Green Party discontent: Members walk, ex-MPs criticise leadership

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Former senior figures have accused the Greens of jettisoning core principles as party discontent surfaces over its co-operation agreement in government.

Green Party co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson sign the government co-operation agreement in 2020.

By Michael Hall of rnz.co.nz

Ex-MPs Sue Bradford and Catherine Delahunty say the agreement makes no sense and that the party's position in government amounts to a failure of leadership.

Delahunty criticised her former colleagues for not pointing to an "unholy alliance between banks and the government" that accounted for record bank profits, inflated house prices and growing inequality.

Former co-leader and current head of Greenpeace New Zealand Russel Norman has also called Green minister James Shaw's climate position "simply not credible".

RNZ can reveal a number of activists have recently stepped away from the party, including former executive and policy branch members.

They accuse co-leader Shaw of having an autocratic style and complain that the party executive is not holding the caucus and leadership to account over policy decisions in government.

The Greens' co-leaders have rejected the criticisms, maintaining the party is democratic and making progressive changes in government.

The party signed the agreement on October 31, 2020.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the media the deal was about building consensus and stability, but emphasised her party had a right to govern alone in Parliament. Labour took more than 50 per cent of the vote.

Shaw remained Minister of Climate Change and Associate Minister for the Environment (Biodiversity), while fellow co-leader Marama Davidson became Minister for the Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence and Associate Minister of Housing (Homelessness).

The deal's provisions bound the pair to ministerial collective responsibility but allowed the Greens to disagree and criticise the government on issues outside those ministries.

Shaw and Davidson were excluded from Cabinet and matters of fiscal policy.

Former policy branch and executive member Megan Brady-Clark - a delegate who voted to block the deal - said the specially-convened meeting over the agreement had been carefully managed.

Delegates gathered on Zoom in a virtual conference on October, 31, 2020 at 4pm, and were encouraged to come to 'consensus' around the document.

They were given access to copies of the proposed agreement at 4.30pm, the same time it was being released publicly.

Brady-Clark said it had left little or no time for wider dissemination and debate within their branches.

A scheduled government media conference had also been planned the same evening to announce the agreement, exerting further pressure on delegates to agree to it.

She said delegates were told by the party's Tatau Pounamu - the negotiation consultation group - that it was a case of either being in government or "nothing".

"The implication here, of course, is that being in opposition wasn't actually given consideration as a valid option, and the desire was to sign up to the best agreement possible, rather than to sign up to an agreement if it was worth signing up to," Brady-Clark said.

About 15 per cent of delegates voted against the agreement, giving the party a clear majority in favour of the deal.

Brady-Clark has now stepped away from the party. She said the Greens were failing to push the government in key areas of policy contention, namely the environment and inequality.

"By ostensibly handing over responsibility without the resourcing commitment or power behind the ministerial portfolios and areas of co-operation Labour has managed to silence the Greens on some issues where the Greens should be most clearly and loudly critical of the government," she said.

"We know from past research the demographics of Green Party supporters and Ardern's supporters are similar. So, from a strategic perspective, it's important to differentiate.

"It's not clear that the Greens are currently offering something meaningfully different from Labour. If voters are disgruntled with Labour at the next election, they're going to be looking for a clearly articulated alternative - where is it?"

Joel, a former branch organiser and executive member, has been a party activist for 10 years and is now thinking of letting his membership lapse. RNZ has agreed not to use his real name.

"I just think the party's lost a huge opportunity and is continuing to miss it by capitulating to the direction of the government, and that's not just this term," he said.

Joel said party delegates had supported the agreement in good faith, but there was now disenchantment over the party being effectively co-opted by Labour.

"The idea was Marama and James would have kind of principled points of difference, and at the other MPs would basically function as an entirely separate oppositional party, against the Labour Party," he said.

"There were good reasons to think that wouldn't happen, based on how the previous government had operated, and how much our MPs have capitulated to Labour demands since then I think has borne that out to be a very naive thought.

"We still have some good MPs and some good people in policy, but they're isolated now, working in their own silos. It doesn't feel like there's a vision anymore.

"The watchword of 'further and faster' used last term has been weaponised in a way that kind of scorns explicit critiques so that even our more critical MPs, like Ricardo [Menéndez March] or Elizabeth [Kerekere], will hear a Labour policy and say 'this doesn't go far enough' instead of 'this is a bad policy that goes the wrong way'."

He said dissent existed among members, but there was also a reluctance to debate issues, with many deferring instead to the directions of MPs.

