Bryce Edwards: Are the Greens in danger of being rejected as too moderate?

Bryce Edwards: Are the Greens in danger of being rejected as too moderate?

The Greens may have achieved their sought-after mainstream credibility, and scored some wins in government, but commentators warn this will not necessarily result in more votes. On the contrary – it might even result in a loss of enthusiasm from their own side.

This can be seen in the fact that much of the praise for their recent achievements is coming from mainstream or conservative sources, unlikely to vote for the party, while the Greens’ more traditional support base of environmentalists and leftwingers are less than impressed with their new realism and respectability.

This conundrum is very well conveyed in yesterday’s Herald column by Heather du Plessis-Allan, in which she argues the more moderate approach of current Green MPs in government could prove counterproductive: “There’s the ongoing risk that this mainstreaming could lose supporters. The idealistic, radical supporters in the party aren’t there to incrementally save the planet” – see: Emissions, electric vehicles, CGT – Greens make pragmatic decisions (paywalled).

Du Plessis-Allan argues that the Greens have achieved three important policy wins in the last two weeks: the inclusion of farmers into the Emissions Trading Scheme, the adoption of a subsidy scheme for climate-friendly vehicles, and “a reasonably sensible road safety package.” But, on the other hand, she points out that the MPs have also given up three of their election promises: “the commitment to making New Zealand’s electricity 100 per cent renewable”, a capital gains tax, and their “commitment to New Zealand remaining GM-free outside the lab”.

She predicts there will be major friction on the latter, as the notion “That GM is evil is one of the 10 commandments of true believers of green politics in New Zealand.”

Also published yesterday, was Thomas Coughlan’s interview with the party’s two co-leaders, which focuses on whether the moderate direction of the Greens is going to lead to the party struggling at next year’s election – see: After a dreadful 2017, can the Greens do better in 2020?

It’s on core issues such as climate change that some environmentalists have been very critical of the Greens and the Government. For example, former Green Party co-leader Russel Norman has become one of their biggest critics, consistently pointing out the shortcomings in their climate change policies, and especially on the latest initiative to bring farmers into the ETS but only charge them five per cent of their emission costs. For the latest on this, see Katie Fitzgerald’s Climate Change Minister James Shaw fine with making Greenpeace mad.

As an indication of the problem of the Greens getting praise from who they might consider the “wrong” people, see John Armstrong’s recent opinion piece, in which he praises the party for its “new era of realism”, despite disagreeing with their spokesperson on foreign affairs and defence – see: Just as Greens start to shed ‘loony left’ rep, Golriz Ghahraman sets them back.

Armstrong argues that Russel Norman actually laid the groundwork for the party’s shift to the mainstream. And the infamous departure of co-leader Metiria Turei “swung the balance in favour of a more pragmatic modus operandi if only for the reason that the Greens’ very survival was suddenly at stake. What might be termed as a new era of realism helped condition the party to the compromises and concessions that its hierarchy accepted would be the necessary price to be paid in becoming a junior partner” in the Labour-led Government.”

He says “The Greens’ motto since then has been simple. The party can live with trade-offs.”

Similarly, on Friday Peter Dunne published a blog post praising the Greens’ moderation in Government, but warning it could weaken them – see: Greens timidity and impotence in government may see them neutered as a political force.

Dunne says that the expectations of the political right that the Greens would be a radical disaster in government has been proved wrong: “Rather than being extreme and wacky, the Greens, on the whole, have been responsible and mainstream. In part, this is due to the Greens’ leadership – particularly James Shaw who is both personable and reasonable – and Ministers like Eugenie Sage and Julie-Anne Genter keeping pretty much to the middle of the government’s road”.

Dunne says that the Green’s more middle class support base is therefore now more entrenched, but the party is in danger of losing the radicals: “their challenge is to appear radical enough to continue to attract the support and activism of the more hard-line environmental idealists on whom they have relied for so long. The Greens’ responsibility in government will be sorely testing their patience. This, coupled with the now traditional loss of support all government support parties suffer, means the Greens can no longer take their presence in the next Parliament for granted, the way they were used to before 2017.”

He foresees disillusionment setting in: “The question that now raises is how much more humiliation the Greens’ rank and file membership will be prepared to accept before walking away altogether, and simply transferring their support to Labour. Some will stay the course, appreciating that saving the Green brand ranks higher than temporary achievements in government, but others will become more disillusioned, and will start to question whether being part of government is actually worth it, or whether it is doing more harm than good.”

Therefore, the party’s upcoming annual conference in just over two weeks could be difficult for Green MPs and the party leadership. Due to possible rifts, and party activists potentially raising difficult questions and challenges to MPs, the conference has been closed off to the public and media. The NBR’s Brent Edwards reports that journalists won’t be allowed into the annual general meeting being held in Dunedin except to report on the co-leaders’ set-piece speeches and to “attend the ‘world café,’ whatever that is, with MPs and party members at 2pm” on the Sunday – see: Greens’ transparency doesn’t extend to opening their conference (paywalled).

Edwards is disappointed with the decision, and says it goes against the Green’s supposed belief in open democracy and the need for fostering political participation. He says the public should demand more from the Greens, and “political parties expecting their votes and taking their money should be open to wider and deeper scrutiny”.

He raises the question of whether the party has become simply another political machine like traditional parties – in which it’s “all about controlling the message”. Edwards suggests the Green Party is now in the thrall of “political strategists” for whom “playing the game of politics is all about leverage and setting the narrative, or spin, to their party’s advantage. It is not about informed debate nor about democratic inclusion.”

In another article, Brent Edwards reports that even within the party leadership there is some discontent with the way their own government is going – with co-leader Marama Davidson not entirely buying the “Wellbeing Budget”. She gives it a rating of only six out of ten, believing “it was neither transformational nor bold enough” – see: Green Party calls for bolder action in next year’s budget (paywalled).

This article reports that the party will be pushing for more: “In next year’s budget the Greens would be arguing for more money for beneficiaries, more public housing and to deliver on its confidence and supply agreement to set up a rent-to-own scheme.”

Similarly, yesterday Anna Bracewell-Worrall reported that the Greens still want welfare benefit levels increased, and seem to believe that Labour may have breached its coalition agreement in not increasing benefit levels already – see: Greens call out Labour over failure to increase benefits.

Finally, in contrast to some of the moderation currently on display in the Greens, in the weekend, the “rising star” of the Green caucus, Chloe Swarbrick has outlined her own radical politics and what she thinks her party is about, saying “Fundamentally the Greens are about economics, and that is what I am really interested in”, and “I think it’s been lost a bit because our name is Green and our colour is green, that we are fundamentally focused on dismantling an economic system that exploits both people and the planet” – see Mike Houlahan’s Fire in the belly drives young MP. She also says that she might not stand again for Parliament next year.