Thursday, 7 May 2009

Grave Issues For The Greens

Greens co-leader (male) contenders: Russel Norman and Nandor Tanczos

ROD DONALD’S grave, on Bank’s Peninsula, overlooks a little valley of extraordinary beauty. Directed to the tiny cemetery a couple of years back by a friend, I sat there for a long time, looking down on the valley and recalling the man whose resting-place this was.

I thought about his funeral service in Christchurch Cathedral, and the way the chords of Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond echoed among the stone and stained glass. I remembered, too, the stricken features of Helen Clark as she followed his plain pine coffin down the cathedral aisle and out into the blazing Canterbury sunshine.

People still insist that Rod died of a broken heart. If so, it was Clark who broke it.

And Labour has paid a high price for betraying the Greens and their ebullient co-leader. Had Clark remained staunch and honoured the relationship which Donald, more than any of his companions, had worked so hard to build with her party, many of the mistakes which ultimately brought her government to grief might have been avoided.

Winston Peters would never have brought a Labour-Green Government down – not if it meant installing a Don Brash-led National Government. A much less bumpy ride than the one she was ultimately required to endure awaited Clark, if only she’d been brave enough to keep NZ First’s parliamentary contingent safely ensconced on the cross benches, and their leader mercifully unencumbered by ministerial baubles, big-donor bangles and industry lobbyists’ beads.

But let’s not pursue that counterfactual history too far. Suffice to say that Labour’s treachery and Donald’s death opened up a deep chasm of mistrust between the Greens and their erstwhile Labour allies. Somehow, the party’s surviving co-leader, the redoubtable Jeanette Fitzsimons, managed to string a rickety bridge across the gap (meeting Clark more than half-way on climate change) but, with both sides unwilling to trust too much weight to this fragile structure, inter-party relations remained strained. By 2008, the best the Greens could say about Labour was that it was marginally more environment-friendly than National.

The party’s new co-leader, Russel Norman, who’d cut his rhetorical teeth by calling Labour and National "Mother Coke and Father Pepsi", found even this minimal concession to Labour’s virtues onerous. Small wonder, then, that in the aftermath of National’s stunning election victory, and with Fitzsimons announcing her retirement as co-leader, Norman seized his chance to re-position the Greens as a party that could swing both ways.

Norman’s decision to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Party-led Government helped to close the widening gap between the left faction of the Greens (in which he, along with Sue Bradford, Keith Locke and Catherine Delahunty, have long been included) and the more "organic" grouping represented by his principal rival for the co-leadership position, Nandor Tanczos.

On 12 January, Tanczos had used his new Waikato Times column to set out the case for change:

"It is the Green Party's job to influence governments on the issues that count [but] why would National listen to them? The Greens made it very clear in the election campaign that they were not interested in talking to National.

"I thought at the time that it was an extraordinarily stupid thing to do, to fasten your lifeboat to a sinking ship. Greens do best when there is an outgoing Labour Government, but this election the results were disappointing. The Green Party might well have won their biggest caucus yet, if they had been prepared to stop licking Labour's hand."

The obvious danger in such a strategy is that once they are seen licking National’s hand, the Greens risk losing their caucus altogether. That risk is heightened if the Right, cornered by vast exogenous crises, like a global recession or an influenza pandemic, reverts to type and starts slashing and burning its way through political territory dear to Green hearts.

Up ‘til now, the Greens’ "brand" has remained unsullied - global events and trends bearing-out their boast that they are neither left nor right – but in front. Their enemies have sneered at their "always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride" political history, but to their supporters this unwillingness to compromise on core principles goes to the heart of what it means to be green.

As the political journalist (and former Greens media-man) Gordon Campbell recently noted on the Scoop website:

"The Greens will have only themselves to blame if they do muddy their brand. What can look like smart, hard-nosed politics for other parties can cause lasting damage to a party that has based its identity on a reputation for virtue. Virtue-based parties just can’t afford to fool around. One has only to look across the Tasman at the terrible fate of the Australian Democrats who - in a spirit of realpolitik collaboration with the Howard government – supported a GST tax that the party rank and file opposed, to see what havoc a dose of political horse trading can do to a party that markets itself as being above such things."

