Opinion: The Greens will be breathing a sigh of relief that it has emerged relatively unscathed from the political upheaval of recent weeks. Although it has lost an MP, it is by all accounts not unhappy about that. It has certainly not affected its public standing to any great extent. On a rolling average of the opinion polls, the Greens’ support remains static at 9 percent, enough for about 12 MPs in the next Parliament.
At the same time, the Greens’ value to Labour has solidified. With Labour looking set to lose at least 20 seats at the election, and its current outright majority, it will need a strong showing from the Greens to have any chance of leading the next government. Unlike 2017, New Zealand First, even if it makes it back to Parliament, will not be there to queer the Greens’ pitch, meaning that for the first time a formal coalition between Labour and the Greens, supported, if necessary, by Te Pāti Māori on confidence and supply, is a real possibility.
Current polls and Te Pāti Māori’s proclamation that it will be the post-election kingmaker have focused a lot of attention its way in recent days. Commentators have noted Te Pāti Māori’s more radical policies – such as taking GST off food; introducing capital gains and wealth taxes; and withdrawing from the Five Eyes security agreement – and speculated how these could sit alongside the policies of either of the major parties in a governing arrangement.
Already, and unsurprisingly, National leader Christopher Luxon has ruled out any post-election arrangement with Te Pāti Māori, saying the gulf between the two parties was simply too great. For his part, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has issued a none-too-veiled warning to Te Pāti Māori to be careful about their bottom lines “or they could find themselves simply not able to be part of any governing arrangement at all”.
While Hipkins’ comment was framed in terms of a warning to “smaller parties”, it was clearly aimed at Te Pāti Māori and was designed to dampen speculation that Labour might be about to give away too much in the interests of remaining in power. Having been ruled out by National, Te Pāti Māori’s only route to power now lies via Labour, and Hipkins was seeking early to establish the upper hand in any such relationship.
Hipkins must convince wavering voters that a Labour/Greens coalition government, potentially supported on confidence and supply by Te Pāti Māori, will have his clear stamp on it, and not be dragged to the extremes
All this makes the Greens, already tempered by years of backing Labour on confidence and supply, look like good and reliable potential partners for Labour, unlikely to be as difficult to work with as Te Pāti Māori might prove to be. After nearly two decades of waiting patiently on the sidelines, it looks as though the Greens are at last being anointed as Labour’s preferred partner.
Although these moves may have put a damper on Te Pāti Māori’s recent rise (it will be interesting to watch the next few opinion polls in this regard) they have not significantly changed the overall situation.
Many of the policies Hipkins took aim at in his warning to Te Pāti Māori are also shared by the Greens. Both parties are calling for the introduction of capital gains and wealth taxes; matters Labour continues to fudge. An early announcement by Labour of a tax policy incorporating a capital gains tax and wealth taxes may alleviate the uncertainty. However, that would run the considerable risk of turning off middle-ground Labour voters, the way David Cunliffe’s promise to bring in a capital gains tax did in the disastrous 2014 campaign. Yet, if Labour continues to vacillate, it will leave more ground for the Greens and Te Pati Māori to promote such policies, leaving Labour open to the accusation it will have to acquiesce after the election to have any chance of remaining in power.
Tax policy is not the only area where Labour’s unwillingness to show its hand and the strongly held positions of the Greens and Te Pāti Māori give rise to potential confusion. In defence and foreign policy, Te Pāti Māori says withdrawal from the Five Eyes intelligence arrangement is a bottom line. That prompted an angry response from Defence and Intelligence Minister Andrew Little that this would “threaten national security and global missions”. Yet for nearly two decades the Green Party has been calling for New Zealand to withdraw from the Five Eyes arrangement, without incurring similar wrath from Labour politicians.
Little’s comments came close to answering the question Hipkins is so far avoiding. Labour is not about to walk away from Five Eyes, no matter what its potential partners might want. Similarly, the Greens and Te Pati Māori oppose the Aukus Defence Pact and any New Zealand involvement. Labour, however, is more cautious, noting that though it will not compromise our anti-nuclear policy, it is not ruling out some form of relationship at a more technical level. Labour will be wanting to keep its options open, for the time being at least, no matter what its potential partners may think.
Hipkins’ strategy seems to be to paint Te Pāti Māori negatively and to distance Labour from its more controversial policies. He is seeking to reassure moderate Labour voters that under his leadership Labour is not about to go as far as Te Pāti Māori would like, and that Te Pāti Māori will need to accept that to be part of a governing arrangement.
This leaves the unresolved problem of the Greens, who are much more integral to Labour’s election hopes, but calling for many of the same policies as Te Pāti Māori. Hipkins must convince wavering voters that a Labour/Greens coalition government, potentially supported on confidence and supply by Te Pāti Māori, will have his clear stamp on it, and not be dragged to the extremes. A strained Labour/Greens coalition, built on awkward compromises while struggling to keep Te Pāti Māori on side, really would be Luxon’s “coalition of chaos”.