Tuesday, March 20, 2018

On The Greens' Transition From Voice In The Wilderness To Ventriloquism Through Handing Their Questions To National

Unquestionably the biggest news in politics of the past week - despite several somewhat sensationalized stories that've been in circulation recently - was the Green Party announcing a bold move to give the National Party their Primary Questions in Parliament on occasions when the former are not using them.

Now, this might seem like a triflingly arcane thing to get all worked up about - mere minutiae of Parliamentary procedure in lieu of actual substantial action.

And yes, that's pretty much how Parliamentary Questions seem to have been treated by Governments and their allies since time immemorial; as little more than a cursory formality wherein 'patsie' questions designed to provide positive PR for the parties in power jostled with occasional Oppositional lancing in an effective contest of questionable "questioning" and ever-starved-for-space interrogation from those presently deprived of power.

Which is precisely why the Green Party sought to inject added relevancy to them by giving the Opposition a greater go at holding the Government to account through them by giving them additional questions when they're not themselves using them - rather than simply proffering 'patsies' off their own bat to questionable discernible effect.

The obvious question from the skeptical (or, indeed, outright - and perhaps justifiably - cynical) perspectives of politicos across the spectrum and country, is if the Greens are so hell-bent on keeping their Labour Party and New Zealand First associates "honest" ... why not just simply ask better and more probing questions of them themselves, instead of 'farming out' this sacred responsibility to the Nats.

And it is a fair line of inquiry.

Yet when one considers the overall 'optics' of 'tough questioning' in the House, an answer almost immediately reveals itself.

Namely, that were the Greens to *actually* put serious heat and/or screws upon the Labour-NZF Government they nominally support, then either the Media would start blowing it out of all proportion into some sort of over-hyped "collapse of the Government imminent" campaign [i.e. they'd quite likely start working over-time to attempt to make such a thing ensue], replete with any array of quoting from the sad annals of Parliamentary History viz. the Alliance Party's often-rocky relationship with its Labour Party partners, to try and prove their point.

Meanwhile, it would seem very plausible indeed that Labour and its apparatchiks would seek behind closed doors [as well as with more measured spite & venom in public] to castigate the Greens in no uncertain terms for their temerity in DARING to ask actual, probing questions of the Government instead of simply propping up the more usual and customary "window dressing".

It would, in short, provoke yet another bout of "THE GREENS ARE TOO IMMATURE/'PRINCIPLED' TO BE ALLOWED NEAR GOVERNMENT" from all the usual voices. Despite the fact that actually getting to the heart of matters and being straight-up about concerns is arguably one of the most mature things one can do - whether in or out of politics.

And while one might be forgiven for presuming that the "Agree to DIsagree"  provisions in the agreements Labour signed with its support partners late last year *should* mean that the latter are more easily able to vent their displeasure with the decisions and undertakings of the former (or, for that matter, with each other for the two support partners) - as we have perhaps seen when it came to New Zealand First backtracking on the TPPA earlier this year, these appear to provide no sure guarantee of outcomes nor 'safe space' for discourse in public when the chips are down on important issues.

But with this particular chartered course the Greens are undertaking - wherein it's National rather than the Greens who'll do many of the hard-attack interrogatives .. as is the constitutional role of Her Majesty's *Loyal* Opposition in the first place - they really do seem to get the best of multiple worlds.

On the one hand, the Government gets held to account more and more frequently than would otherwise be the case; whilst simultaneously enabling a greater 'easing' of relations between the Labour and Greens parties than would likely be possible in a clime of actual and overt Parliamentary back-and-forth between the two.

The Green's proposal also may manage to avoid the sort of Constitutional not-crises that accompanied New Zealand First in 2005-2008 seeking to ask searching questions of or even actively oppose the Government on certain matters, despite Winston holding a Ministerial Warrant with them at the time.

And, not to put too fine a point on it (although it's doubtless been the single loudest refrain yet issued on this whole matter), the deal with National *also* allows the Greens to put vital distance between themselves and Labour in the run-up to the 2020 General Election - although I do think that much of the sentiment attempting to treat this as a pre-Coalition Engagement Party with the Nats is rather alarmist and overblown.

For the moment, at any rate.

(Also, if you're wondering why it's so vitally necessary for the Greens to manage to distinguish themselves, even *detach* themselves somewhat from Labour, while still managing to represent their values, you can consult some of the rather detailed analyses I wrote up on the arguable necessity of NZ First doing much the same thing, last year. Or, to phrase it more bluntly & succinctly: Government, and Near-Government are places where small parties go to Die. With the sole exception of the Green Party in each of 2002 and 2008, I cannot think of ANY 'small' party in MMP History here in New Zealand that has actually managed to increase its share of the Vote following its supporting a Government, of either stripe and whether on Confidence & Supply or outright Coalition. Instead, it invariably goes the other way - with eventual slipping below the 5% threshold or command of an electorate seat seeming inevitable as the 'gravitational forces' around such a concentration of power and media attention inexorably pull the smaller vessel apart.)

In any case, it has been interesting to take in the broad spectrum of responses to this announcement from the various sorts of people who take some measure of interest in the ongoing churnings of our political firmament.

For example - I am presently rather amused by some New Zealand First people who were OK with said party siding with the Nats a few months ago being rather visibly annoyed at the vaguest appearance of the Greens co-operating with same.

