Monday, June 1, 2015

Green Shoots of New Growth to the Left, Right and Center

I'm trying something a bit different this weekend. Instead of getting myself tangled and tied up in knots with the interior workings and controversies of my own beloved New Zealand First Party ... I'm hitting up the Green Party's 2015 AGM to report on proceedings on behalf of The Daily Blog - and, while I'm there, continue my one-man bridge-building exercise in pursuit of #BlackGreen2017.

This blog marks the first of my reports back from same. (Although technically, it was written the morning before things kicked off, as the direct result of some late-night/early morning conversations with Green Party personnel about their impressions of the party going into the upcoming AGM)

For the Greens, Queen's Birthday Weekend 2015 will be arguably one of the most important defining moments for their party this electoral cycle. They're getting the chance to do what few other parties can: define who they are going forward into the next phase of their development as a political force. Choosing their next male co-leader will obviously be a part of that - but it takes far more than that, over a far longer period (and entailing the active efforts of many thousands of crew) to truly alter the course of such a titanic vessel as a mainstream Parliamentary political party.

Indeed, some might even question whether it's a thing that's intentionally possible without doing some fundamental damage along the way.

Out there in the real world, there's a spate of proverbs that basically boil down to "a leopard can't change his spots".

In politics, however, constant reinvention in the face of changing terrain and tactical circumstance is not just a chief tool of the trade - it's a vital necessity in order to expand and grow your organization, your support, and ultimately your returns at the polls.

To be stereotyped is to be effective at communicating to a narrow core constituency; but to find yourself hidebound in slavish adherence to exactly what people have decided they ought to expect of you is to condemn yourself to at best, stagnancy - and, more likely, slow decay as other, less immutable rivals

The watchwords for our game, then, is that it is not merely enough for a dog of any given age to be constantly demonstrating a capacity for change with new tricks. It's a start, but at the end of the day observers are still left regarding fundamentally the same dog as before. (Winston has this problem: he can pleasantly surprise voters and stun his critics by announcing support for a substantial increase in the number of refugees NZ takes in, but still represents the same dog - or, rather, dog-whistle - in the minds of many)

Instead, to reference the late Terry Pratchett, endurance in politics requires that the leopard be able to change his shorts; and in so doing demonstrate an actual ability to meaningfully reach out to new constituencies and areas of opportunity.

Speaking with a few Green Party activists on the eve of their AGM this weekend, I'm intrigued to note that the 2015 Green Party appears to be engaged in the process of doing exactly that. (And, with deference to the shortly to be hopelessly over-extended leopard-changing-shorts metaphor ... they seem to be able to do so with a bare minimum of dirty-laundry-exposure as compared to just about every other party in the land)

The early phases of this flowering process have been visible for some time. Look no further than the Greens' serious efforts at establishing a Pasifika network, or their ongoing attempts to fill the space left by New Zealand First through staging serious campaigns for the Maori Seats like the one they mounted for the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election.

Russel Norman's stab at setting out The Greens as a party of economic competency and innovative, forward-thinking solutions to fiscal and monetary problems also definitely fits into this trend. It's just a pity he managed to undermine the Greens' prospects for progress and rebranding on this front by first up pushing for Quantitative Easing, and then spending many months refusing to back down on its advocacy despite flying flat in the face of prevailing public opinion. (Oh, and ... for the record, while there IS an argument for quantitative easing as a domestic stimulus in conditions wherein your economy has a large proportion of its productive capacity un- or under-utilized due to the necessary funds required for a more efficient use of these resources not being in circulation ... that wasn't the purpose to which Russel Norman was suggesting we apply QE here in NZ. Even if it would arguably be an idea with some probative value - and, as the example of Japan proves, potentially rather uninflationary into the bargain)

More recently, there's been a considerable buzz around the Greens' efforts to promote themselves as "business-friendly" - which dovetails nicely with their extant strategy of attempting to win over voters from ever-higher tax-brackets and housing valuations as part of their ongoing drive from university campuses and counterculture into the depths of the suburubs. What better way to get rid of perceptions that you're a bunch of radical fringe-lefties than by extending a highly visible olive-branch to the bourgeois.

