Analysis: The Green Party enters opposition with a caucus tied for largest in its history. Once all the special votes are counted, it may well set a record.
James Shaw has achieved his promise to lead the party into government and safely out the other side. With three electorates and 14 MPs, its hard to imagine the party worrying about the 5 percent threshold for many elections to come.
That caucus also diverse in just about every way. In gender and ethnicity and sexual orientation, of course. But also in age, in experience, in educational and professional background.
Shaw, Marama Davidson and Julie Anne Genter have all spent time in opposition. They’re also the three MPs in the caucus who have held ministerial portfolios.
Though the party’s other incumbent MPs – Chlöe Swarbrick, Golriz Ghahraman, Teanau Tuiono and Ricardo Menéndez March – don’t have any experience of opposition, they’ve operated as quasi-opposition MPs given the unique terms of the Greens’ governing arrangements with Labour. Both the confidence-and-supply agreement in the first term of the Labour government and the cooperation agreement in the second term allowed non-executive MPs wide latitude to prosecute Green issues.
Then there are the newcomers. On current results, those are seven first-time MPs: freshwater ecologist Lan Pham, longtime climate activist Steve Abel, sustainability consultant Scott Willis, Wellington City Councillor Tamatha Paul, Māori forestry trust executive Hūhana Lyndon, former Auckland councillor and unsuccessful mayoral candidate Efeso Collins, and environmental business owner Darleen Tana.
That’s a heap of experience particularly on the Greens’ pet issues of the environment, climate and community activism. It also bolsters the party’s local government bona fides, which will be an important issue as the new Government seeks to adopt new Three Waters reforms, close the infrastructure deficit and put a lasting climate adaptation framework into place.
Moving into opposition will be a transition for party staff and the co-leaders, who will now have to put down the policy papers and prepare for three years of what is essentially campaigning.
The 2023 platform will serve as the basis for the Greens’ attacks on the new Government, but don’t expect an entirely negative approach. Though the party campaigned against what they called the most right-wing government in New Zealand’s recent history, they’re willing to work with National where they can be constructive. That will require National asking them to the bargaining table rather than the other way around, however.
Shaw told reporters on Wednesday he was open to a memorandum of understanding like that signed between the Greens and John Key’s government in 2009, but didn’t expect to be contacted anytime soon.
“That didn’t get started until about six months after the government had formed. They bedded down, you know, worked out what they were doing, and then there was a conversation,” he said.
“If there’s anything of that kind of arrangement, that’ll be for the future.”
Though it may not end up working formally with National in any way, the Greens to expect to explicitly coordinate with Labour and Te Pāti Māori on some issues. That will be very formal – sitting down in a room and working out a campaign under a united banner on topics where the parties agree.
They aren’t worried this will pose issues around differentiation because they’re still touting their 2023 platform, which is significantly different from Labour’s.
It certainly marks a change from how Labour and the Greens have operated in the past. In many ways, the relationship between the right-wing parties and the left-wing parties has switched in recent years.
In the early years of the Key government, Labour and the Greens weren’t particularly close, bar the coordination around electricity policy before the 2014 election. Act and National, meanwhile, were joined at the hip and happy to collaborate from the government benches.
The signing of the 2016 memorandum of understanding between Andrew Little’s Labour Party and the Greens was a turning point for the two parties’ relationship. They were now united with an aim of changing the government and working together afterwards – which ultimately occurred in 2017.
Since Labour came to power, Act and National have split apart. In the most recent term, they were at best snippy with one another, when they agreed on something. At worst, they were at cross-purposes, though both parties stopped going out of their way to hit the other in the lead-up to the election.
The test for the left will be whether that close working relationship in government can survive the transition to opposition. Though politics feels like a zero-sum game, it isn’t. There are voters who don’t turn out to be motivated, as well as constituents in the middle which Labour can go for. Scrapping solely over the left vote will see Labour and the Greens grow more distant, if it happens.
Nonetheless, the party that Shaw and Davidson now lead is very different from the party that was last in Opposition. Managing a larger caucus will be a challenge, but not an impossible one. David Seymour succeeded in uniting an Act caucus of 10 together in the last term, after swelling from just a caucus of David.
The Greens’ growth is less significant (10 to 14 MPs, on current results), though half of the caucus is new to Parliament. Still, the party’s vision for itself seems more united in the aftermath of the election.
It’s hard to imagine many people would have expected this result (three electorates, 14 MPs) just over a year ago, when Shaw had been kicked out of the leadership by his own members. That, plus the later drama around the erstwhile Elizabeth Kerekere, was considered something of a death knell for the Greens’ hopes of further growth.
Some of the strongest critics of the Greens’ new style are now eating humble pie. Former MP Sue Bradford said in July last year that the party had lost its way under Shaw. Now she thinks the Greens could overtake Labour in numbers, given time – though she still insists entering government after 2020 was a mistake.
Having succeeded in proving its critics wrong over six years in government, the new mission for the new Greens is to succeed in opposition as well.