So the Greens co-leader James Shaw recently made a mistake. In his role as Associate Finance Minister approving funding for “shovel-ready” projects, he fought hard for a private “Green school” to get funding to expand their buildings and, therefore, their student capacity. There are many problems with what he did: forgetting to oppose private schools as per Green policy; supporting an approach to environmentalism based on individual education of wealthy elites’ children, rather than systemic change; finally showing some spine around the cabinet table and for this; being so out of touch with his party’s kaupapa and membership that he actually thought his actions would be seen as a “win” for the Greens. It was a big mistake and it doesn’t say anything good about Shaw’s political judgment.
But here’s what happened next: the Greens’ membership, supporters, and former MPs flipped out. They rightly criticised what Shaw did, instead of sycophantically defending his actions because he’s the party leader. And Shaw called an emergency meeting with members, admitted it was a mistake, apologised unreservedly, and tried to do whatever he could do to reverse his actions.
Meanwhile, Grant Robertson, Shaw’s fellow Wellington Central-based MP and carpool buddy*, was working on an announcement of his own. Robertson is also effectively the second most important leader of his party, and he’s also a Finance Minister… and not just an associate one, but the proper one.
Robertson’s announcement was that his party, Labour, are finally going to increase tax on the rich. First, they’ve brought in a new top income tax rate of 39% on income above $180,000. And second… there is no second. That’s it. In this country of notoriously low taxes on the rich, in the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, their revenue policy is: Bringing back the Helen Clark/Michael Cullen top income tax rate of 39c, but to qualify for that top tax rate you have to earn as much as someone working 183 hours and 10 minutes per week on the minimum wage. No wealth taxes, just a small income tax change that even right-wingers think is too low. Australia, the UK, and other OECD countries have higher income tax on the rich, lower taxes on the poor, and of course capital gains taxes, even before the COVID recession… but Labour’s pathetic approach is literally lower taxes on the rich than what Don Brash proposed as National leader in 2005.
So what happened next after Robertson’s announcement? Well, there was dismay and anger from the left and from the centre (this example from No Right Turn is characteristically concise and well-reasoned: If not now, when?). But did Labour’s membership and supporters revolt? Did Robertson, like Shaw, call an emergency members’ meeting, apologise profusely for his massive misjudgment, and do everything in his power to rectify his mistake? Nope. None of that. The leader of the country’s biggest union, the PSA, even welcomed the announcement. The policy stands, and will probably become government policy after the election, unless polls change and the Greens get some leverage. Yet another opportunity for Ardern’s and Robertson’s promised “transformational change” has been wasted.
And therein lies the difference between the Green and Labour parties.
* “carpool buddy”: My partner saw Robertson giving someone a ride in his Labour car during the 2017 election campaign, and she’s like 76% sure it was Shaw.
“National and the Greens should work together” sentiment seems to have reached an all-time high. This is not because the two parties have moved closer together in policy or philosophy. It’s because after the election, this is the only way—short of a Nat-Lab grand coalition—to lock Winston Peters out of any role in government.1
I can’t be bothered to list examples because I’m sure you’ve all seen or heard people calling for a blue-green government arrangement (or “teal deal” if you will). Perhaps you’ve even suggested it yourself.2
What I want to talk about is the suggestion that usually comes after “National and the Greens should work together”. This is how former National PM Jim Bolger puts it:
“the Greens might be quietly reflecting on whether they, unique in the world of Green parties, should only link themselves to left-wing politics, whereas the environment is neither left wing or right wing, frankly. The environment is the environment; it’s Mother Earth we’re talking about.”
The idea is that the Greens would be more effective in pushing environmental policy if they stuck to that, and got rid of their insistence on left-wing socio-economic policy. This way, it is suggested, they would have a better chance of being able to find room for compromise and cooperation with National. Other Green parties in countries like Germany have been willing to form coalition governments with right-wing parties.
The Greens’ usual response is to give reasons why environmental justice and socio-economic justice (or environmental sustainability and socio-economic sustainability) are inextricably linked. Ever since they were the Values Party they’ve pushed both, and they don’t intend to stop now.
