Friday, 2 October 2009

Taking the Red out of the Green

Sue Bradford: She spoke for those conspicuously absent from most Green gatherings: the poor, the brown and the white working-class.

NO WONDER Sue Bradford quit. If a big chunk of your party declared themselves so allergic to your political beliefs that they’d walk away in protest, or form a new one, if you were elected its co-leader, then Hell - you’d quit too.

The Greens have such a cuddly image, it’s hard to believe things could get so nasty. But, pay a visit to the Green Party’s blogsite, "Frogblog", follow the long thread of commentary attached to the posting on Sue’s resignation, and you’ll see just how un-cuddly some Greens can be.

It all looked so much nicer when Rod Donald was the leader. He had such a warm and bouncy personality that the press gallery christened him "Tigger". And that bouncy, optimistic and relentlessly friendly image soon came to encompass the whole Green Party. (Few people outside the Greens ever got to see Rod’s claws and teeth – but, of course, they were there.)

Rod cultivated the Green’s "peace, love and mung-beans" image assiduously because he knew how politically potent their apparently gentle brand of right-on radicalism was when set against the ruthlessness and cruelty of National, Act, Labour and the Alliance.

Behind the scenes, however, the Greens’ political practice reflected exactly what you’d expect from a movement dominated by self-employed small-business people, middle-class professionals and academics. Genteel it might have been. Gentle it was not.

Sue Bradford understood this social milieu extremely well. She had, after all, been born into a distinguished academic family, and was no mean scholar herself. On the other hand, years spent "proletarianising" herself in the Progressive Youth Movement, the Workers Communist League and the Unemployed Workers Movement, also meant that, when she needed to, Sue could play the struttin’, swearin’, rough-as-guts battler from the streets to a nicety.

It was a skill that left most of her political rivals gasping. Someone with the ability to move effortlessly between two worlds; who looks as formidable leading a demonstration against the Asian Development Bank, as she does explaining the finer points of government (not to mention her own) legislation, will generally unnerve most opponents – be they internal or external.

Being on the receiving-end of state-violence on a semi-regular basis also gives the street-level activist another great political advantage: it develops mental, emotional and physical toughness. In a party where non-confrontational manoeuvring behind-the-scenes ("consensus building") is the preferred political style, Sue’s bluntness could be profoundly unsettling.

This was especially true when her bluntness was deployed in the name of social groups conspicuously absent from the standard Green Party muster: the poor, the brown, and the white working-class. Sue never let the Greens off the hook when it came to honouring their formal commitment to social justice (not even when they started calling it "social responsibility").

She also refused to let them get away with the nonsense of "Mother Coke and Father Pepsi" when it came to choosing between Labour and National. Sue’s ideological DNA carried far too many Marxist genes to swallow the "one’s bad as t’other" arguments of a party membership growing increasingly frustrated with, and embarrassed by, its association with the Left.

It was this refusal to let the Greens decline into a genteel and thoroughly non-threatening environmentalism that brought about Sue’s downfall. As more and more New Zealanders shifted restlessly to the Right (a shift given added impetus by her own anti-smacking legislation) the Green rank-and-file decided it was high-time they shifted with them.

Rod’s instinctive grasp of the electoral centrality of the Green’s radical message (of which Sue had become the political icon) would have allowed him to defuse the looming ideological confrontation. But, tragically, Rod was dead. And his successor, Russel Norman, lacked both the instincts and the skills to save his party from itself.

Sue’s rival for the co-leadership, Metiria Turei, with all the reckless insouciance of the genuine anarchist, traded shamelessly on the Greens’ fundamental ignorance of political power’s true nature. To the party rank-and-file she represented the alluring fiction that the planet could be saved from the top down.

Had Sue, in her determination to abolish s59 of the Crimes Act, not suppressed her understanding that enduring political change always comes from the bottom-up, she’d have seen the rank-and-file rebellion that drove her from the Greens coming.

She probably couldn’t have altered their decision, but it wouldn’t have come as such a painful surprise.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 2 October 2009.


Anonymous said...

"the reckless insouciance of the true anarchist"

Chris , could you explain your use of this ringing phrase a bit more fully? I'm having difficulty understanding its relevance .


David said...

good to see Green politics being debated seriously in your recent columns.

