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How the Greens cheat death in 2020

New Green co-leader Marama Davidson will have to compromise and rebuild the party ahead of the 2020 election for it to survive in Government, say Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford. Thomas Coughlan reports.

It’s barely been twenty-four hours since Marama Davidson was elected co-leader of the Green Party, but the “whirlwind experience” of leadership has already begun. The Greens have been down to a single leader for nearly eight months and Davidson has a lot of work to do. 

There’s the question of rebuilding the party fractured by Meteria Turei’s benefits scandal, what do do with the unpopular budget responsibility rules and waka-jumping bill and, most importantly, how to cheat fate and re-enter Parliament at the next election.

No minor party has polled above five percent after a term in Government. Without a safe electorate seat, the Greens will have to fight tooth and nail to become the first exception to this rule if they want to re-enter Parliament in 2020.

it is so important that on a range of issues they challenge Labour and put up solutions and alternatives that will bring them further to the Green kaupapa

Former MP Sue Bradford says this requires a change in strategy. 

“Marama and those who support her must make it clear the Greens want both to be a constructive part of government, but also to constructively challenge it instead of being a handbag to Labour, which seems to be the position at the moment,” she told Newsroom. 

Bradford ran for the co-leadership in 2009. She said the Greens would have to take a stand on certain issues, while also making gains from its ministers who are part of the Government. 

The Green Party have a confidence and supply agreement with Labour which means they must support the Government on certain issues, including those that its ministers have portfolio responsibilities for as well as certain crucial votes, but the party may take an independent position on other legislation. 

“They need to say 'yes we’ve got ministers. We want to be a responsible partner in this Government',” Bradford said. 

“But it is so important that on a range of issues they challenge Labour and put up solutions and alternatives that will bring them further to the Green kaupapa,” she said.

But standing fast on certain issues will not save the Greens from the intractable problems and ugly compromises that are part and parcel of coalition government. 

“Absolutely there will be compromises. Negotiation and compromise is how Parliament and democracy works every single day,” said Bradford. 

But Bradford said Davidson would do well to remember the party would do better by keeping its integrity than sacrificing it to someone’s rules. 

“Sometimes you are trapped, but on some of this I don’t think they are,” she said. 

The Green Party organisation might provide some help to Davidson. The party has a flat structure, to the point where many decisions that would be made by the leadership in other parties are farmed out to the caucus and members to decide.

Former co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons told Newsroom  decisions on policy compromises would be made by the whole caucus, which must itself act on policy created by the wider party.

“Those judgments are actually made by the whole of caucus and caucus is subject to party policy,” she said. “It doesn’t make policy, it interprets policy that the party has made and I know that Marama respects that process deeply”.

“In terms of policy choices to make, I know that will be discussed by the whole of caucus, but where a policy is really clear and strong, caucus can’t go against it,” she said. 

Marama Davidson told Newsroom one of her top priorities in her first six months will be rebuilding internal communications within the party and strengthening the link between the parliamentary party and party members. She believes better communication will help to carry some of the party membership with the difficult decisions made in government. 

“It’s about trying to reach a consensus decision among caucus and also making sure our party membership feel like they’re being brought along by these discussions, regardless of the decision that we might be making,” Davidson said.

“Where we end up compromising on some of the issues, that is tough,” she said.

But she said the membership could feel able to “swallow some of these things” as long as it felt it had been informed and part of the discussion. 

Bradford said Davidson and the Greens needed to admit some of their previous positions were wrong before rebuilding and going forward as a stronger party.

“They’ve become a vacillating wreckage of what was a really strong party,” Bradford said.

“They’re only going to survive if they can pull themselves out of it again, which doesn’t mean sacrificing being in government or sacrificing their integrity but saying, ‘our position is this, we made a mistake,’” she said. 

Waka-jumping

One of those compromises could come in a couple of months, when the so-called waka-jumping bill returns from a select committee for its second reading. The report on the bill is due on July 30. The Bill would force list MPs who leave their parties to step down from Parliament and be replaced by another MP from the party list. New Zealand First wants the legislation, which it believes will enforce party discipline.

But the Green Party is uneasy as it means MPs will be less able to break the party line and raise important issues.

Neither Bradford nor Fitzsimons believe the Green Party is bound to support the legislation, as it was not part of the confidence and supply agreement the party signed with Labour. But the bill does not have the backing of National, which means New Zealand First will rely on Labour and Green votes to see it pass. If the Greens walk, it could be difficult to win New Zealand First votes for their own legislative priorities. 

Davidson said she would have a look at what comes out of the select committee before making a decision. 

“In our caucus together we’ll decide, taking on board the views of the membership as well,” Davidson said.

Davidson might then be placed in the awkward position of having her party membership on one side and the desires of her coalition partners on the other. Davidson said she would be building good communication between the parties of Government, including New Zealand First. 

This position might require all of her political nous to resolve. 

Budget responsibility rules 

Davidson has also said she would not like to renew the budget responsibility rules the Green Party entered into with Labour. 

Bradford believes this is unpopular with the membership and the stance might even find some popularity among Labour MPs.

But the rules are still supported by Labour's leadership. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson told journalists on Monday that even though demands for Government spending were greater than they expected before the election, they would not loosen the budget rules. 

Another key figure in this is Davidson’s co-leader James Shaw, who entered into the rules last year. 

Davidson is seen to represent the left-wing alternative to Shaw’s more business-like wing of the party, but she is keen to play down any differences between them.

“We mostly agree on everything, that’s why we’re in the Green Party,” she said. The issues on which they disagreed were the subject of “robust discussion”. 

The “robust discussion” on the budget responsibility rules could play a transformational role in whether the Greens can shift Labour’s thinking on the rules going into the 2020 election.

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