Greens go for the big bang

Green Party members were promised their election campaign was going to carve out new ground and give their candidates a point of difference. Yesterday they got it.

That ground is firmly at the most "progressive" left-hand end of the progressive left side of politics.

Co-leader Metiria Turei safely put the Greens beyond the reach of any post-election entanglement with National by announcing a policy to raise all benefits by 20 percent and remove all sanctions and financial penalties that beneficiaries face from WINZ to stay on welfare. The minimum wage would go up to $17.75 an hour in year one and keep rising to more than $21 over time.And a new top personal tax rate of 40 percent for those on $150,000 and over a year.

Bang. The Greens will not be out-bid for the votes of those 360,000 and their families who receive benefits, including the young on student allowances, those out of work, sole parents and those on supported living payments. Nor will it be outbid for votes of those most concerned about inequality and poverty statistics.

For good measure, Turei confessed to having not told social welfare officials that when she was receiving the Domestic Purposes Benefit she had had flatmates who paid towards the rent. 

It was all risky stuff. Relatable, perhaps, for many but equally off-putting to the more righteous segments of the electorate. While the Green audience whooped and hollered and gave Turei at least two standing ovations, you could almost hear the other parties calling for an investigation and for her to pay back whatever money she might have been 'overpaid'.

Go on, prosecute me, she seemed to be saying.  

There were indications from early on at the Green conference that the party would not be settling for incremental positions on policies. Sarah Helm, the campaign's organiser, opened the public part of the Greens' meeting by declaring this election needed that something extra.

The conference has placed the Greens on the risky side of radical. Probably just where they want to be.

Citing the campaign successes of Bernie Sanders in the US Democratic primaries and the Dutch Green Party, she said the party knew it wouldn't grow the Green vote and change the government if it didn't have "a more ambitious policy platform than ever before."

"To make the Greens a part of the next progressive government we ned to run the best campaign this party has ever waged."

Turei's co-leader James Shaw pushed the Greens' other big button, climate change, on Saturday with a commitment to a Green Infrastructure Fund involving up to $400m of public money over four years, plus private backing. He specified where the government spend would come from - by raising energy royalties.

Turei's welfare speech on day two did not set out how the Greens would fund what would be an enormous bill to raise the total benefits bill by one fifth at a stroke. Supporting documents said the cost of "fixing benefits and Working for Families" would be $1.4 billion and the increased top tax rate would provide $163.4 million, with $35m more saved from not policing benefit sanctions. The gap of about $1.2 billion a year was not explained in the paperwork, but the Greens say National is forecasting annual surpluses higher than that figure.

"We will not be a government that uses poverty as a weapon against our own poeple," she said. "No working person will struggle to pay the rent. No beneficary will live below the poverty line."

It is a bold call and a difficult promise to make, even with a big spend and removing sanctions. "These kids will wake up in a bed not the backseat of a car, they'll go to school with bellies full of breakfast and a lunchbox full of lunch, they will spend their weekends playing sports not in hospital with bronchitis. That's what we'll do."

It will be attacked for being utopian, unachievable and unaffordable. Yet for the Greens it stakes out a place on the political spectrum that they want to occupy.

Turei's policy announcement was distinctly more fervently and loudly welcomed than even the climate change policy the day before. 

The audience of about 200 saved their biggest cheers for the removal of sanctions and obligations which Turei said treated beneficiaries as criminals and second-class citizens.

"That includes the sexist punitive section 70A which cuts women's benefits if they can't or won't name the father of their child.....and it includes the intrusive interrogation of a sole parent who is just trying to find a life partner - someone to love."

Political reaction was predictable. National's campaign manager Steven Joyce focused as much on the proposals to remove obligations on beneficiaries as the cost, saying the changes would send welfare dependency backwards by many years, removing the incentives to get off benefits and back to work. 

Sarah Helm had told the party members the campaign had been worked on for two years.  The conference has placed the Greens on the risky side of radical. Probably just where they want to be.

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