There are hopeful signs that the Red may not be out of the Greens for too long. The successful realignment of the German Greens may signal the way ahead. While the German Greens had a regrettable dalliance with neoliberalism in the federal coalition with Gerhard Schroeder and the SPD from 1998-2005, since 2007 they have been attempting to recover their left radicalism.

Writing in the journal German Politics earlier this year, Ingolfur Bluehdorn describes the 2007 party congress at Nuremburg which emphasises that “the strategies for fighting climate change which governments have adopted so far are useless” and that the German Greens “are ultimately aiming for a complete transformation of industrial society.” As Bluehdorn notes, this self-styled ” ‘radical realism’ reaches well beyond the environmental policy positions of all other parties.”

At the same time, in the area of social justice issues, the German Greens have committed themselves to an “emancipative and encouraging social state … as the primary societal mechanism for achieving social justice and integration” and to do so through a programme that “connects distributive justice with participatory justice, … intergenerational justice and gender justice.” This emancipative social state will be paid for by “higher tax rates for top earners and tighter taxation of income gained from property and capital investments.”

Most encouragingly, in recognising this project will be far from easily achieved, the German Greens promise to “rise up to the struggles over distribution which it entails”.

(Bluehdorn's article can be found at

And so, while the recent German federal election result could be read as a rejection of the CDU/SPD grand coalition as much as anything else, a poll of 10.7% is a big improvement for the Greens - and strong backing for the rediscovered 'radical realism'.

While Greens here might cheer the German election result, I'm not sure that news of how it was achieved has registered yet - but the Red is most certainly back in the Green in Germany at least. The issue of climate change was the catalyst for the German Greens rediscovering a radical stance, and it could be here too. As I say, I live in hope.


Chris Trotter said...

To Anonymous:

The bedrock anarchist conviction that the State is the enemy of freedom and justice encourages them to view all of its manifestations as essentially and equally corrupt.

In a practical sense, this "a plague on all their houses" approach gives anarchists an enormous degree of political flexibility.

If one really is as bad as the other - "Mother Coke and Father Pepsi" - then the only "sensible" strategic approach is to grab whatever minor tactical victories Labour/National deign to offer.

Such a morally agnostic stance, not surprisingly, makes insouciance and recklessness the signature accessories of Anarchism's political style.

Mawson said...


Excellent piece, points well made.

It seems to me however, that quite aside from green party direction, Sue Bradford was simply unelectable. She may have have had a many talents, but broad appeal to the electorate wasn't one. Choosing her for leader would have seriously imperiled the Greens future electoral opportunities, which look troubled enough as it it.

So on balance, it seems to me to have been the right decision, in the sense that picking Sue Bradford (even if the party had agreed with her)could well have ended the Green parliamentary representation.

I think the question your article seriously raises is whether parliamentary representation will be key to future Green policy gains, or other activist/grassroots avenues. If the message is watered down and gentrified through parliamentary representation, is it still worthwhile?


Chris Trotter said...

Well, you know, Mawson, I'm not so sure about the electability argument.

You'd be quite right if the Greens were after 50 percent + 1 of the Party Vote, but since that is not the current objective of the Greens, I don't think having Sue on board would have made that much difference. After all, Sue and Nandor were singled out by Jenny Shipley as reasons not to vote for the Greens in 1999 - and they still managed to crest the 5 percent threshold.

Regarding the extraparliamentary argument, I am right with you. As I noted in the posting, Rod Donald understood the need to have a presence on the streets as well as in the House - that's why Sue's radicalism was so important to the Greens - and why, I believe, her departure will do them so much damage.

Tiger Mountain said...

A number of experienced activists followed Sue into the Greens for a while on spec and personal trust but most known to me at least, did not last long, for their suspicion that the NZ Green party at this stage in its history at least is at core blue/green was promptly confirmed.

Greens tend to be the passive/aggressive queens of political activity. In my electorate a number of normally enthusiastic greens basically went on strike when Sue was chosen as candidate.

I think she just finally revealed publicly the conclusion that she and others had reached some time ago, which makes her personal achievements as an MP all the more admirable.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough


Bliss said...

"If a big chunk of your party declared themselves so allergic to your political beliefs that they’d walk away in protest, or form a new one, if you were elected its co-leader. Hell, you’d quit too.

The Greens have such a cuddly image, it’s hard to believe things could get so nasty. But, pay a visit to the Green Party’s blogsite, "Frogblog", follow the long thread of commentary attached to the posting on Sue’s resignation, and you’ll see just how un-cuddly some Greens can be."

