The Greens' deal with National

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The decision by Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman to stand in the Mt Albert by-election on June 13 is the latest example of the Greens’ attempts to re-position themselves on the political spectrum, given the likelihood of a two term National government. The debate on the centre left will be over whether such actions truly advance the Greens cause if, in addition to any immediate environmental gains, they help to turn that likelihood into a certainty.

That’s why, as Audrey Young recently noted in the NZ Herald, John Key has more bounce in his step in the wake of the Norman decision to stand in Mt Albert – mainly because a high profile candidacy by the Greens will split the centre left vote. Arguably, a more focused centre left campaign would better test the public’s mood après-Budget, towards the Key government in general, and towards its Super City plans for Auckland in particular. Labour hardliners will certainly see it that way.

Norman is probably gambling that he can use the occasion to lift his profile without splitting the vote sufficiently to hand National a surprise victory – though he may also be thinking ‘So what ?’ even if that did happen. Yet besides the actual outcome, by- elections also deliver a verdict that can set the political tone for an entire term of office. A fuzzy result in Mt Albert will make that less likely. Thus, the added spring in Key’s step, and his reasons for gratitude to the Greens.

All along of course, the Greens have been denying the relevance of the old left/right spectrum to their concerns. Certainly, the Clark government’s control freak treatment of them gave the Greens little cause for lingering affection towards Labour. Yet the Greens are walking a mighty fine line here. Flirting with the National government has to deliver for them big time – bigger even than its dalliances with Labour – in order to justify the bouquet it is proferring. Daily, the economic bad news is giving Finance Minister Bill English every excuse ( if he wants one) to downsize any deal that he may have previously struck with the Greens over the Budget allocation for housing insulation.

The scale of those Budget gains will seal whether the Greens’ gamble pays off in the short term. As I said, that pay-off now has to be substantial. Anything much less than the $1 billion package originally sought will look as though the Greens are willing to settle for less under National, than they sought from Labour. They might still get it, who knows? Doubtless, it looks like smart politics to the Greens leadership to be seen as able to snatch some gains for the environment from the right wing camp-fire. Longer term though, those gains could prove to be quite costly.

Lets assume, for arguments sake, that the Greens can decisively retain the ownership of any major gains that the Budget delivers on home insulation. That success won’t necessarily be a given. It was Key, remember, who won the political gains from the final deal on the Greens’ original S59 legislation on violence against children.

Assume though, that Norman and Fitzsimons do win the lion’s share of the credit. The proof this will offer that the Greens can do deals with the Key government will be a double- edged sword. It cannot help but affect their ability to credibly oppose these sometime partners, on other points at issue. Fairly or not, dancing with the devil tends to undermine your reputation for virtue – especially if it took only a box of environmental chocolates to put your head in a whirl.

The Greens will have only themselves to blame if they do muddy their brand. What can look like smart, hard nose politics for other parties can cause lasting damage to a party that has based its identity on a reputation for virtue. Virtue-based parties just can’t afford to fool around. One has only to look across the Tasman at the terrible fate of the Australian Democrats who – in a spirit of realpolitik collaboration with the Howard government – supported a GST tax that the party rank and file opposed, to see what havoc a dose of political horse trading can do to a party that markets itself as being above such things.

Virtue is the strongest card that such parties have in their pack. Despite the genuine merits of the home insulation plan, if its enactment lends wider credibility to a government that is elsewhere gutting the RMA and slashing public services, then the Greens cannot help but catch some of the subsequent fallout. And deservedly so. At the very least, the Greens can hardly criticize the Maori Party in future for collaborating with a centre-right government, if it is now showing its readiness to do likewise. Yes, one can win gains for the niche support base, while still doing lasting damage to one’s image with the wider public. Ironically, the Greens deal with National will succeed only insofar as the government continues to remain popular.

Perhaps though, that is now the extent of the Greens vision – that it will seek a few gains on the side from a National-led government that it sees as ruling in virtual perpetuity, rather than try to devise a more unified strategy with Labour to topple it. If true, that would herald a disappointing position of diminished expectations for the party of virtue, and long term vision.

Are there in fact, all that many ‘blue Green’ votes out there to be won by a Green Party willing to co-operate with the government to score environmental gains? Hardly. The moment the needs of the environment begin to clash with what is seen by the centre right to be economic reality, the vast majority of blue Greens will go home to National. It is only through agreeing to play a secondary role as the government’s Girl Friday on the environment that the Greens can hope to win votes on the centre right.

The harder job – and one that the Greens leadership have shown little appetite for – is to carry the fight to a centre right government during this recession, on social grounds as well as on environmental ones. The latest reason to do so ? Last week, the government quietly shelved its election promise to raise the abatement level for the earnings made by beneficiaries. Instead of fighting on this front, the Greens leadership seem more intent on scoring points bv distancing themselves from Labour while it is down, and by playing footsy with the government. There seems little lasting value – or virtue – in doing so.

Footnote: Did for instance, the imminent prospect of its deal on home insulation have anything to do with the Greens flubbing its vote in the House in early April on the Parole Amendment Bill that was then before the House ? This was the Bill – rammed through the House with unnecessary urgency – that enabled detention to be extended for some offenders, even after the sentence that the original court had imposed had been served. Victoria University law lecturer Claudia Geiringer has given a useful summary of the disturbing civil liberties issues – not to mention the double jeopardy concerns – raised by this legislation, and by the way it was rushed through into law.

Allegedly, the Greens had been told by National that this Bill represented only a technical change. They were apparently not told by their new National contacts that the Attorney-General was about to deliver in the House a critical report on his own government’s Bill. Hastily, the Greens changed their stance, on the floor of the House itself while claiming – as Geiringer reports – that they had been ‘tricked’ into giving their blessing.

Really? Were the Greens that easily bamboozled, and that ignorant of the fact that an Attorney-General’s report on the Bill of Rights implications of the legislation was pending – and that unable to perceive for themselves the double jeopardy implications of the Bill before them? Or were they merely dazzled at the prospect of their imminent home insulation deal with National, and therefore less ready to upset the applecart over a non-core issue – until the necessity for opposition became utterly, bleedingly obvious ? Either way, the incident does not bode well for the budgetary love affair over home insulation, or for the battles that lie ahead over the RMA, and the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Even if the Greens do happen to attack the RMA changes as resolutely as one would expect, will there not now be an element of ‘methinks they protest too much’ about their stance – given that we now know they have their home insulation deal with those very same rogues already in the bag? Once again, John Key can approach the changes over the RMA and the Emissions Trading Scheme with more spring in his step. His fiercest environmental critic will now appear to be, a little bit at least, onside.


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