Another response could be to say that New Zealand is not Germany. Germany has a democratic socialist party called The Left which pushes left-wing policy even if the centre-left parties (the Greens and the SDP) don’t—even if they form grand coalitions with the centre-right. In New Zealand, the Alliance and Mana have disappeared as left voices in Parliament. Moreover, Labour kickstarted neo-liberalism and haven’t really repented from it. Until Labour make a significant change from Clark/Blair-esque compromise to Corbyn-esque social democracy, the Greens are the only party significantly trying to push New Zealand in a leftward direction.
However, both of these responses to the challenge accept the terms of the challenge (like Labour accepted the terms of National’s “dead cat” “fiscal hole” challenge). These responses accept the assumption that it’s the Greens’ left-wing socio-economic stance that blocks them from working with National, and that they’d be able to find common ground on the environment.
However, I don’t think this is correct. Certainly the Greens’ socio-economic stances—making welfare more of a livable UBI and less of a punitive control mechanism; raising tax on the rich and introducing it for property investors; returning the minimum wage to 2/3 of the average wage; reducing imprisonment—are all basically the opposite of what the Key-English government have done. However, I think Bill English is actually more likely to accept these policies than to accept Greens’ environmental policies. If Bill could be convinced these socio-economic policies are good “social investment”, he could get behind them. Of course, he won’t. (This is largely because National’s vision of “social investment” is so limited by a pathologically individualist mindset, and so tantamount to Minority Report in its instinct to control the risk factors rather than healing the determinants.) But it’s not outside the realms of possibility.
The Greens’ environmental policies, on the other hand, would require National to actually seriously challenge farm owners, drilling/mining companies, and other capitalists. Currently the costs of these capitalists’ activities are largely falling on the environment, and therefore on the present and future public. The Greens want to stop these business activities destroying our shared home by preventing and internalising these external costs. They’ll ban some unjustifiably polluting business activities, such as drilling or mining or exploring for more fossil fuels at a time when even burning the fossil fuels already dug up will make the Paris target impossible. They’ll tax other business activities for their pollution—making those who produce the costs pay the costs, instead of externalising them. And they’ll use the tax revenue to clean up the damage and to subsidise farmers and other businesses moving to more sustainable ways of doing business.
Do you really see National doing that? The party whose base is farm owners and other capitalists? The party that think climate change is only an issue for “elites”, and that it’s not a “pressing concern”, and that we should adapt to climate change rather than mitigating it? The party who scaremongered on a small water tax for some big farms that are currently destroying the quality of Aotearoa’s awa and wai?3
So how should the Greens respond to this “helpful suggestion” to the Greens—and this implicit congratulation of National for their supposed hypothetical willingness to “green up”?
Well, I wonder if they should make an offer to National this election: If you let us have our way with the environment, we’ll give you confidence and supply to do everything else you want to do as the Government for the next three years. We’d pass a zero carbon act and introduce the Greens’ policies for actually getting to zero carbon. We’d follow the Greens’ ideas to clean up our rivers instead of pretending National and the “hard-working farmers“4 already have the issue under control. We’d build sustainable transport instead of roads, roads, and more roads.
National would refuse this offer. And then maybe people would stop trying to make the teal deal happen. Or at least realise it’s not Green stubbornness stopping it happening. It’s National’s near-total lack of concern for the environment.
- Special votes are extremely unlikely to change the basic possibilities. ↑
- Someone who can always be bothered finding, listing and summarising examples is my hero Bryce Edwards who has subsequently done one of his legendary political round-ups on the teal deal. ↑
- These points I’m making are not new—here‘s basically the same point made three years ago on the No Right Turn blog. ↑
- It was shrewd of National to portray criticism of National’s record on rivers as criticism of farmers who are working hard to clean up rivers, because it’s deeply ingrained in the NZ psyche to pretend we’re really farmers at heart. We all lie about being the rural type. ↑