Reinvention of the Greens

02:18, Nov 23 2010
Russel Norman
Green Party co-leaders Russel Norman and Metiria Turei.

Green politics is the new, well, red and blue. As the Green Party evolves to survive, Nikki Macdonald asks where reinvention will lead.

And then there was one. On current polling, the Green Party will next year become the first minor political party to survive the transition from founders to new generation. With the retirement of food safety go-to girl Sue Kedgley, Keith Locke will be the only MP remaining from the original seven-strong 1999 intake.

It's been an extraordinary evolution from the party that in 1999 implored the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party not to stand candidates as they would cannibalise the Green vote; from a party dismissed as lunatic fringe, with its drugs and dreads and activist antics, to the third-largest party in Parliament, putting out joint policy releases with National.

At every turn it has confounded critics' predictions of its imminent demise: following the sudden death of co-leader Rod Donald in 2005, and his replacement with Aussie-born leader- outside-Parliament Russel Norman; at the acrimonious split of pivotal social justice campaigner Sue Bradford after she lost the leadership stoush with Metiria Turei; at the departure of inaugural co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.

As it becomes increasingly hip to don a verdant hue, the Greens stand to broaden their support. But any perceived move toward moderation risks alienating the activist left on which the party was built. The decision to vote for the draconian Christchurch earthquake legislation has exposed an undercurrent of dissent among the party faithful worried that the Greens are sacrificing principle for political expediency. And when National and Labour squabble over who is taking a harder line against foreign land ownership in New Zealand - an issue championed by Donald - there must be fears the party could lose its niche as green politics drifts centre stream.

It's been a heck of an 18 months for the Green Party. Last June, the party selected young Maori mother-of-three Turei to replace the indefatigable Fitzsimons - once voted the politician Kiwis would most trust to babysit their children. With Green credentials tracing back to the 1970s, to Green Party forerunner the Values Party, hers was a heavy loss for the party.

Disillusioned at losing the leadership chase, the polarising but effective Bradford also bowed out last October. Then, in September, Kedgley announced she had also tired of Parliament and would not stand again.

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It's a mark of the strength of the green brand, and the topicality of its environmental message, that the party has survived with no obvious dip in support. The latest One News Colmar Brunton poll had the Greens at 8 per cent.

Already Norman and Turei look like an old married couple, sipping tea side by side in Norman's 14th-floor office. Turei's blood-red lipsticked lips do much of the talking. But Norman delivers considered bites where pertinent. And there's clear demarcation of territory: "Russel will talk about the economy."

The campaign against National's policy to explore mining in national parks has helped galvanise green support, whereas joint policy announcements with National around home insulation and pest control have proved the party's willingness to work with anyone to achieve its policy goals.

But there's no denying the new crop of MPs lack the flamboyant personalities and profile of their predecessors. Conservation spokesman Kevin Hague has had some exposure with his campaign to save the West Coast's Mokihinui River from damming, and Parliament's youngest MP, Gareth Hughes, is courting the student vote with his push for insulation in rental flats. But little has been heard of David Clendon and Kennedy Graham.

Victoria University political commentator Jon Johansson concludes it's been a relatively smooth transition from party founders to Gen X leaders. Especially when compared with ACT's haemorrhaging support over the resignation of child-identity-stealing David Garrett and deep divisions in the Maori Party over its support of the Foreshore and Seabed Act rewrite.

"They perennially, like all small parties, struggle for any sort of media oxygen. But compared to the ACT Party or the Maori Party they are the absolute modicum of stability. That has to say something good about the co-leadership and the Green team," Johansson says.

The grassroots also seem reasonably content with the new leadership. 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."

However, Norman's co-leader has some work to do to raise her party profile. In a 20-minute conversation, Potton doesn't once mention Turei, and speaks of "Russel and his team".

Veteran Marlborough Greens Norman and Alison Fletcher, whose support dates back to the Values Party, are upbeat. The message, says Alison, is bigger than the personalities. Norman Fletcher: "I think there has been a huge change recently in that other parties have stopped ridiculing the Greens. You still get the odd ACT member portraying us as a bit nutty. Suddenly we're being taken seriously."

The old guard are also supportive, with both Nandor Tanczos and Fitzsimons believing the party is in good heart. But not everyone is happy. 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 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. I suspect they felt there was a need for unity. That they would be seen as party-poopers if they voted against."

Here, the new Greens have clearly departed from the old ways. Bradford wouldn't discuss the party's direction - a position that says more than any conversation could. But she openly blogged her contempt at what she called "earthquake fascism".

"I am beginning to wonder what is going through the minds of some of my former colleagues, and of Parliament itself, in its acceptance of totalitarian rights for the state."

Fitzsimons gently suggested she would have voted against. Tanzcos called it an "error of judgment". "I wouldn't say I see them moving away from being a party of principle. If I saw that kind of thing happening on a more consistent basis then I'd probably think that. To me it looked more like a one-off mistake, and hopefully one they learn from."

