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.

Comments (11)

by Julian Ang on August 08, 2017
Julian Ang

I don't think many Green voters (who as you pointed out, tend to be middle class urban liberals) will appreciate the comparison with Trump, his wedded voters and his tactics. I was initially in support of Metiria's position and the much needed conversation that needs to be had about MSD's and our society's punitive approach to people on welfare.

I do a couple of hours of volunteer work weekly for the Soup Kitchen and come into contact on a regular basis on my shift with people on struggle street. It is a hard life with very little joy and comfort and the hurdles some need to overcome to get into the WINZ system is difficult, especially when they are psychologically compromised, illiterate or semi-illiterate. A number of them are really damaged people who in this day and age, will have huge difficulty finding any work, let alone, sustainable work as a result of their lot in life and past trangressions.

As for the Green MPs, it is most unfortunate for the left bloc that these two have broken ranks with their party so publicly. This would not have happened during electioneering in a party that has more discipline and is less democratic - ie National/Labour. I think it was a serious mis-step for Metiria to not have stepped down as co-leader as the subsequent revelations though not significant in the scheme of things, casts her not in a very good light for the reasons you highlighted. I believe the damage will be cauterised so as not to infect Ardernmania but that MOU might need revisiting if the story grows more legs.

There may be a a significant poll reversal for the Greens IF the initial poll jump are from Labour voters or undecided centrist voters.

However, if that initial bump came from people on social welfare, the numbers are unlikely to change much. She may have had the best intentions but the story has morphed into her integrity versus the much needed rethink about our attitudes towards people on welfare. Any poll reversals and further revelations will hopefully prompt Metiria to reconsider her position and graciously step aside as co-leader to minimise damage to the left bloc.

Looking forward to the next poll of polls.

by Tim Watkin on August 08, 2017
Tim Watkin

Julian, I appreciate that a lot of the supporters won't appreciate that point, but I think it stands scrutiny as a dispassionate observation of political support. Many Trump supporters are rallying behind someone who breaks with the norm (and some rules), speaks their mind authentically and shows passion. They refuse to hear criticism, because of their commitment to what he represents to them.

Very similar.

by Alan Johnstone on August 08, 2017
Alan Johnstone

There's always been split between those who see the Greens as a left wing party focused on poverty and social justice and those whose see it as one with primarily environmental goals.

The left wingers appear to have won.

 

 

by Raymond A Francis on August 08, 2017
Raymond A Francis

Tim I think you have summed this up well.

I think is is disingenuous for the Greens to claim this was a "discussion " about poverty as if no other Party has given it a thought.

After all it was those rich prick Tories who gave beneficiaries real financial top up.

by Dennis Frank on August 08, 2017
Dennis Frank

My online support for Metiria's stand came from the natural human tendency to support the underdog.  I now see a necessity to balance that with a critique of her political judgment.  First, Raymond's point is valid - the Nats gave real help to beneficiaries after Helen Clark's steadfast failure to do so.  Her failure to acknowledge this as part of her stand reveals her partisan nature.

Second, hijacking the Green agenda via a shift in positioning further to the left when the election outcome will be decided by centrist swing-voters is stupid.  She claims to be trying to change the government.  The only political group that effects that in Aotearoa is the political center.  That's why Winston gravitated to it.  That's why centrists like to use NZF to select a new govt, to control the left & right.  So her stand defeats her own self-declared primary political goal.

Ken & Dave represent the centrists within the Greens.  That group is a microcosm of voters with green values & beliefs, which I suspect is now a majority nationwide.  The GP caucus poking that bear with a sharp leftist stick aren't being clever.

by Rich on August 08, 2017
Rich

Torn apart == two passed over old blokes who'd already been asked to think about leaving decide to flounce out.

 

by Tim Watkin on August 08, 2017
Tim Watkin

Raymond, I guess they would say they were raising a conversation about the punitive side of things, rather than poverty itself. But that hasn't been the language they've always used and, in that light, it's a huge risk to take on one part of one issue. 

They had made real progress already on the issue and now their ability to help ram that home could be damaged. That's a painful unintended consequence for them.

