“A LEAP OF FAITH”, that’s what Greens co-leader Marama Davidson is said to have scribbled on her note-pad. She’s quite right. Entering into negotiations with a Labour Party that doesn’t need you is, indeed, a leap of faith. Davidson and her co-leader, James Shaw, are betting everything on Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues being serious about “rebuilding better” in the wake of Covid. They are hoping that by aligning their party with Labour’s efforts, the progressive alliance required to secure a third term for the centre-left will be ready, three years from now, to advance the Green agenda much further and faster.
It’s called “taking the long view”, and Davidson and Shaw should be applauded for demonstrating such an impressive degree of political maturity. How much easier it would have been to recommend taking up residence on the cross-benches to the Green Party membership. Not only would moving into Opposition absolve the Greens of all responsibility for making this government work, but it would also allow them to declaim without restraint from what they believed to be the moral high ground.
But, it would not be the moral high ground. That title belongs to the place where people with very different ideas and priorities nevertheless agree to make a positive and co-ordinated effort to advance their common objectives. These people are committed to making as much progress as possible in a political environment consistently hostile to making any progress at all. The moral high ground is not the place where increasingly incendiary slogans are shouted, it’s the place where progressives have the best prospect of winning over fundamentally conservative voters to the planet’s cause. Not all conservatives, of course, but enough of them to make a third electoral victory for the centre-left in 2023 a viable project.
At the very heart of this project lies the insight vouchsafed to me by my late uncle, the Revd. Peter Marshall. In the finest liberal Presbyterian tradition, he argued that: “Humankind is neither wholly corrupt, nor wholly unredeemable.” Most people are susceptible to reasoned arguments persuasively presented. Even those who start out holding fast to an unequivocal proposition can be worn down by constant – and principled – presentations.
I’ve seen this happen many times over the years. Throughout the 1970s, a solid majority of New Zealanders subscribed to the notion that sport and politics didn’t mix. At the beginning of 1981 most Kiwis wanted the Springbok Tour to proceed. By 1984, however, public opinion had shifted decisively against any further contact with Apartheid-era South Africa. A similar shift in public opinion occurred in relation to LGBTQ rights. In 1986 over 800,000 people signed a petition asking Parliament to reject the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. Five years later most New Zealanders struggled to recall what all the fuss had been about.
It’s long, slow, patient work, this wearing-away of entrenched opposition, but history is unequivocal in judging it to be the most effective means of bedding-in change. It’s what Jacinda Ardern means when she argues that the only change worth having is “change that sticks”.
If conservative New Zealanders require further convincing about the steps required to fulfil this country’s commitment to fighting climate change, then convince them. That won’t happen if all the Greens do is shout at them, and/or damn them as enemies of the planet. It might happen, however, if someone is willing to make the case for change in the way most likely to make change happen. The ‘someone’ best placed to do that in the newly-elected Parliament is James Shaw. Presumably, that’s why Jacinda Ardern is offering to make him her Minister for Climate Change.
Those members of the Green Party who would rather their parliamentary representatives adopted a purely oppositional stance – from the cross-benches – should consider how that will look to the broader electorate. In the minds of many voters it will lump them in alongside the National Party, which, in an attempt to lure back its lost rural and provincial voters, will very likely take up a position hostile to all meaningful attempts to respond to climate change.
Nothing could assist National more effectively in this reactionary endeavour than a strident and ultra-radical Green Party. Nothing helps the Right’s effort to portray the Greens as a party of dangerous extremists like behaving like a party of dangerous extremists! Moreover, for those rural and provincial voters disposed to support “Jacinda”, the unrelenting negativity of National and the Greens will lead them to conclude that they are merely obverse sides of the same extremist coin. The only winners in this scenario would be Jacinda and Labour: the voices of moderation and reason.
Another reason for the Green Party membership to support a collegial “co-operation agreement” with Labour is the likelihood of climate change itself making the most compelling arguments for radical and comprehensive reform. If the rising number and increasing seriousness of extreme weather events are allowed to set the scene for “Middle New Zealand”, then the Greens, in partnership with Labour, can present themselves as the party of solutions – not the pedlars of problems. Sometimes, reality should simply be allowed to speak for itself.
In spite of it being a horrible example of corporate-speak, the expression “direction of travel” may turn out to be the key to Labour-Green relations over the next three years. James Shaw and Marama Davidson – in sharp contrast to Winston Peters and Shane Jones – campaigned in 2020 as Labour’s staunch and reliable ally. They were rewarded with an increased share of the Party Vote. It would be a colossal mistake to execute a 180-degree turn away from that strategy. By marching alongside Labour, the Greens will be marching in step with the majority. And just because that majority rewarded Labour with the ability to govern alone in 2020, doesn’t mean that it will feel obliged to do the same in 2023.
If the Greens spend the next three years proving themselves trustworthy, then the chances of them being entrusted with more power by the electorate in 2023 must, surely, be greater than if they spend all that time attacking Jacinda’s government and shouting themselves hoarse?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 29 October 2020.