Within all political parties there is a tension between principle and pragmatism. A balance needs to be found between keeping to a party’s ideological beliefs and the more opportunistic pragmatism sometimes required to gain and keep power. Modern New Zealand political parties lean strongly towards the pragmatic side of the equation, and the Green Party is no exception. As the party has aged and changed its leadership it has become particularly keen to leave behind its principle-oriented way of doing politics, shift towards the centre of the political spectrum, and be seen as moderate and respectable rather than radical or purist. This development can be seen very clearly in the party leadership’s latest triumph of pragmatism over principle – the decision to support the draconian the Canterbury Earthquake Response & Recovery Act (CERRA) in Parliament. By voting for this landmark legislation, the Green MPs have incurred the wrath of the party’s more principled members and supporters. Usually the Green leadership is able to easily assert its pragmatism over the activist idealism, but that has definitely not happened this time. Instead, the grassroots Greens are in revolt, the leadership is being heavily censured, and there is even talk of the need for Russel Norman to step down as co-leader due to the political mismanagement and opportunism apparent in this latest debacle. [Read more below]
Much of the Green grassroots rebellion has been occurring on the parliamentary party’s blog, Frogblog – in particularly, on the blog post Earthquake bill passes tonight written by Russel Norman. The grassroots response to this post has been extraordinary. Not only has there been a thorough and long debate occurring on the thread (currently there’s been about 336 comments made), but the vast majority of readers have strongly opposed the leadership decision. For example, one of the more intellectual and principled activists involved in the debate, Geoff Fischer, replied to Norman’s blog post to declare ‘I was astonished and dismayed’, and he summed up the debate by saying, ‘Green voters have reacted with fury and dismay’. Another party insider said that the decision was ‘rightly, causing some stress and distress’.
The Greens’ blog has a voting system whereby Frogblog readers can give each comment made on the thread either a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” vote. If a particular comment receives a very high ratio of “thumbs down” votes over “thumbs up” votes then the particular comment is made partially invisible as a kind of punishment. This led to the somewhat incredible situation whereby whenever the Green leadership intervened in the thread discussion to justify the CERRA decision their comments would receive an overwhelming censure by Frogblog readers. For example, when Russel Norman first commented in the thread to defend his decision, the votes went 62 against and only 12 votes in favour. Norman would have been rather shocked to see that his own Frogblog readers censured his comment, making it invisible. This reprimand occurred both times that Norman made comment on his own blog post.
Few other Green leaders were willing to defend their decision to members and supporters. MP Kevin Hague (featured on the right) hesitantly put up a mild justification and he also got heavily criticized. Almost all the other commentators in favour seemed to be apologist party apparatchiks such as those that go under the anonymous alias ‘Valis’, ‘Sprout’ and ‘BJ Chip’. As a consequence of the revolt – and no doubt, in ‘crisis management’ mode, it seems that the Green MPs have simply ceased to publish any further blog posts about the Canterbury earthquake.
Principle vs pragmatism
On the Frogblog thread, activist Geoff Fischer analysed the Green leadership, saying, ‘Their problem is that they lack the courage and the sense of principle to oppose what they know to be wrong or to stand by what they know to be right’. His comment received 68 votes in favour and only 1 against.
Indeed, instead of standing on principles, Russell Norman declared in the blog thread that in deciding to support the legislation the Greens were more concerned ‘to send a clear message of support to people trying to rebuild in Canterbury’. Tellingly, his comment received 62 votes against and only 12 votes in favour. And in rebuttal to Norman, Fischer said, ‘Instead you sent a message of support to a discredited political regime which craves absolute power’. This comment received 47 votes in favour and only 3 votes against.
