Gordon Campbell On The Greens Leadership ChangeMay 31st, 2009
Talk about the bleedingly obvious. In the aftermath of the last election, the Green Party moved a few floors upwards into more spacious digs in Bowen House. One area was reserved for three MPs whose offices were adjacent and whose names appeared together on the same small plaque by the lifts : Jeannette Fitzsimons, Russel Norman, and Metiria Turei. It was a sign of things to come. On the weekend, Turei was elected as the Greens’ new female co-leader to replace Fitzsimons, who is due to retire from Parliament at the next election. Spatially and ideologically, Turei always did have the inside running.
Turei at 38, is younger than Sue Bradford ( the other contender for the job ) and is seen to be a less polarising public figure. As happened when Russel Norman defeated Nandor Tanczos three years ago for the male co-leaders’ position, the contest has gone to the less wellknown candidate. The choice of Turei is a significant one for the Greens. Turei’s selection and Bradford’s rejection are an endorsement of the government-friendly drift towards the centre by the Greens, and this leaves Labour firmly in isolation at the leftward end of the political spectrum.
There was, you might say, a certain inevitability to the vote. Given that the venerated Fitzsimons had been all over the media touting her Budget home insulation deal with National less than 48 hours before the ballots were cast, it would have taken a herculean effort by Bradford to convince the party rank and file to openly rebuff Fitzsimons, and vote against the candidate who had clearly supported the policy of engagement with National.
As I mentioned the other day, the Greens’ leadership seems confident that there will no ‘halo effect’ from the memo of understanding that it signed earlier this year with the Key government. The Greens believe they can team up with Key to make progress on their pet policies – and lend the Key administration social and environmental credibility in the process – without undermining the credibility of their criticisms of the government on other fronts. Time will tell whether that confidence is well founded. Regularly under MMP, votes have been scarce on the centre ground – and the Greens don’t have the ballast of an electorate seat.
Going forwards, what it means is that the Greens have voluntarily put themselves at odds with the only party – Labour – with which they can realistically expect to form an alternative government. If he had planned it himself, Key could have hardly have wished for a better pattern of disarray among his opponents. Key is, in fact, in the happy position of being able to outsource his credibility on some environmental issues to the Green Party, just as he has done on Treaty issues to the Maori Party. Currently, the Greens are busily promoting their Green New Deal. In practice, they seem to be just as positioning themselves as a sustainable version of Peter Dunne. They’re green centrists, up for dealing with almost anyone.
This is a pretty interesting emphasis for the Greens, at this time. Fitzsimons tends to depict the situation in wide–eyed ‘why not?’ terms. Why not make progress on good policies and engage with the government where you can ? The trouble is, the strategy smacks as much of opportunism, as of principle. For obvious reasons, it risks eroding the moral currency of stands taken against the same government with whom the Greens have signed a public memorandum of understanding, and with whom they continue to conduct back-room communication. You want an example from Budget day ? The Greens spent a lot of media time holding hands with Gerry Brownlee over their joint home insulation deal. This overshadowed the time the Greens spent on attacking the government for slashing the funds budgeted for conservation, one of Turia’s former prime areas of concern,
In any other party, such flexibility might be taken to represent realpolitik and political maturity. That’s a hard line to promote though for a party whose brand is based on virtue, and on not playing the games that others do. It was quite OK during an election campaign for Norman to play the centrist card and depict the two major parties as being as indistinguishable as Coke and Pepsi. Yes, they have similar positions on roading. But do the Greens now really believe that Labour and National governments are indistinguishable from one another ? Surely, the last six months might suggest otherwise, and with more to come.
What will Bradford do now ? The outcome of the ballot on Saturday will pose a few headaches for her, beyond the initial hurt of rejection. Arguably, the Greens have traded quite a lot, for a significant but narrowly focussed gain. True, the Greens may be able to make occasional gains from National, but solely on the environment front. There is no common ground on social policy. One can be reasonably certain that Bradford and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett will never be seen throwing a cheery joint press conference to mark their co-operative achievements, in the same way that Fitzsimons and Brownlee did last week.
There is in fact, absolutely nothing for Bradford ( or for that wing of the Greens constituency that is motivated by social justice concerns ) in this current engagement with National. In July, there will be only the prospect of the Greens playing cutely again with the government over the question of a “ Yes” vote on the S59 citizens initiated referendum. Primarily, the exercise will give Key a chance to look like Mr Consensus Guy on this divisive issue, all over again.
Turei now has the job in front of her. Some in the media have expressed concern that Norman and Turei are both relatively new chums, who may be somewhat wanting in experience. That concern is misplaced. The party will not be lacking in experience at the helm. Turei after all, is in her third term as an MP, and Fitzsimons will still be around, for the immediate future at least. From day to day, the leadership will continue in all likelihood to function more like a triumvirate than a duopoly.
Can Labour and the Greens mend fences in future ? Labour will need to renounce its tendency to patronize and control its allies. Without Clark and Heather Simpson on the scene, such a change may come easier. Therein lies the irony in the current name-calling by Norman about Labour’s alleged right wing leadership – which he continued in an interview in the May 26th issue of the Auckland university magazine Craccum. Eg :
Norman: ‘ ….The thing about the modern Labour Party, the current Labour Party we have, is that obviously it’s taken a bit of a turn to the right with the change in leadership. David [Shearer] is the candidate chosen by the right machine of the Labour Party, and I think that speaks volumes for the kind of candidate he is, and the kind of politics he represents.’
The wider reality is almost the reverse. Labour is now free of the real and imagined centrist constraints of being in government – where in any case on defence and security intelligence issues, Clark could hardly have been more right wing if she tried. The choice for Bradford and colleagues such as Catherine Delahunty is whether they now seek to build links with some of the more progressive Labour backbenchers, and try to ensure that any Labour resurgence and eventual co-government with the Greens does not repeat the mistakes of the past.
That will be tough sledding. For now, a basic recognition that Labour and the Greens are allies – if the centre-left is ever to govern again – seems lacking. Rebuilding will be a long and faintly forlorn exercise, and it is one for which the current Green leadership looks like a distinct non-starter.