The Green Party haven't started off 2018 very well. Between selling out their principles to back the controversial Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill and failing to get any reciprocal backing from their partners in Government for Chlöe Swarbrick's medicinal cannabis Members' Bill, they ended up with the worst of both worlds from Parliament's opening week of the year.
What that points to is that the while the Green Party is good at activism and campaigning, they're still behind the eight-ball when it comes to the nitty-gritty of politics itself. Given the Greens support for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill isn't a condition of their confidence and supply agreement with Labour, the Green Party missed an obvious opportunity to salvage a defensible position.
The backlash the Greens experienced from former MPs, members, the media, and commentators, could have been somewhat mitigated had they made their support to Select Committee for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill dependent on Labour and New Zealand First returning the favour to vote Chlöe Swarbrick's bill through its first reading too.
Herein lies the big problem for the Green Party in 2018 (and for the rest of the term too for that matter). As the year goes on they're going to into difficult positions over and over again by the Labour/New Zealand First coalition. If they keep emerging from these situations looking more like a doormat rather than a partner in Government, then their members will begin to get restless, which will flow onto their MPs too.
That brings me to the Green Party's co-leader vote. As at the time of writing only Marama Davidson is in the running for the position, having stolen a march on any potential opponents with a cheeky Facebook event promoting an upcoming announcement which took place on Sunday.
The media have talked up Eugenie Sage and Julie Anne Genter as possible options, though if they're thinking of running they're keeping clear of Davidson's announcement. Jan Logie has been largely discounted by media, with Chlöe Swarbrick and Golriz Ghahraman not figuring in calculations due to being first term MPs.
On the latter two, I'm not sure Chlöe Swarbrick should be discounted due to being a first term MP. James Shaw was only a few months into his first term when he ran for the co-leadership. Like Swarbrick's Auckland mayoralty campaign, Shaw impressed with his ability to turn out supporters in Auckland, and that success (combined with his business background) helped propel him past the far more politically experienced Kevin Hague.
Swarbrick is a politician who I think has a rare x-factor. She earned immense respect for her 2016 mayoralty campaign where, despite struggling to get media cut-through, managed to show up significantly better funded opponents. She has a formidable work ethic, is a fantastic public speaker and communicator across social media, has a great understanding of policy and argues her position compellingly, and her position to motivate and turnout the youth vote could be instrumental for the Green Party in 2018.
Some may argue that Swarbrick's youth and perceived inexperience would count against her, but I'd think that's nonsense. Neither of those factors seem to have stopped her rise so far, and in an age where there's a sense people are getting frustrated with politics as it was, Swarbrick represents what it could be instead.
That's not to dismiss the strong cases for Davidson, Sage, or Genter, I just thought there was a strong case to be made for Swarbrick putting her hat in the ring.
All that being said, Davidson is clearly the front runner. Viewed by many to be the natural successor to Metiria Turei, Davidson is similarly strong on the same social justice issues that Turei was a champion of. I remember my wife, during the Spinoff's election debate, being hugely impressed with the two Marama's - Fox and Davidson. Renee loved Fox's energetic, no-bullshit, but have fun at the same time, style, but she also found Davidson's more softly spoken but deeply passionate style resonated with her too.
While Davidson has less Parliamentary experience than her two expected opponents (Sage and Genter), her long career at the Human Rights Commission, as well as involvement with the Glenn Inquiry into Domestic Violence and Child Abuse, gives her a solid base of experience on important issues that the Greens existing co-leader James Shaw isn't as strong on. Davidson's extensive connections with, and ability to mobilise the Greens activist supporters will also help her bid too.
In many ways, the Green Party co-leadership campaign - if there is one as it's entirely possible that only Davidson puts her name forward and then presumably she'd be subject to a confirmation vote by the Greens' branch delegates - also points to that same issue I addressed earlier. Throughout this year, and this term, there will be a constant tension in the Green Party between the need to compromise and accommodate the more moderate Labour Party and the more conservative Winston Peters, and the feeling in the membership that more needs to be done, especially in the areas of climate change, conservation, and inequality.
