Politics

Greens learn to oppose again

The Green party has quietly rejoined the ranks of the Opposition in the last four weeks, claiming back questions it had ceded to National. Thomas Coughlan looks at what that means for its position in the Government.

Cabinet responsibility shouldn’t really work in practice. The Prime Minister picks a handful of wily politicians from a chamber of 120 highly-ambitious MPs, and hopes that the title of Minister will entice them to toe a rigid government line. 

Initially, as the probably-apocryphal story goes, Cabinets developed collective responsibility to fight off attacks from powerful aristocrats — and possibly even the King — who were attempting to unravel governments by praying upon their weakest members.

New Zealand’s MMP governments aren’t all that different. MPs and parties spend years, even decades, squabbling while in opposition, leaving a rich paper trail of disagreement behind them and then blithely pretend to be best mates once they’ve got the keys to the Beehive. 

We enjoy it too. There’s plenty of fun to be had watching politicians run out of ways to explain why the blunt mathematics of a coalition government mean a previously dear policy position has been swept under the carpet. 

The Greens have been struggling with this since they negotiated themselves into government a year ago. This has meant some awkward conversations about policies dearly held by their partners, notably the waka-jumping legislation pushed by New Zealand First. 

It places the party in an impossible position. If they go too rogue, they risk destroying the relationships that hold the Government together and wreck any chance of getting their own policies over the finish line; but if they get too cosy and close they risk losing support of the base that sees them as the voice of conscience in a sometimes cynical Parliament. 

 A solution hatched earlier this year involved giving away the party’s allocated oral questions to the National Party. Each party has a set number of oral questions, based on their number of non-minister MPs, that they use to hold the Government to account. 

But governing parties tend to use these questions to ask so-called "patsy" questions, which give ministers a few minutes of TV time to wax lyrical on their achievements, whilst those in the public gallery and the press gallery roll their eyes.

The Greens figured the only honourable thing to do would be to give their questions to a party that would hold the Government to account, namely National — much to the ire of staffers who spent many extra hours scrambling to research answers for the extra questions. 

It also nearly got the Greens off the hook when it came to opposing the Government themselves.

But the deal seems to have quietly vanished this past sitting block. The party surrendered only one of their six allocated questions. The block before, it gave every question to National.

In the last month, James Shaw pressed Defence Minister Ron Mark on whether the Government would keep forces in Iraq and Afghanistan beyond 2019. He asked Mark whether he agreed deployments had “further destabilised the region and made it easier for terror groups to recruit,” and whether the money would be better spent on schools and aid. 

Outside of Parliament the Greens staked out opposing positions too. Gareth Hughes criticised Energy Minister Megan Woods’ plan to give oil companies extra time to decide whether to use their existing permits and Golriz Ghahraman has spoken out on the Government’s unambitious refugee target.

Sources within the party insist it has not changed tack. Using nearly all of its allocated questions was more a matter of the right issues coming up, rather than a deliberate attempt to distinguish itself from the Government. 

It’s not a perfect strategy either. 

While its MPs seem more confident in attacking the Government, there appears to be a tacit acknowledgement that the party will only go so far. We are unlikely to see a sustained string of attacks in the house on a particular issue, as National planned over the Derek Handley and Wally Haumaha sagas. The Greens prefer to have their dissent noted, before moving on. 

Their experiment is a bellwether for our MMP politics. Unlike Labour and National, they were not an established major party prior to MMP and unlike New Zealand First they did not spring up around a single personality. They are a truly MMP party and their survival both in and out of government will prove whether or not it is possible to have a lasting minor-party brand in the MMP era. 

We have an MMP electoral system, but a political mentality that more closely resembles our FPP past. Our MMP governments and their various coalition and supply agreements look more like FPP coalitions than those in an more mature MMP system.

Like the coalition between Britain’s Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in 2010, we like our governments to have a dominant player and a minor party that remembers its subordinate place.

Which is why the machinations of this “pure” MMP Government, as the Prime Minister likes to call it, are so interesting.

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