James Shaw, Minister for Climate Change, and Co-Leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa, has a major dilemma in trying to defend the position of the Labour government that he is allied with while at the same time responding to criticism from his own party of a policy that the government is considering. The policy is a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture.

The agricultural industry has traditionally opposed any effort to control emissions and it is currently exempt from the country’s broader emissions trading scheme. However, pressure to contribute to the national goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is growing. 

The government gave the industry the opportunity to propose a greenhouse gas emissions plan, the industry in consultation with the government has proposed what is known as the Primary Sector Climate Action Partnership, or He Waka Eke Noa, to measure, manage and reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.  This would have farmers pay fees for their carbon emissions, although the size of the levies is undecided. There would also be rebates to promote carbon reducing practices.

The government is considering whether to support the proposal and urges patience and careful consideration of the plan. However, the plan has been widely condemned as inadequate by environmentalists. Greenpeace stated that the plan is “useless” and called for the government to abandon it entirely.

Furthermore, Shaw’s own party does not approve. Teanau Tuiono, agricultural spokesperson for the Green Party, stated that it was clear that not only would the proposal not hit New Zealand’s carbon reduction targets, but it looks like those in the sector “were given a hallway pass and used it to wag class”. 

The agricultural industry is seen by many as doing the bare minimum to respond to environmental criticism without making the more dramatic changes that are required for a meaningful contribution towards a carbon neutral future. 

It is ironic that a Green leader would be the government spokesperson on this issue.  Shaw is in the difficult, and some would say impossible position of, on the one hand speaking for the government in urging patience as the plan is considered, while on the other hand, as Co-Leader of the Greens, criticizing the plan for falling short of emissions reduction targets that are imposed on other sectors of the economy. It remains to be seen how long he can stay on both sides of the issue.  He may soon have to choose whether to remain in government or in the Green Party.

His dilemma raises legitimate questions about why the Green Party remains in government at all. In parliamentary democracies throughout the world, coalition governments are not uncommon. Where one party fails to win enough seats to control a majority in the legislature, it can join with other smaller parties to gain the required seats to achieve a majority. The smaller parties can bargain for concessions on their policy goals in return for their support. What seems unique about the current situation in NZ is that a majority government has arranged a coalition with a smaller party. 

The Greens supported Labour after the election of 2017, when Labour needed their seats in order to form a majority.  In return the Greens can point to gains made in advancing their environmental priorities, including the commitment to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions with the Climate Change Response Amendment Act. However, in the election of 2020 Labour won enough seats to govern without support of any other party. Nonetheless, the Greens continued in a coalition even though they had little bargaining power to extract concessions.  While Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted how the government wanted to continue to benefit from their expertise, the advantages for the Greens were not as clear.

The Green Co-Leaders continued in ministerial positions, which limited their ability to criticize the government, and many in their own party were critical. For example, former Green MP Sue Bradford predicted that the party would become “an ineffectual lapdog of Labour”.  Have the Green leaders compromised too much for power?  Perhaps the time has come for them to abandon their cooperation agreement with Labour so they can speak more freely for their own Party.

Header for the Partnership as made by the Industry Partners of Dairy New Zealand and Beef + Lamb New Zealand

David Arnott

David Arnott of Toronto, recent graduate of Political Science from McGill University.

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