This election doesn’t look like it’ll be a particularly interesting one in terms of who will lead the government. Labour appear to be locked in, and fair enough. They’ve done a fine job of managing the covid crises, communicating clearly, acting decisively and being open to expert advice. Their economic management in such straitened times has been solid too, and as a leader Jacinda Adern has acted with dignity and compassion throughout her term, the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings being a standout example. She has the ability to bring people together and that’s a remarkable quality, especially in the age of trolls. But, I won’t be voting for her or her party at this election. I’m not unhappy that she’ll be our leader for another three years, but for me it’s vital that the voice of the Greens remains a part of the next government.
For me it comes down to the way New Zealand elections are fought and the pressure this puts on Governments to compromise their values. Essentially, this country’s swing vote springs largely from the land of conservative caution we call the middle ground. Voters who like the idea of lofty aspirations, but less so the thought of actually paying for them. Governments in power tend very quickly toward a ‘don’t scare the horses’ kind of leadership, where all the policy heft sits with the status quo. John Key was a master of it. It was never really clear what he believed in or what he was trying to achieve for the country, but he provided a narrative of relaxed stability and marginal change, and ‘middle New Zealand’, such a dreary term that, lapped it up.
The current government, while talking a much bigger game: climate change is this generation’s nuclear-free moment – we’ll lift a hundred thousand children out of poverty – we’ll build a hundred thousand new houses – you’ll remember the rhetoric, ran for the shelter of compromise again and again. Farmers escaped emissions targets, the uptake of electric vehicles has stalled, houses didn’t get built, progress on poverty has been marginal at best, new industrial relations systems were put off, alternative tax structures were ruled out, and when it came time to kick start virus-hit economy, they went for roading projects. Transformation this was not, and the continuity between the Key and Adern governments has been remarkable. Yes, New Zealand First had a part to play in stalling progress, with their back to the future fingerprints all over some of the more public backtracks, but part of it is also the in-built caution of the ruling party, who if left unchallenged will always prioritise holding power over using it.
And that’s where a motivated coalition party can be crucial. Not only does it provide cover for implementing potentially popular policy, but they can keep the government honest, or be its conscience, as Chris Hipkins recently put it. And when it comes to a Government conscience, the Greens tick the two big boxes for me. They’re forward thinking in terms of environmental care and the economic transformation this requires, and they are serious about alleviating poverty. I might not agree with the nuts and bolts of all their policies, but for a small coalition partner, that’s hardly the point. They’re not there to broadly govern. They’re there to keep the pressure on for change, and make the government they work with braver. Because in the end, a government with strong values but little courage is all but indistinguishable from one with no values at all.
The Labour government will return to power and, without the NZ First handbrake, they have a significant opportunity to make meaningful and positive change. But on their track record so far, they’re likely to lose their nerve, and that will be sad. We owe it to the potential they have to provide them with the sort of coalition partner that will steer them always back toward their better selves. I trust The Greens to do that, or at least to give it a damned good go. And that’s enough for me. For The Greens to slip below the five percent threshold would be something beyond sad. It would speak of a society that has lost its sense of aspiration and imagination. We’re better than that.