One year on from the election, the Green Party needs to speak up

by Guyon Espiner / 25 July, 2018

Green Party co-leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw. Photo / Getty Images

The difference between the New Zealand First vote and the Green vote at the election? Less than one percentage point. The leverage value for New Zealand First in those 25,000 extra votes? Priceless.

As the one year milestone since the election nears, the New Zealand First leader is nearing the end of his tenure as acting prime minister. Given that platform, the views of Winston Peters on everything from Trump's tweets to durries in dairies have been dominating the news cycle.

New Zealand First has dominated the Budget cycle too. Three billion for the provincial growth fund, $1 billion for foreign aid and diplomats, and now $2.3b for four military planes.

While New Zealand First, with 7.2 percent of the vote, has been opening the government coffers, the Greens, with 6.3 percent, have been opening their diaries. Yes, the move to proactively release their lists of ministerial meetings is laudable but hardly a big fillip for supporters.

That's not to say the Green Party trophy cabinet is bare. A Zero Carbon Bill is scheduled to pass in mid-2019, aiming to eradicate net emissions by 2050. An Interim Climate Change Committee has been established en route to a Climate Change Commission, and $100m has been set aside for the Green Investment Fund.

There are others wins too, including public transport initiatives. But they do look modest in comparison to the gains secured by New Zealand First. Crunch time is arriving for the Greens. Key environmental policies are at a delicate stage and supporters must feel they need runs on the board.

Decisions on banning single-use plastic bags and increasing the cost of dumping rubbish are imminent.

More significant still is the move to ban new mining on all conservation land. That policy was outlined in the prime minister's speech from the throne which begins the parliamentary term, and is due to go to Cabinet shortly.

But in recent days NZ First MP and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones appears to have challenged by saying mining needs to remain a part of plans for the West Coast.

"The extractive sector will not be written out of any script of regional development that I or the party I belong to are a part of," he warned.

Is that a warning for a Cabinet clash over new mining permits on conversation land? If so, it may not bode well for the Greens. They can put up arguments at Cabinet committees but are not members of the full Cabinet, which somewhat reduces the strength of their hand.

It's a similar story with the establishment of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary. That policy is actually in the Labour-Green confidence and supply agreement. But New Zealand First is sympathetic to the concerns of the fishing industry and the initiative, announced by John Key's National government in 2015, remains stalled.

Winston Peters and Labour's Environment Minister David Parker are working on a compromise, which would fall short of a full fishing ban.

Greens co-leader Marama Davidson. Photo  / Phil Smith, VPN

Green co-leader Marama Davidson admitted on Morning Report this week she did not know the details of what Labour and New Zealand First were working on. She said the Greens were "committed to keep working towards" the sanctuary but her response was no stronger than that.

Which brings us to the other weapon the Green Party appear reluctant to use: Its voice. Look at the debate Mr Jones generated with his attacks on Fonterra and Air New Zealand.

As a backbencher Ms Davidson is completely free to speak her mind. Even the Green ministers are largely free of the constraints of collective responsibility, in that it only applies to their portfolios.

Despite only being 25,000 votes behind New Zealand First, the Greens can't hope to match them in prising cash out of finance minister Grant Robertson. But they can speak up at no cost at all.

There's been a lot of talk about free speech in Aotearoa recently - perhaps the Greens should be more enthusiastic about exercising it.

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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