed their questions and supplementaries, now they’re not in a formal supply and confidence arrangement with Labour, and those MPs not in the executive use their allocated questions to elicit information from ministers and push for change.
It’s a refreshing shift – although Labour’s majority means it still gets a raft of questions each sitting day for its own caucus to ask patsies of ministers.
Swarbrick is a big fan of reclaiming the party’s questions, but points to Labour’s increasing use of patsies in other areas as being an unfortunate “creeping’’ development.
In select committees – a place where the public can freely submit to MPs and where legislation is born – Labour MPs who hold a majority at the table are increasingly using their time to make statements and ask patsy questions.
Swarbrick says the 2020 intake of Labour MPs is full of talent, and it’s a “massive wasted opportunity’’ they don’t use their time on select committees in a more constructive way.
The Capital Gains Tax conundrum
One policy area the Greens truly missed a beat on last term was Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s ruling out of a capital gains tax (CGT) not only then, but as long as she was leader.
It was a devastating call for Shaw to receive ahead of the announcement but he also knew how difficult the whole debate had been with New Zealand First.
Shaw told Newsroom Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson were so “caught up negotiating with New Zealand First they couldn’t even run a campaign in support of a CGT, because they spent all their energy working out what ‘it’ was’’.
There were multiple iterations of what it might look like after the tax working group’s report came out, but none ended up getting the tick needed from the coalition partner.
Genter says it’s such “unfortunate timing’’ the debate came up when it did in that particular government construct.
But she also points to Labour’s “oversight’’ in not running a grassroots campaign in favour of a CGT.
“I expected Labour would have been talking to their allies and organising a campaign for it, and I was quite surprised that didn’t happen.
“I didn’t see it as the Green Party’s responsibility to go out and campaign on this and with Labour setting up the working group, I would have thought they would have some plan to support the work publicly, and that didn’t happen,’’ she says.
Genter puts it down to an “underestimation of the importance of a strong public campaign’’.
What resulted was a very loud National Party campaign against a capital gains tax, which dominated the debate.
It’s a lesson the Green Party has learnt, and this term’s cooperation agreement means there is far greater flexibility for campaigns.
The party grew its vote at the 2020 election after being in government – a bucking of the traditional trend for minor parties.
Green MPs told Newsroom the message they’ve received is that supporters want them to be at the decision table.
The overwhelming benefit of this term is having ministerial responsibility in areas important to their voters, like climate change and social housing, but also the ability for MPs outside of the executive tent to fight for much more.
Or in the case of Davidson, a little bit of both.