Neil Mackay’s Big Read: What New Zealand teaches us about Scotland’s SNP-Green deal

THE leader of New Zealand’s Green Party has a word of advice for his Scottish counterparts as they prepare for government with the SNP. James Shaw entered a government pact with Labour in New Zealand in 2017 – so he knows all about the perils of Greens getting into bed with ruling parties.

Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater should expect to “eat a few dead rats” when it comes to political compromises. If Scotland’s Greens pull off the SNP pact, however, Shaw’s experience shows that they will probably see their number of seats rise at the next election. If they blow it, though, they will become political “roadkill” trundled over by Nicola Sturgeon and hammered at the polls.

Shaw, his party’s co-leader, sat down with The Herald on Sunday to dissect Scotland’s Green-SNP deal. The pact has been greeted with hostility. The Conservatives branded it a “coalition of chaos”. Commentators have poured vitriol on the Green’s left, environmental agenda. However, many left-wingers and SNP supporters see the deal as a step towards “doing politics better” and more co-operatively in Scotland.

The pact creates a pro-independence majority in government.

And the deal sees Harvie and Slater becoming ministers. It’s not a full coalition like the disastrous LibDem-Tory deal between Nick Clegg and David Cameron. Greens have agreed to most of the SNP’s Programme for Government, including road-building schemes they don’t like, but they also have opt-outs allowing them to attack Nationalists on issues like aviation and private schools.

The power-sharing arrangement closely mimics the New Zealand experience, which saw Jacinda Ardern – who Nicola Sturgeon admires – invite Greens into government.

What happened in NZ?

In 2017, NZ Greens formed an unlikely three-way pact with Ardern’s Labour and the populist right-wing New Zealand First. The conservative National Party were the largest group but unable to form a government.

“That was the first time a government had been formed and led by a party that wasn’t the largest,” says Shaw. If the SNP-Green deal has caused ructions here, the 2017 NZ pact created fury. “Everybody thought the government would collapse for the first six months.” Shaw adds with a smile: “It didn’t.”

The three-way pact showed that parties that are poles apart could co-operate. Greens even found common ground with New Zealand First over rail and forestry. “In order to get anything through parliament you needed all three parties to agree. It was a truly consensus government.”

In 2020, Labour won an outright majority and it looked like any deals were a thing of the past. But Jacinda Ardern surprised everyone by offering Greens a place in government again. The 2020 election also saw the Greens’ number of MPs rise from eight to 10 – but New Zealand First were wiped out as the country swung to the left. “Labour were able to command a majority on their own,” says Shaw, “but Jacinda invited us into a relationship we call a ‘co-operation agreement’.”

This set-up is “close to where the Greens are in Scotland”. The similarities are clear: Sturgeon, like Ardern, didn’t “need” Greens to govern.

Rage and insults

SHAW isn’t surprised by the tsunami of press anger that has greeted the Green-SNP deal. “I lived in the UK for 13 years and I’m aware how fever-pitched it gets,” he says.

“I was there when Red Ken [then-mayor of London Ken Livingstone] brought in congestion charges and you’d have thought civilisation was going to end – that was pretty much the headlines wall to wall. Then, on the day, of course, there’s a 50 per cent drop in traffic volumes and it all worked perfectly and the media was utterly silent.

“To some extent there’s a fear of the new. The things that people said about us before we got into government were also absurd. We were regarded as the lunatic fringe, we’d destroy any government we were part of, we’d burn down the house – all that stuff. What we demonstrated in our first term was that we provided very capable ministers who were well rated in terms of their performance.

“We were regarded as responsible partners in government, who stretched that government in our direction, but didn’t overplay our hand.”

Shaw adds that like Scotland: “There’s a thing in the New Zealand psyche where people go ‘good on you for getting into government’, but if the tail wags the dog, there’s a reaction against it because people will fairly say ‘don’t get to big for your boots’.”


Pulled left

AT the end of the Greens’ first term in government, Shaw says, “we could point to some really significant things that we’d achieved. We were effective in government. We weren’t unreasonable. That’s why our vote went up”.

The 2020 electoral boost for the NZ Greens “was the first time in New Zealand history that a government support partner increased its vote after a term in government”. Before that, junior partners “were pretty much all roadkill. We bucked the trend”.