 

by Tim Watkin on August 08, 2017
Tim Watkin

 

Dennis, I presume you're referring to Labour's choice to create the in-work payment when they introduced WFF. But to say Clark steadfastly failed to give real help to beneficiaries is wrong, I'm afraid: The first thing the Clark government did was this:

https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/income-related-rents-what-it-means

Income-related rents was a huge policy change that helped the poorest.

The decision to roll the dice on this issue as a reasonable strategy to maximise the Greens' own vote. They grew their support on the left. But yeah, to change the govt, it was daft.

And yet... they obviouly thought Labour was failing to do its work in the centre and there was little chance of changing that without a radical move. Well, they may have changed that, but at the price of their own party.

by Ross on August 08, 2017
Ross

Dishonesty, for a party of principle, is crippling.

That's incorrect and you've been round long enough, Tim, to know that. John Key told many porkies. It didn't seem to harm National...unless you're suggesting that National isn't a party of principle.

Those on the Right might be gnashing their teeth at Metiria Turei but of course they were never going to vote Green. If she was able to walk on water her critics wouldn't vote for her. 

As Rich has suggested, a couple of middle aged blokes decided they'd had enough of being in Opposition. They clearly wanted a career change and they've got their wish. I very much doubt they'll be missed. 

by barry on August 08, 2017
barry

So Turei is to be punished for owning up to a transgression.  She made herself the focus of the story so people started digging and found a few other things that she had probably forgotten.

How many other MPs from any party could stand up to that scrutiny?  I don't think any body could survive as a beneficiary for long if they were totally honest.  How many MPs have "moved" to get their kids into a zoned school?  Anybody ever driven drunk? Done a cash job? Smoked marijuana?

You don't get to choose which laws you obey unless you don't get caught (or foolishly confess).  So while the 2 thought Turei was a paragon of virtue they were happy to have her as leader, but as soon as she showed she was human they desert her.

So Turei's real crime is to have lost control of the narrative.  So now people are not talking about the plight of beneficiaries any more, but talking about her.

Politics is always a compromise.  If the 2 resigned MPs have sabotaged the campaign so that National wins then they are responsible for the continuing degradation of the environment and continuing social problems that the Greens in government could perhaps turn around.

by Tim Watkin on August 11, 2017
Tim Watkin

Barry, I'm afraid I think that's a flawed argument. I have sympathy for people pusing the boundaries to make ends meey. Like most New Zealanders, I'm not overly judgemental of even middle class people paying cashies. So much less a young person with a child.

So, as you even get to later on in your comment, I don't think she was punished for owning up to a transgression. If it was a matter of owning up to be honest with voters, why not do that in one of her previous 15 years in office? More pertinently, as I wrote in an earlier post, if this was about transparency, perhaps it should have been done at least three years ago when she was arguing she and Norman could be co-deputy PMs and she was being touted as Social Development Minister.

And as you say, she made her life the story. So the story could hardly be covered without asking questions about her life. Any MP who did the same would have to endure scrutiny. And many do. I guess I just don't see the scrutiny as that brutal (although some of the online criticism was extreme). How many of the people bemoaning what were actually quite reasonable questions about whether the story stood up were cheering on deep research into Trump's life just a year ago? It's politics.

And let's not pretend it wasn't strategic. She owned up for political gain. Insomuch as it's her job to advocate her cause, that's not a criticism. But it was timed and staged in the hope it would lift the Greens vote, as well as 'start a conversation'. So it was volunteered and not simply an act of 'owning up'.

More than a few have broken the law. in their earlier life Protests, drugs etc. I don't think that was the judgement for most. Indeed Ruth Dyson was stood down as a minister over drink-driving. So it happens.

So yes, part of the crime was losing control of the story. In that, by losing control it started to hurt her party. But it was more than that. Her story seemed to change over time, the extra residency dishonesty was terribly minor but detracted from the seriousness of her cause, the unresolved questions about wider family undermined the narrative (in part hyped up by supporters) that she was on the breadline, then the party divided on the issue...

Thing is, her confession - in having spurred Labour to life - may have done more to change the government than she ever hoped. 

 And Ross, I don't say National is unprincipled, but I don't think its brand is built on virtue in quite the same way the Greens' has been. Its 12 secret herbs and spices is all about honesty, integrity and doing the right thing even at a cost. While some say that's exactly what she did in telling her story, others say lying to government agencies is the exact opposite. And the Newshub poll suggested that opinion ran around 3-1 against her. That was my point.

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