Russel Norman vs Colin Craig. Clash of the minor leaders. The ultimate liberal versus conservative SmackDown. So, what should we make of this scrap between the Green Party and Conservative leaders? Well firstly, expect this scrap over the role of women and position of gays to get nastier, and to even be a prominent feature of this year's election campaign. That is, what better way to rock National's support than to ignite a liberal moral-panic over John Key's new mate, Colin Craig and his Conservative Party? But why is Norman wanting to ignite a US-style cultural war in New Zealand? For a very simple reason. The fact is that the Greens, who have consistently moved further towards the political centre over recent years, have few policies to differentiate themselves, especially in terms of economic policy, from any of the other parliamentary political parities. As with both National and Labour, the Greens both recognise and endorse the 'positive' power of the market, and so endorse the post-neoliberal environment that frames political and economic discussion in this country. In this guest blog post, John Moore argues that Russel Norman has cynically demonised a rather easy target, the traditionalist and somewhat flaky Conservative leader Colin Craig, in a purely opportunistic move. [Read more below]
Colin Craig is no extremist
Colin Craig's rather backward social views should be critiqued and even slammed. However, this man and his party should be taken for what it is. Craig is no extremist, or even particularly ideological. Certainly he has some rather backward and old fashioned views, as he does see himself as championing 'traditional values'. However, Craig is far from being the intransigent moral conservative we see say on the periphery of the US Republican Party. When sharing his views on the American Christian Right, Craig has been less than flattering. He sees his party as a measured form of conservatism, and is quick to distance himself from the American right: “I think probably conservatism in America has some pretty strong elements that most New Zealanders wouldn’t identify with, and I certainly wouldn’t myself.”
The party’s website makes no mention of gay marriage, abortion, or any other divisive issues associated with conservative politics. Craig says his personal views on these subjects have been widely reported in the media, but the party has no official stance: “I don’t think discussion around these things is actually that beneficial or helpful for our nation," he says. "I’m not sure that you can legislate morality, I’m not sure that works well."
And Craig has made it clear he has few bottom lines in terms of getting into bed with either of the two major parties. For example, he has made it clear he is not trying to dismantle the majority of social-liberal reforms of the past few decades, saying that the Conservative Party won't be pushing for the repeal of the gay marriage law or legalised prostitution after next year's election, but would try to get the anti-smacking law overturned.
Culture Wars New Zealand style
So why is Russel Norman laying into Conservative leader Colin Craig, as if Craig presents one of the major threats to the social-liberal hegemony in New Zealand? With Norman's recent attacks, which can be read as a labeling of the conservative leader as both gay-hating and misogynistic, we are witnessing the utilisation of US style cultural-war rhetoric in New Zealand's political arena.
Culture war style politics, which dominates discourse in the United States, lacks in both style and nuance, and is all about building an election base through demonising ones opponents, and building up a state of panic amongst ones supporters over the possibilityof the opposition gaining power. Rather cringe worthy examples in the US include vice-president Joe Biden warning blacks that they would be put back in chains if Mitt Romney had his way, and Republican congressman Rick Santorum raising alarm over the Democrat's apparent pro-gay agenda, which he argued would lead to future promotion of incest and even bestiality.
Russel Norman's attack on Craig follows the pattern of demonisation and alarmist style politics that we see in the US. But then the obvious pressing question is, why is Norman, who leads a party that preaches consensus and non-aggressive politics, now playing the hard-man and leading an attack to shatter the image of Colin Craig? Why? Because the fact is as the Greens have moved increasingly to the centre, they now have little to grab onto in terms of differentiating their party from the other major political players in parliament. So now they desperately need some issues to promote themselves as a unique political brand. Shed of their once radical image, the besuited and bourgeoise-jacket wearing Greens now need to grab onto issues and concerns that do not threaten their carefully crafted centrist image as sensible and professional political players.
This shift to the centre was most succinctly expressed by former Green MP Sue Bradford when she was in the process of the leaving the party. When asked if the Greens had lost their radical edge, she said: “We did have a real radical cutting edge [in 1999]… I think that we have, to some extent we have begun to lose a little bit of that differentiation with the other parties in Parliament - in terms of being a little less willing to take risks; a little less willing to be radical and “out there”; and the sense that too many political parties – including perhaps our own – are focused on winning the middle ground voters and not seeing the voters out to the sides – in our case, out to the left, and to the environmental left, as being as important as the voters that are in the middle and to the right.”
So, at a time when most people in New Zealand are at least OK with gay marriage, and ideas that women are somehow lesser than men seem quaint if not just stupid to most of the population, what better way to build up support than to engineer a panic that extremist politics are about to enter the New Zealand political fray. Therefore, Colin Craig represents the perfect reactionary bogeyman, a rather inept politician who allows Norman to position himself as both a sensible and inclusive politician who can act as a bulwark against an apparent risk of a shift to the moral-right in this country.
Why the Greens now love to hate Colin Craig
Most leftists and liberals in New Zealand have essentially endorsed Russel Norman's painting of Colin Craig as a dangerous conservative. It seems that for most of the left, the mere fact that Norman has highlighted the backward views of the Conservative Party alone means that they too should follow along with the Green Party leader’s attempt at whipping up a culture war in New Zealand. What many on the left fail to see, is what the Greens' pro-gay/pro-women discourse is really all about.
As the Greens have transformed themselves into a mainstream political party, and as they have accepted that the liberal-democratic capitalist framework is the only game in town, the party desperately needs to latch onto issues that both promote themselves as a unique brand, and that also don't in anyway act to allow the party to be presented as radical or as challenging the essentials of the established economic framework in New Zealand. Norman himself has been the most articulate Green in promoting the party's shift to being explicitly pro-capitalist and pro-market. Norman has even gone as far as saying that the Greens should be all about saving capitalism from its own destructive tendencies. He's worth quoting at length on this point:
It’s a funny position we find ourselves in. Just as the social democrats (Europe), labourists (UK, Oz, NZ) and new dealers (US) of the 1930s and 1940s had to save capitalism from its own destructive tendencies by introducing a range of modifications and interventions on the market system, so now the Green Parties of the world find ourselves in possibly a similar position. The best of the old social democrats like Michael Cullen are too locked in the old paradigm to understand it, and the sectional interests like the business roundtable and employers federation are too narrow to see it, but we have to intervene on the market system to place a price on resource use and pollution so that we can save the planet. And in the process we will quite possibly save the market system from its natural tendency to destroy or consume all resources leading to its own demise
And on top of arguing for the Greens to save capitalism, Norman has also argued that capitalism can be utilised to save the planet. That is, Norman has gone to great lengths to emphasise that his solutions for ‘saving capitalism’ and the planet will in no way interfere with the market mechanism of the economic system. In fact, he has indicated a general desire to embrace ‘the market’ (and therefore capitalism). In his first speech as co-leader, Norman stated:
We had Keynesian economics, we had neoliberal economics, now is the time for some Green economics. Now is the time to harness the undoubted power of the market to internalise the costs of pollution
So, in light of the Greens ditching their previous radical image, and not only endorsing the 'positive power of the market, but actually wanting to save capitalism, a further shift is needed to rebrand the party. Therefore, Russel Norman's attacks on Colin Craig need to be seen for what they are: as a brand-defining move and nothing to do with emancipatory and liberation politics.