Green with envy

For the sake of completeness, a post on the finalisation of coalition negotiations by Helen Clark’s Labour Government in New Zealand is in order. Last month’s election saw a National Party resurgence at the expense of the minor parties, all but one of whom (the Maori Party) emerged with substantially fewer seats. This gravely complicated Clark’s task of stitching together a majority, since she faced a disparate assortment of minor parties including several who refused to work with each other. Most expected that Labour would reach an accommodation with the Green Party, so that the strengthened position of the National Party would have had the paradoxical effect of shifting the Government to the left. So there was widespread surprise, much of it unpleasant, when Clark unveiled a deal with right-of-centre parties Winston Peters’ New Zealand First and United Future New Zealand which gave the job of Foreign Minister to Peters – a man sometimes described by his harsher critics as “racist and xenophobic”.

All of which has proved very confusing for Australian observers familiar with the certainties of single-member electorates and majority government. The Poll Bludger’s local rag, The West Australian, managed three errors in 18 words this morning when it reported that this “bizarre deal” was “the only way Ms Clarke (sic) could form a minority government after a poor result in last month’s election”. There is little excuse for such befuddlement over the horse-trading that inevitably follows elections held under proportional representation, which is a major feature of democracy throughout mainland Europe. Charles Richardson had some acute observations on the process in today’s Crikey email:

New Zealand has finally got itself a new government, and it’s already clear to see who are the big losers. The Greens, despite strongly supporting Helen Clark’s Labour Party during the campaign, have been left out in the cold, and now say they will abstain on votes of confidence.

This is a real lesson in power politics. Being too close to Labour was the Greens’ undoing: it meant they could be taken for granted. The other minor parties could threaten to support the National Party, and therefore had to be bought off. But the Greens stuck in the Labour camp until it was too late – until Clark had stitched together enough other deals to no longer need them.

In Germany, remember, the Greens at least contemplated going into coalition with the right (the “Jamaican option” – black, green and yellow), although it didn’t work out that way. In New Zealand, they tried to show responsibility by portraying themselves as a reliable partner for Labour. But reliability isn’t always an advantage in politics.

On the other side, ACT, the NZ libertarian party, has the same problem. They succeeded against the odds in retaining a foothold in parliament, but their influence will be negligible. They were unable to influence the new coalition because they were too close to National to join in the bidding war.

Instead, New Zealand risks becoming an international laughing-stock with the protectionist Winston Peters as foreign minister – but outside the cabinet, and reserving the right to ignore collective responsibility. According to The New Zealand Herald, Greens co-leader Rod Donald “predicted it would be a ‘reactionary’ Government and said many of the demands Labour had accepted from NZ First and United Future were ‘socially, economically or environmentally destructive’.”

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

18 comments on “Green with envy”

  1. I’m not an expert on NZ politics but it would appear to me that Helen Clark has effectively doomed Labour to long term opposition at the conclusion of this term, if she lasts that long. Why would the Greens ever contemplate supporting Labour again having been flicked for a party lead by someone with a fickle nature and a preferable right wing bent.

    If the National Party wins more seats than Labour at the next election then almost certainly there will be a change in government. Winston Peters will simply swap sides again, leaving Labour stranded without the support of the Greens whose number of seats virtually cancel out NZ First’s numbers.

    There is also a possibility that Don Brash could do a Rob Borbidge and form a government mid term. If the Clark & Peters shemozzle ends in tears, as is likely, then Brash could invite Peters and NZ First to join him in minority government with the knowledge that the Greens won’t use their numbers to support Clark on the floor of the house. Helen Clark’s decision appears to be strategically strange in the medium to long term.

    Maybe Clark herself doesn’t care because she is intending to make this parliamentary term her last. It is certainly worth considering.

    Finally I am sure that NZ’s MMP has many advantages. But it has been almost a month since the election and a government has just been formed. It appears messy, unstable, and partially undemocratic with the reservation of seats elected exclusively from the Maori roll.

    Imagine the reaction in Australia if we reserved 3 or 4 House of Reps seats from a national ATSIC roll. I suspect there would be robust debate on the concept. Indeed in the event of a hung parliament it would be, to put it politely, contentious. How would John Howard negotiate with these MP’s if he had to save his government in minority? It would certainly destroy the image of one vote one value, even allowing for the inconsistencies that currently exist.

  2. Sceptic:

    Do you really think the Greens will knock back the chance of government in the future out of spite ? Politics is a dirty game. All is forgiven quickly when power is on the table.

  3. Usual hysteria here. NZF and UF are ideologically between Labor and National, closer socially to National, closer economically to Labor. Peters has long poltical experience and will love (emphasis) being foreign minister, like Downer he will read Departmental advice very forcefully. Maori party quite divided, as shown by their flirtations with National and not a feasible ally.

  4. I disagree that its a bad move long term. Unless Labour really piss the greens off, i think it is unlikly that the Greens would prefer to see a National government. Voting against the government in a no confidence motion (or equivilent essential vote) would achieve just that, a national govenrment.

    I think they have positioned themselves fairly well splitting the minor party vote either side of them.

    Also it could result in driving a wedge between NZF and the nationals, with the naitonals attacking what peters does/says in the Foreign ministry and creating a rift.

  5. I wonder if one side-effect of this could be that the Greens getting what might appear a raw deal out of this might actually strenghthen their support next time, and make the next election a more substantial left-over-right majority, which you’d imagine given how the Greens and the National party are not exactly ideological brethren, might actually work in Labour’s favour.

