Bryce Edwards: The Green Party goes greener 

Bryce Edwards: The Green Party goes greener 

Those who want the Green Party to focus primarily on the environment should be very happy with the direction the party is heading in. Over the last ten months in government – and especially during the weekend – it has become clear that the party is more about the environment than ever before and much less focused on economic and social issues.

The conference in the weekend presented the party at its most green ever. All of the main issues that the leadership and membership focused on were environmental. Unlike last year’s conference where Metiria Turei unveiled an incredibly leftwing welfare policy – and dramatically confessed to welfare fraud – at this conference the talk was all about climate change, conservation, landfill waste issues, and water bottling.

For the best account of how the party has returned to an environmental focus, see Henry Cooke’s Bruised Green Party go back to basics at annual conference. He points to the two major announcements on water and waste, saying these “catered entirely to the more environmentally-focused wing of the party”.

Cooke suggests the focus is strategic: “With the party facing a raft of criticism from the commentariat that it was forgetting the ‘Green’ in the party’s name, launching some solid environmental policies made sense. The water testing stuff, clearly aimed at big foreign water bottlers, was some of the most populist policy the Greens have had in years, and will be well-received across the country.”

Of course, the Greens have always been a complex coalition of many different factions and philosophies. This was expressed colourfully on Friday in Matthew Hooton’s column, in which he detailed the historic divisions in the party, and how they appear to be resurfacing – see: Cracks in the Green revolution.

Hooton argues that the party has traditionally done very well to keep the various factions working coherently together, but multiple fault-lines in the party are becoming harder to paper over. He suggests the current co-leadership duo are less able to work together in the yin-and-yang fashion that Russel Norman and Metiria Turei achieved. Furthermore, he believes Marama Davidson’s more radical supporters are in the ascendancy.

It seems, however, that the opposite is the case – that the environmentalists are now firmly in control – and, indeed, there’s a much more moderate atmosphere in the party. This has led some to warn the party about losing its radical edge, or even some of its voters. Former MP Catherine Delahunty emphasised how important it is that the Greens don’t become perceived as just being “’Labour Lite” – see Lucy Bennett’s Uncomfortable discussions to be had at Green Party AGM.

Sue Bradford, also a former Green MP, commented during the weekend that the party was becoming “less and less the party of choice for people on the ecological and social justice side of the Greens”.

So, is the party vulnerable to losing its more leftwing members and voters? Henry Cooke reports that “A new movement called Organise Aotearoa, to the left of the Greens, has sprung up to soak up some of those who might be less comfortable with the compromises.”

Jason Walls has recently argued that the party’s wins in government have heavily favoured the environmental faction: “If you side more with the environmentalists, it has been a good first nine months for the Greens… From the perspective of the Greens greener supporters, all is well. But on the other side of the coin, the party is having a few teething issues” – see: The Greens’ 5% polling puts them on the precipice of oblivion and with simmering issues within the party.

Walls says this imbalance isn’t currently a problem: “there is nowhere for New Zealand’s more socially progressive voters to go apart from the Green Party”. However, “if a socially progressive party were to rise, it could plausibly siphon votes away from disenfranchised former Greens supporters and ultimately lead to the Party’s demise.”

This is also a position held by leftwing political commentator Gordon Campbell: “Before 2020, the Greens will need major gains that set them apart from Labour. Especially on the social justice front, where it risks looking entirely redundant” – see: On National’s obsolescence and the Greens’ dilemma.

Campbell is uneasy with the Greens’ continued endorsement of Labour’s conservative fiscal policies: “The Greens did not have to sign up last year to the Budget Responsibility Rules that continue to restrict the government’s ability to meet social needs. They chose to do so back then, and they’re choosing right now not to revisit that decision.”

A damage-control conference

The Green leadership will be very pleased with how the conference went at the weekend, because in the end there was very little infighting or pushback from the membership’s leftwing. Instead, the MPs were able to convince assembled activists that the progress made and concessions won within government far outweighed the compromises and shortcomings.

Davidson and Shaw were able to point to a list of environmental wins, including the current process of crafting climate change legislation, establishing the Interim Climate Change Committee, the ban on plastic bags, setting up a Green Investment Fund with $100m, more funding for public transport, and most of all, the ban on new permits for oil and gas exploration.

This doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges for the MPs and leadership, who had to answer some questions about selling out its ideology and principles – especially on their support for the so-called Waka-Jumping Bill.

As Henry Cooke explains, much of this sales job fell to Marama Davidson, who has the responsibility of keeping peace between the wider party and its ministers in government – see: Green Party’s first conference in Government a chance to show why it’s worth them being there.

Do the Greens need to get more radical?

A number of commentators have pointed to the Greens getting fewer policy wins than the New Zealand First party, and the fact that they haven’t been able to make more of the environmental wins they have achieved. For Guyon Espiner it’s a case of the MPs simply needing to use the “weapon the Green Party appear reluctant to use: Its voice” – see: The Green Party needs to speak up.

Many are pointing to the need for Davidson, in particular, to speak up more. And although Espiner agrees, he says others should too: “As a backbencher Ms Davidson is completely free to speak her mind. Even the Green ministers are largely free of the constraints of collective responsibility, in that it only applies to their portfolios.”

Similarly, Sam Sachdeva has said the Greens need louder voice in government. He argues that “The party may need to fight its corner more often if it is to survive and thrive”. In particular, “A dead rat or two may be palatable, but the Greens must show they can choose their own cuisine when they want to.”

According to Gordon Campbell, a return to a more principled-focus is necessary because “much of the Greens appeal has been based on the notion that its core values are not up for bargaining. That’s one reason why the deal on the waka jumping law has been so harmful.” He says that “the Greens are going to need to display a backbone. If it is to survive, the self-declared party of principles will have to demonstrate a greater willingness to fight for them.”

Finally, recently the Green MPs have become more aggressive and dissatisfied with how the media is covering the party. For example, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage retorted to one journalist asking hard questions: “If you want to sit in this seat, then perhaps you should stand for election.” And for the latest push back against the media, see RadioLive’s Reporting on Marama’s speech ‘disgraceful’ – James Shaw.