Editorial: Great together but better apart?

Can Greens leader, James Shaw rapidly reactivate the Greens' centrist appeal?
Chris McKeen

Can Greens leader, James Shaw rapidly reactivate the Greens' centrist appeal?

EDITORIAL: It has already been quite the election for sadly ironic political billboards. First there was Labour's "fresh approach" that quickly became stale. Then there was the Green Party's promotion of co-leaders James Shaw and Metiria Turei as "great together". That was before the sudden departure of Turei as co-leader after weeks of controversy and confusion over her historic benefit fraud.

But could "great together" turn into "better off alone"? The events of the past week have raised the question of why the Greens persist with their convention of having male and female co-leaders, especially as the co-leadership convention risks exacerbating already difficult divisions and conflicts within the party. 

The Greens went into the 2017 election campaign with complete contrast at the top. Not just male and female, but Pakeha and Maori. The suit-wearing Shaw is from a business background while Turei comes from the activist and anarchist Left. 

Former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei's benefit fraud confession proved too risky.

Former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei's benefit fraud confession proved too risky.

At times, such a contrast might be vote-enhancing, and its representational intentions are obvious, but it also spoke to the wider problems of a party that tries to straddle a broad range of interests. It has been successfully argued that the Greens' problems stem from a historic tension between the social-justice arm of the party, which applauds Turei's benefit fraud as an exercise in civil disobedience, and an environmental arm that appeals to middle-class voters in wealthier electorates who worry about food safety and clean rivers.

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This is to generalise, of course, and one could never say that the stereotypical middle-class Green voter in a leafy suburb does not also care about harder, grittier issues such as levels of poverty. 

Until last month, Shaw had dominated the Greens' pre-election coverage. It seemed clear that with a memorandum of understanding in place with Labour and budget responsibility rules agreed on, the Greens were courting the business-friendly centre of politics. A magazine cover shoot borrowed the glamour of Vanity Fair's Hollywood editions and all but spelled out the message in 10-metre-tall letters: the Greens are no longer threatening. 

Turei's risky confession, and the shambolic political management that followed, have eroded that good work and left Shaw exposed and looking uncomfortable. Picked to speak for one side of the party, he must now speak for both. 

When he was elected co-leader in 2015, Shaw said he wanted to reach out to National and modernise the party's image. The Greens have successfully done the latter and their 2017 list is an impressively diverse microcosm of contemporary New Zealand. But the far Left of the party still resists any formal overtures to parties on the Right of politics, which condemns it to a future as Labour's junior partner or a permanent opposition party. 

But if Shaw, now free of Turei, can rapidly reactivate the Greens' centrist appeal, he may push the party vote higher than the sad result of 6 to 8 per cent that seems likely otherwise. Then the party can have the greater, necessary debate about whether he or any future Green leader even needs another person next to them. 

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 - Stuff


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