Having said that, such a move has not been without risk. Despite Vernon Tava's best efforts, many Green Party members, activists, and voters still determinedly wish see themselves as supporting a party that's comfortably left-of-center. The perception that the Greens' move to embrace more centrist voters and concerns is part of of a trajectory that may see The Greens wind up moving rightwards from where they've traditionally been has already lost them some supporters like ex-Greens MP Sue Bradford. The level of concern meted out about the hypothetical possibility of a "Blue-Green" coalition of doom at some point in the not-too-comfortably-distant-future from others still within the party further highlights the delicate position the Greens may find themselves in a few electoral cycles from now. Particularly depending upon how the outcome of this weekend's co-leadership vote progresses.

And yet, even though I've previously harangued Russel Norman for inopportune quotes like his insistence that the Green Party is less in favour of state intervention in the economy than John Key's National ... to label what the Greens are doing as a "rightward shift" is simplistic, reductionist, and arguably (depending upon how things progress from this conference to the next Election) flat out wrong.

Yes, the Greens are making a drive for being in the center of things. But that doesn't appear to mean abandoning a commitment to social justice, or left-wing economic policy (particularly when they're borrowing New Zealand First's economic policy :P ).

Instead, think of it this way. They're attempting, in all the communities they operate in, to move from the peripheries and the fringes (where they're harder to take seriously let alone take a leading role in the conversation) through to active engagement at the heart of things. And I'm hopeful that they can do this without sacrificing their values.

This is exactly what they've managed with their Pasifika arm - and, more recently, with one of their best kept secrets, their Union arm - which has, so I'm told, facilitated the delivery of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Service and Food Workers Union. While the idea of Green Party members being pro-Union is hardly a surprise (and indeed, unionism forms a strong part of Kevin Hague's background and leadership platform), the fact they've managed to actively engage at the highest levels with a constituency that had previously been almost by-definition officially Labour turf speaks volumes for the success of the Greens' approach. Or, possibly, the ongoing weakness and decline of Labour. Why not both.

Perhaps the best (if outright most ambitious) demonstration of this strategic principle in action is the fact that the Greens now have a Rural Greens network dedicated to changing perceptions and fostering engagement between the party and a swathe of New Zealand society which had previously counted itself amongst the Greens' bitterest detractors.

I'll say that again: The Greens are now attempting to make inroads into the farming sector.

Now, while this might seem a pretty *ahem* implausible avenue of support to be exploring ... in politics, the thought-to-be-impossible generally happens at least three times before lunch-time. Often because it's actually something very, very possible that's just sufficiently outlandish it hasn't been considered by casual observers yet.

After all, once upon a time, the idea of New Zealand First bolstering its stereotypically steely-haired Party faithful with an active, well regarded, and pretty-dang-progressive Youth Wing no doubt seemed similarly far-fetched. And yet here we are today.

In any case, the Green Party attempting to reach out to farmers like this actually makes a helluvalot of sense. As a party, they've never been (to the best of my knowledge) wholesale anti-farming. What they HAVE been, is resolutely in favour of smarter approaches to farming which increase the quality of produce while minimizing waste and long-term environmental harm. That definitely sounds like a set of objectives most farmers can get behind. Further, given the National Party's seeming abandonment of the more traditional family farmer in favour of backing large-scale corporate (and not infrequently Chinese, or other offshore) agribusiness, it's only natural for rural communities to be looking around to see who'll actually have their back, listen to their concerns - and most important of all, do something about it.

But it's pointless making abstract noises about how your ideology and policies can help out struggling Kiwi farmers while you're standing off on the fringes. It's far too easy to be ignored - or, worse, have your advice and best intentions ridiculed - based around the assumption that if you had anything worthwhile to say, you wouldn't still be over there on the periphery taking an external perspective.

While I'm talking about the Greens' experiences attempting to campaign to rural New Zealanders with that above paragraph, it does also occur that that pithily sums up the most important challenges the Green Party has had to surmount over their past few terms independently in Parliament. It's worth remembering that they've only recently become a serious party in the eyes of many New Zealanders. This is obviously not to say that they weren't one; but rather to note that the perception they were on the fringes (or, if you prefer, leading edge) of our nation's politics made it far easier for them to be ignored - both by Labour when it came to forming governments, and more worryingly by swathes of voters who would otherwise have found The Greens an ideal fit.

The desire to decisively end this twofold pattern of marginalization and take center-stage in our Nation's politics appears to be the core kernel (leaving aside mention of what I'm sure is an absolutely beautiful battery of principles pertaining to environmentalism and social justice) that drives Green Party strategic thinking.