In this respect, the speed with which John Key has turned his hand from trading currencies to trading horseflesh must be worrying politicians across the spectrum. Accused of trading horses with Social Credit over the Clyde Dam enabling legislation back in 1982, Rob Muldoon famously replied: "Horse trading? Heh! I’ve still got all my horses." But Key’s performances to date outshine even the old master’s. It takes a rare talent to go into negotiations with no horses, and come out leading a whole string. Bamboozling the Maori Party was one thing. But repeating the same trick with the Greens? Scary!

Whether they recognise it or not, by signing the Memorandum of Understanding with National, the Greens have set themselves upon the same downward path as the Progressives, NZ First and United Future. If someone doesn’t rescue them – and soon – they, too, will degenerate into a demographically marginal, politically opportunistic "niche" party, with no higher aspiration than to become an adjunct (or ornament) to someone else’s government.

That’s exactly where the German and Irish Greens now find themselves. But it’s certainly not where Tanczos, temporarily parked (like his new house-bus) in the political wop-wops, wants New Zealand’s Greens to end up. For the moment, however, the wilderness has its attractions. Sometimes, to win something back, you first have to give it away.

Rod Donald, meanwhile, must be tossing and turning in his picturesque grave.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday 7 May 2009.


frog said...

Well Chris, your perpetuating a few myths here:

First of all, Nandor was incorrect when he claimed that the Greens said we wouldn't talk to National. If you do your homework, you will find ample written and video evidence to the contrary. The Greens are doing exactly what they said they would do during the election, and the MoU reflects that.

Secondly, your attempt to drive an ideological wedge between Russel and Jeanette, (and the Green caucus too), is pure poppycock. Russel didn't decide to do an MoU with National, the entire caucus did, after great deliberation.

Chris Trotter said...

Well now, "Frog", those are very interesting claims.

I am well aware of the formula of words the Greens employed in relation to "working with" other parties. But, you'd have to be several different kinds of stupid not to interpret the Greens' decision to endorse Labour as their preferred coalition partner as anything other than a rejection of National.

In this respect, Nandor was quite correct.

And, if the MoU with National was not driven from the top, and the Green caucus was indeed unanimous in its acceptance of the proposed deal, then that is very sad news indeed. It would suggest that the parliamentary custodians of the Green brand have a very different view of its essential character than the vast majority of its members and supporters, and, as I note in the above posting, the party is risking ending up heading in the same direction as the German and Irish Greens.

As for attempting to "drive a wedge" between Russel and the rest of the Green caucus: well, all I can say is that I (obviously rather naively) assumed that the man who kicked-off his co-leadership with the "Mother Coke and Father Pepsi" riff, would also be the man most likely to be driving the "we can swing both ways" argument.

It would be most unusual for a parliamentary party to initiate such a highly controversial political strategy-shift without the firm support of at least one of its co-leaders.

Since Jeanette is standing down in just a few weeks time, it seemed reasonable to suppose that the person taking the lead would be Russel.

At a time in the planet's history when so many are depending on politicians with a firm grasp of the ecological paradigm to lead the way forward, the decisions of Green parties around the world are more than usually important.

I'm convinced the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand's MoU with National was a bad decision, and fervently hope it's not the first of many.

Marty Mars said...

Very interesting post.
I have been a green voter for a number of elections. The MoU was pragmatic but i think it was a mistake.

Compareing what the greens did with what the maori party did, in regards to agreements with the Nats, is also a mistake.

The maori party, who you have insulted and vilified for a while now, are quite different and unique. Their base is maori, their constituients are maori, they answer to maori, or should i say everyone on the maori roll. It is just a mistake to think they follow the same rules as any other party. They don't need to - and I say thank the gods for that.

The greens are different in that they are playing in the same sandpit as the other parties. And it seems to me that 'green' issues are getting swamped and made fuzzy at the moment. What actually do they stand for? Who are their constituents? What are their values? To me it's getting fuzzier and fuzzier. Their actions, such as attacking shearer as a grayman, the mou and so on are contributing to that fuzziness. They need cut-through and they need someone with charisma to lead them.

