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The Green Party and the Emissions Trading Scheme.
28 August 2008

Before the 1999 parliamentary election I asked a Green Party candidate why she wanted to be a Member of Parliament.   Her answer (“Because I’m tired of being poor and I’m tired of being powerless”) revealed her fundamental misapprehensions about the nature of poverty and power.   The Green Party parliamentarians arguably exercise less political power than they did in the days when they could bring thousands of ordinary New Zealanders on to the street to protest over issues such as genetic engineering.   The ad hoc organization of street protests does not equate to the development of a real political power base.   But  in the days before they became entrenched as a parliamentary party, the Greens were at least able to challenge the power of the regime.    In the days since they have become mere hostages to it.

This has been clearly demonstrated in the debate over the Emissions Trading Scheme, which is not, in itself, a big issue.   The ETS will be just one more piece of New Zealand legislation which is effectively unfair and fairly ineffective.   The stated intention of the scheme is to reduce New Zealand’s green house gas emissions, but its form has been determined by vested interests (farming, forestry, and major industries) which are the principal climate change offenders.   The farmers and industrial corporations unjustifiably demand, and have been granted, exemptions from the financial obligations of the ETS.  The foresters, with no more justification, want to appropriate to themselves financial benefits accruing from the scheme.    The general public therefore will bear the main cost of New Zealand’s international obligations under the Kyoto protocols, which is “unfair”, but, more importantly, means that the incentives and disincentives upon which the success of the scheme depends will be unfocussed and ineffective.

The deal negotiated between the Labour and Green parties represents the sort of political compromise that the regime would have to make regardless of whether or not there was a Green Party in parliament.   The Green Party will take credit for making the legislation a little more fair, and a little more effective than it might otherwise have been.    But Helen Clark does not need to be told the dangers in producing legislation which may be seen as grossly unfair or discriminatory, and such legislation is routinely  accompanied by some kind of political sweetener or bureaucratic trade off.   The Green Party has been given credit for “improvements” which Labour would probably have wanted to make in any case.  And Labour is quite happy to give such credit in exchange for the Greens’ political support.   It is a neat solution for all those involved in the parliamentary political system, but it is not a satisfactory solution for the country, because the ETS remains fundamentally unfair to the working people of New Zealand, and will probably prove to be quite ineffective as a restraint upon climate change.

If the ETS was going to be effective, it would be justifiable regardless of how unfair it might be.   And if it was fair, one might forgive it for being ineffective.    But it will be neither fair nor effective, and therefore simply adds more trash to the regime’s legislative rubbish pile.

What has come out of this whole episode is an insight into how the Green Party has  metamorphosed from a “party of principle” into a party of political pragmatists.    The Greens  engaged in some public soul-searching over what was the “right step” to take in respect of the ETS.   But the step they had to take was pre-determined by the path upon which they had already decided to travel - the same path that has been previously trod by the European Green parties, by Jim Anderton’s Alliance Party, and by the New Zealand Labour Party itself.   That path, the path of pragmatism, arises naturally out of the structures of parliamentary democracy.   The electorate expects a political party to deliver positive change, but a party can only effect change by either becoming the government, or by doing deals with a major party that is in government.   For a minor party, the second option means being beholden to the interests which control their major party partner.   In this respect the MMP electoral system in New Zealand is a double edged sword, which allows some proliferation of nominally independent political parties, but at the same time tends to restrict the effective independence of those parties.   The end result is that the Green Party must submit to the same vested interests that control the fortunes of the Labour and National parties.   Tied to the machinery of government, they must submit to the social and economic forces which provide its driving power.

Therefore it was a foregone conclusion that the parliamentary Greens would favour a  “tactical compromise” with the Labour government over the ETS.   The very wording of the question “Tactical compromise or purist ideology?” (adopted by the Green Party hierarchy as the basis for its internal debate after being first proposed by APN, publishers of the “New Zealand Herald”) is clearly biased towards the answer “compromise” given the negative connotations of the words “purist” and “ideology” in conventional thinking.

It was not the “first tactical compromise” for the Green Party, and it will not be the last.  The Green Members of Parliament had already agreed to swear  allegiance to the British monarchy.   They made another “tactical compromise” when they paid tribute to the role of the New Zealand military in the Vietnamese genocide.   In practice  “tactical compromises” always reduce to unprincipled acts of submission to those who hold ideological, economic, political or military power within the regime, based on the mistaken premise that there can be “some good outcomes” from amoral decisions.

Defenders of the parliamentary Greens will argue that they have only done what it was necessary to do.  But whatever is merely “politically necessary” could be carried through by the Labour Party, or National, or United Future, or New Zealand First, or whoever.   No particular political party and no particular politician is indispensable to the task of balancing competing interests and accommodating pressure groups, although some (Helen Clark and Peter Dunne for example)  might be more practiced in the art than others.   If we subscribe to the ideology of political pragmatism, then each politician is pretty much as good, or as bad, as the next.   All are pieces of moral flotsam, carried back and forth on the tides of change and blown about by the winds of chance, after having abandoned their moral compass and cut loose the sea anchor of principle.

More important than the merits of the ETS, is the question of whether the political and social machinery of twenty-first century liberal capitalism has the potential to resolve the social and environmental crisis of its own creation.   Can political pragmatism provide workable solutions?  I don’t believe it can.   Pragmatism may seem to solve the immediate problems of those who are “tired of being poor” but that is as far as it goes.    Only principled politics can solve the looming crisis of civilization.