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The Greens, Parliament & The Prospect Of Govt

Fitzsimons Speech - The Greens, Parliament And The Prospect Of Government

The Greens, Parliament and the prospect of Government
Ecopolitics Conference XIII. Canterbury, November 2001
Jeanette Fitzsimons - Green Party Co-leader


Rod has given you some of our history, described the campaign for proportional representation and outlined some of the changes we would like to make to the processes of governance in the Parliament.

I would like to discuss some of the ways the Green Party has tried, from a position outside Government, to influence policy and its implementation. These include Members' Bills, amendments to Government legislation, select committee enquiries, budget initiatives, and the use of the Parliamentary platform to support campaigns run from outside Parliament.

We have tried all of these, all with only limited success, and this raises the issue of what is the best relationship to have with larger parties in Government, in order to best advance the Green agenda.

Members Bills

Nine Green Members' bills have made it through the ballot to the House. Two have been amended and passed through all their stages, two have been voted down and a third one will be shortly.

Three are before select committees and expected to progress to some degree. These include Nandor's Clean Slate Bill which wipes minor criminal convictions after seven years of no re-offending and his bill to legalise the growing of hemp as a crop. The ninth, the Road Traffic Reduction Bill is awaiting its first reading.

My Energy Efficiency and Conservation Bill was introduced in 1998 and makes an interesting case study of trying to govern from outside Government. It aimed to give a legislative basis for the development of a sustainable energy system.

Introduced initially from opposition, it recognised the problems of legislating for implementation by a hostile Government and concentrated on measures that could not be subverted by an unsympathetic Minister or officials. It gave a legislative mandate to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority which existed only by Cabinet fiat and was widely expected to be phased out; mandated a national energy efficiency strategy formed through a public consultation process; and gave the Minister authority to set minimum energy performance standards.

The progress of this bill illustrated how MMP has changed normal patterns. It was opposed by the National Government who would not meet with me to discuss it but supported by a narrow majority of Parliament, thanks to three independents and a Government member willing to cross the floor. By chance its initial debate was the first vote in the House after the National-New Zealand First coalition split up and the Government could not afford to lose a vote so it passed with the ringing endorsement of a 112-8 vote and was sent to select committee.

A majority of the committee also wished to progress it but our advisors were officials responsible to the Minister whose role was to avoid assisting us in any way, so for some time it stalled. Eventually it was rewritten to make it acceptable to the Minister and some parts deleted. Before it could be debated in the House the election intervened and the new Minister was friendly to energy efficiency.

A major part was reinstated, giving a statutory basis to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority as an independent Crown entity with a new chair and a new board. After many more negotiations the bill became law.

At this point, of course, it became the Minister's responsibility, not mine. I have likened it before to a very long pregnancy - three years from drafting to enactment - with the knowledge that at birth the offspring would be adopted out to the family next door with no certainty they would have the money to care for it or the commitment to bring it up properly.

Money was, in fact, an issue but the Greens arranged child support through one of our budget initiatives which I'll come back to later.

A number of things I did not intend have followed. Cabinet decreed that the Ministry for the Environment would be responsible for the fostering and its relationship with its adoptive parents and the Ministry promptly took control, rather than the new Board.

The Strategy was developed over the following year with goals, targets and action plans but a certain lack of urgency in the latter. Take for example the action plan for developing renewable energy and, in particular, expanding the use of solar water heating - surely the most proven and simple technology we have. It reads: 'Initiate investigation of support mechanisms for solar water heating industry by June 2003.' Any committed NGO given the budget could have had thousands, cost-effectively, on roofs by then.

However, this bill must be counted as one of our main successes. My Nuclear Free Zone Extension Bill - which would have expanded our nuclear free zone to our 200 mile exclusive economic zone and ban shipments of nuclear wastes and reprocessed fuel from our waters - spent a long time in select committee but has been reported back with a recommendation that it not proceed.

It is easier for Green bills to repeal legislation or ban things than to initiate positive policies which are very vulnerable to implementation by officials and Ministers who may not necessarily agree with the intent.

Amending Government legislation

We have achieved a lot of changes to Government legislation, which are worthwhile, although not particularly exciting for the public or the media. Our influence is greatly enhanced where the opposition also supports the change.

We have learned that the Government will vote for a measure they don't really like rather than be seen to lose a vote in the House. This is how we achieved some changes to the health legislation last year. But our no-surprises arrangement with the Government means we do it by negotiation before it reaches the House, not on the floor of the debating chamber.