How to damn well ensure that they're never left out on the fringes shouting inward ever again.

To this end, The Green Party have been enormously clever in how they've chosen to interact with these less-traditional areas of potential support. Whereas a previous iteration of Greens would perhaps have found themselves forced to send earnest-sounding white guys to Maori or Pasifika events (or anti-dairying activists to attempt to engage farmers) ... the modern Greens have poured considerable time, energy and effort into quite literally building themselves into the fabric of those first two cited demographics. As applies the Rural Greens project, they've somehow managed to recruit a Wairarapa farmer with nearly a decade's experience farming sheep and beef-cattle to head up that branch of the engagement effort, and to run for them as a candidate.

In all of the above cases, it's far harder to ignore a message or an offer of assistance when the representative you're engaging with is, when you get right down to it, one of you. A similar argument applies to the added credibility The Greens' desire to be more "business-friendly" gained with the elevation of James Shaw to Parliament (and possibly higher still to the co-leadership of the party, depending upon how this weekend's proceedings unfold). It's not really something you can write off as a bunch of clueless politicians - or, worse, hippies - paying lipservice to the idea of engaging productively with business when one of the party's rising stars can point to a lengthy and pertinent background to show his party means *ahem* business.

But most remarkable of all, from where I'm sitting, isn't just the fact that the Greens have successfully managed to build their base and their vote by reaching out to diverse - and occasionally even arguably mutually opposed - parts of the electorate.

It's that they've managed to do so without having to sacrifice principle or policy to do it.

It turns out that being more "business friendly" didn't get in the way of The Greens advocating for a living wage or (as you've seen above) engaging with the Union movement. They've also, if anything, been stronger in criticizing National's economically corrupt confusion of cronyism with capitalism.

Meanwhile, active collaboration with Federated Farmers didn't mean being cowed into submission when it came to the Greens' longstanding demand that dairy farmers clean up their act and take greater measures to minimize their contribution to the degradation of our environment and waterways.

Instead, by working together to highlight the best positive examples of farmers doing their bit, both organizations achieved something. The Greens got to publicize what industry best-practice actually constituted through a channel that farmers might actually listen to; while Federated Farmers enjoyed being able to break the stereotype that *all* dairy farming is axiomatically bad for the environment.

What this hopefully highlights is twofold:

First, that The Greens' recent maneuvers in pursuit of voters beyond their traditional (and identifiably left-wing) constituency are much more likely to involve advocating the same policies and principles they've always held in ways more appropriate for the specific new audiences being targeted, rather than demanding substantive watering down or outright abolishment of dearly held doctrines. For a larger party, it is indeed possible to be many things to many people - but in order to retain a hold over one's core constituency and activist/membership base, there must also be an enduring and common set of values and themes. Otherwise a party runs the risk of losing the members and voters it's already got through its pursuit of new supporters.

Second, that it's eminently possible to work with groups outside your traditional sphere of influence - even with people that have traditionally been regarded as your direst enemies - without compromising on your values. Indeed, given the nature of democratic politics ... for a minor party, it's frequently the only way to secure broad support for your agenda.

Now as applies the big, searching questions that will no doubt come out of this weekend's AGM about The Green Party's future prospects, one thing therefore needs to be said.

The Greens are anything but stupid when it comes to growing the scale and diversity of their movement. They've also had twenty five years - sixteen of which as an independent Parliamentary party - in which to learn the hard way how to attract and maintain a strong membership base. The idea, therefore, that they'd risk sacrificing a clear preponderance of their membership and activist-cadre (to say nothing, presumably, of MPs) for the highly speculative and most likely mercurial gains which would accompany an intentional shift to the right ... is somewhat implausible, to say the least. I also find it difficult to believe that the Greens, having seen how quite literally every MMP party ever to go into coalition with National has wound up following the experience, would be seriously considering shackling themselves to that particular albatross at any point in the near future.

Instead, I suspect they're going to use as much of the next two years as possible to keep quietly (and not so quietly, when the occasion demands it) chugging away at steadily building up the numbers and dedication of their supporters, aiming to create a situation wherein they're unignorable by anyone with even a passing involvement in politics.

That way, rather than short-sighted pleas for power in a manner akin to NZ First in 1996 ... is how you build an enduring vehicle for change.

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