It’s both a warning and an opportunity for Scottish Greens.

Green voters in NZ “want to see us support Labour but to stretch them”, says Shaw – which is similar to how Green members see the SNP deal. “Our most hackneyed phrase at the moment is ‘further faster’.”

Green voters “want us to pull Labour”. He adds: “We demonstrated during the pandemic that we were strong supporters of Labour’s leadership – we weren’t trying to ankle tap them or generate political capital for ourselves, but we also kept our eye focused on how Covid recovery needed to be a green recovery.”

Culture wars

NZ Greens campaign firmly on equality issues – like the Scottish Greens, who champion trans rights. There is legislation coming in New Zealand banning “gay conversion therapy”.

“There’s clearly significant conflict –some real toxicity,” says Shaw, “but that to me looks largely generational. There’s also social conservatives who have deep discomfort with continuing to push the boundaries of those human rights. We take a very strong stand on that.”

Such culture wars are nothing new. Shaw points to “the horrendous battles” NZ went through during campaigning to legalise gay marriage. Once the legislation passed, “the sky didn’t fall in, End Times didn’t come”. Like Scotland, the “religious right” and “a reactionary base”, says Shaw, are “definitely there, but not dominant”.

Given Greens globally champion issues like pro-immigration policies and racial equality, they have become the targets of “vocal and quite unhinged language”, says Shaw, “since Donald Trump emboldened that white grievance culture … Some of our MPs really cop it in the neck, especially our brown women”.

Core message

GREENS can avoid burning up political capital and being consumed by culture wars by concentrating on their core message – without abandoning their equality campaigns. Shaw says Greens in government need to “push on climate change”. He is minister for climate change, and his co-leader minster for preventing domestic and sexual violence, as well as homelessness. “When we’re talking – those are the things we’re primarily talking about,” he says. “Being in government brings focus and discipline – if it doesn’t you’re in trouble.” Shaw says he suspects that “being in government may have an impact” and change the view among some voters that Greens are obsessed with identity politics.

In discussions between NZ and Scottish Greens, says Shaw, “one of the things we said to Patrick and Lorna was that for us, going from opposition to government is the same sort of order of magnitude as going from being outside parliament to inside. It’s transformational. A big thing for any green party is to be able to maintain your integrity and value set while going through the changes that come with being a government party”.

He says: “Over the 20 years that we’ve been in parliament, we’ve both matured and professionalised – a big part of that was focusing our communications. The first generation of our caucus was a group of strong individuals who had their own issues and people often said ‘what’s your core message?’. Our second generation of MPs recognised we needed to focus our attention and put the majority effort into our main issues.”

NZ Greens narrowed their message to “kids, rivers and jobs”. Shaw adds: “It was tremendously effective – it was about lifting kids out of poverty, creating green jobs and cleaning up rivers. So there was an economic, social and environmental message.”

He adds: “In government we needed to deliver on those things. So there’s been a culture change, where somewhat begrudgingly we’ve gone through saying ‘I might have some issues that are very dear to my heart and I want to be loud and campaign, but in order for me to make any difference to those issues at all, we need to be in government and I can recognise that my issue might not be top of the list, but as long as we’re there I can get more of that done than I could if I’d been sitting in opposition’. We’ve not compromised our values but we’ve definitely changed, we’ve become much more ‘choiceful’ about what we go after.” Currently, NZ Greens have restricted their focus to just “the climate crisis and the inequality crisis”.

A test of values

SHORTLY after the 2017 pact, though, NZ Greens faced the first test of their principles – and lost. The party was strongly opposed to legislation requiring MPs who changed party to “be booted out of parliament”. It was a “freedom of speech” issue for Greens.

However, that legislation was part of the agreement for government with New Zealand First. “Our agreement said that we’d in good faith support what was in their agreement and vice versa,” Shaw explains. “If we didn’t support that measure, then we’d have essentially handed them licence not to support our measures, including things like the Zero Carbon Act which they didn’t like. We kind of swallowed a dead rat in order to preserve the greater good.”

Then, in 2020, “the government put out quite a significant infrastructure package that included a lot of motorway projects … which we’d campaigned hard against”. Shaw says: “We got some pretty good things in that package – regional rail, walking and cycling infrastructure – but it was a small proportion of the overall package. So it was felt we didn’t get much out of it.”

