The Greens are still in a state of post-election euphoria – and they have every reason to be. Niki Lomax attended the Greens’ AGM this weekend, and observed a party – in the words of Russel Norman – celebrating, consolidating and facing their future. This is her guest blog post report on the weekend, covering the celebrations, concerns, and challenges of a party in a growth phase. [Read more below]
There was a lot of hugging and back-patting this weekend. As the first minor party in New Zealand to breach 10 percent mark, it seems only fair that the membership should celebrate with a vegan muffin and an organic ale.
This was also a weekend for celebrating the party’s history with the 40th birthday of the Values Party, the Greens’ forebears and the first national green party in the world. The fireside discussions about the bygone days of Values set the tone for the weekend, reminding members of the core ideological principles upon which their party was founded. These days the Greens do not advocate zero population growth and the abolition of New Zealand’s defence force, but they do admire the idealism and progressiveness of those in the 1970s who did.
Interestingly, Claire Browning’s book, Beyond Today: A Values Story, launched at the Values celebrations, argues that the Green Party should look more closely at this progressive history. She says that although the Greens were applauded for their 2011 success, their focus on wealth and green growth made the campaign ‘conventional’, eroding their point of difference and undermining the distinguishing features of green politics.
A not-so-thinly veiled critique of the Greens’ recent ‘mainstreaming’, Browning is careful not to criticise anyone in particular, but implies that the pragmatic, incrementalist approach to politicking – which commentators have credited for the party’s newfound success – is at the expense of advancing deep ecological political ideals.
Browning’s book is highly idealistic and consciously lacking in objectivity. What she seems to have deliberately ignored is that incrementalism and economic pragmatism directly facilitated the Greens 2011 success. By proving to the public that they could still achieve policy gains in opposition, and that they could compete in economic debates, the Greens showed they were a credible alternative to the two major parties. I have argued before that to remain electorally successful the Greens must retain the perception of being both insiders and outsiders. If Browning had her way, much to the detriment of their current broad based support, the Greens would return to their maypole dancing, overly outsider roots.
When commentators talk about the mainstreaming of the Greens potentially alienating the party faithful, Claire Browning is pretty much who they mean. And while it’s highly likely that many of the Greens are sympathetic to her position, their electoral success depends on presenting themselves as co-operative, pragmatic and more ‘insider’.
Jeanette Fitzsimmons – who authored a chapter of Browning’s book – said this weekend in a TV3 piece about Values that being in Parliament requires you to focus on the day-to-day rather than the larger goal of changing society: ‘You have less time for big picture thinking’. Outside the constraints and trivialities of parliamentary life, Fitzsimmons has had a bit more time to consider the big picture. Her chapter in Beyond Tomorrow, entitled ‘Dealing with the end of growth: the big hard questions’, is far from trivial.
Although some in the party may think that these big ideas and questions are not getting enough attention, the fact that this debate is happening at all is indicative of the health of the Greens. If the Act Party is evidence of anything, it is that a strong ideological foundation is crucial for long-term stability.
The Greens are growing, and now would be a terrible time for reinvention or drastic changes to policy. More of the same is required. Fortunately, the Greens appear to know this: Turei is still the champion of women and children, while Norman talks economy and environment.
Contrary to a number of reports, mostly from the twittersphere, Russel Norman did not announce an actual policy shift on mining over the weekend. What is often forgotten, by the media and the public, is that the Green MPs are accountable to their membership by virtue of the party’s consensus decision-making process. While this can be frustrating for members when it comes to niggly matters of process, it means that Norman cannot flip-flop on manifesto promises like mining, even if he wanted to. Similarly, it means that if the Greens were ever presented with an opportunity for formal coalition, they would have to take the agreement to the party before such an arrangement could be confirmed.
There was definitely a prevailing sense this weekend that the Greens are a communitariat, open to discussion and disagreement, but ultimately united and excited about the rise of their party and their growing appeal.
A considerable amount has been written about the Greens 2011 electoral success and how their image has become increasingly slick, professional and ‘mainstream’. This weekend’s AGM served to highlight that, while the Greens’ presentation and communication has changed significantly over the last few years, it has not been at the expense of their authenticity. They may wear suits, but haven’t left the sandals behind.
Facing the Future
The Greens are ambitious, they want to be in government, and they are preparing for when that eventuates. When, not if.
This overwhelmingly optimistic attitude was encapsulated by outgoing co-convenor Roland Sapsford: ‘If you think 15-20% is unachievable, think about how it felt when we were striving for 5% when we were polling at 0.5%’.
Long gone are the days when the Greens were satisfied to be a voice for ‘good green change’ in Parliament but not in government. As Turei stated at the AGM, ‘ultimately political parties exist to govern’. If the Greens find themselves in a position to negotiate a coalition agreement next election, or an election thereafter, (and Turei cheekily suggested that no one should make assumptions about who would lead those negotiations) this will present a whole host of new challenges to the party. Collective cabinet responsibility is something that their consensus decision-making has never had to deal with. There are countless examples in New Zealand and overseas of parties making significant compromises once in ministerial roles, in turn compromising their electoral support.
The Greens dedicated a closed-session discussion at their AGM to the issues associated with governance. What would the Greens need to be ‘fit to govern’? What would a government need to look like for the Greens to want to take part? How would a Green Minister work for both the party and the country?
One interesting option that may have been discussed behind the closed doors, would be for the Greens to have one leader inside the cabinet and one outside – the ultimate demonstration of dual insider, outsider status – enabling one leader to negotiate the difficulties of co-operating without undermining the party’s position, and the other leader to focus on rallying party support.
Perhaps New Zealand could be the first country in the world with co-Prime Ministers.
The Greens deserve to be complimented for their success in 2011, and they deserve to celebrate. The Greens are growing, and rather than ‘stealing’ votes from Labour, they are winning support from the across the political spectrum and positioning themselves as a credible and strong opposition voice.
How they reconcile core values and principles with the realities of the political game will play an enormous role in their future success. This weekend’s AGM demonstrated that it is their clear intention to find a way to do both, and getting that balance right is what will sustain the Greens’ momentum through to 2014.