Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Report From The Green Zone: Embedded For The Win at the Greens AGM

I got to the venue a little after two. Afraid I'd missed the weekend's main event, I strode purposefully through AUT's wide open-plan campus looking for a registrations desk manned by whatever the Green Party equivalent of a bouncer was - or, failing that, one of the other usual signs betraying an infestation of organized political activity.

Now usually, the customary dead giveaway of a political convention afoot in the immediate vicinity is the knot of almost invariably conspiratorial-looking smokers in suits gathered just out of earshot of a side-entrance.

This being The Greens, however, no such easy direction via smoke-signal was in evidence. Instead, the row of parked-up news crew vans outside a particular building told me all I needed to know.

Inside, I'd like to have said that the atmosphere was electric ... but this is the Green Party we're talking about. Instead, it was more akin to cotton candy:

Drawn out, metaphorically brightly coloured, and arguably on something of a sugar-high.

I didn't get much time to surveil the scene. Less than a minute after entering, I was hit up by one of their press-wranglers. She asked if I was aware of the 'ground rules' governing my attendance at their AGM in my TDB capacity. We went through them. I didn't bother querying what it was that justified my good self apparently being subject to my own unique set of strictures which applied to nobody else in the room. She then pointed out where the rest of the waiting press pack had set up shop, and I headed over armed with my notebook and netbook to bunker up.

Kept running into people I know from the internet. Didn't realize my fanbase was so strong within The Greens. Found myself genuinely surprised by how non-partisan pretty much everyone I talked to was being. In most parties, you'd have expected full-blown animosity between various different personality-based factions (Hello, Labour!). The Greens, by contrast, just all seemed genuinely excited that they were about to have a new leader, and that everyone from across the political spectrum, blogosphere and beltway was queuing up to take a look at them doing it.

Almost everyone I spoke to reckoned Hague had it in the bag. Some predicted it'd be close. Others figured it'd be a clear lead for Hague. I found it a little surprising, given the eventual result, how few in number the people who were prepared to own up to voting for Shaw were, before his victory.

Then, we got down to business.

A conscious attempt was made to build social media into proceedings, with the MC reeling off a few of the tweets in circulation about the upcoming co-leader announcement. After half a dozen of these, the statement that the next co-leader of The Greens was, in fact, Twitter - and that in future, the election process could be replaced entirely by contests on social media for the number of re-tweets, seemed to have an eerie significance.

The process was then gone through, and I found myself somewhat surprised at the number of voting delegates cited: one hundred and twenty seven, plus fifteen proxy votes. Even the least well-attended NZ First Convention I've been at had easily twice that number of voting delegates on the floor. I'm sure there's some interesting conclusions to be drawn from this factoid about how the Greens structure and run their internal democracy.

Finally, after continuing to build it up for what seemed like an interminably drawn out length of time, the election result was announced.

There was a few seconds' pause, during which my mind filled in the blank by cycling through the two lead contenders' names over and over expectantly waiting to hear the first syllable - whether a Ke- or a Ja- (and pondering what each possible outcome would mean) ... followed up by the declaration: "James Shaw!"

What happened next, I wasn't expecting. The room fell silent for about half a second, followed immediately by a not insignificant number of moans of displeasure scattered across the venue. While this is exactly what you'd expect in literally any other party, the Greens had all seemed so unanimously *positive* and team-spirited (or, less charitably, hive-minded) about this entire process all afternoon that I genuinely felt surprised to hear such a reaction. It was also a little curious that it took another half a second or so before the jubilant cheers began to ring in from the rest of the room. Perhaps, given the received wisdom up until literally a few minutes before the announcement that Hague was in for an easy victory had meant that the Shaw supporters in the room simply weren't prepared for nor expecting their candidate to win, and therefore took a moment or two to register that they had, in fact, contributed to a surprise victory.

In any case, the noise soon built to an almost physical force - a wave of excitement and positivity-at-possibility of the sort only an entire party who seem to be built around prophecying a better tomorrow can generate.

Eventually, the cheering died down and Shaw was ushered toward a microphone in order to make a victorious address.

