Thursday, April 23, 2015

One Flew Over The Russel's Nest: Initial Reflections from the Green Party's Male Co-Leadership Forum

The Greens have always struck me as a surprisingly homogeneous bunch. With some notable and highly publicized exceptions, their Caucus and leadership team have tended to come across as that rarest of beasts in politics - a group of people who know what they're doing, and seem to be genuinely united in how (and for that matter, why) they're going to do it.

I therefore went along to Sunday's co-leadership candidates forum determined to find out two things: first, what do the Greens actually seem to want out of their new male co-leader ... and second, what meaningful differences there actually were between the various options.

I came away with one very simple, very strong impression.

The Shadow of Winston Peters hangs long over the Green Party - and I don't just mean because I was sitting there in the room.

James Shaw put it best in his intro speech when he suggested that unless the Greens grew their vote (by "[reaching] out to the broadest possible *coalition* of voters - you can see where I'm going with this, right?") then "the next government will be decided by Winston Peters - and that's no good for the environment or the country."

Now obviously, I reject in the strongest possible terms Shaw's assertion (although possessed enough willpower to save the vituperative interrogation as to what he meant by this for a one-on-one question-and-answer session after the event) ... but time and time again on Sunday, the dominant theme of the leadership contest got put across as "how do we make ourselves so large and so vital that we're impossible to marginalize or ignore".

With that in mind, then, the four contenders for the male co-leadership are all attempting to present themselves as the most effective, most marketable vehicle for doing exactly that.

There are some differences in approach - most notably Vernon Tava's clarion call for the Greens to de-couple themselves from Labour - and along with them come important distinctions in personal branding and record.

Shaw, for instance, presents himself as both a former businessman; and a seasoned political operator who's literally lived the Green Party's future ambitions by delivering an absolutely incredible 30% of the vote during his previous run in the Wellington Central electorate. This not only casts Shaw as an ideal man to build upon the push started under Russel Norman for economic credibility with the electorate; but in conjunction with his cited record of campaign experience and involvement, helps to undermine the perception that as a man who's only been an MP for less than six months, he's too "green" to lead.

And while there's certainly something intriguing about a candidate who's able to effortlessly segue from "D&D stories" through to detailing his working with some "kinda dodgy types in Moscow" ... the most interesting thing about Shaw's presentation was not what he said, but rather the demonstrable charisma and showmanship with which he said it. I know I'll cop some flakk from die-hard Greenies for suggesting this - but despite his earnest attempts at portraying himself as a steady pair of hands on economic affairs, you could hardly accuse Russel Norman of having charisma. Nor is this the first word that springs to mind when one considers the persona of incumbent female co-leader Metiria Turei - or, for that matter, much of the Greens' extant Caucus and front bench.

Shaw therefore eloquently embodies not only the Greens' hoped-for new constituency of business-friendly (if not literally "bourgeois") comfortably well-off middle class types; but also represents the potential strategic gamble of reaching out to those voters through charisma and showmanship rather than sticking with their more traditional emphasis upon policy-wonk competency and serious-faced anxiety-tapping concerns about what sort of world we're going to leave for Keith Richards.

Hague, by contrast, is at completely the opposite end of the spectrum. He's been an MP for most of the last 7 years and doesn't need to set out his political experience and credentials in anything like the same way a relative newcomer like Shaw does. He also has a legislative and advocacy record which strongly ties him to the social justice and liberal-identity-politik spheres of the Green Party's identity. While this provides demonstrable proof of his competency and leadership abilities, it also paints him as effectively offering "more of the same" and appealing to the Greens' traditional support-base rather than providing an obvious flashy vector with which to "grow the pie".

His speech itself did little to dissuade this impression, starting out with a river-kayaking metaphor that sought to cast him as an experienced helmsman in challenging circumstances; while also situating the Greens as a bulwark against a threatening 3rd term National government. In contrast to the other candidates, there appeared to be little in the way of olive-branches to potential new voters, or emphasis upon the newfound importance of demonstrating economic competency. Although to be fair, this is perhaps more due to the in-house nature of the audience being addressed (all of whom would presumably be cheerful enthusiasts of anti-apartheid and pro-LGBT campaigning) rather than any genuine gulf in Hague's strategic vision. Additionally, it does occur that environmental and social justice causes are now increasingly mainstream politics with broad, mainstream appeal. So perhaps his extant strong record will prove more decisively important than one might otherwise presume.

