Simon Wilson: Time for Greens to flay those lily-livered Labour hides


Few leaders, it is said, go in search of greatness. Mostly, it is thrust upon them.

In America, the chance to be a great president seems likely to be thrust upon, of all people, Joe Biden.

In New Zealand, the opportunity for greatness has been thrust upon Jacinda Ardern. We don’t know if she will rise to the challenge, but we do know she is capable of it.

In the past three years, Ardern has shown us she has the right stuff for a crisis: her instincts point her towards both compassion and command, she has the communication skills to gain popular support for difficult measures and she has the management skills to preside over a complex and fast-changing situation. And she can make decisions that stick.

Those same Ardern skills are now required to rebuild a shattered economy and address the enormous problems of poverty and the climate crisis. This term, the task of Government is to set in motion a giant programme to build back better.

It’s a programme that must include agriculture, energy, housing, health, transport, welfare, education, technology and so much more. It will not be achieved in three years, but material progress on all fronts is required.

And because it’s a long-term programme, Ardern has an even more fundamental task – one she shares with the Green Party. Both Labour and the Greens must win popular support for their forming a coalition Government, when we vote again in 2023.

It’s not cynical to say the job of a Government is to get re-elected. It’s essential: the programme of reform is too important to abandon. And despite the Labour euphoria of winning an absolute parliamentary majority a week ago, Ardern cannot expect to do the same in three years’ time.

Labour and the Greens are going to need each other. How are they going to do it?

For the next three years, Labour will almost certainly govern alone. That’s fair enough, it’s earned the right. But it does mean it will have to shoulder the task of real reform.

Take climate change. An end-date to petrol and diesel vehicle imports is obviously urgent. A shovels-in-the-ground start to light rail in Auckland, a transition to greater use of rail for freight and intercity travel and a well-funded programme to help farmers adopt low-carbon practices are also essential.

And: substantial progress in resource planning and with local government, to beef up efforts to control the growing risks of floods, droughts and wildfire.

It’s all doable. But the climate change job can’t stay with Greens co-leader James Shaw. Sadly for him and despite his considerable achievements in the role, the programme can’t be relegated to a politically impotent minister outside Cabinet. It has to be an all-of-Government effort run buy someone at the top table.

So here’s a thought: give it to Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor.

Give him the job of leading a “Rural Response”: a hearts and minds programme that puts efficient, profitable, low-carbon and eventually zero-carbon agriculture, horticulture and forestry at the centre of both our climate crisis strategy and our trade strategy.

O’Connor was closely involved in the Zero Carbon Act and he’s widely respected in the rural sector. You could send some pretty exciting signals, giving climate change and agriculture to the same minister.

Last term, Labour controlled the portfolios responsible for poverty, welfare reform, housing, health, education and related social issues, but did not move far or fast enough in any of them. It was the Greens, in the election campaign, who set out achievable and costed targets for real reform. Labour ministers now need to show they’re up for it.

Here’s what it comes down to. The Greens have an agenda they must continue to proclaim and Labour must do its best to follow it. To prove it works.

Labour may earnestly deny it’s doing anything of the sort. That’s fine, as long as it does the mahi anyway.

What if the Greens can secure more from Labour? Should Eugenie Sage, say, stay on as conservation minister? She made real gains last term, including substantial funding increases. My answer is yes, by all means, provided it does not prevent the Greens from criticising Labour on other fronts.

Ardern is widely regarded as a cautious politician. But she says she wants reform and she does have the skills to do it. Her aim, she says, is to develop a progressive programme of change, generating and maintaining consensus support as she goes. That’s wholly admirable.

And it won’t be as hard as she may think. Already, on poverty and the climate crisis, the consensus she seeks already exists.

We saw plain evidence of this in the election. In the provinces, voters shifted to Labour. In the cities, not only to Labour but also to the Greens, most obviously in Auckland Central. In the Māori electorates, to the Māori Party.

All part of the same phenomenon. It’s not good enough to explain it purely in terms of Covid or the PM’s “stardust”. Voters have opted for Labour-led progressive reform.

Unfortunately, the issue on which so much of that reform depends is the one Ardern has done her best to keep out of the debate. Tax reform.

Think about this. “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Some radical lefty political philosopher? Actually, it’s the saint of neoliberalism, economist Milton Friedman.

But it’ll do. Tax reform targeting wealth and capital gains, to fund the social programme that will bring an end to poverty. A guaranteed minimum income. ACC that covers illness. All these ideas and so many more are now “lying around”, courtesy of the Greens. It’s their role to turn them from impossible to very possible, so Ardern, at some point in the next few years, can make them inevitable.

For both parties, the goal for 2023 remains: They need us to believe they’d be good in government together.

For the Greens, though, there’s no point in being a poodle hoping to be thrown a bone. The upside to being outside is that they are free to kick back, wish Labour well, and turbo-charge their campaign for a great, just, fair, prosperous and zero-carbon New Zealand – with a programme to get us there.

Let Chloe Swarbrick off the leash, and Marama Davidson, and their other fine orators. Let’s hear James Shaw at his fiery best.

Their programme will frighten the bejesus out of some people. Not because it won’t work, but because it will. The future of farming will be better for everyone, including farmers, and the economy will be built back better for everyone too.

Carbon’s vested interests – in trucking, fertilisers, you name it – will be outraged. But they do not speak for everyone and we should not forget it.

A prosperous, just and zero-carbon New Zealand is a perfectly achievable goal. Labour’s job will be to move us towards it, slowly, and the Greens’ job will be to flay their lily-livered hides when they don’t.

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