“Uncomfortable with power”: strategies, policies and approaches of the Green Party of Aotearoa NZ in government

Image Description - Marama Davidson at her marae - Matai Ara Nui in the Hokianga, celebrating her appointment of co-leader in 2018

The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand is one of the oldest Greens parties in the world, and has been in shared government several times. Currently, they are in a unique arrangement with the Labor government of Jacinda Ardern. Green Institute Executive Director, Tim Hollo, spoke with co-leader, Marama Davidson, about the policies, strategies and approaches the party is taking to government, how to seek to change in both policies and the way government is exercised, and the challenges faced along the way.

Tim Hollo: Thank you so much, Marama Davidson, for making the time for this interview with Green Agenda for our edition on Greens and government, and how that interrelationship, which isn’t necessarily always comfortable, works. Can I ask you to start off by telling our readers, who are mostly Australian, but also from around the region, a little bit about the unique and fascinating situation that, as New Zealand Greens, you find yourselves in at the moment? In government, but not in balance of power, and in what seems from the outside to be a very productive relationship. So, if you could give us a little bit of an introduction to how that works and what the particular challenges and benefits of it are, I’d really appreciate that.

Marama Davidson: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you, Tim. So after the last election, the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand has gone into a cooperation agreement with the Labor government, which was interesting in itself because they didn’t need to have us. They had enough power to rule on their own. I think it’s clear, though, that thinking ahead means that they were probably clear that they weren’t going to have that outright mandate in future elections. And so looking around it’s the Greens who will most likely align in any sort of a way that is acceptable also to their constituency. For us, it was again an opportunity. We negotiated two ministerial positions, which is myself and James [Shaw], who are co-leaders. And then we negotiated some areas of cooperation, and they’re under the broad banners of specific things under climate action, environment and inequality.

And so we have a, for example, a specific focus in child poverty, for example, in our cooperation areas. And I was given a ministerial portfolio in the prevention of family violence and sexual violence, something that my other Green MP colleague, Jan Logie, had done a heck of a lot of work for in the previous term of government as an undersecretary, and James, of course, climate minister. I hold an associate portfolio in housing in the area of homelessness. And James holds an associate ministerial portfolio, in environment. And so our basket of work then, across the whole Green Party, sees us having roles to get things done in government, as well as continue to get some work on issues on cooperation areas. So for example, some of the environment work that former Minister Eugenie Sage, Green MP did in last term, carrying over in this term.

And then we also have eight non-executive MPs who continue to uphold our independent Green political positions. And they do it stunningly, superbly. But, I also want to add that myself and James, even as Green ministers, we’re in a unique position where we are still able to hold our own independent Green co-leader political positions. So when any given day you will still see me, even as an associate housing minister, I still am able to comment on broader housing issues where I am directly in opposition to the government. I’m still able to talk about, we need rent controls, we need a rent freeze, we need a wealth tax, we need a capital gains tax. And I know that for other Labor ministers, they’re not able to speak out against their own government’s policies or positions. So, it’s a very unique position where we’ve both, we can get some stuff done. And I can talk more about some of that. As well as also maintain our independent Green political positioning, which we know is really important to the people who support us. So, yeah, hopefully that gives a bit of an overview of the sort of context that we’re operating in.

Tim Hollo: Yeah, great. Thank you. So, to be clear, you have ministerial positions, but you’re not bound by cabinet solidarity, is that right?

Marama Davidson: We have executive positions as ministers, but we are out of cabinet ministry. Now we absolutely are bound to the cabinet rules in our portfolios. Absolutely. But in my associate housing portfolio and homelessness, it doesn’t prevent me from talking about the broader housing system. However, in the area of homelessness, I continue to maintain the work that I’m doing in government and uphold the work that I’m doing in government. I just have an extra advantage as a co-leader and being able to comment on the broader housing system.

And I should probably add, Tim, that we also negotiated in our cooperation agreement, that even in our direct ministerial portfolios, if it ever comes to a time where, as ministers, we take a paper to cabinet and we are still not fully in support of what cabinet end up deciding, we still have the opportunity to minute our different position, even in our cabinet papers as ministers. Now, that’s not something we’ve had to do so far because – and I think this is important for some of the conversation – a lot of the work is relational. And if you haven’t sorted out your work by the time it gets to the cabinet paper, if you haven’t clinched your support by the time you get that paper to cabinet, you haven’t done your work well enough. If it comes to the crunch and you’ve tried everything, and there’s a die in the ditch clause or phrase or something in the cabinet paper, then we still have an ability to distance ourselves from that. But, so far, we prefer to get everything across the line.