Another Green supporter, Samiuela, delivered a devastating critique of the leadership when she cleverly implied on the Frogblog thread that they were turning the Green Party into a cynical empty soul-less business-like marketing exercise where every decision is based on political marketing rather than ideology or principles:
you talk about protecting the “Green brand”. I was about to write about how politics is not about brands, and this use of the term “brand” reflects the unhealthy influence of marketing/advertising type people. However, upon further reflection I reckon you’re right to use the term “brand” when referring to political parties. When I visit the supermarket I am confronted with choices between many brands. For example, Purex (strong on softness), Kleenex (long roll), Earthcare (softer, stronger, whiter and better for the environment) and Homebrand (cheap). Despite the outside differences, and even some minor differences on the inside, we all know that the contents are essentially the same and have the same use … just like the political parties. (9 votes in favour; none against)
Many Greens seem to regard their own MPs as having created a landmark judgment that amounts to a turning point for the leadership. For example Geoff Fischer says that the party – the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, or GPANZ – has now lost the balance between principle and pragmatism, which could have dire consequences for its future:
The trick for the GPANZ has been to maintain a sensible balance between the pragmatists and idealists…. It seems to me that the party has now lost that balance, and is in the process of rupturing. And I would say the reason for that was that the pragmatists became overly dominant. The pragmatists actually need the idealists – and in large numbers – for their own political survival… They needed their idealists, the idealists were the only thing to keep them going long term, and now I think they have blown it. It is a historic moment. You will look back on this and say it was a turning point – one way or another. (7 votes in favour; 3 against)
Fischer elaborated on this principle versus pragmatism divide within the party:
I believe this thread is of historic importance. For the Green Party, for New Zealand, and possibly for the wider world. It indicates a deep divide within the GPANZ, which like most such divides is fundamentally philosophical. I mean philosophical in the true sense of the word. There is a philosophical school known as pragmatism. Most of us – all those who are not students of philosophy – may not even be aware of its existence. But it dominates all political and social thought in the west. (4 votes to 1)
I am stating the case against pragmatism, because it has been largely unchallenged in modern secular societies, but I do not go so far as to say there is no place for it. I believe that if we are to achieve positive outcomes there has to be a balance between ethical and pragmatic approaches. Recent events show that balance has been lacking in the Green Party caucus
Over at the Kiwipolitico blog, Lew has also examined this issue in a post insightfully entitled Frogs, toadies and tadpoles. Lew was impressed by Fischer’s arguments about principle and pragmatism and continued the argument:
Principled politics…. has an objectivity about it which is often lost in modern pragmatic discourse where what often passes for ‘true’ is whatever you can argue. When all the other parties in parliament — even the other parties who (however unjustly) appeal to the ‘principled’ brand, such as ACT — are falling over themselves to betray their principles, it’s all the more important that you stick to your own.
Also, in discussing what he calls the ‘Green party’s appallingly unprincipled and poorly justified decision’, Lew says that ‘the Greens have now decided to enter’ ‘the cold, pragmatic world of realpolitik’. And ‘In the realm they have now entered they aren’t so much frogs as tadpoles’. Lew shows that, ironically, even by ‘realpolitik pragmatic’ standards, the Green leadership got the decision to vote for the CERRA seriously wrong:
This is where I think the Greens got their political calculus most badly wrong. The Greens’ own members and support base was not going to be unduly turned off by the fact the party refused to support a power granting dictatorial powers to Gerry “sexy coal” Brownlee; they may have taken some sort of hit, but the risk was not as dire as it is being spun. But a principled stance against this manifest assault on the constitutional framework of the country would have permitted the Greens to position themselves as the last line of defence against Shock Doctrine authoritarianism; a rallying point for liberal values. Coupled with the ideological moderation signalled by the departure of Sue Bradford and Jeanette Fitzsimons, I believe the Greens stood to gain considerable support from disappointed Labour voters, particularly those who wanted the party to act as a functional opposition to the government
The debate also raised the issue of whether the Green MPs will actually take any responsibility for their own legislation. There appears to be a ethos within the Green caucus that the party can vote for whatever legislation without having to publicly support it and defend it. But as Lew has correctly stated, by voting for the legislation, the Greens definitely now ‘own it’: ‘You voted for it: it’s your law, you swing by the same rope as the rest if and when it all comes apart. And so you should’.
In fact although we’re used to hearing the sanctimonious voices of some Green MPs telling off the public for not taking responsibility for their activity, too often the Green leaders themselves are not willing to show any responsibility for their own parliamentary actions. As one commentator on Kiwipolitico, ‘Hugh’ said, there is an element of political immaturity about the Green MPs:
The most worrying thing about this for me is that it tells me the Greens are not prepared for government. Why? They seem to feel that they are not responsible for legislation that they voted for – that they have internalised the idea of themselves as the conscience of parliament, concentrating on scrutiny and criticism of the policies of others, that they appear to feel that their vote doesn’t matter. That is, if they are only responsible for legislation they speak warmly of, not legislation they vote for. It’s hard to imagine how a formal coalition agreement with Labour would work on this basis, and also hard to see how anybody else could scrutinise Green policies when the party refuses to accept responsibility for legislation that they voted for in the house.