He first chose to acknowledge and pay tribute his competitors, starting with Vernon Tava and ending with Kevin Hague. I found his choice of epithets for his opponents interesting - praising Vernon for his "intellectual honesty" in standing up for a controversial idea genuinely believed in (as well as a sensible statement that it took serious courage to mount such a challenge from *outside* of Caucus and while not an MP); Gareth Hughes for both his value as an "ideas man", and performance as a rising star; and Kevin Hague ... for his attributes as a person.

At some point part-way through this, Metiria Turei burst into tears.

Shaw then managed to deploy that "charisma" thing which we've all picked up on here in the Commentariat ... and had the audience cracking up about a car-ride across the lower part of the North Island. The rest of his speech emphasized party unity - specifically the "commonality of ideas" which he discovered between himself and the other contenders on said road-trip; as well as the obligatory acknowledgement of the contribution of his predecessor, Russel Norman. I also found myself chortling when he expressed relief that The Greens had managed to conduct their own internal leadership campaigning without any of the petty if not outright poisonous personality-based pugilism which characterized the leadership transitions in certain other institutions - "like the Labour party ... I know that's not a very high bar".

All in all, the impression I received from my brief near-Greens experience on Saturday afternoon was that this was a party which had long since come of age ... but was now either entering into a new adolescence - or possibly in the throes of a very, very minor mid-life crisis. It's gone through several previous developmental phases, and as of the last election they were sort-of expecting all their earlier growth and studious evolution to culminate in the transition into something approaching major party status. That still would have been an election or two away, even had they managed to breach their own "sound-barrier" of their previous height of polling and crack into the mid-teens in terms of percent of the party vote ... but it had seemed realistic, attainable.

Their failure to do that on Election Night 2014 arguably, to my mind, was what induced Russel Norman to step aside and let someone else have a crack from the top job at doing so.

They've spent the last few months soul-searching, no doubt, about how they - as a party, rather than as a structure directed by an individual - can best seek to achieve the fulfillment of that promise most everyone had previously sensed about them. And the last few weeks deciding which chosen champion of the four on offer could do the most to actually put the Greens into the center-stage pole position which they believe is now their natural place in politics. And, at the same time, preside over another fundamental transition within the Green Party's membership, ethos and organizational culture to both parallel and enable this.

A mark of either their maturity or their immaturity as a political party (depending upon how cynical you are, respectively) is that they instantly seemed to gel together as soon as the result was announced, in support of their new leader and in eschewment of whichever putative factions may have developed over the preceding months. I'm sure that - as ever in politics - behind closed doors, it's something of a different story ... but I somehow can't imagine Labour being anywhere near as unified mere seconds after such a close vote had been undertaken and announced.

Personally, I think The Greens have made the right choice in their selection of co-leader for reaching out to those beyond (possibly even considerably beyond) the voter-base they've enjoyed for the previous sixteen years. Hague was a strong contender, and would have brought with him institutional buy-in from many of the networks which he and his Caucus colleagues have poured so much time and effort into building. He also would have solidly shored up The Greens' base, with an impressive personal and Parliamentary record of advocacy on behalf of causes very, very close to their collective (bleeding) heart. But would he have been able to grow the vote at the same rate that Shaw seems set to? I'm not so sure.

It's hard for an established Parliamentarian to capture the popular imagination in quite the same way as an outsider's fresh perspective, and while his honeymoon period transpires I'd almost expect to see Shaw inspire a faint echo of the Obama zeitgeist from his victory. And while he doesn't have the demonstrably competent Parliamentary background to point to of someone like Hague - or even Hughes - Shaw's lack of previous spotlight-political experience may come as a surprising advantage in this, as he has fewer less-palatable-to-slightly-conservative-middle-New-Zealand-voters blotches on his record; while his easy charisma will prove absolutely vital in winning over the less-intellectually-persuaded cohorts of both soft-National and soft-Labour support.

Hell, I'm even slightly worried that he'll be hewing into *our* vote over here in New Zealand First.

In any case, for the purposes of both growing their vote and matching John Key, I think Shaw is more than equal to the task.

The serious question now is not whether The Greens can build upon their 2014 vote - but rather, at whose expense it comes at.

If I were Andrew Little ... I'd be hella worried about being eclipsed completely.

[Thanks to everyone who helped to get me in to The Greens' AGM in the first place. You know who you are ;) ]

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