Bryce Edwards: What happened to the Greens’ dream?

Bryce Edwards: What happened to the Greens’ dream?

The Greens were going to be the principled core of the Labour-led Government, but instead are regarded by many as having been largely ineffective and submissive in power. This is leading supporters and others on the political left to ask some difficult questions about the direction the Greens are going in, and whether they will start to have more influence over the Government.

Former chief spin doctor for the Green Party, David Cormack, is worried, suggesting in his Herald column yesterday that the party has lost its courage, visibility and radicalism in power – see: Do the Greens deserve to be re-elected?

Although largely an encouraging pep talk for the Greens, Cormack’s column is fairly brutal in pointing out that Green MPs “have largely rolled over and acquiesced” instead of pushing an agenda for leftwing or environmental change. And not only have they been weak and moderate, they have failed in their promise to hold the Labour-led Government to account.

This could all change, Cormack says, but only if Green MPs decide to “step up” and actually fight for change. He argues they have a lot of potential leverage if they are courageous enough. With Labour having sold out so much, he suggests “You’ve got the chance to be the only real leftist party. Do you have the courage to take it?”

Responding to this analysis, blogger No Right Turn asks: When should the Greens get their Winston out? His answer is that they should play hardball to get the Zero Carbon Bill passed: “That is the Greens’ reason for existence, what they are about as a party. They need to deliver, for their supporters, and for the planet. And if their partners refuse – if Winston uses his veto, or Labour collaborates with National to water it down into more time-wasting, ineffective bullshit, then I fully expect the Greens to pull the plug and topple the government. Because the future is at stake, and it cannot afford for us to piss about on this.”

Another Greens-friendly political commentator, Martyn Bradbury, has also become increasingly distraught at his party’s actions – or lack of action – while in power. Today he blogs to say that the party is “in serious danger of not being returned to power in 2020 which is an absurdity when you consider climate change is the most pressing issue our species is collectively facing. The Greens have gone backwards in the last 3 elections and always over poll before an election, so if they are at 6%, slipping below 5% is a real possibility” – see: 18 months till election 2020 – how is the NZ Political landscape?

Bradbury says “As someone who has voted Green my entire life, it will be a deep sadness to watch them squander their legacy so meaninglessly.” He proclaims “The experiment of Marama Davidson as leader has been a dreadful mistake while James Shaw is about as effective as a day old corpse in a deodorant advert.”

What’s the cause of the Greens’ intense malaise? For Bradbury, it’s their increasing focus on identity politics and causes other than the environment: “The alienating middle class woke identity politics is terribly popular on Twitter, but in real life the woke politics of proclaiming all men are rapists, demanding white bros delete themselves from social media, attacking lesbians for not accepting Trans demands, insisting white supremacy violence is the fault of all white people, arguing free speech is white cis male privilege and reclaiming the word cunt is about as electorally attractive as a cup of cold vomit.”

It’s poor leadership, Bradbury says, and he recommends the party goes back to a focus on climate change. See also his recent blog post, Forget National’s leadership meltdown – what about the Greens?

Economist, environmentalist and TOP leader, Geoff Simmons, has some similar criticisms about the effectiveness of the Greens in government, suggesting that James Shaw has become a very weak environmentalist: “he is forced to back the tentative actions of his Government on two of our biggest environmental crises, fresh water and climate change. Don’t even mention fishing” – see: Greens toothless and divided.

For Simmons, too, it’s the Greens’ preoccupation with “identity politics” that is their weakness: “Quite frankly I think we have bigger fish to fry with our housing crisis and polluted fresh water. Regardless, I’m not sure activism really moves the debate forward in that space. I’m sure it plays well to part of the Green Party base, but does it help our society change for the better? These sorts of debates currently end up being used to shut down constructive conversation, not encourage it. Reasonable people are too scared to even ask questions or voice an opinion, for fear of a social media pile on.”

As co-leader, Marama Davidson has become the leader of the activist Greens, and a counterpoint to James Shaw’s more Establishment-style. Thomas Coughlan recently interviewed Davidson for his profile: Davidson: very Green, very outspoken and a lot to prove.

