Too many martyrs? Greens torn apart by Turei confessions

The 2017 election campaign hasn't properly started, yet it has taken another twist as two Greens MPs chose their conscience over party strategy and broke ranks. But who's really been the most indulgent and how might voters react? 

Strategy vs integrity. The long game vs the short. Individual conscience vs the collective good. These are tensions at the heart of politics, tensions that create drama, and which can engulf a party, as they have the Greens right now.

This evening Kennedy Graham (8th on the list) and Dave Clendon (16th) resigned their places on the Green Party list "more in sorrow than in anger" at the decision by Metiria Turei not to stand aside last week as party leader. And due to her comments seemingly saying it's OK for others to defraud Work & Income.

Turei has come under pressure after first confessing that she lied to WINZ from 1993 to 1998 about who was living with her when she was a young solo mother, then admitting that she also lied about where she lived at the 1993 election. Her mother, she said, had been one of her extra flatmates during that period as well.

The confessions have started what Turei has repeatedly called "a conversation" about poverty and the punitive side of New Zealand's welfare system. (Although wasn't that conversation already under way?). But what good is it to gain a conversation, but lose your own party? This was never meant to be part of the plan. 

It started well enough for the Greens. As I said on the podcast Caucus at the time, the Greens had become frustrated by Labour's insipidness. They didn't want to watch another election drift by at 10 percent, with another term of National, probably propped up by New Zealand First. So they decided to roll the dice and try to maximise their vote by becoming the story, first with accusations of racism and then Turei's confession.

It was, strange to say, the Donald Trump strategy. Most of the lessons from Trump's victory are peculiar to another time and place, but one thing the Greens seemed to note is that by dominating the news, he stole oxygen from others. Attention alone gave him definition and cut-through, and more voters. The Greens seemed to be heading down that path, with almost one story a week that kept them in the headlines.

Et voila, the polls showed them up 4-5 percent, at their highest level ever. 

But it seems now that Turei committed the age-old political sin of not disclosing everything from the get-go. As the saying goes, 'it's not the crime it's the cover-up'. Perhaps if Turei had raised the electoral fraud (however minor) on that first weekend... if she had said at the outset she would pay back the money... if she had been more open about her mother and her child's father... But she wasn't and it came out later, looking as if she had tried to manipulate her martyrdom.

Many find what she did as a young woman forgiveable. They were choices made to support a child and a friend. But what Graham and Clendon have reflected is the other side of the coin – that laws are not discretionary and choices have consequences. Dishonesty, for a party of principle, is crippling.

When Turei announced she wouldn't resign as co-leader, but rather give up her chance to be minister in any Labour-led government, I went on Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan and said I was surprised at her choice. It seemed the wrong way round. Why not give up the leadership and still hope to be a minister later, if the Work & Income investigation clears her? 

Perhaps she hoped to have it all – to keep the leadership and have a crack as a minister a year or two later; maybe in a second term. I said then, it wasn't "clean". I understated it.

I wasn't, however, aware of the disquiet in the ranks. Yet did it really have to come to this? The decision Graham and Clendon have made raises all those age-old tensions. Do you bury your conscience for the greater good? Take one for the team? Silence your opposition to your leader's decision, in the hope that the party you have served so long is on the verge of unprecedented succes? Is it a selfish indulgence to give vent to your own internal wrestlings?

Or is this the point of politics – that people stand on their own integrity and represent not just their party, put their own conscience before the public and let the people decide? 

Those are the questions Clendon and Graham have wrestled with and without knowing their hearts, it's impossible to say if this is an act of selfishness or integrity. It could be both. 

Yet let's be honest, much the same can be said of Turei. She has made her own choices that you can label stragegic or indulgent – not confessing what she did in any of her previous five terms in parliament, revealing them as part of an election campaign, and deciding to stay last week even when her strategy seemed to have spun out of her grasp.

She too could be said to been acting both ways at once. The difference? Turei took a risk not knowing the outcome. Graham and Clendon can have been in no doubt their decision to resign would seriously damage the party and their cause.

So, cause or conscience?

Already the Greens are talking of betrayal and a party official has said neither were campaigning hard and they had been asked to stand down earlier this year, and refused. They are painting the pair as two sore-losers.

The rest of the caucus is rallying behind Turei. But they are now a party under seige, and showing signs of that pressure. Shaw this evening argued that Turei's lies in her 20s were "minor events" and he was "over the level of interrogation" she's received. But that's disingenuous. You can't one moment praise her courage of revealing these stories and stress their importance in starting a new conversation in this country, then in the next breath dismiss them as minor. You can't say you knew the risk you were taking by opening yourself up, then bemoan the probing questions.

The irony is that Turei's bold strategy likely changed the last round of polls and roused Labour from its slumber. But the very choices that poked the bear, now seem to have bitten the party, and hard. While three weeks ago Labour was leaking support on the centre-left to the Greens, the reverse is now likely to occur. All thanks to the Greens.

Although, let's not rush to judgement. Those who have rallied behind Turei's confession are committed at an emotional level, just as many of Trump's supporters are wedded to him. The question now is how much of that 13-15 percent the Greens had in the most recent polls is in step-lock with Turei.

How much will flow to Labour? Remember, most Greens voters are not beneficiaries, but middle class urban liberals. Some will be deeply uneasy about this turn of events and may be Ardern-adjacent anyway. 

The other question is how much this will damage Labour on the other side, and it's critical quest to win some of National's soft vote? Given the history of how voters respond to party disunity, it's hard to imagine this won't do much to encourage positive views of a Labour-Greens government.

A weaker Greens can only be good for New Zealand First. This could leave it as the third biggest party heading into the campaign proper and, if the Green vote really slumps, leave them in a clear position to marginalise Turei and co in any post-election negotiations. The odds of a either National-New Zealand First or Labour-New Zealand First coalition have just gone up. And funnily enough, that could help Labour with some in the centre, if they think the Greens will be de-powered after this.

One more question: If this gets any messier for the Greens, does Labour stand by its Memorandum of Understanding? How much will Labour take if the party starts to slide?

But that's a question that can be delayed. Right now the Greens have to go through its painful split, its agonising over who has been selfish and who has stood up for their core values. This will not be quick and painless and, as Shaw says, this is "messy". Very messy indeed.