The other seasoned MP going for the co-leadership is, of course, Gareth Hughes - and the contrasts between him and his Caucus-mates are marked. Where Shaw combines a demonstrable aptitude for broadening the Greens' appeal with an as-yet largely untested Parliamentary political credibility, and Hague meshes inarguable experience and gravitas with a strong "core values focus"; Hughes is fighting to overcome the arguable disadvantage of youth by providing a genuine (and somewhat surprising) strategic depth of vision.

It's easy to forget that he's only been in Parliament for two years less than Hague has; yet of the four candidates on show, only Hughes presented anything approaching a detailed plan for broadening the Greens' electoral support. His specific emphasis upon winning over the middle class through campaigning on housing affordability and educational opportunity demonstrates he's actually done some serious thinking about how to do this; while his promise to move to Auckland if chosen - while it initially struck me as potentially being grandiloquent show-boatery - shows he's actually dead serious about doubling down on the Greens' strong support in more liberal urban electorates.

For everybody who mistakenly thought that Hughes' candidacy was merely a gimmicky exercise in profile-building that would look no further than the youth-slash-Armageddon-attendee vote (and Hughes' demonstrable popularity with same) as its linchpin ... I'm sure I'm not the only one to be pleasantly surprised at finding his fresh-faced enthusiasm matched with a sharp strategic mind.

And then, there was Vernon. Now, full disclosure: I know (and very much like) Vernon on a personal basis. I've watched him grow and transition from a don of the UoA Quad aggrieved about vegan lawyers having to wear horsehair wigs; through to a credible local body politician, and on to his present positioning as what first appeared to be arguably this race's most inexplicable candidate.

My pre-existing respect for his intelligence and integrity as a person thus seems to have rendered me far more inclined to actually hear him out on what he stands for than many of the other pundits and commentators who've been excoriating his views from alongside him in the Greens and out on the broader Left generally.

Instead of the way he's been portrayed as an apologist for a hypothetical Greens-National Coalition of Death (in which the "Blue" represents various kinds of oxygen deprivation), what Vernon actually seems to be advocating is the idea that the Greens' core concerns of environmentalism and ecological sustainability are too important to be neglected in pursuit of partisan political power-gaming. And he's right. This is already acknowledged through such things as the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding which the Greens signed up to with National. And, indeed, implicitly agreed to as a hypothetical concept by every Green leadership candidate who hasn't absolutely 100% ruled out any form of post-election or future co-operation with the National Party (i.e. all of them).

If you're in politics, then you're in it to effect policy and bring about change. Vernon's call for the Greens to become "the sustainable axis around which governments turn" is merely a recognition of this. And while I remain to be convinced that it's possible to work closely with the National Party without running the severe risk of winding up a tarnished creature of vestigial accomplishment like the Maori Party ... it does also occur that in many ways what Vernon's advocating is merely the apex expression of exactly the same "broaden our vote into the center" principle that the Greens have been embracing for quite some time - and thus not nearly as earth-shatteringly controversial as it might have first appeared.

So there you have it.

Four bold ways the Greens are contemplating putting an end to what James Shaw described as one of the greatest examples of waste in NZ history - 19 years in Parliament for the Greens, and Zero in government.

I'm sure that to an internal audience (such as the ones addressed behind closed doors after us Media are ushered out), they come across even more distinctly than I've given them credit for.

But I went into Sunday's forum expecting Kevin Hague to romp home, and the chief point of differentiation for everybody else to be "how much are we prepared to spook Labour into action and win new voters by opening ourselves up to National".

I came away with the distinct perception that the Greens are not only uniquely blessed with a thriving, consensus-based internal democracy ... but also with genuine choices and options as to their party's future direction.

I'm not going to directly divulge which candidate impressed me the most - although I would like to acknowledge all four of them for being exceptionally good sports when approached for comment and clarification by an aspiring journalist otherwise better known to each of them as New Zealand First's Enfant Terrible.

Instead, I'll just simply say that, from this outsider's perspective ... whomever the Greens choose at their AGM later this year, their party's future is in *excellent* hands.

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