Leadership under threat
For some time now there has been a simmering discomfort amongst grassroots Greens about the political direction the party has been taking under the Norman-Turei co-leadership. The attempt to make the party more professional, business-like and slick, on the one hand, and more centrist and moderate on the other hand, has not sat well with the more principled and leftwing Green supporters. Disillusionment has thus set in for many, with party subs not being renewed, and there has been a drift away from active involvement in the party.
The draconian CERRA issue is in some ways a lightening rod for the discontent amongst the support base of the Greens. Indicative of this is one Frogblog comment from ‘Carol’:
Well, I’m one voter who gave my party vote to the Greens in the last 2 elections, but probably now won’t be voting Green in the next election – not with the current Green Party leadership – after they voted for the Christchurch quake “enabling” Act. I’m with Sue Bradford on her criticism of Green Party MPs’ poor voting performance recently. Sorry, but I think Russel Norman should go as leader. I no longer see him as a strong or principled leader that I would like to see in any party I vote for. Metiria Turei could still turn her performance around IMO, but needs to do better. I would like to see a party strongly lead the debate and policies for a green new deal. (13 votes in favour; 2 against).
Unsurprisingly, ex-Green MP Sue Bradford – who lost the election to be co-leader because she wanted to take the Greens in a very different direction to that of Norman and Turei – strongly criticized her ex-colleagues for supporting the legislation that she has labeled ‘Earthquake fascism’. In a blog post that also raises good questions about Green MPs’ recently voting in favour of a socially-conservative private members bill against prostitutes, Bradford declares that ‘I am beginning to wonder what is going through the minds of some of my former colleagues’.
Chris Trotter has also strongly criticized the Greens’ betrayal of principle in his excellent blog post, Working Towards The Fuhrer. He argues that the weak Green Party leadership – like the Labour Party – lacks political conviction:
The whole raison d’être of the Green movement is to lead public opinion; to stand by its principles; to bear witness on behalf of those who do not have a voice; to "speak truth to power". But, where were the Green MPs on Tuesday night? Running scared. It would not have happened in the Green Party led by Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons. Sue Bradford wouldn’t have run. Rod was a person, and Jeanette and Sue still are people for whom the baying of the media pack and the barking of the talk-back bigots is proof that they are on the right path. The Green Party of Russel Norman and Metiria Turei is a party which knows what is right, submits the appropriate amendments, watches them get voted down, and then goes ahead and votes "Aye" for what they know to be wrong. And all because Guyon Espiner and Duncan Garner might say unkind things about them on the six o’clock news-bulletins if they voted "No". The failure of Labour and the Greens to oppose CERRA is further proof that as political movements they lack all conviction. Their behaviour is now entirely circumscribed by what the news media determines to be "good politics". Anything which smacks of political eccentricity; anything which suggests, even for a moment, that the parties of the Left are prepared – in defence of their core principles – to step outside the narrow boundaries of media wisdom, must be avoided at all costs.
In reply to grassroots questions about the Green leadership’s integrity and judgment, the party apparatchik who blogs under the name ‘Valis’ effectively channelied Tony Blair’s defence of his decision to invade Iraq (‘you might think it was the wrong decision, but it was made honestly with best intentions’), by pompously declaring the leadership to be innocent of the charges of selling out: ‘People are free to disagree with their choice, but there is no issue of integrity to answer here and accusations of a sell out are shameful’. Similarly, Russel Norman stridently protested against the attacks on his integrity on the blog thread, with the following order: ‘So don’t impugn our motives’ – with the response of 20 votes against, and only 6 in favour.
On the blog thread ‘Valis’ also attempted to dampen down the grassroots revolt and redirect the anger into official channels rather than be publicly aired: ‘To those who feel strongly, please write to Russel and Kennedy directly rather than speculate into a frenzy.’ Such a classic bureaucratic top-down directive wouldn’t have gone down well with the more democratically-minded activists, and subsequently the comment received 8 votes against and only 4 in favour.
One ex-Green Party member, ‘sjw’, responded ‘so, Dr. Norman, no apology or contrition or self-reflection from you. just sad-arsed rationalisation of an extremely poor decision. i will definitely consider [re]joining the Green Party with the goal of having you removed from the co-leadership and MMP list’. (10 votes in favour; 4 against).
I support the MPs on this – the party was put in an impossible position – had they voted against it, the media and the public would have been all over them. The Green party would have been hammered from all quarters -it was an impossible argument to win without the support of Labour. People are far too traumatized and emotional to think rationally about this. It would have been political suicide pure and simple. (24 votes against; 8 votes in favour)
Indicative of this jettisoning of principles, Gallagher claimed: ‘We need the Greens to be there for the future of us all and sometimes that means making the odd compromise’. (Incidentally, Shane Gallagher is one of the more centrist, ‘respectable Greens’, and is currently standing in the Dunedin City Council elections on a centrist/populist 'Greater Dunedin' electoral ticket).