  6. What the Greens should do is to try and initiate some dialgoue with the National Party and build some political bridges. Admittedly there appears to be overwhelming policy differences, but at least they could start engaging.

    Maybe on some issues, even obscure issues, they can find some common ground that could be the basis for establishing some sort of cordial political relationship with a degree of mutual respect.

    The problem both the Greens and Nationals have is that it is assumed they can’t ever work together. At the moment they can’t. But it doesn’t help either of them that everybody assumes that they hate each other.

    I agree with Norris who intimated that the smell of power is overwhelming. But the Labour party have taken the Greens for suckers. Fair enough, that’s politics. But the Greens need to establish political relationships across the political spectrum so their support can never be assumed in the future.

    Maybe both the Greens and the Nationals could join forces on some issues of mutual interest and be an effective opposition. It’s funny how political pragmatism and self interest can bring together disparate forces.

    I don’t know whether both sides have the political maturity to do this, unlike Labour & NZ first. But both the Greens and National party are frustrated in opposition and maybe it is in both of their interests to at least engage, even if it is to respectfully agree to disagree.

  7. There’s an instructive precedent for the Green Party’s position in NZ with the Greens in Tasmania before they were nobbled by “electoral reform” in 1998. So little did Labor enjoyed its period of government in accord with Bob Brown’s Greens (from 1989-92) that they ended up preferring opposition, and refused to deal with the Greens when they got their hands on the balance of power again in 1995. That led to an all-but-unworkable minority Liberal government propped up by the Greens, followed by the Labor-Liberal electoral reform deal that was bound to happen sooner or later. I would be interested to know if there are any constitutional hurdles to a similar deal between Labour and the National Party in New Zealand – my understanding is that there are not.

    Another precedent to bear in mind is that of Jim Anderton’s Alliance, which suffered repeated splits between those who were willing to compromise with Labour and those who preferred the purity of the impotent.

  8. William raises an interesting point. I can’t understand why the Labour and National parties don’t combine to end the MMP experiment. It’s in their interests to do so to allow either to govern from a position of majority. At least the loser could comfort themselves with the knowledge that their time will eventually come.

    At the moment both sides appear to be in a position of terminal frustration whether they be in government or opposition. (Maybe there is a cynical lesson here for the coalition and the ALP to swap preferences in the Senate).

    I express this view while being ignorant of public acceptance of MMP in NZ. Maybe it is politically unacceptable to change the system. Maybe the populace like the system. It looks like a dog’s breakfast to me but what do I know?

    The dilemma the Greens face is whether they remain pristine but ineffectual, or try to implement some of their policies while conceding their some of their principles as a bargaining chip. Logic tells you that at some point a political party needs to achieve policy delivery if it is going to survive and thrive. Then again compromise may cause their core vote to bleed elsewhere.

    My opinion is that if a political party (such as the Greens) doesn’t engage with other parties then they will never achieve anything and will eventually wither. There may also come a time when policy differences with other parties converge under different leadership. Maybe the Greens should show some initative now to take advantage of an opportunity in the future.

  9. If such a deal was to be done it requires both the major parties to believe they have an equal chance at governing after the next election. Before the last election it looked as if Labour was going to lose, hence they didn’t really want to give the Nationals an easy ride if they weren’t going to be in government.

  10. (Maybe there is a cynical lesson here for the coalition and the ALP to swap preferences in the Senate).

    Not unless they’ve already forgotten 1975.

  11. Darryl,

    Most ministers aren’t in Cabinet. There’s Ministers and Cabinet Ministers.

    The strange thing is that Foreign Minister isn’t in Cabinet as it’s often considered as the #3 or #4 spot after Prime Minister and Treasurer (maybe Health 3rd).


  12. I’m not sure NZ Labour and Nationals could just combine to end MMP.

    Not because there’s any constitutional entrenchment. But politically because it would so clearly be a partisan axe to something that received 85 (yes 8 x 10 + 5) percent support in a binding vote in 1993. (And that after an independent commission of inquiry).

    There’d have to be a groundswell of public antipathy to MMP for them to risk undoing it without a referendum.

  13. Didn’t realise the MMP referendum passed so easily, Graeme. I’m not a fan of the system but can understand the NZ public’s enthusiasm, given that they had previously suffered under the dictatorship of a unitary system with a winner-takes-all unicameral parliament.

  14. It’s important to remember, with the Maori seats, that the proportion of New Zealand which is indigenous is far more than in Australia. The 7 Maori seats are allocated so that they have a similar number of voters as the 62 general seats. In comparison, we’d struggle to find enough indigenous Australians to fill two HoR seats.

  15. Graeme Orr is half right. There were actually two referenda on introducing MMP. The government didn’t want to do it, but a complicated process found them locked into allowing a vote on some sort of change, so they had two referenda a few years apart, with both having to pass for MMP to get up.

    The first referenda voted by a huge margin (can’t remember the percentage but 85% could well be right) to dump the old system, and chose MMP from a list of four options. Personally I think at least one of the other options was much better than MMP, but MMP was dramtically better than the system it replaced.

    There was then another referendum. This time a very expensive scare campaign was run to tell people what a disaster MMP would be. Support dropped from the huge level the previous time to 53% (I think, about that anyway), but it still passed.

    I think Nationals and Labour would be very scared of outright dumping something that passed at two referenda. I don’t know that there would be a problem with some more minor changes – I can certainly think of ways the process could be improved, but it would be hard to argue that reversion to the old system without a referendum was anything other than a slap in the face to the voters.

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