Full House: With the polls showing Labour plummeting to record lows, the 2011 Election is shaping up to become the 2002 Election - in reverse. Another thing '11 has in common with '02 is the notion that, come election day, Green may become the new Red.
THERE ARE TIMES when individuals choose the moment and the place for spectacular events, and times when the moments and the places choose them. Last Sunday, in Auckland’s Beresford Street, it was very much a case of the latter.
The building known as Hopetoun Alpha began life as a Congregationalist Church. It is a beautiful structure, designed in the classical style and featuring graceful columns and tall arched windows. The interior is full of light and the acoustics are sensational.
The Congregationalists themselves were one of those dissenting Protestant sects that sprang out of the intellectual and political ferment of the 17th Century. Like the Quakers, they eschew hierarchy and arrive at decisions by consensus. In New Zealand, they were among the first to admit women to a full and equal role in the life of the church, and the Auckland community was particularly active in the struggle for women’s suffrage and the agitation against militarism.
If the Green Party had spent a year in the search they could not have found a better place to launch their 2002 election campaign. Even so, Green campaign-worker Lynne Serpe had to fight off suggestions that the opening be held on Auckland’s fashionable waterfront. Coming from New York, and having worked on the Nader Campaign in 2000, Ms Serpe has an impresario’s eye for exactly the right kind of venue, and something told her that the waterfront was all wrong.
Knowing that the New Zealand Greens weren’t going to be able to equal Ralph Nader’s 30,000 strong rally at the Madison Square Garden, she was looking for a place that had just the right mixture of formality and intimacy, solemnity and gaiety. When she stepped into Hopetoun Alpha she knew the search was over.
I don’t know if it was the democratic spirit of the men and women who had worshipped there for over a hundred years: their witnessing against war and oppression; or their mystical quest for oneness in the body of believers - but by the time Hopetoun Alpha had filled up with Green Party members and supporters the atmosphere within fairly crackled with energy.
I took my seat upstairs in the steep wooden gallery that runs round the sides of the auditorium and studied the 400 strong crowd. There were plenty of representatives of what has become the Green Party stereotype: willowy women with long skirts and braided hair; men with bright waistcoats and bristling beards – but they were in the minority. Most of the audience were perfectly ordinary Kiwis. I noted family groups, and several clutches of university students. A small group of young Maori took their seats, I wondered if this was their first political rally.
It certainly wasn’t mine. Over the past fortnight I had attended three campaign launches. Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition’s - somewhere in the suburban wilderness of the North Shore; Laila Harré’s Alliance’s - in the proletarian heartland of Waitakere; and Helen Clark’s Labour Party’s - amidst the swank sophistication of Auckland’s Aotea Centre. Jim’s had been an embarrassingly amateurish affair, Laila’s had an elegiac feel about it, and, once Stella had finished playing, Helen’s was so bland that I nearly fell asleep. But this gathering at Hopetoun Alpha was different. This crowd was generating a force field that was almost palpable.
Jeanette Fitzsimons spoke first. Standing between two massive pillars (I couldn’t get the image of the second card of the Tarot out of my mind – the image of the High Priestess) she began her speech by reminding us “that every great truth is first ridiculed, then violently opposed, then accepted as self-evident.”
“Aha!” I thought, “Gandhi!” Except he said it slightly differently: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” Of course, he was talking about an independent India, and Jeanette is predicting a GE-Free New Zealand, but the principle remains constant – an idea whose time has come cannot be stopped.
As the rest of the programme unfolded, that sense of ideological certainty grew stronger and stronger - and when Keith Locke, afire with moral outrage at “America’s dirty little war in Afghanistan” declared the Greens to be “the only peace party” the whole place erupted. People began cheering wildly and stamping their feet. High up in the gallery I felt the whole building shake.
“What did you make of that?” a friend of mine asked as we stepped out into a wet and windy Auckland afternoon.
“Isn’t it obvious”, I replied. “Green’s the new Red.”
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 12 July 2002.