A representation of modern politics
The Green Party MPs were not the only ones to vote in favour of the draconian Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act (CERRA) – every single MP did so from across every party. The Greens were not therefore an aberration, but simply a reflection of the state of mainstream politics and its lack of principles. And the problem is not actually one of personnel but of the whole way that parliamentary politics now works. On Frogblog Geoff Fischer made an interesting argument that such a descent into pragmatism is the result of the strong parliamentary-focus of the Greens:
Green supporters are shocked and betrayed by what has taken place, but there is little point in blaming the parliamentarians. The rank and file of the Labour Party, and following them, the New Labour Party suffered the same sense of betrayal when their respective parties made the transition from idealistic grass roots organisations to parliamentary political machines run by career politicians. This sacrifice of principle didn’t happened because Russel, or Metiria, or Kevin or Kennedy or Catherine or Sue or Gareth have been elected to the caucus. It happened because that is the nature of parliamentary politics. Sooner or later it will happen to any parliamentary political party.
Thus the Frogblog debate nicely expanded into wider issues about the decline of parliamentary democracy. Another Green, ‘Jockmoron’, also declared:
I think this really touches the nub of what is happening in the world at the moment, the failure of political institutions around the world to work democratically and instead to become increasingly distant from, even distrustful of, the people they represent. There’s the UK Parliament and its shameful backing of the invasion of Iraq, the US and the so-called “Patriots Bill”, France, and the illegal deportation of Romanies. etc. etc. Parliaments and legislatures around the world are failing. They are failing their own standards, and they are very much failing their constituents – most egregiously by the so-called left wing parties that should be protecting them…. For me, and I only speak for myself, this vote by the Green parliamentarians was a failure of to understand that by voting the way they did, they were becoming part of this anti-democratic process. The intentions perhaps can be rationalised, but I don’t think they can be ethically sustained. The Green Party, MPs and supporters and members, really need to continue to discuss this matter. It is not trivial, and attempts by the Green MPs to suggest it is not so important should be strongly resisted. (17 votes in favour; no votes against).
Similarly, on the very good Kiwipolitico blog post about the Greens’s support for CERRA, leftwing activist Tom Semmens commented insightfully:
To my mind the whole CERRA fiasco has exposed all our political elite as being nothing more than pragmatic, authoritarian mangerialists. Political expediency combined with the current prevalence of the cult of mangerialism sees all issues not in terms of principle or ideals, but as problems to be managed via a media strategy. it just so happens that this time the problem to be managed was democracy.
This episode shows that after years of wavering constantly between pragmatism and principle, the Greens have now very clearly crossed the line into realpolitik pragmatism. The problem for the Green leadership is that they’re not terribly good at the pragmatic parliamentary game that they so obsessively crave to master. Sadly, ironically and perhaps rather pathetically, their opportunism is strong but their pragmatic-populists skills are weak.
And while the Green leadership apparently voted for the draconian CERRA in order to protect the ‘party brand’, the Greens will possibly now be remembered as ‘voting against sustainability’. After all, there is an urgent need to see environmentally sustainable rebuilding in Canterbury, but now that’s less likely to happen, and the Greens will have to share the blame for this whenever construction occurs in an environmentally unsustainable way. Indeed, in explaining the need to support the Government’s legislation, MP Kevin Hague even spoke of the ‘need to expedite some processes to facilitate recovery’. It seems that the grassroots Greens have a much better understanding of the realities of sustainability than such MPs. And also ironically for the Greens this debacle follows on from their strong opposition towards the ECAN democracy abolition act. Their campaign against what has happened with ECAN now looks like pretty hollow politics. Many people will now wonder if such Green campaigns against ‘dictatorship’ in local government are based more on political expediency and vote-winning than any sort of political ideals. After all, they have put nothing on the line or risked anything by jumping on the ECAN bandwagon.
As Danyl Mclauchlin argues in the Dim-Post blog post Crisis reveals character, we should judge parties like the Greens not by their attempt to play the principled politics game under easy conditions but when an actual crisis puts the party under real pressure. Similarly, Lew of Kiwipolitico has said, ‘It’s easy to be principled when nothing is on the line — the measure of a party’s commitment to principle is how it performs when the stakes are highest. That measure has now been taken’. And clearly the Green Party grassroots don’t like what the test results say about their supposed leaders.