28 Sep 2017

Could a National-Greens coalition work?

4:54 pm on 28 September 2017

Mary-Margaret Slack ponders the possibility of a blue-green coalition.

For this first time voter, the post-election negotiation period is gripping, but also fogged in uncertainty.

How many of the coalition possibilities are real, and how would they work? 

How realistic is a National-Greens scenario? How viable? At least one RNZ Morning Report listener was in favour this week, texting in “We all win - good fiscal management and therefore the ability to afford better treatment of our environment”. 

But for minor party supporters, there is reason to worry for the survival of that party’s voice if such a coalition was to become a reality.

When Greens MP Julie-Anne Genter was asked about the possibility of a National-Greens coalition on RNZ’s The Morning After on Sunday, she responded, “I don’t think you understand how anti-environmental this last government has been with its policies.”

History tells us that supporting a major party in government does not always work out well. National leader Bill English has already ruled out a coalition with ACT, and supporting the National government for the last three years has arguably led to a loss of voters’ confidence in the Māori party, who are no longer in parliament. 

In an emotional interview the morning after their 1.1 percent party vote result in Saturday’s General Election, co-leader Marama Fox spoke of the party’s loss as a loss for all Māori. Co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell made strides for Māori when he was in parliament. Our music man showed pākehā, as Patrick Gower said, what the respect that Te Ao Māori deserves was.

But Flavell represented Māori in a government that was short on policy, focus and aspiration for Māori. Ultimately, forming a coalition with the party in power led to a loss of that independent Māori voice.

Now, all seven Māori seats are held by Labour. 

As press secretary for the Treaty Negotiations Minister from 2009-2014, Ben Thomas had a close view of the Māori Party’s experience inside government. “It is a loss that those seven seats will disappear from sight if Labour is in opposition for another three years”.

Commentator Finlay Macdonald agrees that recent history shows small parties join coalitions at their peril. The Māori Party and New Zealand First have both suffered terribly because they coalesced with major parties who held scant interest in their central beliefs.

In the case of the Greens and National, Macdonald believes it is unlikely the parties have enough in common to make comfortable compromise. He says the centre of the political scale in New Zealand has shifted to the right, likely because of neoliberalism. National’s focus on having a strong economy prevents them from having any interest in what is fundamental to the Greens, which is sustainability and fairness. The challenge in forming this kind of coalition is that there would have to be a shift in the essence of their being.

Victoria Woodman, of The University of Auckland’s Politics department, recognises that the nature of any agreement between parties relates to the view of voters, and party elected figures. “The Green Party’s hard support would likely oppose, and this could yield the risk of future voter punishment. Especially given that the Greens' leadership gave voters the clear signal that they wouldn’t be working with National in any major way”.

Perhaps we are failing to understand the fundamentals of our MMP system. As Macdonald sees it, MMP acknowledges that we don’t always agree on things as a society, so we try to represent voices as best we can and, sometimes, nobody wins. He argues we are still immature in our approach to MMP. Looking through a First-Past-the-Post lens means minor parties have to make great compromises to support, or govern with, a major party. They become completely subsumed.

Our approach to MMP has to reach a point where minor parties can be pragmatic, and make compromises to form coalitions with major parties without having to give away the core things they stand for. Mature democracies, particularly in Europe, are doing this, so what are we missing?

Better education for young people about voting is crucial. If only to combat our declining voter turnout, first time voters can go into a booth knowing votes for important minor parties are important votes.

TOP’s Gareth Morgan has echoed calls for the Greens to go with National, saying they should work on their environmental policies no matter who the government is.

Woodman describes how “the National Party has, for many years, operated an advisory sub-group called the Blue-Greens, so the alignment does, to some degree, exist”.

Some people support a fiscal-environmental coalition between National and the Greens because it “helps us all win”. But the relationship already exists, yet National falls short on its environmental focus.

Furthermore, the Greens did not campaign on environmental policies alone. Though they prioritised climate change as a pressing issue, they also campaigned on poverty, housing, better public transport and universal Te Reo. Ben Thomas sees the Green Party as, yes, an environmental party, but also a social justice party.

The Greens are not in parliament just for their dedication to environmental issues, they are committed to a fair and equitable society.

Thomas acknowledges the Green Party is not a business based party like National. As Greens leader James Shaw said, he is reluctant to discuss the possibility of a coalition with the National Party, as he says what they campaigned on is “incongruous to what the National Party policy programme is”.

Auckland councillor Richard Hills sees this too. “The suggestion that National and the Greens could coalesce gives National a stronger position negotiating with Winston Peters, only for the Greens to be criticised for not getting on board”.

The parties have different interests, just like National and the Māori Party did. National would likely use the Greens as a footstool, which would only hurt them.

Where, then, would an independent voice for the environment and a fair society be?

No-one wants to be a footstool, no-one deserves to be a footstool, and voters sure don’t want their core beliefs to be used as a footstool.