The co-leader of the Green Party, Russel Norman, apparently has trouble telling the difference between red and blue – he’s colour-blind according to a revealing and in-depth article about the changing political direction of the Green Party. The article in the Dominion Post by Nikki Macdonald opens by saying that ‘Green politics is the new, well, red and blue’, and goes through the dilemmas that the party is facing as it pushes towards the centre of the political spectrum with the new leadership keen to pick up all different hues of political support. The supposedly red-green ideological combination is out of favour with the leadership, and the party is determined to diversify by adding blues and other hues to the green brand. According to the article, this is alienating those that remain in the party’s leftwing activist base, while senior business-oriented stalwarts are celebrating the move away ‘the socialist side’ of the political divide. Yet despite the internal disagreement over which bright ideological political colours the party should be orientating towards, the article seems to suggest that in reality the whole parliamentary caucus of the party is essentially now colour-blind and they actually seem to prefer the colour beige most of all. [Read more below]
The focus of the article is trying to track where the ‘reinvention’ of the Green Party has been taking the party and where it will go, hence the article’s title: ‘Green growth: Reinvention of the Greens’. It asks: ‘Is the Green party becoming more moderate, trying to broaden its appeal and capitalise on the mainstream popularity of green ideas?’. The answer, according to the article is: yes. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but below is a summary of, and commentary on, the salient points of the article.
The shift to the right
Previously this blog has highlighted the Green Party’s shift to the right – see for example the posts on: Sue Bradford: The Green Party has lost its radical edge and differentiation, A bad marriage leads to divorce – the splintering of the Greens, The Greens’ 2008 election campaign, Metiria Turei – the next Green Party co-leader, and Have the Greens sold their soul? Other commentators are also now interested in this issue.
Nelson photographer, publisher and former Green candidate Craig Potton, who was close to Donald, admits he was worried the party would struggle with the loss of Donald's personality and controlled capitalist approach. And that it would "veer to the socialist side". But now, he's feeling optimistic. "It's not radical to be green any more. It's a core part of the speak: Honda with their hybrid cars or Meridian with its wind power. Green is the new black."
Of course as with any political party repositioning, the Greens’ shift to the right has occurred in fits and starts, and it isn’t always simple to recognize the evolution in their party manifesto but more in what policy issues get emphasized by the leadership, and also by how the party orientates itself towards other political parties. Thus when the Green Party puts its energy, attention and resources into promoting ecological issues, it does so at the expense of economic, social justice or other radical issues. For example, when Russel Norman focuses almost exclusively on the non-left issue of ‘river water quality’ he automatically devalues and de-prioritises other more policies that party activists have put into the Green Party manifesto. And the Dominion Post article suggests that Norman and Turei haven’t yet decided what issues to concentrate on in next year’s general election, except to say that ‘water is likely to feature prominently’. The article astutely points out that ‘Less likely is a return to trumpeting of the party's potentially divisive cannabis law reform policies, which still remain quietly on the books’. To see the shift to the right it’s also instructive to look at what the other new Green MPs are concentrating on. In this regard, the article states that ‘Now they have David Clendon travelling the country holding sustainable business breakfasts.’
The article also notes that ‘there's clear demarcation of territory’ between the two co-leaders: "Russel will talk about the economy."’ This is clearly the case, and lately Norman has been going all out to push his conventional economic credentials – for instance he was on TV recently talking about the need for the Government to be ‘fiscally conservative’. In fact at the time of the Budget his response was a very conservative one that primarily criticized the Finance Minister for his fiscal deficits and increased borrowing. So it’s in economic policy more than anything that it seems that the Greens are ditching the remnants of leftwing ideology. This can be seen most clearly in fact with the party adopting a policy that favours the rate of GST staying at 15% (for more, see: Greens now favour 15% GST).
Coalition formation options are obviously a crucial issue of ideological identity in New Zealand under MMP – especially for minor parties. Here the Greens are never too certain how to orientate, and this uncertainness is only increasing as the party shifts away from a more leftwing ideology. Now the party stresses how much it is willing to work with parties of all colours, even if not in formal coalitions. The Dominion Post article deals with this issue, and reports that there are a variety of views within the Greeen on whether to prefer National over Labour for coalition. Where as once the very idea of working in any way with National would have just about been cause for expulsion, now it’s rather more common. The article cites two senior Greens as favouring the Greens going with National:
[Craig] Potton argues Labour has treated the Greens harshly and the party should side with National. He admits it would be a hard sell to the grassroots, but would be justified if the party could win seven or eight key policy concessions…. Former MP Mike Ward calls for closer ties with National, and a more conciliatory approach towards government.
A leftwing backlash?
In writing the article, the journalist Nikki Macdonald talked to the ‘pivotal social justice campaigner’ and ex-Green MP, Sue Bradford who has in the past more than hinted at her despair about the Greens moving to the right. But now, ‘Bradford wouldn't discuss the party's direction - a position that says more than any conversation could’. Bradford it seems has all but left the Green Party, and has publicly mused about the need for a leftwing party to be established (essentially to fill the gap left by the Greens ideological shift).