Even Norman accepts that "a fair- minded person could have come to the conclusion we should have voted against it". But he still believes they made the right decision.

"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."

Is the Green party becoming more moderate, trying to broaden its appeal and capitalise on the mainstream popularity of green ideas?

Big personalities and loud media stunts have served the Greens well in the past. But the dreads and drugs became an unwelcome distraction from the bigger issues. Even the hugely effective Bradford probably alienated as many voters as she brought in. Now they have David Clendon travelling the country holding sustainable business breakfasts.

Norman's handle on economics could prove key in courting a broader audience as tourism surpasses dairy farming as our biggest earner and high-profile people such as Conservation Department boss Al Morrison reinforce the economic sense in looking after the planet. "We must join the economy to the environment in the minds of all New Zealanders. We need to show them how a healthy economy relies on a healthy environment," Norman said in his speech to this year's annual conference. "No water, no milk; no environment, no economy. If we can tell this story successfully we will change the nation's agenda again."

The Greens won't release their list candidates for the next election until January, and their ranking will then be decided by postal ballot of party members. But recent electorate announcements suggest the 2011 line-up could have a much less confronting face.

Young Greens co-convener and Rhodes Scholar Holly Walker (see profile, left) is standing in Hutt South, while in Kedgley's old electorate, Wellington Central, former PricewaterhouseCoopers manager James Shaw beat Hughes for the nomination.

Turei says the diversification should come as no surprise. "There is no doubt that our issues are getting broader support. Our principles are as solid, our policy is still the same, and we still advocate for it as strongly as we ever have, but the community is moving closer and closer to our views on issues around sustainability, the environment."

She denies the party is moving away from its activist roots. Fitzsimons promises the list will include new faces, with long established records in both environment and social justice. Then she remembers she's not supposed to discuss it now that she's no longer leader.

Kedgley argues the Greens have simply traded novelty value for credibility. "When I first brought up food safety and animal welfare issues, MPs just laughed and rolled their eyes and treated them with utter derision. At least now they are taken seriously."

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."

Back at Parliament, the Greens and Labour look chummy. Keith Locke played Robin to Trevor Mallard's Batman in the debate against the industrial relations changes dubbed The Hobbit Law. The party has this term proven its willingness to work with any party to get policy gains, like the $323 million home insulation scheme. That's only fitting for a party whose co-leader (Norman) recently revealed he is colour blind.

But it can only achieve so much outside of government. Every election, the party membership discuss how they should position themselves in the election lead-up. If the views canvassed by Your Weekend are anything to go by, it will be a deeply divided debate. 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.

Norman Fletcher argues that any gains with National will be minor and piecemeal. "Getting things like social justice and environmental ethos is going to be much more difficult with National than Labour."

Former MP Mike Ward calls for closer ties with National, and a more conciliatory approach towards government.

But government brings its own risks, as Fitzsimons points out: "If you go into government with a political philosophy that is completely incompatible, how on earth do you manage that?"

In any case, the Greens look unlikely to commit to a three-party coalition, given the Maori Party's difficulty winning policy gains in this term, with ACT as its counterweight.

Turei and Norman are coy about the party's key policies going into the election. With anger over the anti- democratic dismissal of Environment Canterbury, the Mokihinui campaign, and community backlash against dirty dairying, water is likely to feature prominently. Less likely is a return to trumpeting of the party's potentially divisive cannabis law reform policies, which still remain quietly on the books.

Fears that Bradford's departure will relegate the party's social justice arm appear unfounded, as Turei demonstrates when attempting to recall the Greens' key policy areas: "Fair society, smart economics, safe healthy food, healthy politics (transparency)," she reels off without hesitation. Then stops and ponders. "And environment; you'd think I'd remember that one."

At a time when businesses talk sustainability, and Wellingtonians elect a Green mayor, there's a danger Green policies could become so mainstream that the Greens could lose their niche. Does that worry the party? Potton: "That's actually what you want. I honestly believe that the majority of Green people don't want to stand for Parliament, me included. If things go right, we're quite happy to go back to our other lives."

So long as major parties keep propagating policy, like Labour's "tepid" Emissions Trading Scheme, further watered down by National, there's still plenty of room for a Green party in New Zealand, Johansson argues.

But just how much sway the Greens will hold in the next government will depend on Labour's fortunes, he says. If current polling continues, and National looks safe, the Greens should do as well as last election. But if Labour emerges as a serious contender, disaffected Labour voters who switched to Green could return to the fold. Of course, if MMP is voted out next year, the Greens stand to disappear altogether.

Norman believes 10 per cent is a realistic goal for 2011. If the Greens can walk the line between retaining activist grassroots members and courting middle-class sustainability converts, he might even be right. "There's been a generational shift about green issues. That makes me really hopeful for the Greens and for the planet."

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The Dominion Post