Analysis – The Green Party’s instability has implications reaching through to the next election, Christopher Luxon is caught up in another unnecessary muddle and National calls for an inquiry into the Reserve Bank’s pandemic response.
The far-reaching implications of James Shaw losing the Green Party’s co-leadership dominated politics this week.
At the party’s AGM last weekend Shaw failed to win 75 percent of the 107 delegate votes needed to re-confirm him as co-leader and nominations for the position have opened.
In five or six weeks another vote will be taken, whether or not a challenger has come forward.
Nominations close on Thursday and at the time of writing only one potential challenger had emerged. MP Teanau Tuiono said he was considering his position.
Shaw is considered almost certain to win because the only MP who might have been able to beat him, Chloe Swarbrick, has ruled herself out.
The unexpected move against him was led by left-wing members who want their party to have a more strident voice on issues such as climate change and who don’t think Shaw, who is minister for climate change, is delivering that.
In fact he can’t, because he’s bound by cabinet collective responsibility, but there’s clearly a problem and it must be worrying the government.
That’s because Labour is going to need the Greens to form a government after next year’s election, assuming there are enough seats between them to do that.
The prospect of the Greens moving further to the left frightens Labour, and for a good reason.
The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan explained it like this: “Labour has this centrist gravitational pull within it and they believe that voters don’t really like left-wing governments that pivot further to the left.
“They’ll be concerned… that (pivoting further to the left) could mean voters turn their backs on Labour and potentially elect a National government because they’re afraid of what Labour plus a far-left party might do.”
Coghlan investigated what was going on inside the party and reported that members of two groups, the Green Left Network and the Young Greens, were behind the move against Shaw.
Those most disappointed with Shaw were within the Green Left Network – the most far-left members of the party.
Coghlan reported that pro-Shaw and anti-Shaw groups were briefing against each other.
“It has shattered the veneer of relative peace and stability in the party,” he said.
“Shaw’s demise was, according to these reports, the result of seething animosities built up over months and years.”
The problem faced by the Greens has beset minor parties since MMP was introduced – be part of a government led by a major party and have your voice stifled while you try to achieve limited goals, or stay in opposition and say what you like as loudly as you like.
Coghlan made the point that it has been eight years since the Greens were last in opposition.
He said many Green voters were too young to vote in that election and there were party members who might not remember what it felt like to be locked out of government.
As numerous minor party MPs have discovered over the years, what it feels like is shouting from the sidelines with nobody listening.
The Greens will have an ongoing internal tussle over this. Shaw, assuming he is reinstated, and his co-leader colleague Marama Davidson who was re-confirmed at the AGM, will have to keep it as quiet and peaceful as they can.
They’ll need to sort it out because there is another AGM to come next year and another vote to re-confirm the co-leaders. Any display of left-wing angst close up to the election could seriously damage Labour’s chances of winning a third term.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stood firmly behind Shaw.
She praised his work and said there was no way she was going to take away his climate change portfolio, whatever happened within the Green Party.
Shaw has cause to feel poorly treated by party members.
“Shaw will be justified in feeling under-appreciated after his years of work to try to ensure the Greens could be seen as a credible force in government,” said the Herald’s political editor Claire Trevett.
“He has done what many considered impossible, getting almost unanimous support for the government’s climate change package. The significance of that should not be under-estimated. It means that even after Labour loses power, the climate change policy should survive largely intact.”
Trevett said the compromise between having coalition restrictions and being in opposition always came at a cost. “And clearly some of the Greens think that cost should not be paid.”
For his part, Shaw took a conciliatory line. In a social media post he said he had “found it hard to get the mix right between being a minister and co-leader and, quite clearly, given the vote last weekend, I haven’t quite nailed it yet”.
He pledged to “do better next time”.
Set against this, the event that embroiled National’s leader Christopher Luxon in another controversy seemed trivial.
Luxon took his family on holiday to Hawaii during the recess. While they were there a staffer put up a post on his Facebook page showing him meeting people in Te Puke. “Today I’m in Te Puke.…” Luxon said in the post, when he clearly wasn’t.
The post should have had a caption stating he had been in Te Puke the previous week, which Luxon explained as a simple mistake.
He obviously thought it was trivial, but that isn’t how politics works.
“Luxon is trying to bluster his way out of a social media post gone wrong but it’s a major misstep when National should be rolling into this sitting block with momentum, and hitting the government on its many vulnerabilities,” said RNZ’s political editor Jane Patterson in her Power Play.
National had been expected to come back fizzing after the recess, and Labour badly needed a distraction. It got one.
“As Luxon rose to his feet during question time he was greeted with taunts of ‘Aloha’ and ‘I thought he was in Te Puke’ from the Labour Party benches,” Patterson reported.
The media grabbed the story, seeing implications for Luxon going well beyond the “simple mistake”.
Stuff’s Laura Walters said a social media gaffe might not sound like a big deal but this one spoke to Luxon’s credibility which was “something he can’t afford to have called into question when he’s asking New Zealand to elect him as the country’s next prime minister.”
She said it was “one of those situations where it matters less what actually happened (a mistake around the captioning of a social media post) than what it looks like (the leader of the National Party being less than honest).”
Added to this was the fact that Luxon was on holiday with his family in Hawaii while back home people were struggling to pay the grocery bill and keep the lights on, Walters said.
“No one would deny the man and his family some time off to recharge and reconnect… but the optics of a political leader jetting off overseas are somewhat off.”
Newshub’s Am Show hosts wore leis and gave Luxon a Hawaiian welcome when they interviewed him. He again explained the mistake, and later on did get the chance to mention the cost of living.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said all politicians needed a break but it was important to be upfront about it. “I think a post that says you’re in Te Puke on a particular day published on a day when you’re actually in Hawaii is misleading.”
The Herald’s Coughlan said Luxon was making far too many unforced errors.
“He’s getting away with it now, but next year he’ll be in the thick of an election campaign – a far less forgiving environment.”
Coughlan listed Luxon’s “avoidable mistakes” as his failure to clearly articulate his position on abortion and telling an overseas audience New Zealand businesses were “soft”.
In Parliament it was basically business as usual with more opposition attacks over the cost of living.
There was one twist in that – National called for an inquiry into the Reserve Bank.
“The Reserve Bank and the government took unprecedented steps in 2020 and 2021 to pump money into the financial system,” Luxon said.
“The massive and ongoing monetary and fiscal response unleashed a tidal wave of cash into the New Zealand economy.
“The government should initiate an independent public inquiry into the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy… to better understand the lasting impact of key decisions.”
Luxon’s call followed criticism of the bank’s pandemic response by former governors Don Brash and Graeme Wheeler, the Herald reported.
Stuff published an editorial backing the bank and saying bluntly why Luxon wanted an inquiry.
“Inflation is at a 30-plus-year high and is squeezing household budgets and business expenses,” it said.
“National wants to sheet home the blame for that to the government, clearing the way for a National Party victory next year.
“National is now obliquely attacking the nation’s steward of monetary policy, hoping to tie the two together in the public’s mind”
Stuff said the bank had done a creditable job during the pandemic. “The mistakes it made – keeping monetary policy too lose for too long – were those shared by most of the rest of the global bankers’ club.
“Just because there is an economic price to pay now does not mean the policies were wrong at the time.”
Finance Minister Grant Robertson said he vividly remembered calls from the National Party to spend more money to support businesses during the pandemic.
“I don’t think Mr Luxon has any moral high ground on this,” he said. “There will inevitably be space for us to look at all manner and aspects of the response and I’m sure the Reserve Bank will do its bit in there.”
*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s press gallery, 22 years as NZPA’s political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.