"From what I've noticed, the mood has definitely changed on the agreement. I'm not sure how much of the party now supports it. Every time it's brought up internally it's kind of kicked down the road a bit, which suits the leadership position."

Climate position 'a sham'

The party's old guard isn't so happy either.

Former Green Party co-leader Russel Norman.

Former party co-leader Russel Norman, speaking in his capacity as head of Greenpeace New Zealand, says Shaw's position as climate minister is "highly problematic".

He called the nationally-determined contrmeibution to reduce carbon emissions Shaw took to the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow in October "a farce".

"It's just a sham. Almost all of it is being met by these offshore carbon credits, so it's obviously farcical. You can't say your serious about climate change and then pay other people somewhere else in the world to cut emissions," he said.

The government's position more generally has involved avoiding to tackle agri-business, Norman said.

"Agri-business is by far the biggest polluter of climate in New Zealand and the government has completely shied away from confronting agri-business about its emissions, or drive any change there. So, until the government is willing to tackle agri-business, they don't have a credible climate change policy."

As coalition partners, New Zealand First and Labour agreed that agriculture would come into the Emissions Trading Scheme.

The scheme is a market-based approach for reducing emissions, putting a price on emissions by charging industry sectors on the amounts emitted annually.

But instead, the partners co-created the pricing scheme He Waka Eka Noa with the agricultural sector.

"Unfortunately the climate minister celebrated this as a good thing, but clearly it's a terrible idea because the polluters are never going to agree to a high price on pollution. That's the last thing they want," Norman said.

"When the He Waka Eke Noa report finally came out nearly four years into this current government it basically had two options, neither of which cut emissions significantly - by less than by 1 per cent, and that's what the Green Party currently signed up to by agreeing to He Waka Eke Noa.

"I think that contextualises the problem. You have a climate minister who's celebrating He Waka Eke Noa - saying that it is designed to stop emissions, and that's why agri-business participated in it. The report comes out with two options, neither of which cuts emissions and so you can just see the basic problem."

He was blunt in his assessment of the Green party position in government.

"The issue for the Greens in the government is that they have no power. Labour didn't need them. The Greens aren't in Cabinet. So that makes it pretty difficult to achieve any kind of policy goals, in terms of climate and biodiversity."

There was friction among Greens over the introduction of He Waka Eka Noa.

A section of the party's Agriculture and Rural Affairs policy, relating to a requirement for emissions liability to be charged at the "processor level", was removed under urgency so the scheme could be supported.

An internal party document stated the removal was "due to James Shaw wanting to introduce government polic[ies] which is more ambitious on reducing agricultural emissions than our current policy".

Consultation among branches took place between September 6-15, 2019.

The party's largest body - GreenLeft Network - wrote a letter of complaint to caucus about the change and how it had been pushed through. The group said it received no reply.

The policy clash was one of several dating from when the Greens first entered a confidence and supply agreement with the Labour-led government in 2017.

Another involved support for the coalition's Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR), during the same year. There were complaints raised, including that staffers as well as MPs were allowed to vote on whether to support to the rules.

A party executive report subsequently stated: "While there were some flaws in the process around the BRR announcement, the decision-makers involved were the correct ones according to current process, both with regard to its status as an election year policy announcement and as a pre-election negotiation. If the process is considered inadequate then a new process would need to be developed."

Fitzsimons' 'overwhelming anger and disappointment'

Perhaps the most striking policy clash came with the party's support for the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act 2018.

The legislation compelled MPs who left their parties to be expelled from Parliament if their former party gave notice to the Speaker to do so, with the seat becoming vacant.

The Greens had vehemently opposed 'waka-jumping' legislation for nearly two decades as an attack on freedom of speech and association.

RNZ can reveal former co-leader, the late Jeanette Fitzsimons, wrote to Shaw at the time to "explain the overwhelming anger and disappointment felt widely in the party about the caucus decision to support the party hopping bill".

A letter had been previously sent to the caucus over party support for the legislation and Fitzsimons also voiced anger it had not been replied to.

She said it had been drafted by 30 members, including "a number of the most long-standing and senior members of the party, a number of whom are talking of resigning their membership very publicly".

She reminded Shaw of the need to follow the party's charter.

"Appropriate decision making means inclusive consultation about major issues," she said.

"I know well from my time as co-leader that leadership does not confer the right to make decisions on behalf of the party, except for relatively small and urgent things."

Her letter suggested Shaw had agreed to support the bill with Jacinda Ardern's party even before the Greens' negotiators were consulted.

"When an undertaking was given to Jacinda that the Greens would support the bill the appropriate group to consult with (NCG) was actually meeting in the same building," she said.

