The recent public spat between Labour and the Greens may appear concerning, or relatively minor, but it is actually about the value of a properly functioning MMP system and the importance of establishing political identities within it.
New Zealand has a relatively small population and because of that our politicians are not as distant from the people they represent compared to most other countries. The majority of our MPs are very accessible and you can often contact them directly without having to go through staff. Within parliament MPs from opposing parties often get on well at a personal level and during the election campaign in Invercargill all the candidates worked together to organise a roadshow around secondary schools.
As a Green candidate for Invercargill I have had a good working relationship with the local Labour candidate and many Labour members are close friends as we often move in the same social and work circles. We have combined forces in a number of campaigns and local protest marches and share many social and environmental concerns. When I was part of an NZEI Novopay protest outside Eric Roy’s office (past National MP for Invercargill) early one morning he opened his office and provided coffee and pikelets while we debated the issues.
Despite this level of personal interaction across the political spectrum, politics still involves competition, opposition and robust debate as parties jostle to capture media time and to promote their policies and points of difference. It is not a game for the faint hearted and a thick skin is a necessary requirement for anyone considering a career in the political arena. Governing the country is a serious business and sound democratic systems are an important part of ensuring wise decisions and strong oversight.
As the Greens are the third largest party represented in parliament, it is unlikely we will win enough votes to govern alone and also unlikely under MMP. If we wish to be in Government we need to be able to form a coalition with others. The Green Party has a process where the members are consulted and have direct input in forming our political positioning each election. This determines our public stance on who we are more likely to work with and this is based on which party our members believe we have more in common with in terms of policies and values.
For the last two elections we have indicated clearly that we are most likely to form a coalition with Labour rather than National. Although we have had a memorandum of understanding with the National Government to progress some of our policies, too much of what National wants to do is the diametric opposite of what we could support.
While the Green Party has more in common with Labour than National there are still many points of difference between us, especially around environmental protection. One of the important aspects of MMP is that there is more diverse representation in parliament and this is important if we want legislation and governance to meet the needs of most New Zealanders. Voters also need to be reassured that any future coalition will still operate constructively and any differences can be managed through good, democratic process.
Despite his strong beginning as the new leader of the Labour Party, Andrew Little has recently dropped the ball and mismanaged his relationship with the Green Party. There is an acceptable line between promoting the interests of ones own party and maintaining a working relationship with future coalition partners and Little clearly overstepped the mark. In not consulting with the Greens regarding his decision to cut them out of the Intelligence and Security Committee it displayed a worrying level of arrogance, an ignorance of MMP protocols and a lack of good faith (as a past union leader this last point is a real concern).
Of all the parties in Parliament, the Greens have been the most vocal in questioning the powers of our spy agencies and demanding stronger oversight. Despite Shearer’s background, Russel Norman still has more experience as a past member of the committee and the implication that Metiria Turei would be a political lightweight in the role (despite being a Lawyer, an MP for over 12 years and a party leader for 6) indicated a level of misogyny.
The Green Party was correct to publicly point out Little’s error and to use a legal challenge. While sharing the opposition benches the Greens have no coalition arrangement with Labour and are an independent party. To roll over on this issue would be a weak acceptance of the obvious ‘old boy’ networks that dominate our spying operations and maintaining the illusion of the old two party system. For MMP to work properly, and if we are to have any robust questioning and scrutiny of our spying activities, then we need a Green presence on the Intelligence and Security Committee.
I do hope the next Government is a strong coalition of the Green and Labour Parties, but if this is to occur then the Labour leadership needs to make some major changes in how it relates to the other parties who share the opposition benches. The Greens may be the smaller party but it’s leadership has a combined experience of 15 years to Little’s 6 months and his inexperience has been exposed.