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Tim Hollo: Great. Sounds fascinating. And I look forward to digging a little bit more into some of the practicalities of that. But, before we do, can I go to the big picture and put to you that basic question of this edition of Green Agenda, which is, how do you think, in general terms, the Greens as a party that is dedicated to grassroots democracy and opposed to centralized control and coercive power, how should a party like the Greens seek to govern in broad terms? How does that work?

Marama Davidson: So, there are many different examples of how the Greens can continue to show and take action towards grassroots democracy. And one of the first examples is Te Aorerekura. Te Aorerekura is a strategy to end family violence and sexual violence. And I launched it right at the end of last year. And the strategy itself is not a government strategy. Yes, the government released it and supported it. But the strategy has been created from the people. And it has been created with the community groups, with Tangata Whenua – Indigenous leadership, with the broad range of communities and cohorts upon which violence impacts differently. So much so that it is actually the communities and the grassroots who will protect this. Because, this is not about me being a minister, being able to get something done. This needs to be enduring and survive any government, any minister, anything happening because the people have created this and designed it, and we are accountable to it.

And the strategy very much hinges on what we call whanau and community lead. So whanau is not just family. Whanau is intergenerational extended family. And it’s really quite the opposite, actually, quite the antithesis of perhaps a Western or Eurocentric nuclear understanding, narrow understanding of family. And Te Aorerekura aims to return and evolve power, resource, authority and decision making over time back out to community, back out to grassroots, back out to whanau in fact. And those are the opportunities that we can use in our work with leaders of power, is to get people on board a whole different way of existing, and a whole different way of government approaching its relationship with communities. And, the relationship, authentic partnering with communities is part of that commitment towards devolving power out and towards a grassroots democracy. And so I really did want to highlight Te Aorerekura as an example of something that the Green Party have been able to lead and put on the table.

And it’s a 25 year, generational strategy that is going to keep putting up examples back in communities here and here and here, so that we can start to see, oh, actually when we let go, when we give over and have higher trust, it’s higher trust relationships with grassroots democracy and grassroots community solutions, whanau lead solutions, actually it works. And we might still even have some mistakes, but what we’ve been doing for generations and decades, and if you really want to go to big picture, since colonisation of New Zealand, actually has not worked, has not protected people or the planet or our living systems or equity or justice. So, returning that out in any ways that we can is one thing that the Greens can do.

Also, I think the other thing I wanted to say in terms of how can the Greens be in power. One thing I love about our Green Party that’s for sure is we are uncomfortable with power. We are uncomfortable with the way that power has been wielded so far. We are uncomfortable with power being held in an exclusive way, and being held in the hands of a few. We are absolutely uncomfortable with that. So, what are the little changes that we can make that start to get the power away from being centralised? So, working on the strategy has been one thing, but also working with grassroots movements is the way that The Green Party here has operated from its very, very beginning. So always maintaining our connection with unions and climate groups and young people groups and Indigenous groups, and environmental groups and justice groups, people who want to abolish prisons.

Maintaining our connections with the very mobilising that is working towards grassroots democracy is central to how we work as a political party in any sort of power as well. And that means being accountable to them as well, and having enduring relationships. And it’s something we work really hard on, maintaining those relationships and being quite clear where our accountabilities are. And that they inform the political decisions that we make and the policies that we make.

So, I guess there were two things in there: examples of where we can put up strategies and policies to exemplify a move towards grassroots democracy, while also continuing to prioritise and work with grassroots mobilising.

Tim Hollo: Fantastic. Wonderful deep answers. Thank you. You touched on this a bit a couple of times already in what you’ve been saying, but I’d love to draw out a little bit more explicitly the question of decolonisation and the Indigenous knowledge and systems that’s in what you’re talking about. It’s obviously, I guess, something that you can bring in personally to the Greens. To what extent is it something that you think informs Greens politics more broadly in New Zealand and perhaps elsewhere, that you are aware of?