The article points out that clearly ‘not everyone is happy’ with the evolution of the Greens, and cites the recent resignation of a unionist from the party:
But any perceived softening of the party's hard edges to woo a wider audience risks alienating the party's core supporters. Hawke's Bay-based Nurses Organisation organiser Stephanie Thomas decided this year not to renew her membership of a party she sees as increasingly middle class and safe. "I feel a bit disillusioned. I didn't like what happened with the change of leadership. I thought that was gutless of the party to not go with Sue [Bradford]. Because I think they have gone with politically a safe choice. The less controversial, young, attractive choice."
Macdonald reports that such moderation ‘risks alienating the activist left on which the party was built’ and that there is now ‘an undercurrent of dissent among the party faithful worried that the Greens are sacrificing principle for political expediency’. One lightening rod for the dissatisfaction with the new leadership was found when the Green MPs voted in favour of anti-democratic legislation in parliament that ex-MP Sue Bradford branded ‘earthquake fascism’:
The party's decision to vote for the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill, despite raising serious concerns about its subversion of the democratic process, exposed a deep vein of dissent within the party membership. The party's own Frogblog is littered with sharp stabs condemning what members perceive as the move to put pragmatism, even popularity, ahead of principles: "Unprincipled spinelessness," accuses one of the 351 comments. "You sacrificed principle for political cover, and that sucks," rails another. "You voted to trash democracy in New Zealand. You should be ashamed," another says. Finsec banking union spokesman [and Green Party member] Andrew Campbell was also appalled at the move. "I can't understand why they voted for it. One of the things they have been particularly strong about has been democracy and the rule of law in Parliament, which that piece of legislation rides roughshod over.
The article reports that against all the backlash and grassroots feedback, Norman (pictured above) ‘still believes they made the right decision’, but he isn’t able to give any sort of real justification: ‘We discussed it at length. At the end of the day we needed something, and hopefully the thing will be repealed before Gerry Brownlee does any damage’. The article reveals also that Sue Bradford was not the only ex-Green MP to disagree with the new MPs supporting the legislation: ‘Fitzsimons gently suggested she would have voted against. Tanzcos called it an "error of judgment"’. The so-called ‘earthquake fascism’ issue was incredibly heartfelt within the party’s rank-and-file. (Some further analysis of this split is on my blog here: Green MPs incur activist backlash).
A Green-Beige Party
Rather than a red-green divide, the colour that is increasingly characterizing the Green Party is that of grey or beige. Without any real pretence to stick to principles, ideologies or political visions, the party has become much more bland than ever. As the article says, ‘there's no denying the new crop of MPs lack the flamboyant personalities and profile of their predecessors’. It notes the low profiles of people like Kevin Hague who only seems to be known for his opposition to damning a river on the West Coast, and Gareth Hughes whose narrowed himself down to ‘courting the student vote with his push for insulation in rental flats’. Worse than this, ‘little has been heard of David Clendon and Kennedy Graham’. And MP Catherine Delahunty isn’t even mentioned at all, which is fairly damning regardless of whether this is by design or oversight. The article also notes the problem of Metira Turei’s invisibility, citing that in a 20-minute interview with veteran Green Craig Potten, ‘Potton doesn't once mention Turei, and speaks of "Russel and his team"’. And the beige-ness is evident in other comments in the article: ‘Already Norman and Turei look like an old married couple, sipping tea side by side in Norman's 14th-floor office.
Reading about the new intake of ‘Generation X’ people taking over the party, they appear to be remarkably similar to those populating the Labour and National parties. For instance, the article points to the people like Green businessman James Shaw (pictured on the right) and ‘Young Greens co-convener and Rhodes Scholar Holly Walker’ who have been selected to stand in Wellington seats next year. Remarkably, Shaw, who is a ‘former PricewaterhouseCoopers manager’ beat existing MP Gareth Hughes to get the Greens nomination for the highly-prized Wellington Central nomination. His business and management credentials clearly mean a lot in the New Greens.
Turei is quoted in the article talking about such changes being ‘diversification’, but really it’s about a narrowing of the Greens socio-economic background as the party seeks to look more like it’s target middle-income voter base. Unfortunately for the New Zealand party system, elections, and Parliament, this beige-ness ultimately means all the parties and options seem to blend into one another.
Notably, the Hutt South candidate Holly Walker is – like many electoral candidates from Labour and National – following the same ‘party professional’ career path into politics of first working as a taxpayer-funded employee in the party’s Parliamentary head office. Apparently Walker was first a ‘media adviser’ in 2006, but is now ‘a party policy adviser’ as well being a co-leader of the Young Greens (despite Parliamentary Service rules against significant party officeholders being employed as party staff). The article highlights her as epitomizing the future of the Greens:
She is smart and savvy, but her CV is a world away from the bolshie activist profiles of the Greens' class of 99: Hutt Valley High School deputy head girl, champion debater, Rhodes Scholar, masters in international development from Oxford. Establishment, you might say.
Walker agrees with the Greens shift towards moderation, being reported as believing that ‘As green issues become more mainstream, there is a need for the Greens to speak to a wider audience’. The risk is, of course, that this wider audience is going to be rather bored by the Greens’ new beige politics.
There’s always been an internal contradiction within the Greens between its more socialistic lefties and the more middle-income moderates that want the party in power. This article nicely sums up that contradiction and seems to be suggesting that by Norman and Turei taking the party towards the centre of the political spectrum they are resolving it.