Let’s assume for instance, that once the election dust settles Prime Minister John Key will offer – in the name of broad church, representative politics and a desire to split the centre left vote in order to ensure his thirdterm – a couple of ministerial posts outside Cabinet to the Greens.
No strings attached. Something ministerial for Russel Norman say, in the Conservation/Environment era, and an associate Health post for his colleague Metiria Turei, where she could work alongside Tariana Turia. What would the Greens do if such an offer is made? What should they do?
I think there would be some strings attached. At a minimum it would be that those who are Ministers abstain on supply and confidence. A Minister can not vote against confidence in an Executive they are part of.
The Greens have been out of real power for 12 years. Helen Clark spurned the Greens after the 2005 election, and chose to go with Peters instead. As a junior player on the centre left, the Greens traditional role is to wait in the parlour until Labour brings home the election bacon. Yet Labour can only govern when Labour is in the ascendancy on the centre left, which usually means the Greens will have been reduced to hovering just above the 5% threshold. Perversely, in years (such as 2011) when the centre left vote goes to the Greens in large numbers, it is in a context where the Greens can’t be in government, not in any significant way.
That’s the Greens dilemma, in a nutshell. It may say that it is centrist – and it has been saying so for some time – but relatively few voters see it as such. And thus it remains in its current bind – strong when there is little chance of it governing, and able to join a centre left government only when it is in a position of relative weakness vis-a-vis Labour. And regrettably, Labour tends to treat the Greens like an abused spouse in those circumstances.
This is exactly the problem. The Greens get their votes from Labour when Labour are weak, hence a Labour-led Government will not generally occur when the Greens are strong. And then when the Greens are weaker, Labour pisses all over them, and chooses Winston Peters and Peter Dunne over them.
That’s the basic argument for making a dramatic break away from the centre left and heading into unknown territory. Arguably, it is only by reaching some meaningful form of co-existence with National (beyond home insulation) that the Greens can break the mould, and put itself in a position where it could hope to poach votes from National in large numbers ( and not just from despondent Labour voters) to add to its core support.
If the Greens want to be able to grab significant numbers from National, they need to show they can work with National, beyond the current arrangement.
If the Greens did try to break out of their current ghetto would that pose a substantial risk to the brand? Absolutely. Political virginity is a valuable commodity, and one reason for the Greens’ longevity is that it has stayed away – or has been kept away – from the boiler room of executive power. The party strategists have also noticed the fate of others before them. Notably, the Maori Party has tried to make gains for a far more defined constituency than the one served by the Greens. If it is that hard for the Maori Party, how hard could it be for the Greens? Very hard indeed.
It is definitely a risk. One way to mitigate the risk (and I recommend this to all minor parties) is do not have your leader or all your leaders become Ministers. You need a leader to remain outside the Ministry so they can provide the political leadership to their party. If they are spending all their time signing off departmental papers, they are not making the constant case for support.
So if I was the Greens I’d push for an economic role for Norman and a health role for Hague, and keep Turei to fly the flag outside the Ministry.
So… even as Labour flounders and the Greens pick up the flotsam and jetsam from the good ship SS Goff, a lot of hard decisions lie in wait further down the track. The Greens’ current place on the political spectrum simply doesn’t allow them to harvest a big enough vote on the centre left to enable an escape from their current dependency on Labour which – on past performance – will treat them like deckhands once Labour is back on the quarterdeck again. Whatever the risks, it strikes me as unlikely that Russel Norman will be willing to tolerate subservience, in perpetuity.
As I said, Gordon Campbell has done a very nice job looking at the pros and cons.