I have just spent 40 minutes trawling through the comments on the Frog Blog announcing Sue's retirement looking for the comments you reported.

Comment after comment from Green supporters saying Sue was/is great. Quite a few from the "Sue is and has allways been evil s59/communist"

A few "I vote Green but not for Sue"

I noticed one nasty comment about Sue from a person who claims to be a member.

Some frank discussion about the danger of a split in te party if Sue were elected.

Nothing at all like what you suggested.

Can you point out where all this nastyness is?


Chris Trotter said...

To Bliss:

The answer you seek is contained in the question you ask.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

The poor bugger will have to go and buy a new dictionary now, to work out what 'morally agnostic' means.

Bliss said...


No it is not.

You said "If a big chunk of your party declared themselves so allergic to your political beliefs that they’d walk away in protest,"

That apears nowhere in the source you quote. Most people will take you at your word, but I checked.

Where Chriss, where?

Chris Trotter said...

Go to the comments by "Sapient", Bliss, and those surrounding them. You will find all you need to know there.

paul scott said...

goodness me Chris, get real socialists,
the Green Party NZ is getting real
I admire the new Green,
everyone is happy Sue Bradford is gone,
and thank Jesus Christ Trotsky and Stalin are dead Chris, Trotsky is dead forever,

Go figure said...

Go to the comments by "Sapient", Bliss, and those surrounding them. You will find all you need to know there.

Yes, all we need to know is there for sure. Did you count how many were commenting like "Sapient", Chris? It is not a revelation that a few members would feel that way, but "a big chunk"? You still haven't provided any evidence for this exaggeration. The evidence you say is all we need shows the opposite via the small numbers involved, unless you think Green Party membership amounts to tens rather than thousands. Fact is, Sue was voted 3rd on the Green list at the last election because the great majority support her and are sorry to see her go. That Metiria was put 4th should show there was already great support for her as well. of course Sue can't be replaced as an individual, but you have still provided no real reason to believe the Greens are abandoning any of their core principles. Its a beat up.

Go figure said...

She also refused to let them get away with the nonsense of "Mother Coke and Father Pepsi" when it came to choosing between Labour and National.

A real fault of the Greens is expecting mainstream journalists to understand an even slightly subtle argument, but surely you should be able to do so, Chris. No Green, including Russel as the author of the above comment, has ever said Labour and National were the same on social policy. Remember, the Greens stated a clear preference for Labour BEFORE the 2008 election. This was done despite the fact that everyone knew the Nats were going to win and many said we were stupid to do it. Do you think there was some other reason for that move than genuine recognition that Labour was in significant ways different than National? If not then why pretend otherwise? It certainly wasn't due to do Sue, as her issue was not about stating a preference, but only about whether the Greens should be open to to talking to National at all about formation of a government (As I've said elsewhere, many in the Greens believe on principle that we should be open to talk to anyone about anything. Some may think that politically naive, but a lurch rightward it simply is not).

So what might "Mother Coke and Father Pepsi" actually refer to? You know, don't you. It is that on the sustainability spectrum, the Lab/Nats really ARE much closer to each other than either is to the Greens. This is due to their fetish for unrestrained growth as was made clear during the election campaign when the phrase was used.

Sue’s ideological DNA carried far too many Marxist genes to swallow the "one’s bad as t’other" arguments of a party membership growing increasingly frustrated with, and embarrassed by, its association with the Left.

Instead you have to beat up whatever alternative seems plausible, like this one.

It was this refusal to let the Greens decline into a genteel and thoroughly non-threatening environmentalism that brought about Sue’s downfall.

Non-threatening? How can you say that? Pointing out that both Labour and National share a fetish for unsustainable growth and suggesting a different way is the real radicalism of the Greens. The different sort of economy that we promote is critical to achieving ALL Green goals, both social and environmental. Even Sue wouldn’t argue with that, would she Chris. That you repeatedly ignore it shows that you aren't as close to Sue as you think you are. You're really just another adherent to the Lab/Nat paradigm and I think this is one of the reasons you strive so to discredit the Greens.

Chris Trotter said...

To Bliss:

I'm afraid you and I are just going to have to agree to differ on this one.

Go figure said...

Right, Chris. I'm sure both Bliss and I would just appreciate you taking some more time to consider all the relevant facts before your next opinion piece.