I am also rather amused by the sorts of people who spent the last eight or so years telling me that a vote for NZF was a vote for National, either having to defend/justify this deal or turn a most distinct shade of purple in the face with quiet infuriation at the situation.

And, eminently predictably, almost everybody involved is somehow attempting to blame James Shaw for the whole scenario at hand (because three years on from his elevation to the Co-Leadership, the "JAMES SHAW IS A RIGHT-WINGER WHO QUOTED MARGARET THATCHER IN PARLIAMENT" meme steadfastly refuses to die).

But you know what? Even leaving aside my technical arguments above, I actually happen to think that the Greens, and Shaw in particular, are on to something with this unfolding course of action.

There's three ways to play politics, in my [oft-ineluctable] experience.

There's the "MY PARTY RIGHT OR WRONG" way; the "my party right or wrong - when right to be kept right, and when wrong to be *set* right" approach; and somewhere out on a limb reserved for extremists and the rare diamonds of genuinity ... the "principles uber alles" kind.

Attempting to insist that a party that is *not* party to Cabinet, and whose relationship with the present Government is one of the provision of Confidence & Supply with a few [again, extra-Cabinet] Ministerials ought to be one of slavish adherence rather than reasoned criticism is very much in that *first* camp instead of the second one.

Meanwhile, putting greater scrutiny on the Government of the day, even (indeed - especially) if it's one which you in principle support, is definitely in the second grouping. It may even veer into the third, from time to time.

Now don't get me wrong.

I understand why some people are feeling hurt, shocked, betrayed, and viscerally annoyed about all of this.

In some cases, it is because the notion of assisting an Opposition is seen as giving an inch of ground to "The Enemy".

In others, it is because they long ago decided that being in politics to *achieve* something is a very much *secondary* priority to the sort of loyalty expected of a "team player".

In yet still more, it is perhaps they don't like the idea of their own 'tribe' being held to account by perceived 'lessers'; and for a different sort again, the ongoing concern about whether all of this might help contribute to this Labour-NZF-[Greens] Government being merely a one-term one.

There are valid concerns and kernels of truth in each of these perspectives.

Yet casting my mind back over the past few decades of New Zealand Politics [something that yes, does tend to entail remembering events from some years or even decades before my own birth], I can think of no greater 'door' for the infiltration of untrammelled Evil into our Parliament and thus our public life than that most pernicious of foes - uncritical support for one's own side "just because".

I will not sully this post with the implicit specter of the Nuremberg Defence.

But if we consider what happened in 1984-7, and again from 1990 through to 1996 [dis-honourable mention, arguably, for 1996-1999, and most assuredly for mid-'97 to 99] ... we find that notionally otherwise 'principled' people in each of those Governments, who'd signed up to support and advance *one* set of things [and yes, there is much commonality between, say, Labour in its pre-Rogernomics days of advocating for the working man and National's 1990 'rollback' manifesto - hence also NZ First six years later, as a 'union' of both forces] found themselves press-ganged in repugnant service of almost the complete opposite.

And how did it happen? Well, simple.

They decided to just "do what we're told" [with, to be fair and sure, oft-explicit threats of Expulsion if you should happen to (externally) object or try and put a stop to the whole thing].

They decided that shutting up and just blithely supporting the people 'above' them was the supremest virtue to which they could affix some modicum of their political action & capital.

They, in short, made their seemingly-inevitable "peace" with adhering to group-think and what we would perhaps today refer to as "tribalism" [a word, in this sense and context, that diminishes & demeans *actual* tribes as a system of human organization, but I digress].

And you know where "they" are now?

Almost to a man, cast upon the ash-heap of history. Forgotten about, running far-from-the-headlines quisling efforts with foreign banks or attempting to potter away in other private sector roles.

Emerging every so often to reflect upon what they did and why - and, if Jim Bolger's statements in recent years are anything to go by, sadly concluding that they got it wrong and helped to play their part in (further) unleashing terrible forces upon our Nation.

All made possible by this most INSIDIOUS "conspiracy of silence" with regard to (externally visible - and from thence, even *internal* "if you know what's good for you") criticism of "their own side".

So if something good comes from Shaw's stance of disavowing such slavish adulation of his nominal partners in next-to-Government, that will more than likely be it.

I am *not* saying that Labour circa 2018 is *actually* going to be Labour circa 1984 all over again.

But as we've seen with the #CPTPP or whatever the #TPPA is being called these days, as an example, there remains a clear and present reason for certain parties and other political actors to take upon themselves the mantle akin to that of Old Testament Prophets - "voices in the wilderness" who abjectly warn "IF THIS GOES ON..." and maybe perhaps eventually find themselves leading angry armies of the politically dispossessed to the 'clearing and cleaning of house' should events take a turn for the irrecoverably decrepit & depraved.

Once upon a time, I would have pointed a finger in a particular direction with that above paragraph, if you get my drift.

But I now realize that the responsibility - nay, the right - of holding Government (and, indeed, the entire present socio-politico-economic paradigm we labour under and within) to account is far broader than that deserving of a mere 'partisan' champion.

So kudos to the Green party for this move.

Let us hope it functions as intended.

[My thanks to my former NZ Politics lecturer, Patrick Hine, for his insightful comments around the projected rationale for the Greens' decision - which played a strong role in helping to clarify my thoughts on this matter between 07 a.m yesterday morning and the present time of setting finger to keyboard in explication.] 

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