Politics Without Idealism: Paulo Zerbato's grim painting offers an acerbic commentary on the notion that political action can somehow be divorced from the ideals ("uncompromising dogma") which inspired it. In the face of inescapable moral challenges, it is "business as usual" (or as close to "usual" as you can make it) that paves the road to perdition.
“WE CAN’T AFFORD the luxury of uncompromising dogma.” The Green Party should write that down. It’s a direct quote from Labour’s deputy-leader and environment spokesperson, Grant Robertson.
He was speaking alongside (and keeping an eye on, a cynic might suggest) David Cunliffe at a “Labour and the Environment” forum held at the Titirangi Public Library on Saturday, 23 June. I took down Mr Robertson’s words because they were so obviously intended to alert all left-leaning political activists (including Mr Cunliffe) that Labour will be offering no hostages to fortune when it comes to formulating environmental policies for the 2014 election.
It’s worth spending a little time unpicking Mr Robertson’s statement. Obviously, his “uncompromising dogma” barb was directed at the environmental policies of other parties – but which ones?
Was he alluding to the National Party? Certainly, Mr Key’s government has a reputation for dogmatism when it comes to deep-sea drilling, the evils of trade unionism and the virtues of educational standards, but “uncompromising”? Mr Key’s many critics on the Right would strongly disagree. Indeed, it is precisely Mr Key’s willingness to back-track and compromise that so infuriates his detractors.
No, I do not think Mr Robertson’s rhetorical harpoon was intended for the National Party. His target wasn’t a blue whale, it was green.
Labour’s attitude to the Greens gyrates wildly between aggrieved toleration and rank hostility. Fundamentally, they regard the Greens as poachers: impudent trespassers on the Left’s ancestral lands and wilful perpetrators of electoral larceny. It’s what the hapless Clare Curran, Labour MP for Dunedin South, meant when she blogged, in August of 2011, about “attempts by the Greens to encroach on Labour territory”.
Labour looks at the polls: sees its own numbers rising; National’s falling; and the Greens’ tracking up. Clearly, some of National’s soft right-wing vote is drifting back to Labour, but, equally clearly, Labour’s left-wing support is shifting to the Greens. The policy implications of this right-wingers-in-the-front-door, left-wingers-out-the-back, political movement presents the Labour leadership with all kinds of headaches.
Reading the full text of his speech to the Titirangi meeting, it is clear that rather than see Labour go fly-fishing in the rivers of the Right, Mr Cunliffe would prefer the party to lower a net into the ocean of the 800,000 electors who declined to participate in the 2011 General Election.
In his speech, TheDolphin and the Dole Queue, Mr Cunliffe declares:
Getting the best long term outcomes will not always mean maximising short term profits. It can’t. Anyone who tells you it can is either stupid or lying … Do people … understand the costs of not adjusting and not planning for a better future? Do they understand that business as usual simply cannot continue?
The strategic thinking here is bold: align Labour’s policies closely with the Greens’ and let the two parties go fishing together for the disillusioned, the disengaged and, most especially, for the young.
Grant Robertson: Cautious political instincts.
Unfortunately, Mr Robertson’s more cautious political instincts adjudge this sort of thinking to be not bold but reckless. Mr Cunliffe’s recitation of the well-documented global hazards threatening the human species’ long-term survival, and his radical conclusion that “business as usual simply cannot continue”, all of it rings in Mr Robertson’s ears as “uncompromising dogma”. Such policies are all very well for minor parties like the Greens, but they simply will not do for parties that aspire to the status of New Zealand’s “alternative government”.
Such parties “cannot afford the luxury” of a radicalism that just might energise this country’s increasingly inert electorate. An alternative government committed to the notion that “business as usual simply cannot continue” would instantly attract the enmity of every entrenched industrial, commercial and financial interest in the land. It’s leaders would be pilloried, denounced, demonised. And, honestly, Mr Robertson has never struck me as a politician who would, voluntarily, risk any of those experiences.
That’s the message he’s conveying to his rival for the Labour leadership and, more importantly, it’s what he’s saying to the Greens’ co-leaders, Russel Norman and Metiria Turei. It’s a simple, and very brutal warning:
There’s a cabinet seat for you in the next Labour-led government, but only if you’re willing to leave your radical ideals [“uncompromising dogma”] at the door. Only if you accept that it will be ‘business’ as close to ‘usual’ as Labour can make it.
This essay was originally published by The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 July 2012.