PS I was going to thank you for turning on greater text capture and editing capabilities, but after only a few days these have been turned off again. Sorry if our quoting makes you uncomfortable. Remember, "Democracy IS the discussion".

Chris Trotter said...

Quite so, Go Figure. But it's also about freedom of expression, which is, of course, always measured by how much tolerance we accord to those with whom we disagree.

Political journalism is as much about reasonable inferences as it is about indisputable facts, which, given the rapidly changing, highly secretive and thoroughly manipulative character of modern politics, tend to be few and far between.

And, yes, I did try this program's "new" editing function, but it simply didn't work with my lay-out. Sorry.

Go figure said...

Yes, tolerance, that was my real point, Chris. But did you know the editing function is turned on again already? If you insist on turning it off once more, I would love to know in what way it so failed with your lay-out, as it works so well from my user's perspective and is standard on every other blog I've seen.

Re inferences, they aren't reasonable unless they are consistent with at least the obvious publically available facts. To argue differently surely requires a case be made that addresses those facts, unless of course, a hatchet job is the actual goal all along. That this is not the minimum standard for journalism in NZ helps explain the sad state of our mainstream political discourse.

Chris Trotter said...

Not being a computer-whiz, I honestly don't know why the program is so hostile to the way I like to lay out my blog - but, believe me, it is.

As to reasonable inferences and publicly observable facts - well, let's take a look.

Fact 1: Sue was defeated for the position of Green co-leader, by the votes of Green Conference delegates (supposedly carrying the mandate of their electorate organisations).

Facts 2, 3 & 4: Sue was ranked higher on the Party List than Metiria, was a more experienced MP, and had a significantly more impressive track-record vis-a-vis passing Green legislation.

Fact 5: Sue was (and is) detested by the Right for her communist past and for her leading role in repealing s59 of the Crimes Act.

Fact 6: Sue's political background is in movements dedicated to achieving social justice for marginalised groups.

Fact 7: At least one Green Party member has revealed that, within the party, there is an indeterminate number (but large enough to warrant mention) of people who were prepared to resign their membership, or set up a rival Green Party, if Sue won the co-leadership. This same party member also revealed that, at some point in the past, a group of Green members had tried to have Sue expelled.

There are many more publicly observable facts, but these will do for now.

I would say that, working from these facts, it is perfectly reasonable to infer that, because a majority of the Greens, in spite of Sue's higher ranking, longer service and record of achievement, nevertheless refused to elect her co-leader, it is necessary to look elsewhere for an explanation for Metiria's victory.

I would further contend that it is also quite reasonable to infer that Sue's rejection had something to do with her political ideology - as manifested in her championing of the so-called "anti-smacking" legislation, and in her history of radical left-wing activism.

A party which rejects a candidate who is strongly associated with left-wing ideas, along with controversial legislation widely identified as "left-wing", for a candidate less associated, at least in the mind of the wider electorate, with the Left, leaves itself wide open to the inference that it is moving away from the Left and towards the Right.

Add to this, comments from a party member which reveal considerable hostility towards Sue among the Greens' rank-and-file, and the inference that the party is moving away from the things Sue represents in the public mind is considerably strengthened.

Of course, if the Greens were prepared to release a detailed breakdown of the co-leadership election: how many delegates voted for Metiria, how many voted for Sue, and which electorates backed which candidate, we would all be in a much better position to analyse what was happening in the Party.

But since the Greens, along with all the other political parties in New Zealand, are loathe to place such information before the public, political commentators like myself are left with only an unknown fraction of the facts - from which we can only speculate and infer.

If we confined our commentary strictly to the facts, those with the power to place some facts before the public, while withholding others, would be in a position to shape and/or distort our writing.

An excellent state of affairs from the point of view of the political parties, but a pretty poor show from the perspective of the voting public.

Don't you think?

Go figure said...

Thanks for those facts, Chris. As you say, there are many more publically observable facts, and these include those that I and others have listed in this thread and others. Yet you choose to deal only with those that support the argument you seem to want to make, as even these few facts don't drive one inescapably to your conclusions.

You set up a straw man with the claim that I ever even implied that you should not go beyond the facts in your analysis. I have said two things clearly, or so I thought. I've said it is not that you speculate that has ever been a worry, but that you present your speculation as surety, when even you've admitted you are operating somewhat in the dark. Also is that well-known facts that fly in the face of your arguments need to be addressed for you to make credible conclusions. I'm sure I'm right that what I learned in high school logic class decades ago should apply to journalism.

