Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Labour-Greens Agreement - Reactions From An NZ First Perspective

Unquestionably the biggest political news of this week was the joint announcement by Labour and the Greens of a 'Memorandum of Understanding' to take them through to the next Election.

This is a pretty impressive impact given it's merely codifying in the form of a single A-4 sheet of paper something that's basically been an accepted fact of political reality for easily the best part of a decade.

We've all known that Labour and The Greens have to work together in order to change the government since pretty much as soon as the dust cleared following the 2008 General Election. They even tried (rather cackhandedly) a similar pre-electoral accommodation heading into 2014. There's very little that's new here (except a certain intelligence of flexibility in strategy).

And yet some people still managed to get rather annoyed about it.

Winston lead the way in the media, making vague and non-commital statements in opposition to what he termed "jack ups or rigged arrangements behind the peoples' back." And while i'm not entirely sure, myself, how conducting a fairly open and transparent coalition courtship in full view of the nation's newsmedia and voting public counts as behind *anyone's* back (except, arguably, Peters') ... on the plus side, at least he didn't rule out working with either Labour or The Greens as a result of this agreement.

Some of his followers were less circumspect, however.

One officeholder suggested this agreement mandated NZF go into Opposition against the Labour-Greens bloc should they win. Another compared the memorandum in entirely unflattering terms to the electoral accord wrought between MANA and The Internet Party - and professed it doomed toward the same depressing outcome.

Out in the Party rank-and-file, opinions were more mixed. Several of my associates made cases that the agreement is of limited impact to us as NZ First belongs in almost perma-Opposition anyway, regardless of who's in Government - as that's where we naturally do best and have the most to contribute. More pessimistic individuals suggested that given NZ First might not even be ready for Government in 2017, being infavourably disposed to forming a part of that government would perhaps not be such a bad thing.

Having thought about this all evening, and weighed up the various perspectives, my position is a little different.

We're in politics, theoretically, to make change. We don't get to do that so much from the sidelines (although it behooves me to point out NZF's stirling record of being able to deliver progressive outcomes from the Crossbenches). In 2017 - and perhaps again in 2020 depending upon the result and outcome of that Campaign - we face a choice as to which Government we want in charge of New Zealand.

Who we want running the country - or whom we want running it into the ground.

Everyone knows that barring some serious seismic shifts in New Zealand politics, Labour and The Greens don't have enough votes between them to change that government from the present blue-yellow-purple-and-brown incumbents. Even if Labour and Greens strategic co-operation successfully eliminates Peter Dunne in Ohariu (via the Greens candidate no longer taking the several thousand votes which Dunne clings to the seat by the skin of his teeth with) ... they'll still be several short of the numbers required to form a Government.

This places us here in New Zealand First in the arguably unenviable position of "kingmakers". Whatever we do, some potentially quite substantial segment of our support is going to be annoyed - and possibly walk out.

That's why Winston's always so circumspect about putting out any signs as to whom we're likely to work with during the campaign. (Although he's not above putting a line out into the media stressing the possibility of a Labour-NZF electoral outcome if the media gets too enthusiastic about NZF-National - as happened, for instance, during 2014)

But part of what it means to be a mature, grown-up political Party is having the ability to indulge in a free and frank discussion of what our options might be. How we might contribute to the future shape and governance of New Zealand.

Our options 'on the left' span a continuous spectrum from what you might call "All In" (a full Coalition with Labour and the Greens with shared Ministerial portfolios and an agreed upon set of implementable policy a la our 1996 mistake of an agreement with National) through to "I'm Out" (a retreat into the Underworld of Parliamentary Opposition replete with various and sundry statements about the superior desirability of Reigning there, rather than Serving in Coalition).

This Memorandum of Understanding betwixt Labour and The Greens has changed none of that.

Neither The Greens nor Labour are more unpalatable in reality today than they were on Monday. Even if some might insist that the thought of Labour *and* The Greens together is some form of absolutely repugnant toxic gumbo, the fact remains that we *always knew* (deep down, anyway) that it was going to be virtually impossible to form a viable alternative government with Labour without them.

One way around this might be an arrangement similar to that which prevailed during the dying days of Helen Clark's Labour Government. Due to the ... unpleasantness inside United Future which saw Peter Dunne losing two of his MPs, the only way Labour was able to govern was through both New Zealand First and The Greens providing Confidence & Supply - and both from outside of Cabinet, as well as (according to Winston at least) outside of Government.