Coughlan explains that Davidson won the co-leadership contest against Julie Anne Genter precisely because she was the MP to “put a halt to the apparently unstoppable inertia dragging the party to the centre”. Davidson “was popular with the party’s activist left, who lobbied strongly for her to put her hat in the ring in the hope she would counterbalance Shaw’s perceived corporate-ness and pull the party back to the left.”

This profile examines whether she has been successful in that goal. Coughlan relays that critics say Davidson has merely continued to distract the Greens from core campaigns, especially when she spoke out about her intentions to “reclaim the C-word” for the public: “Observers felt it showed a lack of focus from the Green leadership as the campaign drew ever more attention, diverting people from the party’s work elsewhere. Less time thinking about climate change, more time thinking about, well, the c-word.”

According to this interview, Davidson has pulled back from such campaigns, suggesting the fault lay elsewhere: “Brown women in politics have a certain double standard judgment that I’m not going to change that means I have to be extra mindful”.

Davidson is certainly campaigning to dump the Greens’ fiscally-conservative support for the Budget Responsibility Rules. This campaign might see the Greens move to the left. But, Coughlan says, this would present significant challenges: “The looming question for the Greens is whether or not they can force the larger party’s hand – getting them to release, or even loosen the purse strings in any future Government. Doing so would require some intense political posturing. The Greens would essentially ask Labour to risk tarring themselves with the brush of profligacy and fiscal irresponsibility — something the party has worked for years to avoid.”

Earlier this year Davidson came out with a strong statement against the Government’s fiscal policy settings: “We are sitting on a surplus, we have the lowest cost of borrowing in recent history, and our country has crumbling infrastructure successive governments have kicked the can down the road to future generations.”

She announced the Greens were having a review of these settings, which would continue for a number of months, resulting in a new policy for the 2020 election – see Henry Cooke’s Greens to review self-set debt rules before 2020 election.

For more on this, as well as a discussion of other ways the Greens might reposition themselves for next year, see Henry Cooke’s The Greens are looking forward to 2020 already, and the possibility of a world without Winston. According to this, “The election is next year, and the Greens are getting ready by staking out positions on the left.”

Really, the party is going to have to score some greater wins on environmental issues, and especially on climate change. Even the National Party is finding that it can try to out-green the Green Party, with Simon Bridges recently saying: “If you look at the current Green Party and the current government, you’ve got a situation where we’re not getting cameras on fishing vessels, they won’t do the Kermadecs… They’re not making sufficient progress. For those who voted for Labour and the Greens because they thought they would get a greener government, well I’m not seeing evidence of that today” – see Joel MacManus’ Simon Bridges: Green Party isn’t making ‘sufficient progress’ on the environment.

There will also be continued pressure from the fledgling Sustainability New Zealand Party, who will seek to point out where the Greens might be letting down the environmental cause. For example, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage’s decision to rule out gene editing – which might otherwise be used as “a breakthrough science solution for predator eradication” is being criticised by the centrist rival party – see Finn Hogan’s Vernon Tava calls out ‘anti-science’ Green party.

Of course, the Greens have had some big wins. Richard Harman pointed these out at the start of the year: “the end to irrigation funding; the ban on offshore oil exploration; the move away from funding motorways; funding for conservation measures and a more aggressive scrutiny of foreign land purchases” – see: Once were radicals – the Greens in government.

According to Harman, the Greens first year in government has actually been very good. He says that their operating style is far from radical, but from his point of view that’s a plus: “Yet paradoxically for a party which has its roots in the protest movement and still likes to propose radical change, its approach to politics proved to be remarkably conservative. They are not given to big bold political gestures and unlike NZ First who seem to prefer confrontational politics, their whole strategy has been to move slowly and cautiously closer to the centre of power. It is a strategy which is beginning to pay off.

Finally, to view how satirists have portrayed the Greens, see my blog post, Cartoons about the Green Party in Government.