After the last election I was dubious about the Greens going into Government. Labour didn’t need them and so I doubted they would have the leverage to make any significant gains on things like climate change. I couldn’t see an upside. The downside was that, as with small parties in government before them, their vote could vanish as quickly as the Advance NZ donation box. Yet neither of these has proven to be true.
I work on the ground on climate change mitigation and adaptation, as a councillor in a small and dynamic district council. For many years central government has been missing in action. Like a number of councils we saw the need for local government to step in and show leadership. I’m proud of the work we are doing, but it has always been clear that Aotearoa needed central government at the table. We were missing a coherent national strategy both for reducing our emissions and for addressing the very real challenges of adapting to a changing world. In particular the question of managed retreat, and the difficult equity issues that raises, needed a national framework around it.
Frameworks, timelines, cumulative steps, these don’t make sexy headlines or provide many photo ops. But they are really important when we start to grapple with the realities of this huge and complex issue. Like an ocean liner, there is great inertia in the system and it doesn’t turn easily. Having James Shaw as Minister for Climate Change has meant that, for the first time, we have someone in the bridge trying to turn the rudder. And that has made a huge difference on the ground, most especially in terms of building understanding and certainty across our communities. Climate action is now locked in.
There is no doubt that if the Greens had been dealt a decent hand at the last election they could have done a lot more. Climate activists are right to demand more urgency in our climate change response, and to hold the Minister for Climate Change to account for that. But we also need to acknowledge that James Shaw has done more to advance this country’s climate change transition than any other politician, living or dead.
This is not to undermine those who keep warning us that we are moving too slow. We are. But the solution is for the Greens to have more influence in government. Greens electoral support is strong and it seems likely that any third term Labour Government will need the Greens to form a majority. Labour has some capable Ministers (Nanaia Māhuta and Kiri Allen are impressive) but Green Ministers have added real strength over the last two terms. Building a reputation as competent and credible operators is vital to broader electoral support, and the mandate that gives for deeper action.
The Green Party’s job, in my opinion, is to lead real change. It is the job of the broader green movement to be the radical voice. One is about navigating ‘the art of the possible’. The other is about maintaining an uncompromising clarity. I think sometimes we confuse the two. Over the years many people have spent energy trying to get the Green Party to be the radical voice outside the tent. Perhaps that energy would be better spent building a stronger extra-parliamentary movement.
Having said that, the recent vote to reopen nominations for co-leader shows a very real tension that I think James Shaw, and Marama Davidson, need to pay attention to. It doesn’t take much to see that many party activists are becoming disaffected. They don’t feel valued or listened to. They don’t feel that they have influence. They don’t feel supported, despite what they give to the party. These are classic causes of burn-out. And it is happening at all levels of the party, from the top down. The party needs to be much better at looking after its people.
The co-leaders need to take seriously their obligation to be good leaders of the organisation, as well as good ministers. They need to attend to the concerns of their members, as much as they do to their external stakeholders. They need to address the cultural as well as the structural problems in the party, which has allowed party processes to be captured by personal agendas and which makes internal debate a toxic affair. They need to value talent and plan for succession across the organisation. If they do not take the internal problems of the party seriously they may find themselves hamstrung just as they are finally reaching the level of influence they need to make deep change.
The vote to reopen nominations is a wake up call. I have no doubt that James will survive it. I hope he also learns from it.
Nandor Tanczos is a former Green Party MP and is one of the most important environmental political commentators in Aotearoa.