Greens in mortal danger - Bradford

5:48 pm on 15 June 2018

By Sue Bradford* for Pundit

Opinion - The Green's water bottling decision exposes potentially fatal flaws and complacency at the heart of Green parliamentary operations.

Sue Bradford

Sue Bradford Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The Green parliamentary wing seem to be clueless about the mortal danger they face following news this week that its own minister, Eugenie Sage, has signed off on the sale and expansion of a water bottling plant at Otakiri Springs.

A local subsidiary of Chinese company Nongfu Spring will now be able to purchase 6.2ha of sensitive land at Otakiri, near Whakatāne, and to take more than a billion litres of water a year, most of it for export to China.

Local people had organised in opposition and mana whenua including Ngai Tamawera hapū, Te Tawera hapū and Tuwhakairora fought the sale.

The Green Party's official policy on drinking water states, among other things:

"The Green Party will put an immediate 10 cent/litre levy on water bottling and exports.

"In government we will develop a new way of allocating and pricing all commercial uses of water, based on shared values of protecting fresh water, honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and upholding mana whenua rights.

"New water bottling consents will be banned until we have the regulation in place to ensure priority is given to good supplies of clean drinking water for all New Zealanders."

When Ms Sage's role in approving the sale as Land Information Minister became public there was immediate anger from party members. It was reported that the co-leader of the Young Greens Max Tweedie said on an internal Facebook page that he was 'extremely disappointed' about what had happened. Some members threatened to leave the party.

Apart from a bland government media release and a ministerial blog closely replicating the official line there appeared to be no effort to forestall the inevitable sense of betrayal which would arise from the blatant turnaround on core party policy.

It seems that it was only when mainstream media picked up on the high level of internal unrest that the Green caucus realised they might have a problem on their hands.

Their responses, for example in this TV1 report, seemed defensive and obscure, focused on explaining why they believed the Minister's hands were legally tied in making the decision.

And yes, it does appear that Ms Sage may have been trapped by current law into mandating an Overseas Investment Office decision based on the employment and export benefits that would accrue from the sale.

The party went quiet.

But perhaps it's time the Green leadership in Parliament realises that it's not just the unhappiness of members that needs to be assuaged. Voters are the ones who ultimately make the difference between survival and electoral disaster.

There are many of us out here who voted Green at the last election because we saw how marginal the party had become. If we cared about its core values and principles we had to give it one last chance. I'm sure there were those to the centre and right who felt this way, not just those of us on the party's left flank.

Issues around fresh water, conservation values, mana whenua rights under Te Tiriti and overseas ownership of sensitive land are not necessarily positioned on the left-right spectrum of Green support.

Even the most dedicated Green voters may find themselves in a difficult position next time around.

It's one of the most common political truisms that small parties in government get eaten by their larger partners. Surely the Green caucus focus from day one of government formation should have been on honing their political and strategic strategy and capacity so that the sort of situation which happened this week would never arise.

It is not nine days since the Greens became part of government. It is nine months.

Hefty parliamentary resources are provided to all parties to employ staff who can help the caucus deal strategically and well with situations like the one that arose this week. I'm sure there are members within the party structures who would be happy to assist as well.

As things stand, it feels as though the caucus and those around them do not think ahead about the consequences of some of their decisions, water bottling only being the latest of a string of stuff-ups (think waka jumping and giving National some of their parliamentary questions).

There seems to be a lack of both the will and capacity to negotiate with the senior partner, Labour, and an inability to think ahead and manage this kind of crisis. There are all sorts of ways what happened this week could have been managed differently - where are the advisors who could have helped the caucus through this?

Behind this fateful lack of capacity lies a political question too - to what extent, if any, are the Greens really prepared to carve out their own path in this term of Parliament?

Once again, it appears the real agenda here is a sodden acceptance that being a safe pair of hands for Labour is all that counts, and that those pesky members and voters are something to worry about in maybe a couple of years' time.

This story was first published on Pundit

* Sue Bradford is former Green MP who currently works as an education coordinator for Kotare Research and Education for Social Change Trust.