The proposed “co-operation agreement” between the Labour Government and the Green Party would radically strengthen Ardern’s power over her own MPs – while stopping Marama Davidson and James Shaw from publicly critiquing Labour’s policies on climate change, biodiversity, family and sexual violence, and homelessness.
If it is agreed by the necessary 75 per cent of Green delegates tonight, it will be a masterstroke by the Prime Minister.
On election night, Ardern was both awarded and cursed by the biggest parliamentary caucus of any Prime Minister since Jim Bolger’s giant 67-strong bunch in 1990. When special votes are counted, Labour is expected to have a mammoth caucus of 65.
While overall the quality of Labour MPs in 2020 looks fairly good, the risk to any Prime Minister with such a large bunch of new MPs is that there will be at least a handful who will prove destabilising.
In Bolger’s case, the problem was his government tacking much further to the right than the likes of Gilbert Myles, Hamish MacIntyre, Winston Peters, Michael Laws – and even Nick Smith, Roger Sowry, Tony Ryall and Bill English – believed they had signed up for.
Ardern’s risk is that some of her 65 might decide they didn’t sign up for the centrist and traditional – almost Holyoake-esque – Government she has planned.
The one potential threat to her personal power is that enough of those MPs might decide to rebel either independently or in common cause with the Greens.
The co-operation deal with the Greens insures against this.
By including a commitment that the Greens will never vote against Labour on confidence and supply agreement, and will at worst abstain, Ardern has in practice extended her safe majority over the rest of Parliament from a 65-55 margin of 10 to a massive 65-45 gap.
No conceivable rebellion in her own ranks could threaten her policy agenda. The Prime Minister was absolutely right that the deal will further secure strong and stable Labour Government.
But the Prime Minister has also effectively silenced the Greens on the issues most important to them, but on which Labour is politically vulnerable.
The deal provides for the Greens to criticise the Government on areas where they do not hold a ministerial warrant but Ardern has confirmed that Shaw and Davidson will be subject to Cabinet collective responsibility on the areas the deal makes them responsible for – climate change, biodiversity, family and sexual violence, and homelessness.
Cabinet collective responsibility is a stark and uncompromising doctrine. With some limited exceptions, it means that all ministers and undersecretaries must publicly support all Cabinet decisions “regardless of their personal views and whether or not they were at the meeting concerned”.
And there’s the rub. Shaw and Davidson won’t be at the Cabinet meetings. Nor will either of them even be an Associate Minister of Finance to give them greater insight and oversight into the Government’s overall policy programme.
Yes, they will be able to work with their bureaucrats to have Cabinet papers written about climate change, biodiversity, family and sexual violence, and homelessness. But then they’ll have to get a Labour Party minister to present them to Cabinet meetings. And they will have to publicly support whatever Labour decides.
It does the Greens no good that their backbenchers will still be allowed by the proposed deal to criticise Government policy on climate change, biodiversity, family and sexual violence, and homelessness, because this would be to criticise their own leadership.
This couldn’t work better for Ardern. Her Government has performed poorly in the areas for which the Greens would be responsible and now they will be silenced for nothing in return.
Under Ardern, there has been little progress, if any, in reducing New Zealand’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Renewable electricity generation has gone backwards. Homelessness is as bad as ever and will get worse as quantitative easing further fuels house-price inflation.
Worse for the Greens, Ardern is making clear there will be no new GHG imposts on business or farmers other than those already announced, and has ruled out capital-gains, wealth or land taxes that might do something to slow the house-price bubble.
Especially given her soaring rhetoric about the “nuclear-free moment”, the “housing crisis” and child poverty, the Prime Minister knows she is extremely vulnerable from her left on all these issues. At a stroke of a pen, the Greens will be blocked from criticising her on any of them.
It remains to be seen if the Green delegates will back the deal by the 75 per cent margin required by their rules.
Shaw and Davidson will argue it is better to have some control over climate change and homelessness bureaucrats than none at all.
But the realpolitik of the election result and the wording of the proposed deal mean that, when push comes to shove, they will indeed be nothing more than inhouse greenwash for whatever Ardern decides is needed to keep her new ex-National Party supporters in the Labour paddock for 2023.
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