"We knew nothing of it. People are saying it has become more important to please Labour than to remain accountable to our own members and kaupapa. I know the huge pressure and stress you were under at that time and having been in negotiating positions can understand how it happened, but it must be fixed."

Fitzsimons advised him to tell Ardern he'd made a mistake and withdraw party support for the bill while showing "the ability and will to pull the party together and heal rifts".

She added: "We need space at the policy conference to discuss the principle of appropriate decision making and how it should be reflected in the party-caucus agreement so that this can't happen again."

The Green Party has now redrafted its party-caucus agreement. It is understood work is being undertaken to update internal party structures further. Brady-Clark said it came too little, too late.

"It's great that work is being done, which is desperately needed. But there also needs to be a culture of accountability, a commitment to the radical values of the charter, and a willingness to prioritise the party's policies over egos. All of that is at odds with the culture set by the current leadership."

She said many members had now given up attempting to hold the leadership to account.

Bradford: 'They don't seem to understand realpolitik'

Former MP Sue Bradford, first elected in 1991, said democratic accountability had been a strong feature of her time in the party but had since tapered off.

Former Green MP Sue Bradford.

Bradford said former co-leader, the late Rod Donald, had understood that party activists came from various sectors and organising groups so that tensions over strategy would need to be managed with rigorous debate and strong democratic means of decision-making.

"We had real serious debates and fought each other, which is the way politics should be - going hard on serious policy implementation, and then getting the party's input," she said.

"Some of us really tried hard to allow real democratic participation in policy-making and a lot of that seems to have gone west now... That pressure to keep the party totally under control of the caucus and the caucus totally under the control of James Shaw - that's been happening for a long time."

Donald had helped forge the party's radical praxis and Bradford thought his death in November 2005 signalled the beginning of the party's move towards centrist politics.

"When Rod Donald was leader, he invited me into the party very deliberately, and he kept the left flag flying," she said.

"The Greens were about social and economic justice, as well as environmental integrity and care for the natural world - that those two things had to stand together. He was strong enough to hold that left kaupapa.

"Even now the Greens have a great kaupapa - a commitment to social and ecological justice. But the trouble is how that's been implemented strategically has just made them softer and softer, and more and more to the centre.

"For me, the rot set in with his Rod's death. I didn't realise that at the time. Rod and Jeanette made a very good leadership team in terms of keeping the caucus together and the party and caucus close, staying in touch with the roots inside in the party and outside the party too. That was the beginning of the changes."

The veteran activist thinks the party's centrism and a lack of strategic nous explains why the leadership negotiated an arrangement that makes the party's stated core objectives unattainable within it.

She said the co-operation agreement was worse than what was agreed in the previous coalition government.

"It just didn't make sense to many of us. They just don't seem to understand realpolitik - what politics is about. It's about power, it's about numbers.

"In their desperation, they've had this taste of ministerial power so that getting ministerial positions is all that matters, even though it absolutely stabs at the heart of any ability of the party to campaign in a major way on the issues that really matter to it, on clear pro-environment, pro-people positions.

"It's weakened them again and even though activists went in - Ricardo Menéndez [March], Tenaio Tuiono and others - they've been swallowed up into the caucus, so they're not making a big impact.

"Maybe it's naivety, but you could also say James Shaw came into the Green Party from a corporate background, you know, making corporates environmentally sustainable and responsible, that old truck, which is just part of neoliberal capitalism. He's also following his own political path..."

"In the end, it comes down to where do you stand. I find it very hard to see where they're standing, because they just so anxious and eager to be the little friends of Labour, regardless of the fact they've got no power inside government... James' portfolio isn't little, but he's not doing anything his Labour ministers won't allow him to.

"It's really sad."

'Grant Robertson is a fiscal conservative'

Former MP Catherine Delahunty echoes the sentiments, saying Shaw's climate position is "just not leadership".

"It's so weak. You'd expect that from Labour. But this is the Green Party," she said.

"His position around agriculture is terrible... and buying overseas offsets - that's not changing anything. It's incredibly disappointing. I think they've become, whether it's conscious or unconscious, risk-averse.

"That happened last term and that's continuing."

She said the Greens' claims to have substantively shaped government policy was questionable, whereas fundamental challenges to Labour's neo-liberal policy agenda alongside the Reserve Bank had been conspicuously lacking.

Labour and the central bank have been criticised for fiscal and monetary policies that helped stimulate economic growth through the pandemic downturn, but also led to inordinate increases in house prices - a key driver of social inequality.

"The Labour Party has a huge majority, so it's actually very difficult for the Greens to be able to identify the gains they may have made," she said.

