Green Party members and supporters have gone to extraordinary lengths to fight an internal battle against the leadership over the selection of the party list for next years general election. Advertisements have appeared in daily newspapers across the country today that seek to pressure a change in the constitution to ensure that the leadership follows its own claims to have a democratic list selection involving the votes of members. This raises some interesting questions about the state of internal Green Party politics and that of democracy in the organization. [Read more below]
All is not well in the Greens
The nationwide advertisements (seen on the right) have been reported by Audrey Young in the Herald – see: Greens advertise desire for party list revision. Young says that ‘Some members want a constitutional change saying that a ballot of members must be taken into account by the executive and they are publicly urging delegates to vote for the remit, Remit 2’.
The advertisements are incredibly unusual. Political parties in New Zealand don’t normally carry out their internal fights through paid advertising in the media. And most followers of politics would be more likely to imagine Act Party members using such a strategy rather than the consensus-loving Greens. To go public like this is a serious sign of dissent. As David Farrar says, ‘This is pretty extraordinary for members of any party, let alone the Greens who claim they make their decisions by consensus. If party members are placing advertisements in newspapers, it suggests they are not too enamoured about the party’s internal communications’.
Interestingly, although the issue is now on the national public agenda, the Green leadership seem to have gone to ground. Co-leader Russel Norman is quoted in the Audrey Young article, but is rather circumspect – he is reported as saying ‘He was not sure whether the wording proposed for the change was the best’. As David Farrar points out, ‘This is code for “I am against this, but don’t wish to say so”’
Democracy in the Greens?
Today’s nationwide advertisements raise questions about the health of democracy in the Green Party. The leadership is prone to boast about the party being the most democratic in New Zealand politics. But scratch the surface and you often find some contradictory signs suggesting that democracy isn’t as healthy in the party as is constantly made out. For example, the Greens’ website states, ‘Our Party List is decided by a vote of all members’, and its MPs often claim the high moral ground by saying things such as ‘the Green Party list-ranking process is, as far as I am aware, the only democratic list-ranking process of any political party in this country. Every member of our party gets an equal vote over the final list position’ (Nandor Tanczos in Parliament).
But the Greens’ list selection process isn’t as democratic as their MPs suggest. Although the Electoral Act 1993 stipulates that parties must follow ‘democratic procedures in candidate selection’, when you go beyond the party’s rhetoric and formal procedure, the reality is a bit different. In their list selection, the Greens actually use what they call ‘guided democracy’ which isn’t exactly ‘real democracy’.
What this means is that the party leadership and election candidates get together to form a ‘selectorate’ and decide on the ordering of a list, which is then given to the wider membership to re-arrange should they want (using STV preferential voting), but then the party ‘selectorate’ are then relatively free to ignore the re-ordering of members and go with the order they prefer. This is known in the political science as ‘incumbency protection’, and it certainly works for Green MPs – the process rewards the incumbent Green MPs with all the high list positions, and newcomers find it difficult to get winnable list positions. Members are effectively given a pre-ordained decision on who should have what list position, and unsurprisingly the membership likes to go along with what the leadership suggest. Investigating the 2001 list ordering, Auckland University political scientist Prof Raymond Miller found that the Green members tended to follow the recommended list of the leadership with only ‘some discrepancies’.
Miller has also briefly outlined the Greens’ formal procedure, noting that it’s not totally different to the other parties:
although even they adopted a form of “guided democracy” with a view to both offering protection to incumbents and promoting their long-held commitment to regional, gender, and ethnic equality. The first stage in the process is to compile a list of potential candidates, all of whom are vetted to ensure that they comply with the electoral and party rules. The party’s Executive and pool of potential candidates then vote preferentially, a process which involves the distribution of their lists and rankings to the membership of the party. In this way, the party leadership is able to offer clear direction to members, who are free to adopt or modify their lists (2005: p.118).
After this, apparently, the elite ‘selectorate’ normally makes a final decision, and is able to justify disregarding the membership’s view by reference to equity in regard to gender, ethnicity, geography.
The vetting that Miller mentions can be particularly significant in the Green Party. Chris Trotter recently provided a good example: ‘Not too many years ago the Green Party decided one of its members was ineligible for selection as a candidate because his views on the Treaty of Waitangi were unacceptable’. Apparently the leadership ruled out the Dunedin candidate because his critique of Maori nationalism and the Treaty industry was deemed by Jeannette Fitzsimons and Catherine Delahunty to be too leftwing and he wasn’t pro-Treaty enough.
Although you would imagine that all Green Party candidates would believe the process to be democratic, when such candidates were polled about this in 2002, only 88% thought the selection was democratic. It’d be interesting to know if this proportion had fallen further since then.
The Green Party’s orientation to party lists has also proved to be rather dodgy in the past in terms of the leadership attempting to circumvent the order of the list when it has suited them. When Russel Norman became co-leader in 2006 he was not an MP, so the leadership used the opportunity that arose with the need to replace the late Rod Donald in Parliament with Norman, despite the fact that Norman wasn’t the next person on the list. Mike Ward, who was actually next on the list wanted to come into Parliament, but was heavily pressured by the party leadership to let Norman leapfrog over him on the party list. The debacle indicated the lack of respect that the party had for the party list system, and ultimately undermined public faith in the MMP electoral system.
On the mainstream road to professionalisation
Today’s nationwide ads also shows the type of big money now involved in the Greens. These ads would have cost serious amounts of money – tens of thousands of dollars. The party is obviously no longer any sort of amauteur low-budget grassroots organisation, but a highly-professsionalised and wealthy party – see for example, Greens spent $1.7m in 2008 election campaign and Greens revealed as the biggest spender in Mt Albert by-election
The unusual fight over list selection methods is indicative of the tensions that all relatively new political parties face over the demands of grassroots democracy and the demands of professional party management. The Greens are clearly on the way towards becoming just another mainstream party. And along the way to this destination there will be all sorts of strange occurrences such as today’s fight back for democracy in the party. Thus although the ads seems a bit odd and deal with only one small issue in the way that the party operates, this is about the future political nature and direction of the Greens.