Jeanette Fitzsimons’ valedictory speech in Parliament today ends a political era. Will it be the death of the Greens, or their coming of age?
Every politician and commentator in the country is doing the political obituary; so the memes are multiplying.
Apparently, Fitzsimons is the “last of the true Greens” -- an environmentalist, not a left wing extremist. Apparently, she was the Greens’ “most dangerous politician” -- the publicly acceptable face of what would otherwise be unacceptable policies. And of course (inarguably) she shepherded Green ideas into common political currency. A lot of the epitaphs have been brisk; it seems there’s not a lot new to say. I wonder how many have looked into the substance of what they’re repeating.
To understand the end, I went back to the beginning: the Values Party manifestos Blueprint for New Zealand: An Alternative Future (1972), and Beyond Tomorrow (1975).
Today Parliament says goodbye to a consummate politician and policy developer, but when Fitzsimons resumes her seat, at the end of her valedictory speech, it will turn the page on a political chapter.
I don’t know if she’s the last of the true Greens; but certainly she is the last Green from the Values generation -- for whom, by the way, social and environmental policies were halves of a whole. And hindsight casts new light on a lot of the “unacceptable” policies. It’s not just the trendy green liberal home insulation, recycling, fair trade, and worm farms that have grown popular. Many of Values’ social policies were adopted in the intervening 40 years; some of them are all-but unanimously acclaimed sources of national identity and pride.
People of my generation probably won’t recall the Values Party; 98% of our parents might remember them as “Luddites”, or a wasted first-past-the-post vote (Values won 2% of the national vote in the 1972 election). Values would have been the Party that stopped the party: the Party that in 1972 called technology a “dehumanising influence”; that frowned on the “frivolous” cosmetics industry; and wrote a swingeing tax policy.
Last year I blogged about Fitzsimons’ last speech to the Greens as co-leader, in which she had said that: “Above all [Values] spoke of the politics of enough. That humans should stop when they have enough so that other living things can survive. That affluent humans should stop when they have enough so that others may have enough too.” I wondered whether, buried within the subtext of the “politics of enough” was some sort of redistributive philosophy -- whereby the state would recover and share around the wealth of the excessively greedy or fortunate.
As it turns out, this wasn’t hidden in the subtext at all, but set out in bold black and white in 1975. According to Values, it would be “necessary for the government to initiate the redistribution through its taxation policies”, by implementing a maximum income threshold above which “income … would be taxed completely away”. Inherited wealth in excess of an allowable minimum would also be steeply progressively taxed, rising to 100%.
Those early manifestos clear up some misunderstandings -- and show a touching naiveté about the coming age of political spin. They sought a lower classification for marijuana (which at that time was listed with heroin), and its decriminalisation for personal use, not because all were on the ganja themselves -- Values did not support any substance use, at all -- but because of its benign effects, compared with alcohol and tobacco. Their contraception policy (that it should be freely available) was a response to evidence about the proportion of unplanned and unwanted children; their abortion policy was part of an individual freedom philosophy, divorcing the state from personal morality -- not population growth. (Although, more scarily than anything above, they did not feel state-enforced limits on family size needed to be implemented at that time.)
I find the manifestos a bit curious, in this respect: how one might reconcile the light hand of the state in the bedroom, if you like, with such a heavy state-administered slap about the economic chops. But a substantial chunk of them can only be described as visionary. Values took the pulse of New Zealand before New Zealand had one, in a legacy of policy aptitude nice guy John Key can only dream about, for all he might flatter himself of his knack, in the soft light of glowing poll ratings.
Here are some examples of things that Values stood for, widely taken for granted now, widely popular, albeit some (eg, MMP, and how to give effect to tino rangatiratanga) are still under active discussion:
Politics -- MMP, and open government, including freedom of information, now given effect by the Official Information Act.
International relations -- an independent foreign affairs stance (eg, ANZUS withdrawal), an anti-nuclear, nuclear-free stance, anti-apartheid in sport.
Law -- New Zealand’s highest court should be a New Zealand court not the Privy Council, Fair Trading and Consumer Guarantees policies.
Race relations and status of Maori -- strengthening Maori cultural identity and tino rangatiratanga, a Maori Minister of Maori Affairs.
Status of women -- a suite of policies to remove discrimination and gender bias against women in employment, healthcare, public participation (eg, jury service), and in the home (eg, deploring gender stereotypes, and proposing matrimonial property reform).
Individual responsibility for moral behaviour -- eg, homosexual law reform.
Immigration -- a cautious multi-racial population-replacement immigration policy (as opposed to Eurocentric).
This record of social achievement must surely be what has given Fitzsimons hope, these last 13 years in Parliament, that if one sticks at the grubby exhausting business of politics long enough and patiently enough, even the dullest of us will come round to the truth eventually.
Even the manifestos’ foundation planks are surfacing in the mainstream sometimes now; one of them, ecological collapse due to climate change, is front and centre. Eminent thinkers have addressed all these questions in the past year or so: whether a finite planet can support infinite growth; our consumer culture-driven imperative to buy more stuff; shorter working hours as a solution to the growth conundrum; whether the world can expect last-minute technological breakthroughs to avoid ecological collapse, or must take evasive action now. Values’ 1975 manifesto was based on this premise:
“An examination of the relevant information available has impressed upon us the extreme gravity of the global situation today. For, if current trends are allowed to persist, the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet, possibly by the end of the century, certainly within the lifetimes of our children, are inevitable” … From “A Blueprint for Survival” [The Ecologist, Vol 2, No 1, 1972]: Supported by 34 distinguished biologists, ecologists, doctors and economists.
It sounds mighty familiar -- except that now we’re prophesying biosphere collapse by the end of the next century. There’s more proof now, endorsed by thousands, not tens, of experts; alternatively, there’s a history of “crying wolf”, and reliably, Kiwibloggers say so. But given Values’ wider record of reading the evidence and setting their policy correctly, I’d say such scoffing is foolish at best.
So is Fitzsimons’ departure the death of the Greens? In 1972, Values postulated that New Zealand evolves in 40-year political cycles -- according to that theory, 2010 commences another. In 1975, they commented that “both the eras of social reform came in the aftermath of a major world depression. The Values Party hopes that it won’t take another depression to produce the next era of social reform”. Values gave birth to the Greens. If you believe the indicators, it just might be possible that Fitzsimons’ retirement coincides with their coming of age.
Dave Clendon (Sue Bradford’s replacement) and Fitzsimons have both been firmly on-message, reiterating that Green MPs’ faces may change, but the party remains the same. It’s notable how closely the Greens have, in both senses, stuck to their core Values: nearly four decades later, Values’ policies on soil, water, and air quality, energy efficiency, public transport, overseas investment, property investment and pollution taxes read like letters from old friends.
But Fitzsimons has been the thread of continuity running through the Greens’ whakapapa. She was there almost at the beginning of Values, as a member since 1974. The manifestos are a blueprint, against which policy proposals can be measured; it’s clear this has been her approach. This generation of Greens can learn the theory, but they haven’t lived it. This is an inevitable part of life, and growing up -- if the Greens can’t stand on their own, they don’t deserve to stand at all. But Fitzsimons’ pure political pedigree is tomorrow’s biggest loss.