Election 2023: Green Party 'just getting started', aiming for more MPs than ever this election

Greens co-leader James Shaw says the Greens are "just getting started" ahead of October's elections.
Greens co-leader James Shaw says the Greens are "just getting started" ahead of October's elections. Photo credit: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone.

By Giles Dexter for RNZ

"The only way we can do that is to have more Green MPs in the next Parliament and more Green ministers in the next government."

So concluded James Shaw's speech at the Green Party AGM in July.

Variations on the phrase have appeared in almost every speech and media release put out by the Greens this year.

"Only with more Green MPs will we be able to take the necessary action to protect the health of our ocean," said Eugenie Sage, earlier this month.

"More Green MPs in government will mean we can finally direct decision-making towards fast, reliable and affordable buses and trains," Julie Anne Genter said in July.

"With more Green MPs we can continue fighting for improved rights for migrant workers and an economic system that works for all of us," reads a release from Ricardo Menéndez March in June.

After two terms on the government's fringes, the Greens have made it clear: this time, they want seats at the Cabinet table.

The strategy of getting those seats in Cabinet, however, is not entirely in the MPs' own hands.

First, of course, the Green Party needs to get into a winning position with Labour. Current polling suggests that will not be so simple.

RNZ's latest poll tracking shows the left bloc (Labour, the Green Party, and Te Pāti Māori) has a combined 52 seats.

There is, of course, still an election campaign ahead. But come the night of 14 October, should Labour be in a position to form a government with the Greens, not everything is a foregone conclusion.

For a start, Labour has already ruled out a wealth tax, something the Green Party wants to implement and use to pay for some of their key policies, such as an income guarantee and free dental care.

James Shaw is not deterred.

"Our ability to raise revenue in order to pay for the policy proposals that we're putting on the table will come down to the strength of the hand that we're dealt with on election night," he told RNZ.

Shaw explained a negotiating team of "four or five people" would work with Labour on what the government could look like. The group then checks in daily with a reference group of around ten people, which acts as a sounding board, to see what areas it may be giving too much on, or areas that are less of a priority than others.

That group would then take the proposed offer to party delegates, who vote on it.

"You have to be able to say, 'when I look at the coalition agreement in its totality, does it do enough on those three main priorities around climate action, protecting and restoring our native wilderness, and ending poverty in Aotearoa in order for me to be able to support it?'"

Questions over ministerial portfolios, and who would take them on, would come afterwards.

In 2017, the Greens were confidence and supply partners of the government. They had three ministers outside cabinet, as well as a parliamentary undersecretary role.

"In 2017, we named the portfolios without naming the ministers. But it was kind of a bit obvious when you looked at the portfolios. Associate transport, you know, who was that likely to be?" Shaw explained

He held the Climate Change and Statistics portfolios, alongside an Associate Finance Role. Eugenie Sage was Minister of Conservation, Minister of Land Information, and Associate Minister for the Environment. Julie Anne Genter was Minister for Women, Associate Minister of Health, and Associate Minister of Transport. Jan Logie was a Parliamentary Undersecretary to the Minister of Justice, in the domestic and sexual violence space.

Sage and Logie are retiring at this year's election.

This term, the Greens have been in co-operation with Labour. Although Labour has not needed the Greens to govern, Jacinda Ardern, citing Green expertise in areas around climate and child wellbeing, offered the co-leaders Shaw and Marama Davidson ministerial positions, again outside Cabinet.

Shaw carried on his Climate Change role, and was appointed Associate Minister for the Environment (Biodiversity). Davidson was given the new position of Minister for the Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence, and an Associate Housing role focusing on homelessness.

The cooperation agreement has allowed the Green Party to claim wins in the ministerial portfolios it holds, but also left it free to criticise the government on areas outside those portfolios, which it often has.

Chlöe Swarbrick has been a staunch voice for tenants' rights and drug reform, Golriz Ghahraman has often criticised the government's defence and justice policies, Teanau Tuiono recently slammed the ongoing practice of Dawn Raids, and Ricardo Menéndez March has frequently targeted the increase in benefit sanctions. Julie Anne Genter, no longer a minister, has carried on advocating in the transport space.

On current polling, all four MPs would return to Parliament. But Shaw said it did not necessarily mean the party would be putting those MPs forward in those portfolios.

He said it was firstly up to the voters to give the Greens enough MPs to have bargaining power, and then up to the Green Party delegates. RNZ's poll tracking shows the Greens could have fifteen MPs, bringing in eight newcomers.

"Ultimately, it's up to the membership to agree to the agreement in its totality. And that includes portfolio allocations, without necessarily including the specific people. And then that happens at caucus afterwards."

Any portfolios the party would be going after would be built around the policy wins in the agreement, and so it would have to be looked at in the round.

But Shaw said the party would expect the ministerial roles currently held by himself and Marama Davidson to enter Cabinet.

"If we're going to go into government with Labour, then those positions are going to be in Cabinet, yes."

This influence - held by the wider membership - led Jacinda Ardern to compare the Green Party's internal processes to the Netflix show Squid Game at her valedictory (coincidentally, the same evening former Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere sent the "crybaby" text which eventually led to her exit from the party).

Shaw believed the public was more interested in putting a roof over their head or food on the table than the Greens' internal processes.

"People aren't really worried about our particular dramas. I also think no party has got perfect internal processes. Political parties are constructs of an ancient parliamentary process, which itself is kind of creaking at the seams. I'd rather my set of problems than anybody else's, frankly."

Shaw said when the Green Party first entered Parliament in 1999, it could have gone straight into government.

But he said co-leaders Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald, along with the wider caucus, decided as the party was so new and had only just scraped in, it was better to support the government through confidence and supply in return for a handful of policy wins.

"Ultimately, I think that choice is why we were in such good shape to go into government when we eventually did," he said.

This time, however, the only goal is to get into Cabinet.

"We are not done. I think we've done some great work, but we really are just getting started," Shaw said.

"So I think it is really important for us to continue on. And frankly, with an expanded caucus, we'll be able to make more of a difference than we've been able to over the last two terms of Parliament."