The greying of the Greens

The Green Party conference at the weekend appeared more concerned about portraying an image of safe hands in suits than one of energy, rebellion, fresh thinking and action.

I’m finding it increasingly difficult to watch as my former party slowly slides into what now seems to be their natural place in the political spectrum: slap bang in the middle, slugging it out for the middle ground voter along with nearly every other party except ACT.

The parliamentary team seem blissfully unaware that younger people see the climate change clock ticking while they operate as if there is all the time in the world.

Over the past ten years many members have quietly departed, often by simply letting their membership lapse.  New waves of the hopeful young have joined, but they, too, often give up when they realise how hard it is to create any meaningful change within the party’s opaque structures.

The public comment by high-ranking party member Jack McDonald over the weekend that he stepping down before the next election has been a long time coming. Eventually someone chose not to depart quietly.

Fine young people like Jack join the Greens because they see it as the only party offering hope of a shift away from the neoliberal paradigm and a willingness to proactively take on the twin climate and economic crises of capitalism.

Instead, they find themselves within an organisation whose voting majority seems in thrall to James Shaw’s corporate approach and quietly tolerant of his ruthlessness in dealing with internal opposition.  A Green left fraction within the party is tolerated but has little or no traction in the place where power is held, the parliamentary wing.

Green 'wins' all too often appear to benefit those that are already doing well. The $100 million green investment fund and an emissions trading scheme that gives handouts to polluters may be all well and good from some perspectives, but are particularly hard to take when progress on things like meaningful welfare reform is virtually invisible.

The Greens locked themselves in to fiscal conservatism when James Shaw put up the Budget Responsibility Rules and invited Grant Robertson to join him in ensuring that the kind of massive investment in state and community housing, health, education and climate mitigation which is so badly needed would never happen under a Labour-Green government. 

The ability to negotiate hard and well has been an historical weakness of the Greens.  Part of the problem is they have never understood how to bargain, whether from a position of relative strength or of weakness.

Since 2006 successive leaders have bought into the myth that the only negotiating strength a smaller left’ish party can have is by threatening to go with National. Far more sophisticated and ethical tactics are possible.

The Greens seem unaware of the power they could wield by refusing to support either of the major parties and denying confidence and supply to Labour. Being beholden to no-one would potentially free the Greens to leverage their seats in the House to maximum efficacy on every bill and select committee. The very threat of doing this would give them increased negotiating power, perhaps culminating in a coalition agreement far more akin to NZ First’s far more effective efforts, depending on numbers.

It is all a matter of courage and negotiating nous.

In some ways the Greens are doing quite well at present. Their 6% in the recent TV1/Colmar Brunton poll demonstrates that their support is holding up at a time when NZ First, with far more ‘wins’ on the board, is slumping.  It has been heartwarming to see Marama Davidson and some of her fellow MPs visiting Ihumātao and coming out strongly in support of the occupation and the struggle to save the whenua for future generations. 

The Greens have achieved some useful gains, mainly in the environmental zone. Julie Anne Genter and Jan Logie have worked hard to achieve substantial gains in their respective portfolios.

However, the overall impression conveyed is a preference for business as usual. This is not what the many of us who care about saving the planet and about ever deepening inequality want.

I have been vilified by some for saying I cannot vote for the Greens until or unless there is a serious change in approach.  But I think I’m not the only one out here who questions the old mantra that we must vote for them simply because they are not as bad as the others. 

The time will come when either there really will be a profound shift within the party, something that seems less likely by the day – or other parties will arise who truly do have the capacity and vision to move beyond the greying of the Greens.