The greens also need to realise that it actually, for them, does matter how they get into power. It matters if they cut corners, or drop their standards. For better or for worse they have a higher bar to reach.

I will be very sorry when Jeanette goes, she is a great example of a good green leader, as was Rod. Not sure about the next in lines. I fear the greens in this form have the potential to really stuff it up and slip out the back door like values or another one of the parties mentioned in your post. And that would upset me because i want someone to help stop the environmental destruction of this world and I want an advocate for my values in the House.

Anonymous said...

I agree it was pragmatic but foolish, the nats are anti union, environmentally unfriendly and in a coalition with climate skeptics.

Nats (like labour) also support the cypress mine, Solid Energy's pet wetland mining disaster piece). Greens don't have enough in common with the neo liberal and anti green Nats to move closer. Labour and National in my view need better environment and climate policy.

The Greens need a better working relationship with the Maori Party and more social and climate justice policy.

Anonymous said...

Up until recently I always viewed the Greens as very principled and solid in their views on the environment and climate change and socio-economically very much to the left of the Labour Party.

Their recent moves with respect to the MOU and the decision of Russell Norman to stand in Mt Albert paint a very different and opportunistic self serving picture of the party. Unless the electorate have gone completely mad the only benefactor of this will be the Labour Party as for a left of centre voter there remains nowhere else to go.

Anonymous said...

"several different kinds of stupid"
yes, well, that sums it up nicely

petal said...

Yeah Frog. It was post election that the Greens tried to rewrite history by dissecting the statement that was clearly made with a clear intent in the climate that prevailed at the time and then trying to place a post election emphasis on it. It's really quite dishonest to claim otherwise. I realise it was politically needed, and we'll let you get away with believing your own PR, but that doesn't make the rest of us liars when we recount the original intent.

Bullitt said...

I don't see any harm in the MOU. The Greens are supposed to be an enviromental party but their actions are far more suggestive of a very left wing party with aspirations over many items which are totally outside the environmental spectrum.

There is no reason people who like the environment automatically want to give up control over large parts of their lives so I believe their current perception is costing them a significant number of votes who are currently going to more right parties.

They have a little under three years to prove they dont sit on either side of the political divide and that they actually care foremost about the environment.

Or is that not what they are all about?

Anonymous said...

In 2005 both NZ First and Peter Dunne said they would not be in any Government which included the Green party. Labour had a simple choice, in Government without the Greens, or in opposition with them.
Both NZ First and whatever Dunne as calling his party at the time were needed to make up the numbers. They both would not work with the Greens.
End of story

David Parker said...

Bullitt writes that "The Greens are supposed to be an environmental party." This is incorrect - the Greens are supposed to be a green party.

Green political ideology is - and always has been - about far more than being the political wing of Forest and Bird. Five minutes with the works of, say, Andrew Dobson will clarify what green politics is all about. Check the 1975 manifesto of the Values Party; the same conclusion will follow.

Bullitt's view is, nevertheless, frequently heard. I've seen it in various forms in the pages of the Herald over the years, with the same suggestion that the Green mission is somehow being sullied by a left-wing cabal. It might almost be thought that the right sees the green analysis as posing some sort of threat.

Let's consider what it might mean to be an "environmental party". A conservation perspective is restricted to "fixing the environment" at a local level - protecting rare species, restoring habitat, and so on. Worthwhile work, of course. This concern might be what Bullitt is referring to as the focus of an "environmental party". But how does that translate politically? Into concern for violence against rimu but no concern for violence against children?

The destruction of a wetland does not arise in isolation from the economic and social context. We could choose to pretend that it does and form an "environmental party" to deal with such problems. But, given all the ecological destruction that we observe on such an enormous scale, it isn't a major step to think about why and how it has occurred and is still occurring.

Asking such questions brings us rapidly to an analysis of capitalism, the growth obsession, hyperconsumption, social dislocation, violence, inequitable distribution of wealth... That's because a holistic green ideology does not separate the natural world from the human world; and it does not view the economy in isolation from society or the natural world.

If considering ecological issues in their socio-economic context and drawing the conclusions that follow from the analysis makes the Greens a left wing party, so be it.