Although Green NZ voters may get upset when the party backs down, they continue to support them because of successes in key policy areas around climate. It’s the art of compromise and managed expectations – and a lesson for Scottish Greens.

NZ Greens supported their party entering government on broadly the same margin as Scottish Greens – over 80 per cent. But there was also the same internal opposition with a minority worried about too many compromises. “You’re freest when in opposition – you can say what you like about whatever you like,” says Shaw, “but we want to be doing something about those issues and you can’t do anything when you’re in opposition. That’s the bottom line.”

Culture problem

ONE of the problems for both Scotland and NZ Greens is that both countries come from first past the post electoral systems to relatively recent proportional representation systems. So there is still cultural resistance to coalitions and co-operation, unlike in European nations where Greens have prospered in government.

“It’s taking a long time for the culture of first past the post to die out,” Shaw says, “whereas in Germany there’s been red-blue coalitions, coalitions of quite startling combinations. In Baden-Württemberg you’ve got a Green premier in coalition with conservatives … There’s a reasonable chance Germany will have a Green Chancellor by the end of the year.” Before German Greens got into power they also had the same sort of “challenging time”. German Greens are maybe 20 years ahead of NZ Greens, Shaw says – and NZ Greens are about five years ahead of Scottish Greens. Shaw thinks Green parties in NZ and Scotland can make up the lag “because the population’s anxiety about climate change is now much greater than it was in Germany in the 1990s”.

Shaw feels the hangover caused by first past the post is “peculiarly anglophone” and may account for some of the “basket-case” politics seen around the English-speaking world.

Patsies for the SNP

THE biggest risk for Scottish Greens is being seen as an environmental shield for the SNP as COP26 approaches. “We received a fair amount of criticism,” says Shaw, “for being apologists for Labour’s failures on the climate. What I pointed to is how much further along we are than we would be if we weren’t there – if it was just Labour”. “We wouldn’t have made the kind of progress that we’ve made on climate change.”

Shaw’s approach has been “to be really honest about the fact that we also don’t think that we’re going as far or as fast as we’d like”. He adds: “So I talk about all the good things we’ve done, that we’re doing right, and then I say, ‘but is it enough?’ No, it’s not. New Zealand has yet to see sustained decline in greenhouse gas emissions. It’s got to accelerate until we hit net zero. We’re laying the foundations.”

NZ Greens have successes to boast of: the Zero Carbon Act, an improved emissions trading scheme, and legislation compelling companies to report “climate related risks”. Shaw says: “I don’t think that would have happened, probably at all or not in the shape it is.”

Growth dilemma

IN Scotland, Greens are battered for being “anti-growth” and “economically illiterate”. Shaw says when green parties “talk about growth” they need to make clear “there’s some things we want to grow – windfarms, solar arrays. There’s sectors of the economy that if we’re going to succeed have got to grow – the electric vehicle sector, regenerative organic farming”.

But “there’s some sectors that are going to decline like oil and gas over time”. Greens, he says, need to “start to phrase things in terms of transition” if they’re to overcome “the framing around growth and anti-growth – that the moment the Greens are in power we’ll switch off the economy entirely, and everyone is going to have to go and live in caves by candlelight, that narrative”.

Shaw says he’s “focused on economic credibility” and “talking about the green economy in language people can relate to”. He comes from a business background – before politics he worked for the NZ Electricity Corporation and PricewaterhouseCoopers. “I’m comfortable dealing with executives – and the weird thing is that I found we really had a lot in common. It was constantly astounding how many people in the business community were like ‘the state of things is messed up and clearly can’t go on’. I put a lot of effort into building consensus with the business community.”

A word of advice

SHAW says he has shared “the trials, tribulations and rewards” of being in government with Harvie and Slater. His advice is: “It’s really important when you’re a support party to be able to come out of Cabinet and say ‘we fought our corner, we didn’t get what we wanted but ultimately we support the government and that’s the decisions that’s been made’ – there’s honesty and integrity to that.

“It’s really important to have some tangible things that you achieve in government so that you can campaign on your track record.” He points to the LibDems failing to achieve anything in their coalition deal with the Tories at Westminster. The biggest trick though is a “more sophisticated way of communicating with your supporters so you bring them with you as you go through this really significant change from being an opposition party to a government party”.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992