Opinion: The current travails within the Greens are not the first time a minor party has been derailed by the pressures of being a government support party. In 1998, after the break-up of its coalition with National, New Zealand First split into three – the original party, the new Mauri Pacific Party, and a group of independent MPs. Four years later, the Alliance split in two, causing sufficient instability for then Prime Minister Helen Clark to call an early election three to four months before it was due in the forlorn hope it would gain an outright majority for her.

While the specific circumstances of each of these events are different, they have a common starting point. In each case, the tension of being a government support partner and maintaining separate party identity has proved too great. In 1998, New Zealand First MPs felt they were being pushed around excessively by National, with matters coming to a head over the comparatively small issue of the sale of shares in Wellington Airport. The breakpoint for the Alliance was the government’s support of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The crisis the Greens face is because of membership concern that Climate Change Minister James Shaw has been too conciliatory and insufficiently radical on climate change policy.

History sends a clear message that the political consequences are dire for parties behaving this way. At the 1999 election, New Zealand First remained in Parliament only because its leader, Winston Peters, retained the Tauranga seat by a mere 63 votes, allowing him to bring in four MPs on his coattails (a system he now vehemently opposes), and the Alliance was tossed out of Parliament altogether in 2002. There are presumably some wise heads in the Greens who are cognisant of these realities.

These examples highlight the problems government support parties always face. If the record of parties such as New Zealand First, the Alliance, and now the Greens, taking an assertive approach to their government support partner role is not great, it is no better for those that have sought a more co-operative and collaborative role. UnitedFuture (2002-17), ACT (2008-17) and the Māori Party (2008-17) were far more stable and reliable long-term government partners which were eventually voted out of Parliament or reduced to single MP status. ACT’s resurgence since 2017 has occurred only while it has been on the Opposition benches. The same has been true for Te Pati Māori since 2020.

Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s endorsement, and assuming he regains the co-leadership of the Greens through the current process, his days are nevertheless surely numbered

While the Greens need to resolve their current problems as quickly as possible, they are unlikely to suffer long-term political damage, because Labour retains an outright majority in the House. Ironically, although they are a government support partner, the Greens are saved at present because of Labour’s majority, at least until the next election. Whatever the outcome of the leadership contest, there is no threat to the immediate stability of the Government. Nor is there likely to be, with the Prime Minister having made it clear that Shaw will be retained as Climate Change Minister, whatever the Greens may do to him.

But Shaw’s long-term future as Greens co-leader is not so promising. Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s endorsement, and assuming he regains the co-leadership of the Greens through the current process, his days are nevertheless surely numbered. Once political parties air, however discreetly at first, discontent with their leadership, an inevitable process of destabilisation begins, making it virtually impossible for the leader to continue in office. With Shaw’s leadership being contested at last year’s annual conference and again more strongly this year, it is only a matter of time before the gathering trickles of discontent of the past couple of years become too strong for him to resist.

However, whatever happens next, Shaw will remain Climate Change Minister until the next election. That will further infuriate those members of the Greens frustrated by his conciliatory style. Shaw’s announcement he intends to recontest the co-leadership because he still has things to do makes it clear he is not planning to be finished with climate change policy for some time yet.

The term of the current chair of the Climate Change Commission, Rod Carr – who said on his appointment he came out of retirement to take on the role at Shaw’s invitation – expires in 2024. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Shaw, disillusioned by his treatment from the Greens, but unbowed by his commitment to climate change policy, could choose to leave Parliament at the 2023 election and then be appointed the following year – by either a Labour or a new National-led government – to become the next chair of the Climate Change Commission for a five-year term. For Labour, that would be a logical acknowledgement of his service to date; for National, it would be a significant display of bipartisanship, signalling clear continuity in New Zealand’s approach to climate change policy.

While activists within the Greens may view Shaw’s removal as an opportunity to reassert their climate change radicalism, it will not lead to stronger Government climate change policy. Shaw’s leadership within the Government on climate change policy will remain, as the Prime Minister has made clear, despite what the Green Party may think or wish. If National leads the next government, the Greens’ influence on anything will end, and it will be back to the soulless grind of Opposition some in the party seem more comfortable with.

Until now, the Greens had been handling well the role of being a government support partner and retaining their separate identity. They looked likely to grow their support at the next election, contrary to the experience of previous support parties. But the moves against Shaw threaten that. A more radical Greens’ agenda may well excite the party’s activists, but only at the expense of its more mainstream support – a risk Shaw understands and is determined to avoid.

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