Dunne Speaks: Marama Davidson's Criticisms Hardly A Surprise
Last week, Greens co-leader and government Minister Marama Davidson spoke out against the government over the pace of its climate change response. Her remarks took some commentators by surprise, both because of their bluntness, but also because as a government Minister she had spoken out like that at all. But the real surprise was that after a quarter of a century of proportional representation and multi-party governing arrangements there were still those expecting Ministers, especially those from government support parties, to always toe the line in a way far more reminiscent of single party government under First Past the Post.
Ministers from smaller parties seeking to use issues that are of special concern to them to brand their parties differently from the major party of government have been a constant feature of MMP-type governments, whether they have been made up of formal coalitions, confidence and supply agreements, or the type of loose arrangement that exist between Labour and the Greens in the current Parliament. New Zealand First Ministers speaking out against certain aspects of government that they did not like was commonplace during the more formal Coalition Government between 2017 and 2020, although curiously (and in keeping with the inherent paranoia of that party) New Zealand First was far from pleased when Labour Ministers spoke out against New Zealand First!
“Agree to disagree” provisions have been part of every governing arrangement under MMP, and have been used frequently. As a Minister from a government support party for more years than anyone else, I frequently spoke out and voted against government policies that were not consistent with my own party’s policies, from Labour’s deal with New Zealand First over the foreshore and seabed in 2004, through to National’s efforts to gut the Resource Management Act between 2014 and 2017, and other issues besides. It was an accepted part of the process that government support parties were always free to decide their own positions on matters, like these examples, that were not covered by the formal confidence and supply arrangements. Moreover, no-one in the government of the day nor the media batted much of an eyelid whenever it happened.
So, there should have been no surprise that Marama Davidson chose to speak out the way she did, especially given that climate change is of the most critical issues for the Greens. In doing so, however, she has highlighted one of the ongoing problems all smaller parties in governing arrangements have had to face over the years: how to get attention for their particular issues and the role they are playing in resolving them. The experience to date has generally been that major parties of government take the credit for policies that turn out well and are popular, while the smaller party is blamed for unpopular policies or those that have turned out not quite the way they were expected to.
It is not a problem unique to New Zealand. I recall a discussion with Sir Nick Clegg, Britain’s former Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister during the 2010-2015 Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition under David Cameron. He made the point to me that the Conservatives never let the Liberal Democrats get the credit for the things they did that went well, but were more than happy for them to take the blame for the things that went wrong.
That is where climate change policy is difficult for the Greens. While it was good that James Shaw – as Climate Change Minister – went off to the recent COP26 talks, he did not get there until after all the major political figures had left, somewhat lessening his impact and opportunities. Moreover, given the enormity of the climate change issue, it is always going to be one where the emphasis will be on what goes on between national leaders, rather than worthy Ministers down the chain. And the Prime Minister famously declared some years ago before she took office that climate change was her generation’s “nuclear-free moment”, even though she seems to have forgotten the intensity of that commitment now.
So, when and if New Zealand makes big decisions on climate change, it will be the Prime Minister who makes the grand headline announcement, with James Shaw left to announce subsequently all the boring details of what it means. Labour, not the Greens, will then take the credit if the announcement is popular, but the Greens will be blamed for being too rigid and uncompromising if it is not. It is the typical no-win situation, one which all those who have been in smaller parties in government can relate to.
Marama Davidson’s statement was therefore a classic positioning one – setting out the Green’s position long before final government decisions are made, and giving them plenty of room to manoeuvre if things do not turn out as expected. Otherwise, they face the galling prospect, not unknown to small government support parties, of going into the next election campaign watching Labour as the major party of government taking all the credit for what is one of the Greens’ key policy planks. (In a similar vein, I look back on the recently passed fluoridation legislation which National hailed as its own because the legislation was introduced while it was in government. In fact, I introduced that legislation in 2016, having spent months persuading a sceptical National Party that change was necessary.)
For many years, the Greens seemed destined to be the one small party that would never make it to government. They had been spurned by Labour in 2002 and 2005, and ruled out working with National in 2017, citing a preference instead for Labour. Even then Labour turned to New Zealand First ahead of the Greens who were left as a confidence and supply partner outside the Labour/New Zealand First Coalition. The years 2017-2020 were consequently tough ones, with New Zealand First determined to shut the Greens out wherever it could. When New Zealand First was thrown out of Parliament in 2020, the Greens could not quite reach the moment in the sun they had been hoping for, because Labour won the first outright majority under MMP, leaving the Greens sidelined once more.
But as the 2023 election looms, and Labour’s support is starting to slide, the Greens sense their moment to finally emerge as the natural coalition partner for Labour they have always considered themselves to be, may at last be upon them. The last thing they want in the meantime, as has been the case in the past, is to be made to look ineffectual or irrelevant by Labour.
In that context, Marama Davidson’s statement was no surprise but more a clear foretaste of what is to come as the Greens try to manoeuvre themselves into the box coalition seat ahead of the next election.