Many people don't realise we are not the only party potentially holding the balance of power.

On legislation we oppose outright, the Government has the option of going to New Zealand First for support. They have done this both on the new superannuation scheme which borrows money to speculate on the international stock market in the hope of making money for future superannuation, and on the so-called 'party hopping bill' which essentially gives leaders of parties the power to declare a member has left their party and expel them from Parliament. In both cases the Government had to court New Zealand First and in both cases that party demanded changes which from our point of view made the bills even worse.

This was a factor I had to balance when trying to get amendments to the Electricity Industry Bill. We did not particularly support the industry self-regulation model at the core of the bill but wanted to progress a much needed consumer protection package in the same bill. If we pushed too hard a bargain on the first, the Government could probably have got it through with support from the National Party by dropping the parts which offered some protection for the consumer and the environment. In the end we achieved a much lower fixed charge for household electricity, increasing the incentive to conserve while helping the poor and the frugal.

We also got the performance of the industry tied to a policy statement that was strong on sustainability and social equity, with an audit function for the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the Auditor General to report to Parliament annually on whether the industry is meeting the requirements of the policy statement. It will be a couple of years before this provision produces any results but it has the potential to shine a light into the workings of the black box that is the electricity wholesale market and interpret what is really going on and how it affects energy sustainability.

Budget initiatives

In our first year we made it clear that, as we were supporting the Government to get its budget passed, we expected funding for some small Green initiatives in that budget. This was not a 'deal' in the sense that we threatened to withdraw support, but was suggested to Government as a reasonable expectation in a good faith relationship.

However, this doesn't seem to be a normal way of relating in politics and it appears from things that were said later that some members of Cabinet took it as a threat.

The total of our 11 initiatives in that first year was $15 million. Analysing them after the event most were aimed at resourcing grass roots participation. We secured funding for local environment centres, on a contestable basis; legal aid for public interest cases at the Environment Court; local conservation education and awareness programmes; training teachers of environmental education in schools; organic farming pilot projects.

There were also policy development projects: a pesticide reduction strategy, improved biosecurity work, the development of natural resource accounts and some case studies of triple bottom line accounting. And of course the 'child support' for EECA so it could both develop the Energy Efficiency Strategy and continue its work funding local projects retrofitting low-income houses for energy efficiency.

This seemed like a huge success and certainly the media saw it as novel for a party outside Government to get a say in the spending, however small. But the reality is, if you don't control the implementation of policy and spending it is still possible for nothing to happen.

By the end of the budget year work had barely started on a number of our initiatives and we had to work to get the funding rolled over to the next financial year. Some officials spent time and money doing scoping documents for the work rather than the work itself. The most successful have been the projects where the money goes to groups outside the civil service like the environment centres and legal aid, though even these took many months to set up and get running.

Least successful have been the policy development initiatives for which there is still little to see.

Select Committees

Four select committee enquiries have been initiated by Greens and reported back to the House. They deal with the opportunities for organic farming, ways of reducing the harm resulting from cannabis, the human rights impact of New Zealand's foreign aid and the role of local government in meeting climate change objectives. The recommendations from these reports to Parliament may affect Government policy and the process itself is educational for the committee members and the public.

Chairing a select committee is seen by the Government as a prize to be sought eagerly and we were offered one such chair, of the Local Government and Environment committee. In fact it does provide opportunities to direct the way committee work is conducted and to have some influence on the outcomes, but at the price of a huge amount of extra work which is largely invisible to our constituency.


Finally, there is the chance to use the parliamentary platform to amplify and support campaigns run outside Parliament. Rod and I did this effectively in the previous term of Parliament when Native Forest Action and other NGOs were occupying old growth forests on the West Coast to try to stop the last such logging on public land in New Zealand.

We were able to get information through parliamentary questions, raise the issues in debate and publicise the actions of those on the ground. Stopping that logging became Labour policy just before the 1999 election and we were able to exert pressure after the election to ensure it stopped sooner rather than later.

Recently we have worked with the Maritime and Transport Union to promote the idea that Government should recover ownership of the rail track which has been allowed to run down under private ownership, and tender the right to run services on it. There has been no movement from Government yet on this issue but the policy pack we produced and the parliamentary profile we have given it have increased public support for the idea.

Where to from here?

When you look back over the last two years it is clear that Parliament has never been like this before and we have made a mark. But have we made a difference? The list of concrete practical changes to improve outcomes for people or the environment is really quite short. We have got agreement to a lot of processes (enquiries, reviews, working parties, Royal Commission, consultation) but not many outcomes. As you might expect, there are very severe limitations on trying to govern outside Government!