"Marama [Davidson] has spoken strongly in her portfolio about homelessness and rent controls and things like that. But actually, they need to go a whole lot further and actually talk about unholy alliances between the banks and the government, which have prevented real control over house prices.

"The Greens have some good policy, but you must criticise the instruments of capitalism. You can't just sit back and pick up one or two good ideas, you actually have to talk about the structural problem here, which the Labour Party has no intention of addressing, and that's what I'd like to hear.

"I mean, basically Grant Robertson is a fiscal conservative and I think it would be fine for the Greens to say that. This is not a Labour government that in any way resembles Michael Joseph Savage's relatively radical approach towards poverty and housing. This is a government that has had, before Covid, a lot of money and yet has not had the courage to do anything."

Leadership response

In a joint statement, co-leaders Shaw and Davidson said the party was democratic and its nearly 6000 members played a crucial role in deciding party direction.

They said branches had discussed what they wanted in a co-operation agreement and had assigned delegates vote on it.

"The final proposed Cooperation Agreement was presented at an online meeting prior to discussion and a vote being taken. Because we had open and consultative process in place from the start, when it came to the vote members could be confident that their views had been fed in throughout the process...

"Right from the start of the negotiations on the Cooperation Agreement, we established an advisory group of members to support us.

"The job of this group was to advise us - and the rest of the negotiating team - on what members wanted to see in the final agreement. They also advised us on how to get the best out of the agreement given that Labour had won a majority in Parliament and could, potentially, govern alone.

"The purpose of doing it this way was, first and foremost, to make sure that the work members wanted to see us doing in government on climate change, restoring nature, and addressing poverty were reflected in the final agreement.

"But also having an advisory group meant we could hear from members throughout the negotiations and take on board their advice."

They did not address specific questions put to them about how policy decisions within government had been handled, including suggestions Shaw had been riding roughshod over the heads of members.

The co-leaders listed recent policy achievements, including a clean car discount, new domestic violence legislation, record increases benefits in Budget 2021, new ACC legislation, ACC disinvestment from fossil fuels and a review of the electoral system.

They also pointed to campaigns MPs had been focused on, including battles against Maori inequity in Covid-19 vaccination, banning the use of Palm Kernel Expeller (PKE) on farms and better pathways of immigrants' residency.

"The Cooperation Agreement gives the Green Party a strong voice both inside and outside government. As a result of the agreement we have been able to take strong action on climate change and inequality in a productive partnership with Labour," they said.

"We capped an important year for climate action by helping establish a new Climate Emergency Response Fund that will provide billions of dollars over the next four years to help meet our government's climate goals.

"The creation of the fund was only made possible because of the work we have done to establish one of the world's strongest frameworks for tackling climate change.

"With the Greens in government, we have taken more action on climate change in the last four years, than the combined efforts of governments over the last four decades. This work started when we partnered with Labour last term and has continued at pace under the cooperation agreement.

"A Green Minister has also delivered Aotearoa New Zealand's first-ever strategy to eliminate family violence and sexual violence, Te Aorerekura. Developing the strategy, Marama Davidson built from the foundations laid by Green MP Jan Logie in the last term of government."

Shaw also defended his backing of He Waka Eke Noa, but added if the scheme did not amount to a viable option for pricing agricultural emissions, a backstop would be enforced and the sector would be included in the existing Emissions Trading Scheme.

"Through the He Waka Eke Noa partnership, New Zealand is working on the world's only farm-level emissions measurement, management and pricing system.

"The partnership was established so the sector could take in the lead in working out a fair system for the industrial agriculture industry to pay for its emissions. I was very clear at the time, and have been since, that the agriculture sector needs to play its part fully in meeting our government's climate targets.

"I would have liked to have seen more when the first iteration of what He Waka Eke Noa was published last month. From this draft we could see clearly that there is a lot of work for the partnership to do between now and when it publishes its recommendations to government next year.

"These recommendations will be reviewed by the independent Climate Change Commission before we decide on next steps...

"But, of course, we cannot rely on He Waka Eke Noa alone. MPI also needs to come up with new ways of cutting emissions from agriculture for inclusion in the Emissions Reduction Plan the government will publish next year.

"There are plenty of examples of farmers taking positive steps to cut emissions. Part of the challenge right now is that these things have often been seen as on the fringe. But, actually, if we were to fully commercialise those and roll those out, we could get huge gains.

"The Green Party is pushing for a range of solutions - like a regenerative farming fund to support farmers to make the transition, alongside a complementary phase-out of nitrogen fertiliser."