If Davidson takes out the co-leadership and remains without a ministerial portfolio (as is widely expected) then she'll become the focal point of those tensions. Members and activists who get frustrated with compromises, or the pace of change, will put pressure on her to take a stand and drive a harder bargain for the Greens support on future issues.
There is good news for the Green Party this year though. With the Climate Change Commission likely to kick off this year, and the Green Investment Fund to be set up too, some of that pressure will be mitigated by getting tangible runs on the board.
The problem is, as it always is in politics, is that once you've knocked off one achievement, your supporters always ask the question, "What's next?"
The opening two days of the Parliamentary sitting year have been a disappointment. First the Green Party turned their backs on nearly two decades of principled opposition to waka jumping laws to vote the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill through its first reading.
Then, last night, Chlöe Swarbrick's Members' bill on medicinal cannabis saw a similar situation grip several Labour and National Party MPs who, despite having previously indicated they'd take a principled position to support the bill, didn't support it when the vote was called.
In National's case, as a whole the National Party has historically been opposed, or very reluctant, to liberalise laws around cannabis. From that perspective, at least, the eventual result of every National Party MP voting against the bill was largely consistent with the party's previous positions on the issue. The disappointing thing was that National's Hutt South MP had initially indicated he would vote for the bill, only to reverse his position around lunchtime on Wednesday. Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye had also been expected to vote for the legislation, but ended up opposing it.
In the Green Party's case though, their decision to vote for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill has been nearly universally condemned.
Former Green Party MP Sue Bradford summed things up pretty well:
At the heart of the issue for many people is that the Green Party have traded in their principled opposition to any waka jumping legislation essentially to keep New Zealand First leader Winston Peters happy. In return, they received absolutely nothing from either New Zealand First with regards to supporting Swarbrick's bill through to Select Committee. Even Labour didn't have all of its MPs vote for her bill either.
Had the Green Party thought about the situation, they could have had a win/win outcome. As was demonstrated with the failure of an attempt to pass similar waka jumping legislation in the 2005-2008 Parliament, which didn't end the Labour/NZ First coalition then, the Green Party should have been negotiating across the House to get Swarbrick's bill over the line.
Knowing that killing off the waka jumping legislation wouldn't end the government, the Greens would have been well served to stick to their principles, do a deal with National to oppose the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill in exchange for National either allowing its MPs a proper conscience vote, or National voting Swarbrick's bill through to Select Committee.
In that scenario, the Green Party would have been celebrated for honouring their principles, won plaudits for demonstrating an ability to work across the House if needed that would strengthen their negotiating position with the government, kept Swarbrick's bill alive longer.
That latter part is important, because as a minor party in Government, it's important to find ways to differentiate your party brand from the major party you're working with. Medicinal cannabis, especially the more liberal view that Swarbrick's bill was pushing for, would have been an ideal platform for the Greens to demonstrate that independence of brand. While they'll still get some benefit from the Government's bill lesser bill, there's a sense among Green Party members that they've gotten the short end of the stick from their partner parties.
On the flip side of such a deal - it would have been National that would have taken the heat from its supporters for working with the Greens and breaking with their previous opposition, a situation that would have also been useful for the Green Party (and the Government).
I'd also add that as someone who wants to see the National Party take a more pragmatic and less ideological view to medicinal cannabis, and possibly even recreational cannabis use, I'd be happy to see National take a bit of internal strife to advance an issue that's eventually going to move forward anyway.
The other option for the Greens would have been to tell Labour and New Zealand First that their support for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill was dependent on support for Swarbrick's bill getting to at least Select Committee. While this would have still had the Greens being slammed for turning their backs on their principles, at least they would have walked out of this week with something to cheer about.
As former NZ First and National Party MP Tau Henare put it:
Instead, James Shaw and the Green Party have sold out their principles to appease Winston Peters ego-driven inability to work constructively with his own caucus, and they didn't even the t-shirt.
If, like me, you're concerned about the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, I'd encourage you to head over to Change.org and sign a petition I'm running, which is calling on the Green Party to stand up for what they believe in and withdraw their support for the bill. If you need it, here's a shareable link: https://www.change.org/p/green-party-of-aotearoa-new-zealand-green-party-to-withdraw-their-support-for-the-electoral-integrity-amendment-bill