Clickbait policy seals Greens’ fate as a non-starter

The Greens’ tax and welfare package released last weekend is a bold statement designed more to keep the Greens’ party vote above 5 percent, than to ever be implemented. But will it backfire on them? asks Peter Dunne.

Without the luxury or likelihood of an electorate seat the Greens understand fully that unless they can get above the 5 percent party vote threshold they will be out of Parliament in a few months. They also know that historically they consistently do better in opinion polls than in actual elections, and that their current ratings of between 4 percent and 6 percent in recent polls are too perilously close to the threshold for them to be confident of survival.

Hence the need to be bold both to lock-in those existing Green voters frustrated that the party, having finally achieved a role in government, has not lived up to all their hopes and dreams, and to attract wavering Labour voters disappointed that their own party has led a Government that has been anything but the government of transformation the Prime Minister promised.

However, in producing such a bold, essentially clickbait, package the Greens have also sealed its fate as a non-starter. While it sounds good to say that the more universalist welfare policy they want to introduce would be funded by a “modest” 1 percent asset tax on the wealthiest 6 percent of the population, the reality is that would have a much deeper impact than that so glibly stated by the Greens.

For a start, not all that top 6 percent are millionaires as the Greens imply. According to an international survey by Credit Suisse published at the end of last year, just over 4 percent of New Zealanders are worth more than $1 million.

Moreover, according to documents released alongside the 2020 Budget, the top 5 percent of taxpayers are those earning over $125,000 a year.

There would be many in that group, with many earning just below that amount but aspiring for more, who would be surprised to learn that they are among the highest earning New Zealanders. That means the Greens’ policy would likely affect many more people than has been suggested so far.

Besides, the top 5 percent of taxpayers already contribute 31 percent of the tax take – just over $11 billion per annum. The Greens say their proposed “modest” 1 percent wealth tax will raise $8 billion. That would increase the taxes paid levied on the top 5 percent of taxpayers by around 73 percent, or $785, yes $785, per person, per week.

No wonder the Prime Minister has been less than enthusiastic about her confidence and supply partner’s plans. She will be well aware that in today’s more fluid political environment some, certainly in no way all or even a majority, of those top taxpayers will be Labour supporters, not likely to be attracted to such a policy from a government support partner, and worried lest their own party decide to adopt aspects of it as its own.

Her eye will be fixed firmly on keeping them, as well as her other voters, in her tent, and not risking anything that might drive them away. Having ruled out last year any extension of capital gains tax for as long as she is Prime Minister she cannot now afford to be implicated in any form of capital gains or wealth tax by stealth policy by any of her government partners. Hence her rapid run for the door on this issue.

In that regard, there was somewhat of an “own goal” aspect in the Greens’ announcement. For all the current Parliamentary term, the Greens have been in the shadow of the Government’s formal coalition partner, New Zealand First. Initiatives that matter to the Greens have been consistently stymied or blocked by New Zealand First and relations between them are increasingly tense and brittle. The signs are clear that these will develop into full-scale open antagonism before the election, as each strives for relevance in the voters’ minds.

New Zealand First’s response thus far has been to increasingly portray itself as the responsible handbrake on what it has regarded as the more outlandish Labour/Green proposals, notably the capital gains tax.

Both the Greens and New Zealand First have been jockeying for Labour’s primary affection as preferred partner after 2020. Until now, the Greens have been winning that tussle, as New Zealand First’s support has slumped to less than 2 percent. With Labour on the rise, the prospect of a straight Labour/Greens coalition after the coming election, something the Greens have always been wanting, was rising.

Hence policies advanced by the Greens are now being looked at more critically than might otherwise be the case.

New Zealand First’s response thus far has been to increasingly portray itself as the responsible handbrake on what it has regarded as the more outlandish Labour/Green proposals, notably the capital gains tax.

While this has not helped staunch their bleeding to date, it is significant that Winston Peters’ immediate reaction to the Greens’ tax and welfare package was to deride it as simply “nuts.”

More subtly his message was that voters need New Zealand First back in Parliament and in government to keep the Greens under control.

Having suffered so much from this in the past three years, one would have thought the Greens would have been far more savvy than to gift New Zealand First such a further opportunity at this late stage of the electoral cycle. They are clearly more worried about their credibility with their own support base, and the need to shore that up than they have acknowledged to date.

But the most puzzling aspect of this package is that it further dilutes the Greens’ key brand. Unlike any other party, the Greens have a brand that is distinctly their own that resonates increasingly with many sectors of the community. As the evidence about the adverse environmental, social and economic effects of climate change mounts in New Zealand and around the world, and the time frame for effective action to prevent the planet from irreparable damage, and to save future generations draws ever shorter, the political opportunities for an “overtly environmentalist” Green Party to push for decisive action mount exponentially. Yet the more obvious that becomes, the more our Greens seem focused on pushing other issues to make their mark.

That creates its own difficulties. As the mounting pressure within just about every other party has shown, there is a rising constituency of New Zealanders concerned that we are not doing enough as a nation, or as part of the international community to address the myriad range of issues associated with climate change.

The Greens already have established credibility on this front and are acknowledged by many for the leadership role they have played to date. But many people are wary of ever voting for the Greens because of the whole range of unrelated far more radical social and economic policies they fear they would be endorsing in the process.

With the so-called blue-green alternative party, Sustainable New Zealand, having so far established no distinct profile, so they will not be a threat at the election time, the Greens seem to have decided that they can do without the support of more moderate and centrist environmentally aware and concerned voters.

It is a bold strategy – as the tax and welfare policy exemplifies. It may well secure the party’s core support for now but will assuredly not grow it. More perversely, it may at last give New Zealand First the point of relevance it is now so desperately seeking – the absolute last thing the Greens should want.  How anyone in the Green hierarchy could seriously believe that would be a winner is perhaps the most baffling point of all.

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