THE GREENS have a problem with power. The whole concept of leadership makes them uneasy. Who should have power? How should it be wielded? These are questions radical environmentalists have struggled with since the Values Party was formed 50 years ago. If nothing else, the peculiarly self-destructive actions of the Greens over the course of the past week have exposed how urgently the party needs to address and resolve the problems of political power.
Perhaps the first question that the Greens need to answer is: How much power do they want? This may sound like a silly question, but exactly how powerful the Greens see themselves becoming has never been all that clear. Unlike most parties, the Greens do not ask the electorate explicitly for a decisive parliamentary majority.
Now, you may say this reflects a commendable humility on the part of the Greens. By accepting that securing a parliamentary majority is beyond them, and that the best they can hope for is to partner a much larger party in a broad progressive coalition, they are, surely, acknowledging political reality? True, but they are also accepting that the amount of power they will ever be able to wield in their own right is limited.
Except, in the face of global warming and all the other environmental threats to the planet, isn’t the Greens’ acceptance of relative powerlessness a little self-defeating? Examining their manifesto, it is clear that unprecedented state power will be needed to achieve the goals the Greens have set themselves. Power that only a determined Green Prime Minister, Cabinet and Caucus, commanding a huge parliamentary majority, could hope to wield.
All of which confirms the Greens’ deeply contradictory relationship with power. Green Party members seem unusually diffident about exercising power in their own right, but are resentful of the power exercised by other party members over them. At the same time, the Greens aren’t the least bit fazed, collectively, by the idea of the entire population being required to submit to their party’s radical environmental remedies.
Blend these contradictions into a single Green political style and what do you get? A party deeply mistrustful of effective leadership. A party which gives more weight to the objections of minorities than it does to the affirmations of majorities. A party which compensates for its crippling internal contradictions by demanding unquestioning public compliance with Green Party policy. A party, moreover, which makes these demands fully aware that, on a good day, it represents barely a tenth of the electorate – and yet considers that enough.
With all this in mind, it is easy to see why poor James Shaw found himself brutally deposed as the Greens’ co-leader. By seeking the responsibilities of leadership – and exercising them – he violated the first rule of Green Party governance. Then, by accepting the limitations of the Green Party’s electoral mandate (7.8 percent of the Party Vote) and practicing the art of the possible with Labour and National, he violated the second.
Shaw’s first violation bespoke an unhealthy amount of un-Green ambition. His second dispelled the membership’s cherished illusion that maximum policy gains can be extracted, without compromise, on the basis of 10 out of 120 seats in the House of Representatives. His thumping victory notwithstanding (71 percent of the AGM’s voting delegates supported Shaw) the man obviously had to go!
It’s tempting to interpret Shaw’s landslide “victory” as evidence that the core of the Green Party membership retains a healthy measure of common-sense. Unfortunately, that same membership recently ratified a revised Green Party constitution that militates aggressively against common-sense. Only a party deeply ambivalent towards effective leadership, and deaf to the appeals of political realism, could endorse a process allowing 29 percent of voting delegates to declare an unopposed candidate with 71 percent support – not elected.
More to the point, the Greens’ constitution also attests to an ambivalent relationship with democracy itself. It takes a particularly virulent strain of individualism to construct a political ideology in which majorities are, at best, suspect, and, at worst, instruments of tyranny. Certainly, it places the Greens well outside the great movements for human liberation that have illuminated the past 250 years.
To save the world, you must be willing to lead it. If you would have us trust you to do that, then, for the planet’s sake, trust yourselves!
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 July 2022.