While it is tempting to seek the hands-on decision making power of ministerial positions, there are obviously limitations on the inside too. The junior partner in the present coalition, with more seats than us, has achieved few of their key policies and been torn apart by the conflicts between the demands of Cabinet solidarity and party demands to uphold policy. Had the Greens been in their place this term we would have voted, as we did, against the motion in Parliament expressing total support for the US approach to the war. We would also have opposed the sending of troops, and it is hard to see how we could have continued in Government.

It is unthinkable that we would have won that argument in Cabinet as Labour saw its contribution to the war as important in its efforts to negotiate a free trade agreement with the US - which of course in our eyes made it even worse.

Both coalitions and support on confidence and supply come down to how you manage a relationship with a larger party which is wedded to the old goals of unsustainable economic growth and corporatist industrialised systems of production. Good policies on saving whales, while welcome, don't change that direction. We are learning that helping them adopt the language of sustainable development and triple bottom line reporting doesn't change it either.

The Greens have rejected the approach of the Free Democrats in Germany and of New Zealand First in 1996 who offered to form a Coalition with which ever party would do the best deal. For as long as one party has policies significantly closer to ours we will make it clear that we will not support a Government led by the other. But the differences have not always been significant.

In 1990 outgoing Labour and incoming National were privatising, tax cutting, economic rationalists, widely seen as Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. In 1999 after nine years of National, Labour seemed to have recovered some of its original commitment to social justice and the welfare state and was welcomed back.

On the basis of the Speech from the Throne we felt very comfortable offering support on confidence and supply. But the threats of business confidence and the moves by National away from its more extreme right to claim the ground of commonsense and pragmatism have had their effect. The main Labour strategy recently has been to leave National no room to differentiate themselves - on the war, on suppression of civil rights, on genetic engineering, on continuing to put more motorways ahead of public transport.

We are now left expressing 'confidence' in a Government that supports the bombing of the desperately poor; has declared its intention to embrace genetic engineering wholeheartedly as a key part of its economic strategy with just a two year delay; proposes anti-terrorism laws that contravene basic civil rights; is intent on free trade agreements with no safeguards for New Zealand jobs; and has done almost nothing to reduce poverty or invest in tertiary education. It is becoming a serious threat to our self-respect.

There is, of course, a third option and that is to remain an independent, non-aligned force in Parliament, giving formal confidence to no one, voting for legislation on its merits and supporting the budget of the party that seems the lesser evil. We would, of course, lose some of the information flow, the confidential briefings from Ministers, the budget initiatives. But in practice the consultation might become more real if support could not be taken for granted.

Under this option it would become increasingly obvious that the two large parties have more in common than either does with us. They might even try to abolish MMP and return to a system that virtually excludes third parties. This is what happened to the Tasmanian Greens when Labour would not govern in coalition with them; they allowed a Government to form but with no formal agreement on confidence and the system was gerrymandered against them before the next election.

If Green policies are to be implemented - and surely that must be a major reason for coming to Parliament at all - then at some stage Greens must form part of Government. The question is when that is appropriate and under what conditions.

Perhaps what the experience of the last two years reminds us is that not much can be achieved in ecopolitics from the top down. Unless there is both understanding and support of green objectives at the grass roots, change through Parliament will not be real or lasting. That is why we must keep in close contact with our activist supporters and continue to run campaigns both inside and outside the House, as we have done over four years now on genetic engineering. We must measure our support not just on the votes we get - it is easier in a campaign to get votes for populist reasons than from a true understanding in the community of our message.

I suggest that the right time for us to go into coalition will depend on five things.

Obviously the first is numbers. There is no magic number but seven is too few and twenty is more than enough. Numbers give you not just crude voting power but parliamentary resources, capacity to address many issues at the same time and moral authority to demand a fair share of the decision-making.

Secondly, there must be a coalition agreement that nails down a few key policies and timeframes in a form that cannot be weaselled out of and gives us the portfolios and resources to implement them.

Third, there must be agreement in the party on what these should be, and understanding that we will lose many other arguments in the Cabinet.

Fourth, we should be prepared to use the ability to differentiate our position from the coalition partner. This change to the Cabinet manual was negotiated by the Alliance but has hardly been used and needs to be expanded.

Fifth, we must be actively involved with significant movements in the community for mutual support on the issues we and they are trying to progress.

It may happen next year or it may not happen in my lifetime, but it will happen.

© Scoop Media

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