Keeper of the Green Faith: From the moment the Labour/Green “Budget Responsibility Rules” were announced, I knew that a scorching sermon from Sue Bradford was only a matter of time. She did not disappoint. Barely 72 hours after Grant Robertson’s and James Shaw’s blasphemy had sullied the ears of the faithful, Sue was on RNZ’s Morning Report castigating her erstwhile comrades with considerable passion.
AS A GUARDIAN of left-wing orthodoxy, Sue Bradford is without peer. At the first hint of heresy she can be relied upon to stride purposefully to the nearest progressive pulpit and start preaching.
From the moment the Labour/Green “Budget Responsibility Rules” were announced, I knew that a scorching sermon from Sue was only a matter of time. She did not disappoint. Barely 72 hours after Grant Robertson’s and James Shaw’s blasphemy had sullied the ears of the faithful, Sue was on RNZ’s Morning Report castigating her erstwhile comrades with considerable passion.
“The Greens have completely sold out on where they started from in my generation of MPs in 1999”, Sue thundered. “So what you see here is the Green Party deciding to go after votes on the centre and the right of the New Zealand political spectrum. It wants business in its corner. It wants your National blue-green voters in its corner.”
What does this mean? Sue is in no doubt. It means “completely abandoning the huge number of people who are in desperate need in the areas of housing, welfare, jobs, and education.”
There’s a part of me that inclines towards Sue’s critique. It’s the part that remembers those original Green MPs, the “magnificent seven”, as they galloped up the steps of Parliament and onto the floor of the House of Representatives like “an invasion of centaurs”. (If I may borrow Theodore Roszak’s evocative image.)
Which was great to see. (And even greater to be, Sue, I’m sure!) But only if your purpose was (borrowing once again from Roszak’s 1969 best-seller The Making of a Counter-Culture) to embody “the experience of radical critical disjuncture, the clash of irreconcilable conceptions of life”. Or, as an old-time Maoist like Sue might express it: only if the Greens were there to make revolution.
An Invasion of Centaurs: "the clash of irreconcilable conceptions of life".
But even back then, in 1999, the Greens’ revolutionary faction was in the minority. Alongside Sue, Keith Locke and Nandor Tanczos, sat Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimons, Sue Kedgely and Ian Ewen-Street. Radical and visionary these latter four may have been, but they had come to Parliament to accomplish things, not to turn New Zealand’s capitalist society upside down.
Twenty years later and the Greens are still waiting to fulfil even a small fraction of the Magnificent Seven’s agenda. Most members of the Green Party are not interested in being seen as the harbingers of a “radical critical disjuncture” but as members of a political party dedicated to finding practical solutions to global warming; cleaning up New Zealand’s lakes, rivers and streams; housing the homeless and helping to develop a principled and purposeful role for New Zealand on the international stage.
For most New Zealand voters, the idea of revolutionary Green Party centaurs rampaging through Parliament is equally politically uninteresting.
So perhaps Sue should cast her mind back to the 1999 election and recall just how narrow was the margin that separated the Greens from parliamentary representation and political oblivion. Rod Donald delighted in his white shirt and coloured braces for six years, but by 2005 he was very publicly having himself measured for a stylish Kiwi-made business suit. When the brute arithmetic of political power kept him out of Helen Clark’s Cabinet it, quite literally, broke his heart.
“At what price power,” Sue demands “if you sell out everything that your party was originally set out to achieve? I mean, this Green Party here is following the same trail as green parties all over the world – some of who have ended up in coalitions and alliance with really right-wing governments.”
But in 2014, with just one image, the National Party destroyed the Green Party’s (and Labour’s) hopes of achieving anything for New Zealand. Their depiction of a Red/Green government as an uncoordinated and unreliable “Ship of Fools” was devastating.
That’s the public perception that Andrew Little, Grant Robertson, James Shaw and Metiria Turei are up against. And it is the widespread public misgivings about the Left’s economic realism and reliability that their “Budget Responsibility Rules” are intended to allay.
That’s because powerlessness also comes at a price.
A real revolutionary would understand the importance of inoculating the two leading parties of the Left against the “Show me the money!” ambushes of elections past.
The Greens are not trying to make a counter-culture, Sue – they’re trying to make a government.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 March 2017.