Marama Davidson: It’s central to Green Party of Aotearoa. Our founding core charter, I suppose you could call it, has at its sort of umbrella, a commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which is our founding document, which upholds the sovereignty of Tangata Whenua, of Indigenous peoples, and which affirms the partnership between crown and Tangata Whenua. And the Green Party have made it very, very clear that that is core to who we are as the Green Party. And I say, Te Tiriti,which is the Maori language version of treaty, because there were two versions – an English one and a Maori language one. And in the Maori language version, we upheld Tangata Whenua, Indigenous people upheld our sovereignty, our Tino rangatiratanga [absolute sovereignty] and Mana Motuhake [self-determination]. In the English version, it relegated our status to having governance as opposed to sovereignty. This has created a rift for nearly 200 years and has meant ongoing breaches of our sovereignty.

And so the Green Party owes allegiance and confirms allegiance to the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples over our lands people and resource. So that’s the starting point for us. Everything we do has a lens, a Tiriti justice lens, every decision we make. And so I guess going on from there, that also means though, as an organization – we are not an Indigenous organisation, we are not a Maori organisation, despite that we have a Maori woman co-leader, and our last one was also Maori woman – we are a, what we would call a tauiwi, a treaty partner organisation. That means we also have to reflect on our organisation, not just the external political work that we do. We have to reflect on our own structures. We have to reflect on how we privilege power to Tangata Whenua in our decision making as a party. We have to reflect on how we elect roles or how we appoint roles and leadership roles to people across our entire structure, not just at the leadership positions. That’s a live and evolving process that we’ve got going right now.

And in fact, in our AGM, which is in July, the party is presenting a constitutional review to better uphold Te Tiriti. And it will involve quite a transformation of how the party is currently operating. So I guess those are some examples of affirming that commitment to the sovereignty of Tangata Whenua, and then reviewing our own organization to see how well we are upholding treaty justice. And then I guess, thirdly, it’s all of our priorities – which are always climate, environment, people – all our political positions, all of our policy announcements continue to uphold the sovereignty of Tangata Whenua, of Indigenous peoples.

And as an indication, on Waitangi Day, in February this year, we just announced a land back policy. All around the world, for Indigenous peoples, part of both decolonisation and reindigenisation is acknowledging that the exploitation of land, the theft of land, the dispossession of land from Indigenous peoples has been part of the same imperial capitalist colonial agendas, which have also ruined our planet and our living systems. And returning land back to Indigenous peoples is also part of the solution to restoring and regenerating our living systems, our climate stability, and our humanity and equity for all peoples to have what they need to live good lives. So, the Greens actually freaked everyone out when we released a land back policy.

Now, I want to tell you, Tim, that, of course we got great support from Maori and from Indigenous communities and people, of course. And it’s the first time that a political party has actually come up with the policy solutions of how to do it. For example, one of our solutions in that policy is we need a land back fund. We need a fund which basically starts to buy back private land and give it back to Indigenous peoples. One of the other solutions was a land back register where people who have been privileged with generations of our stolen land can add their land onto a register for first right of refusal rights to Maori, with Indigenous people having a crown supported fund to get that land back. Now, we had a flurry of tauiwi], treaty partners come to us saying, “I’ll want to put my land on that register.” We had a flurry across the country of people saying, “We’ve had this land for generations. We know it’s not right. How do we be part of the solution?” It was astounding. We had no idea that we were going to see such an awareness of justice. And so we’ve actually just starting up our own register.

And people were sort of like, “we want to put our land on that register!” And for a fair price, not an exploitative price, you know? So, these are the examples of how The Green Party can be part of the solution. There’s no one thing which is the solution. Many, many things are going to help us reindigenise and decolonise. But, the Green Party can absolutely put up the ideas and the solutions informed by the leadership of Indigenous peoples.

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Tim Hollo: That’s fantastic. And I guess land obviously is central to it, and there’s so much conversation here in Australia of course, about that too. But simply by being committed as a party to the principle of Indigenous sovereignty – in doing that, there’s a challenge to the Western dispossession and the Western model of centralised coercive power, which is a really fascinating challenge, I think, in and of itself to that system.

Marama Davidson: And I wanted to, if I could, expand on that just a little bit. I told you, honestly, I can speak for hours on this topic. I never get a chance to. You will have, of course heard and be aware of the iconic Kate Raworth and her Doughnut Economics. Well, Kate visited Aotearoa a few years ago. The principle of Doughnut Economics is nothing new to Indigenous peoples and Indigenous economies. And we’ve always understood the connected and holistic nature that we cannot separate people from the environment, from the future, from the past. It’s all connected. And so what happened when Kate came here and sat with and looked at Indigenous economic framing is our Indigenous leadership reframed her Doughnut Economics into an Indigenous perspective of her model. And we actually put the living systems, the regenerative and distributed economy of the living systems at the center.

