Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Government in waiting

Today the New Zealand Labour Party and the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand announced that they have signed a Memorandum of Understanding signalling that they will work together to change the government in next year’s election. This is a game-changer.

In the last campaign, one of the most common criticisms I heard was that Labour didn’t look like a “government in waiting”, in part because it was being coy about working with the Greens in government. In fact, the party had rejected the Greens’ suggestion of a joint campaign, something that former Labour Leader David Cunliffe later admitted was a mistake.

The Green Party has never been in Government, except when they were part of The Alliance, a group of leftwing parties that was in coalition with Labour after the 1999 elections. They later ran—and won seats—as a separate party, but they have always been outside government. While they’ve had significant influence on the policies of whichever of the two main parties was in government, there’s far more that a party can do in government.

For Labour, it’s important to present a government ready to step in and lead, and since MMP pretty much requires coalition government, it’s important for them to send clear signals about what they want to do. It also makes sense to not compete with the Greens for the same voters, but to work cooperatively to increase the vote for the potential government.

Which raises two concerns, voiced chiefly by right-leaning people. First, there are some who perceive the Greens as being “radical”. While most such voters are “of a certain age” or firm right-of-centre voters who’d never vote for Labour OR the Greens, the perception is sometimes repeated in the mainstream media. And, it’s nonsense.

The Green Party is left of centre overall, sure, but many of their issues are quite centrist by New Zealand standards, and they have nothing that could reasonably be called “radical”. Put another way, they’re not scary at all.

The other thing I’ve heard repeated is the myth that New Zealand elections are won in the centre: There’s no evidence to support that idea. In fact, New Zealand voters are far more fickle than ideological, and have historically zigzagged between Labour and National depending on the issues of the day—and sometimes even just because of little more than boredom with whoever is in government. So, while the largest cohort of voters may consider themselves to be in the centre, the reality is that they can and do vote for governments of the Left and of the Right.

The media has been suggesting that Labour would abandon the Greens if Winston Peters’ NZ First Party holds the balance of power, but that assumes an awful lot—not the least that his party actually wins enough seats to be in that position. With Labour and the Greens working together, providing a clear message to NZ voters, they’re in a much better position to increase their share of the vote than is Peters’ odd first-past-the-post tactic of ignoring all talk of coalitions until after the election, as if NZ voters don’t deserve to know who his party would work with in government and who it would not. Very odd behaviour, in my opinion.

So, I think the Memorandum of Understanding is a great thing. I’ve long wanted to see a Labour-Greens Government, and this helps bring that a step closer. It will give the voters of New Zealand time to understand how that government will work so they can vote for the parties with a clear notion of what they’re voting for. No other party can make that same claim—except National, which is “same old, same old” or “more of the same” (which would be fine if they had anything decent to sell, of course).

Today, then, we saw the beginnings of a government in waiting, and that’s a great thing for New Zealand democracy.

The Labour Party published a Q&A about this on their site, and it has a link to the Memorandum of Understanding.

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