Another way could be Labour and one of either The Greens or New Zealand First in a more formal arrangement (perhaps even a Coalition), with the other smaller party providing C&S.

This would give at least one "minor" party a helluvalot of power (with the potential to seriously hold a gun to the head of the government by threatening to withdraw C&S on an issue-by-issue basis), while also allowing them a wide latitude to criticize Government decisions in a manner similar to how NZF took Labour to task over the Chinese Free Trade Deal.

Sound like Winston's cup of tea?

The point is, even allowing for the fact that two out of three of these parties aren't exactly on the most straight-up polyamorous of terms with one another (instead preferring some level of 'exclusivity'), there are a myriad of ways in which we can co-operate post-Election to have the government changed.

*If* we want to.

Because that's the other "problem" here. There are somewhat vocal portions to both the NZF and Greens camps which don't want to see the other in Government. Whether it's because they genuinely see us as racist parody 1950s throwbacks in mafia-style suits swathed in transparency-occluding cigarette smoke ... or whether it's because we see them as dope-smoking, acid-dropping, money-printing, borderline eco-terrorists ... there is always internal gain to be had in spiking the other's chances.

And as several of my more prescient friends have pointed out, one of the likely impacts of this Labour-Greens agreement will be a marked increase in NZ First support - particularly at the expense of Labour's blue-collar contingent opposed to phantom mentions of "social engineering" or excessively nebulously defined "extremist policy". Meanwhile, statements by a certain Green high-up from some weeks before this policy was announced about an intent to 'shut NZ First out' via campaigning on a coalition government-in-waiting going into 2017, go to show that this is definitely not a unidirectional flow-of-problem.

In other words, attempts to drag wild horses together in order to get them to pull in a common direction for the common good are going to run smack bang into that oldest of political forces ... rampant tribalism. We're talking, in some cases, about people whose very sense of political identity is so intimately bound up in hating and opposing what they think "the other guy" represents that they have no interest in 'engaging' across the relevant party lines except in the form of a skirmish. And that's before you add in the gravitational effects of the customary supermassive egos of politicians and political parties - or, in NZ First and The Greens' case, somewhat simmering older histories. (In case you've forgotten, in 2004 Rod Donald did a thing about NZ First's policies being "Nazi"; Winston shut The Greens out of Government in retaliation the next year; Russell Norman stuck a knife in at the Parliamentary Privileges Committee in 2008 before making a plea for NZF voters to abandon ship in the run-up to 2011 ... and the list goes on)

There are quite some vicious and substantial tidal forces to be overcome here.

Yet that doesn't mean bridging the gap is entirely impossible.

Part of the strategy to do so would entail high-level talks and encounters. Winston famously bonded with first Jim Bolger and then Labour's David Parker over a certain unquantified amount of whiskey.

This direct person-to-person relationship building exercise produced concrete and identifiable gains, in the form of a theoretically dubious coalition agreement in the case of the former; and policy co-operation in occasionally surprising areas (such as Winston voting for Labour's ETS) in the latter. Considering Winston still pops up to defend Parker about allegations from a decade ago despite Parker existing in what's unquestionably the strongly neoliberal section of Labour's internal political spectrum ... in both cases, this goes to show that person-to-person points of connection can handily trump and bridge even seriously dissonant policy and ethos divides.

Another vital element to the strategy is behind-the-scenes network building and back-room communications. This will be one of the ways in which Labour and The Greens came together to bridge their own political fault-lines to make the present agreement happen; and I've already covered in some detail the strong potential for a Greens effort at reaching out to New Zealand First in much the same way. In specia, the Greens' new Chief of Staff being an ex-NZF MP with still-active links back in our direction was reportedly part of her charm when being selected for the role.

But the third element is making the whole thing seem possible or credible. Helping to fill in and then sell That Vision Thing to an occasionally unbelieving public and often actively disinterested Party faithful. This is a little more difficult considering we're operating within a media environment which seems actively disposed towards creating conflict and fault-lines between parties in order to manufacture political drama to report on ... but it can and must be done.

If we're serious about Changing The Government come 2017 (and even posts from official NZ First sources outright state that we are) then that's what we're going to have to do.

To adapt Georges Clemenceau, post-election governing arrangements are too important to be left purely to Labour & The Greens.

[Special Thanks to D. Tong for the cover image]

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