Campaigning in poetry and governing in prose
James Shaw has told his followers "not to sweat the small stuff" ... Thomas Coughlan translates that as meaning compromises may be coming.
It’s the first time since 1999 that a Green Party leader has delivered their annual State of the Planet speech from a position of government. Before, leaders would hold up successes made in select committees, members bills, and campaigns, whilst battering the government for its blinkered views and narrow direction. Yesterday was different.
To a full lecture theatre at Victoria University, leader James Shaw trod a careful political line, praising the achievements of his MPs, outlining the party’s ambitious goals whilst subtly distancing them from the other two parties of Government.
Shaw laid blame for the state of the planet, the dereliction of the environment and rising inequality at the feet of the current economic system and said the Greens’ time in government would be dedicated to bringing about "the great transition" to a new, sustainable economics — a lofty goal.
When it came to points of practicality the speech was more down to earth, though not unambitious. Shaw signalled the Greens would try to amend the Public Finance Act to include child poverty reduction targets and to change what data is gathered on our economy to better measure its social and environmental impact.
He repeated his promise to introduce a Zero Carbon Act and highlighted his fellow ministers’ efforts: Eugenie Sage’s review of the Waste Minimisation Act, which will attempt to reduce waste by tackling it at source: product design; and Julie Anne Genter’s efforts on transport and gender: improving the way cities are designed and closing gender pay gap.
Ambitious targets, but many have tried and failed (with far more than eight MPs) to reduce waste, improve public transport and close the gender pay gap.
They will also need the support of their fellow governing parties, which Shaw made reference to. Potentially risking the wrath of the party’s large, loud and proud activist base, he gestured towards the idea that being in coalition will mean the party compromising on certain dearly-held views.
He told the faithful to “focus unrelentingly on the big things that put [the] architecture [of the new economics] in place” and “not to sweat the small stuff”, which could possibly be a cue to Green Party faithful that compromises may be in the pipeline.
Labour and New Zealand First are used to campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. The Greens have rarely, if ever, had to change gears in the same way. Shaw’s speech was a gentle reminder to the party that they may have to.
“There are lots of very worthy but small issues that could easily distract us from the already Herculean task in front of us.”
“…we will need to learn the give-and-take of coalition government more than ever before, but also model to our coalition partners the benefits of collaboration… we need them to do the things we want to do, at the very least because their Ministers are responsible for pulling the levers that need to be pulled in order to make this work."
Enthusiastic party faithful didn’t chafe at this and, as yet, they have little reason to. Yesterday’s elephant in the room, Labour and New Zealand First’s decision to go ahead on the CPTPP without the Greens’ support, has shown the three parties of Government disagree cordially, walking the fine line between moving the government forward and preserving their independent identities.
The Greens, however, got lucky there. National’s support means their votes are unnecessary. Whether things are quite as cordial when eight Green votes are essential to legislation passing or not — and whether Shaw will be willing to sell an unpopular compromise to his party in the interest of furthering these ‘Hurculean tasks’ — remains to be seen.
Indeed, though the Greens may have some success within their portfolios, bringing about the widespread change they seek will be more difficult than Shaw suggests.
The party seeks to capture the current anger with the economic system. Introducing Shaw, new MP Chlöe Swarbrick spoke rousingly of the discontent of a generation that had watched the ‘wheels fall off neoliberalism’. Shaw took up this refrain, quoting Winston Peters’ campaign launch: “this is the end for neoliberalism”. He might even have mentioned that the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern herself, attacked the doctrine in an interview with Guyon Espiner. Asked if she agreed neoliberalism had failed, she simply said, “Yes”.
Shaw even gave some detail on what this post-neoliberal economics might look like. He name-checked popular Cambridge economist Kate Raworth as the source of his model. Her ‘doughnut economics’ envisages an economy that operates within the confines of two concentric circles: the first is the social foundation of society — equity, food and health, which the economic system must not erode; the outer circle is the environmental ceiling, which the system must not exceed.
Yet Wednesday’s announcement that both parties would swing their support behind the new TPP (the CPTPP) suggests, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated and Shaw may find his partners in government less enthusiastic supporters of his new economics than he hoped.
Labour and New Zealand First are used to campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. The Greens have rarely, if ever, had to change gears in the same way. Shaw’s speech was a gentle reminder to the party that they may have to. It certainly offered a broad and ambitious view of what might lie ahead, but gestured that small victories and difficult compromises will mark the way there.