Imagining a green manifesto

The Greens’ policy platform needs as much rebuilding as any other party’s, to make it strong and sustainable

When I was a child, before I put away childish things, about, well, a year or so ago, I used to think that eventually, if I kept my ears open, the Greens would explain themselves to me; if I kept my eyes open, I would figure them out. They had a communications problem, I thought.

I was wrong. Communication is not the problem. In fact, I think that the Greens present a pretty true picture of themselves, and get reported pretty accurately, on the whole.

They are all about the environment, and social justice, as you knew. Their policies, and their candidates, loosely form around these ideas. Candidates talk about the “social justice and environmental programme”, putting “social justice alongside the environment”, being “sustainable culturally and environmentally”.

There’s too rarely any proper articulation of the environment - social justice symbiosis — little effort to explain why and how these are both important — leading to the perception that these are just fig-leaved socialists.

MP Ken Graham has said that the Greens are the new Opposition: their message is not about left and right, who owns the means of production and growth, but a cleaner kinder sustainable world. Co-leader Metiria Turei recently aspired to be the “independent hub around which governments form”. That perception is a stumbling block, to both visions.

Here are some of the other political visions of this year’s candidates.

Jan Logie:
“Challenging the paradigm of economic growth is where the campaigns for the environment and social justice must meet … I believe the Green Party would be strengthened by choosing a candidate who has strong connections with social justice movements and who will provide a strong Green voice for equity and fairness … With finite resources we need to work together with equal urgency on social and environmental fronts …”

Catherine Delahunty:
“I am a political animal with a Te Tiriti foundation and I am very committed to justice as a basis for sustainability.”

Rachael Goldsmith:
“I grew up in a culture where it was ok to hurt children, where women and minorities were disrespected and devalued, where the environment was the last thing on anyone’s mind … Then the Green Party stood up. Demanded concern for our environment. Didn’t give up until children were free from sanctioned violence … That’s why I joined the Green Party, and why I would consider it an honour and a privilege to represent Green Party policies in my community, and carry on the hard work done that will continue to empower and protect our people and our environment.”

Mojo Mathers:
“My vision for Aotearoa New Zealand is of a genuinely inclusive society where everyone has a decent standard of living, is treated with respect and where our treasured natural places are valued and protected. I’m also passionate about how we do politics, including remaining true to our kaupapa, charter and policy principles.”

Metiria Turei:
“I am committed to the advancement of our Party as the dominant political voice for a fair, sustainable and prosperous Aotearoa where te Tiriti is upheld, our environment protected and restored and all our people respected.” And: “I have no issues with any Green Party policies”. (Really? There’s a whole other post in that, probably, but … moving on.)

Eugenie Sage:
“I believe strongly in earth justice and protecting nature. Climate change is the greatest threat to our future. By a determined focus on ecological sustainability and economic security, rather than endless material growth, we can help ameliorate the climate crisis. We must rediscover the truths of living simply so that others may simply live.”

Russel Norman:
“Our fate is to live in the era when the limits are reached — the limits of the planet’s ability to supply us with resources and absorb our pollution. Our job is lead humanity’s adjustment to living within these limits, in a way that fairly shares the burdens and benefits, while protecting and restoring the non-human diversity of life on Earth.”

If you put efforts to integrate social justice and the environment on a spectrum, it could look something like this:

  1. Doing some of each: With a couple of exceptions, for compare-and-contrast purposes, the candidates’ profiles are examples of this weak approach. A “decent standard of living” and our “treasured natural places” have equal weight, in no particular order; alternatively, they’re given an order that invites speculation about it.
  2. A sort of three-legged stool (for want of a better way of putting it): Policies that, per policy, deliver economic, social and environmental wins, like home insulation’s benefits for jobs, health and energy efficiency.
  3. Ecological economics: Ecological limits to growth set the conditions for other (economic and social) policies.

About this time last year, I borrowed Jeanette Fitzsimons’ Values manifestos, from 1972 and 1975. She was leaving Parliament. These were among the literature that had politicised her.

They were a revelation. They had a clarity not seen from the Greens before or since. They were founded on a theory of ecological overshoot and collapse: a theory for 2011, much more than 1972. 2011 is about the economy, but the economy is about the environment.

The Greens’ policies have a fair degree of cohesion and logic, that I suspect is Fitzsimons’ influence based on Values — also, incidentally, more emphasis on good science and economics than they get credit for. They flirt with all this stuff, from time to time, and wave bits around like one or other of the seven veils; nothing in this post is new.

They are still spending too much time at the shallow end of sustainability, and that weakens their message.

There’s the anti-smacking/beating/hitting, some Te Tiriti, some inequality, some civil liberties/democracy, the odd ode to Andrew Little … sometimes, as Goldsmith succinctly expressed it, the environment seems “the last thing on anyone’s mind”, and above all, the environment is the one inescapable reality. The rest is politics.

If I was imagining a green manifesto, it would have a heirarchy. It would say that ecological economics is the heart of green philosophy. For each first-tier policy, it would say that this is how, specifically, it supports environmental sustainability. It would do that on the basis that you need a planet, one finite planet, to live on, before you can do any of the other stuff. It would include social justice policies, to address inequality, to support the environment, by getting rid of a driver of growth.

Other policies, for which this can’t be articulated, would have a lower order.

This is why my manifesto won’t ever attain the big ‘G’, I'm afraid. Trampling on people is not sustainable, either. Human rights, civics, and so on are important too, vitally so (more important than the planet?), but it would take some sophistry to explain what they have to do with the environment (feel free to try and help me out, on the comments thread), so they would not make the first grade. A vote for the Greens is a vote for trees, not ‘Aila’ — I can see the spoof billboards now.

All the same, done right, it would broaden and strengthen, rather than relocate the Green Party. It is more than semantics. Sometimes it would affect the substance of the policies; certainly it would affect the emphasis put on some. But it would help them look less … woolly.