The Greens: leading from behind

“Where are the Greens?” chorus the political pundits. Well, they’re where they’ve always been, doing what they’ve always done—but there’s news about their alliance with the government

I posted a teeny-tiny nugget of news, here on a Pundit comments thread last week. It sank like a stone.

The Green Party’s positioning and performance attract speculation like none other. Still a young party, they’re struggling to find their political feet. Is their constituency centre or left, mainstream or fringe? In battling to secure a future for all of us, how can they secure their own?

They’re not helped by the fact that the close media interest in their strategy is a bit fickle, when it comes to reporting what they actually are doing, as opposed to punting on what they should be doing. Sometimes, they don’t help themselves. However, although they’re behind again in the polls—4 percent and out of Parliament, according to the latest One News Colmar Brunton poll published on 27 September—they’re leading from behind, and neither the between-election poll rating nor the leadership are atypical of their performance.

Last week, I posted about the review of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy. I speculated that Jeanette Fitzsimons’ contributions to it would show the size of the Green Party’s influence on this government. I subsequently learned that Fitzsimons is not actually involved in writing the new strategy, and added that comment to the thread.

According to the express terms of the National Party-Green Party memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed on 8 April: “In particular, Ms Fitzsimons will be involved in the development of the energy efficiency sections of the updated and revised New Zealand energy strategy, and the updated Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy.” The MOU guaranteed access to officials, and envisaged that progress reports via press releases would be jointly issued. It did not say “writing”, but it sounded like a lot more than just consultation.

Invited to comment, Fitzsimons was circumspect; she commented simply that she has made no public comment. Responsible Minister Gerry Brownlee responded that, “as per the terms of the MOU, Ms Fitzsimons is involved in the development of the new Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy”. Yes. Involved how, exactly?

Now, I’m not claiming this as a huge scoop, or a breaking story, or anything very much at all really—but it was “news”, in the sense that we didn’t know it before, and had been operating under perhaps slightly different assumptions. It would seem that, in the space of a few months, one or both parties to the agreement are working to rule. That would, in turn, rather seem to undermine the spirit, if not the letter, of the MOU, which was all about a joint working relationship. The phrases “working with”, working on”, “working together”, and “working relationship” appear half a dozen times in an otherwise quite short press release, including in its headline, and the tenor of the agreement itself is the same.

This is more than idle curiosity. It affects the Blue-Green credentials of the government, the much talked about tensile strength of their hydra-headed working arrangements, and the Greens’ aspiration to work constructively across governments.

Meanwhile, the Greens are working doggedly on their own, showing environmental and philosophical leadership. Here are two examples. During April and May 2009, new MPs Kennedy Graham and Kevin Hague, and co-leaders Russel Norman and Jeanette Fitzsimons, each delivered a “statement on Green philosophy” in general debate in Parliament. Together, the four statements took a snapshot of the Green view of the world, and sketched their vision of the future. With the National-Greens MOU announcement, and the co-leadership change, it was part of the process of picking themselves up, post-election, and stepping forward from a result that was about equal cause for celebration (nine MPs) and commiseration (7% of the vote, from pre-election 11% polling).

To my knowledge, only one columnist noted the statements. Nor were there any takers in August, when Fitzsimons issued four press releases in eight days about the Greens’ Big Affordable Climate Change policy, mooting a framework of possible, credible-looking mitigation and adaptation options that barely anybody bothered to notice, let alone discuss.

Fitzsimons’ final speech as co-leader, delivered to party members on 1 June 2009, was a passing of the baton, a fireside retelling of Green lore. In it, she set out her definition of leadership: “You learn fast that it is not the job of our leaders to tell people what to do. It is rather to think a little ahead of others, develop and put forward a plan for debate, amendment and possible rejection; to mentor and nurture; to model and explain the party to others.”

It was a description of her personal political style, exemplified by “Big Affordable Climate Change”. The challenge the Green Party faces, as Fitzsimons prepares to step down some time before the next election, is to take on that mantle of vision and credibility (our “most trusted politician”) and substance, that is so much more apparent in Fitzsimons’ own portfolios than anywhere else amongst the Greens. For decades, she has been trying to convince us that we’re on the wrong path—an unsustainable path—saying things that were prescient then, and are as apt today.

However, as for “explaining the party to others”--this speech, among the most incisive explanations I’ve seen of the Green tradition and values, was delivered to party members at their conference. Maybe it gets trotted out on the stump as well, but if so, I haven’t heard it. It’s hard to know whether this failure of communication is the fault of the party message, or the media messenger, or an unreceptive public, but it is a problem for the Greens.

I’m assuming, of course, that if the message was delivered, it would be more widely accepted, and I may be mistaken in that. Fitzsimons went on to describe the philosophy of the Values Party, that she joined in 1974, the world’s first Green political party:

“As I described [the Values Party] in my Maiden speech, ‘They said the key question was not whether centralised industrial capitalism should be controlled by the state or by private interests, but rather the unsustainability of centralised industrial capitalism itself.’ It was from here that we got the slogan, ‘neither left nor right but out in front’ meaning not that right and left analyses of politics were unimportant, but that capitalism and communism were opposite sides of the same coin, and that they were both missing the point. We don’t use that phrase any more, since politics moved so far to the right of centre that many of the policies of Muldoon and even Holyoake would now be seen as left. … 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.”

Given those comments on the relative merits of capitalism and communism, the “watermelon” slur sometimes applied to the Greens, and the periodic slanging of Keith Locke (whose parents were Communist Party members), must be galling, and it’s also ignorant. However, here again, the Greens don’t help themselves: the freedom given to Green MPs to trot off from time to time on what are sometimes sadly spavined hobby horses can make it hard to decipher their message, and an easy excuse to worry about the random collateral side effects of voting Green.

Fitzsimons’ implicit justification of the tendency to Green left flank positioning touches on that perennial fascination of commentators and strategists. It interested me, because my own untutored impression was that socially—I’m mainly using America as my reference point for this—New Zealand is pretty liberal; the openness of our economy is the only thing I could think of that might be Fitzsimons’ proxy for having moved far to the right. But it is the Greens’ stance on social justice issues, particularly, that pushes them leftwards, and if our politics in general in that sphere is pretty liberal, it follows that the Greens must be a long way off to the left.

At the root of the strategic debate lies the party’s history of straddling environmental and social justice issues, which can seem like an awkward manoeuvre, one that I don’t fully understand. Maybe it’s because the environment is known to be a particularly middle class concern; with a larger middle class, society in general is more likely to be willing and able to care for the environment. Maybe, less happily, buried within the subtext of the “politics of enough” is some sort of redistributive philosophy. Should you have been rude or neglectful enough not to “stop when you’ve had enough”, we need to share that “stolen” wealth around.

People speculated that the affiliation with National would be a bad move for the Greens: that they were (or would be seen as) sacrificing principle for power, and would be tainted by it; and that there is no room in the centre because increasingly, the space is on Labour’s flank to the far left. I would be happy to see them operate as an environmental anchor or brake on the natural smoggy industrial and agricultural tendencies of this government, and green issues given profile all the time, because they are always relevant to our identity and our brand. However, there’s no denying the dilemma: as Green issues become mainstream, and Labour repositions itself, they will have to fight for their future place. People who would put them on the left condemn them to a small portion of the vote; but maybe that is better than being crowded out into the political wilderness.

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I suspect, neither do the Greens. It probably follows from being the leader that, from time to time, you might not know quite where you’re heading—perhaps might find yourself picking forward in the dark, hoping like hell you’re still on track.