We flipped it because everything depends on the wellness of living. Indigenous peoples around the world have always said, “We need to think minimum of seven generations ahead, minimum.” And so the Doughnut Economics should not just be about a here and now. It’s future thinking, which is also connected to the past. We would always say, “We owe our ancestors this as much as we owe our great, great, great, great, great grandchildren.” And so we flipped it. We are nothing, none of us are anything without the regeneration, the wellbeing of our living systems. And then how that relates out to our justice, our housing, our kai [food]. Sorry, you’ll have to forgive me. We use te reo Maori interchangeably here. Officials all know what I’m talking about. To incomes and education, to peace and justice. So, it’s another examples of what the Green Party can bring to the notions of power and economic framing and indigenisation.

Tim Hollo: Yeah. Fantastic. So, to dig in a little bit more to some of the practicalities, you talked a bit about the strategy, which is wonderful. I’d love to hear from you some thoughts about the barriers to this kind of process working in government, of how you do start to devolve power back to the community. How you actually make it happen, both in the process of doing it, and of course, in the outcomes. I’m very interested to hear how you’ve managed that, what barriers you’ve come across, and how you’ve managed to start to break through.

Marama Davidson: And we absolutely haven’t managed it yet! We’re right at the start. We’re right at the start of it. I just actually just realized that I needed to quickly say that it’s the Indigenous leadership and expertise that came up with this model, not the Green Party. It’s a model that has been widely shared, but it’s definitely not from The Green Party.

To go onto how do we actually devolve in practice, we’ve got some examples that start to break through in COVID response. Right back at February 2020 – BC, as I call it, Before COVID – our government genuinely had a health and wellbeing first approach. And I’m so proud and relieved that we did. To do that, however, we very quickly relied on the community grassroots organisations, Maori meeting houses, marai, community, the people who had the networks and relationships in their neighborhoods, who knew where the support needed to go to, who knew how to get it out, for food, for social support, for health connection.

Our public agencies, our government departments, absolutely could not do that. We overnight – I want to say in a week, but pretty much overnight – we got a thousand people off our streets and into some lockdown and safety and support. And we absolutely relied on our community and grassroots providers to do that work with us and for us. So we’ve got some beginnings of government having to let go. Because, when we did that, it did not come attached with all the strings that we normally attach to commissioning work with community groups and providers. And this is the practicalities of it, you know?

And I guess, if I can draw on my experience in my housing portfolio, when I meet with community providers and I sit down – I’m in charge of overviewing a number of programs and contracts that we have with community providers – I sit down and say, “So you’re doing the sustaining tenancies and the rapid rehousing and this and this.” And they just sit there and they just look at me and say “We just help people, you know?” They don’t chop it up. They don’t chop it up into this contract and this stuff. The practicality is, they need support. They need resource to help people. They get it and they help people. And the more that we can start to realise the level of expertise and leadership that they have and the level of trust… The thing about the thing about the level of trust, even saying it still feels paternalising because the people haven’t actually got a whole lot of reason to trust us!

We are right now in an inquiry with one of our big state agencies of, you might know of it as something like child protection, which has caused generations of harm, you know? And so when I sit here as a government agent saying, “We should trust you”, that feels quite backwards, in reverse and paternalising, because actually we haven’t given people enough reason to trust us, to trust state actors and state organisations with loads of money. So, that’s actually about understanding and turning our thinking around in terms of who can actually do the work better and how can we support that. So hopefully that gives you an example, and I’m only sort of hurrying up because I realise I’ve got another couple of minutes.

Tim Hollo: It’s been brilliant. Thank you. Thank you so much for all of your time, Marama. It’s been really a fantastic pleasure to speak to you, and there’s tremendous number of insights there. And I really look forward to sharing this with our readers, who I think are going to be fascinated and really impressed. So, there’s so much more to talk about. We can…

Marama Davidson: Yeah, there really is.

Tim Hollo: … we can speak for hours more as you say. But, I very much appreciate you finding half an hour to speak to me. And look forward to being able to continue to communicate with you.

Marama Davidson: Look, it’s been a real pleasure. As I say, I never get a lot of opportunity to rant about the bigger, bigger picture, which is cruel for a Green Party MP. Because, we are all about the bigger, bigger picture. I hate 30 seconds sound bites as my reality as a politician. So thank you so much, Tim. I wish you all the best with this work. I look forward to the next issue.

Tim Hollo: Thank you so much. Really appreciate your time.

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