}

Monday, October 02, 2017

Blue-Green bloom

From time to time, when conditions are just right, otherwise healthy bodies of water can experience a flourishing of a toxic bacteria, cyanobacteria. These “harmful algal blooms”, as they’re called, can cause major health problems for humans, dogs, livestock, and other animals. The organism itself used to be called “blue green algae, but the name was changed to avoid confusion with actual algae, which is a name for a collection of different organisms, which are generally different from cyanobacteria and which aren’t usually hazardous to animals. At the moment, we have a Blue-Green bloom of another kind happening in New Zealand.

After the General Election on September 23 ended with no party able to form government alone, punditry turned to talking about the party presumed to be the “kingmaker”, the New Zealand First Party (NZF). The party is socially conservative (they voted as a block against marriage equality, for example, the only party to do so), but their social and economic policies are a mishmash of Left and Right. Their membership has generally preferred that NZF go into coalition with Labour, but National wants them, too, in order to form a fourth term government. Except, they may not actually want NZF because of its mercurial leader, Winston Peters. So, National has approached the Green Party about forming a coalition—a so-called Blue-Green Coalition. There are several reasons why this can’t happen and why it shouldn’t happen, but a few suggesting that maybe it should, though not this year.

The Greens would probably commit political suicide if they went with National (whose party colour is blue). First, the party spent months and months campaigning for a change of government, and to go into coalition with Labour, so to help National continue leading government would be a betrayal of voters—ironically, exactly as Winston Peters himself did in 1996 when he ignored his party members’ wishes and abandoned Labour to go into coalition with National (which ultimately fell apart spectacularly). Importantly, any coalition deal the Greens negotiate would have to be ratified by 75% of the party’s members, and that would seem unlikely to happen.

It’s also important to note that the preliminary election results show that the combined opposition parties—Labour, the Greens, and NZF—together currently have 61 seats in a 120 seat Parliament. National has 58, and the one person Act “party” has only one, giving the Right a minority block of 59 seats. After the Special Vote count is released on or about 2pm on Saturday, October 7, it’s probable that Labour and/or the Greens will pick up one or two seats each, the total coming from National and possibly NZF. What this means is that the opposition parties will have an even stronger combined block than the current government has.

However, Winston is said to prefer a two-party coalition government, not one with three or more parties—but I suspect this notion is being spread by National Party supporters. In 2005, NZF was in coalition with Labour, United Future Party, and the Progressive Party—that’s four parties. It lasted the entire term, unlike his two-party coalition with National in 1996.

Pundits on the Left are arguing that what National is trying to do is strengthen its negotiating hand with Winston, to make him think they don’t actually need him because they have other options. This may be so, but what if National’s goal is to avoid a deal with Winston and they’re sincere? Could the Greens do a deal?

Putting aside for a moment how extremely unlikely it is, the Greens could demand a heavy price from National. They could demand action on climate change and on cleaning up rivers. National, whose base is rural and farmers, couldn’t agree to anything that would make dairy farmers pay for cleaning up waterways, nor would it reduce intensity on dairy farms, but there might be other ways to make progress. The Greens could also demand action on ending poverty and reducing inequality. Quite what that would look like is difficult to imagine because their worldviews on those issues are so very different—for example, National continues to deny poverty and homelessness are a problem in New Zealand, when literally everyone else says they’re at crisis levels. Still, if the Greens could extract change from National on these and other Green Party issues, would that be so awful? It would also spare New Zealand having to endure three years of Winston in government.

In addition to the above reasons why a Blue-Green coalition is all but impossible, propping up a fourth-term National Government, when the majority wanted change, would mean the Greens would be punished at the polls in 2020, and probably wiped out. This is why it’s described as “political suicide” for them. Moreover, NZF and Winston Peters have been good coalition partners with Labour in the past. Winston must surely care about his legacy, so would he really want to prop up National’s final term and risk political oblivion for his party in 2020 by doing so?

Still, in a compelling piece on his blog, former Green MP Nandor Tanczos argues that the Greens must look forward:
…even if the Greens are ourselves content in our current codependency, there is a more fundamental problem. If Greens cannot carve out a constituency beyond the ‘left of Labour’ cul de sac we are in, we will continue to play out the dynamic of this election over and over, soaring in the polls only as long as Labour is doing badly, but dropping back to 5% as soon as Labour turns left again. Or finds a charismatic leader. We may be mighty in opposition, but we will always be puny in coalition until we stop relying on discontented Labour voters for support.
Nandor makes a lot of sense in talking about a way forward, and in future years the Greens must be willing to work with National to advance the Green Party’s values—just not THIS year. I strongly disagree with him when he says, “there is very little genuine political difference between National and Labour,” though I know that’s how Greens supporters see it (as they lectured me over and over and over during the recent campaign). But the larger issue here isn’t about semantics or differing definitions of what the two biggest parties are all about, it’s about making MMP coalitions work for the benefit of New Zealand.

Right now, a Blue-Green coalition government is impossible. In the future, it could be a possibility, and that might even be a good thing for New Zealand, and not only if one accepts that there’s no real difference between the two biggest parties. That may be a satisfying view to some on the Left, but voter behaviour suggests that, at the moment, the vast majority of voters absolutely don’t see it that way.

Instead, if the Greens find a new constituency, openly campaigning on the possibility of a Blue-Greens coalition could give them a way forward. However, it would also mean that the Labour Party would have to actively campaign against the Greens. At the moment, the parties are fighting over discontented Labour voters (and discontented Greens voters, too, of course). That’s not a way forward, or a path to government, for either Labour or the Greens. A new way may be the better way for everyone.

At the end of the week, we’ll know the shape of the new Parliament. When we do, it may be clearer who can form government with whom, though negotiations for that may take the better part of ten days from now to iron out, unless the final result after the Special Votes are counted brings a huge and dramatic change from the result from election night, which seems unlikely.

A Blue-Green coalition? Maybe someday, but not now. Will it be a Labour-led government or a National-led government? That will probably still be determined by Winston (right now, I'm still leaning on the side of guessing that Winston will go with National).

At the moment, the only thing that’s truly toxic in this bloom of punditry is the deliberate diversion and distraction of some partisans, and also comments based on general ignorance of the fact that this is how MMP is supposed to work. Elections always have consequences, and this one is no different. While we don’t yet know what all those consequences are for this election, a Blue-Greens coalition will not be one of them.

Update October 3: Green Party leader James Shaw was quoted by the New Zealand Herald as saying that talk of a Blue-Green deal was "noise and no signal." He added: "Our job is to form a new government with the Labour Party. That's what I said on election night, that's what I campaigned on for the last 18 months."

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