I also want to make clear that it is not criticism that I wish you to avoid. Just to illustrate, here's a possible interpretation of the election result: The Green Party went for style over substance and chose a young, attractive, Maori woman over a clearly more accomplished, but less presentable candidate, in an attempt to accommodate the reality that presidential-style politics has become the norm in New Zealand. In this way they hope to appear more palatable to an electorate that has shifted rightward, despite not changing a single one of their left-leaning policies.

That can easily be seen as a negative critique (and the identity politics angle is right up your alley!) and one which happens to be consistent with more of the facts than your conclusions are.

I must note here that while the above is plausible, I am not claiming it is fact. Despite being very involved in the Party, Chris, I wouldn't claim to know what a thousand or more across the country were thinking (as opposed to a handful of blog commenters).

Finally, you didn't just raise questions (which is always fine) or even limit yourself to claiming as fact that which you don't know for sure, but also inflated the implications to hyperbolic proportions with, for example, claims that: this was the last gasp of the left in the Greens; remaining left MPs had better watch their backs because the knives were sure to come out; the new male co-leader wasn't skilled enough to save his party from itself, etc.

Come on, Chris. We expect better from you. The left should be able to argue without eating itself.

Chris Trotter said...

To "Go Figure":

All I can say is what I've already said to "Bliss": you and I are just going to have to agree to differ.

This is, when all is said and done, a blog - not a post-graduate seminar, and I'm a left-wing polemicist - not a dispassionate political scientist.

But hats off to you anyway. Your analysis of the Greens' conduct towards Sue renders them even more banal, superficial and self-destructive in their approach to principled politics than anything I have written!

To "Anonymous":

You would think that "playing around with the dashboard" would do the trick, eventually. But, it doesn't. Any suggestions gratefully accepted.

Go figure said...

Oh dear, my disclaimer above regarding the equally critical (perhaps even more so as you say) possible alternative argument was obviously not explicit enough. It is not my analysis - in fact I got it from other commentators (the things you read in the papers, aye). It was meant to show that plausible does not mean true, but perhaps I wasn't rigorous enough.

Thanks at least for making clear your approach and the level of rigor we should expect.

Chris Trotter said...

True? Ah well, that's a very high bar to clear.

To tell the Truth (with a capital "T") you need to be in possession of all the facts - more than that, you need to know how to interpret all the facts.

Interpretation is, of course, fundamentally influenced by the preconceptions and prejudices the interpreter brings to the task of analysing all the facts.

Good luck in getting your hands on all the facts - especially in politics! And good luck again in finding a person who is able to analyse politics without preconceptions and prejudices.

All I can offer my readers is an analysis based upon fact, fleshed out with inference and speculation, and hopefully given heart and soul by the intuition and instinct born of 35 years experience in and around politics and politicians.

I have no way of knowing whether or not what I write really is "The Truth" - I do know it's my best shot at it.

Tiger Mountain said...

“Go figure”, you really do protest too much...

As an activist with over 30 years experience, I am confident that what I have observed in terms of some Green Party members lack of supportive activity and relationships with Sue Bradford were indeed a preamble to this years leadership vote. That’s fine, that’s politics and I also look forward to Sue achieving a lot more in future.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there were threats to leave the party if Sue was elected co-leader, although it is possible. The notion that there was an attempt to evict her from the party is bizarre. Someone's been pulling your appendage mate.

I do recall Sue and a few others threatening to resign from the party if the view of the majority was upheld on some strategic issues. Perhaps it was this kind of 'street fighting' style of politics that secured her defeat. Vanguard politics anyone?

I enjoy your analyses Chris, even when I don't agree with them. Your biggest weakness, though (IMHO), is your unwillingness to accept the limitations of one dimensional political thinking. As they say, when you only have a hammer all problems look like a nail.

Go figure said...

Wouldn't deny any of that, TM (by strategy? one of my favs!). The Green Party is no more monolithic in its views than other parties (well, perhaps a bit). The fact remains that Sue has been 3rd on the list forever. That doesn't happen unless there is wide support for what she does, unless you believe only the lefties in the party vote. That she lost out to the next highest ranked MP, who also has a history of social justice campaigns (some of Metiria's earliest activism was with Sue), even if not the huge profile, just doesn't justify hyperbole about the "last stand of the left". That's patently ridiculous when we have the most left policies in the House.