On the Green Party conference

Russel Norman

The Greens held their party conference last weekend – the first for some years not dominated by an actual or pending leadership change. This time, the new team of Russel Norman and Meteria Turei could focus entirely on the traditional functions of party conferences – rallying the troops, and pitching an emblematic message to the public.

More on the content of that message later. The more things change though, some things will always remain much the same. For most of 2010, the Greens have continued to serve as the journalistic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. They’re never likely to lead a government, never likely to have many friends in the corporate sector – and thus, they offer the luxury of an anxiety free target, especially when in opposition. The result is a series of what I’d call DEW Lines – Damned Either Way. For example.

Polling – Either Too High or Too Low. On the average of rolling polls, the Greens are currently registering at over 8 per cent, nationally. The beauty of the perennial Dew Line here is that the Greens can be held to be in mortal peril if they dip below the 5% MMP threshold – and if they’re not, they can be slammed for not doing better in the circumstances.

Right now, this line is somewhat mystifying, given the ongoing popularity of the current government. It begs the question of just what the natural polling level for the Greens in the current circumstances would actually be – 12 %, 15%? Hardly. That would require the virtual collapse of the Labour vote, down to the levels National plumbed in the early 2000s. Given this isn’t happening, it might signal less of a failure by the Greens to get further traction than a sign that the public – whatever they may feel about Phil Goff as a potential Prime Minister – do not hold the Labour opposition in quite the same low esteem as the press gallery.

Focus : Either Just a Single Issue Party or Not Focussed Enough on Its Core Message. This year, the media consensus has held that the Green Party were slow out of the blocks on the mining-in-national-parks issue, Norman and Turei have been condemned for being too diffuse in their responses to the government through February and March – with Turei in particular, being slammed recently in the NZ Herald for an allegedly horrendous display of irrelevance during one episode of Question Time earlier this year.

Really? Certainly, Turei has struggled to make the same impact as Norman, much less to match her predecessor, Jeanette Fitzsimons. That is hardly surprising – Fitzsimons in particular, was a hard act to follow, and a smaller opposition party with two leaders will always struggle to win media space for one, let alone for both.

More to the point though, the February/March situation was a classic ‘damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ situation, in that the government had, in February, just announced its entire legislative and policy programme. If Norman and Turei had focused only or mainly on the mining issue in the wake of this unveiling, one can just hear the alternative line of criticism – that if the Greens want to be taken seriously, they need to demonstrate their credibility on wider issues, since environmentalism is now something of a luxury in the wake of the global recession etc etc. Overall, what that over 8% poll rating better suggests is that the Greens have been doing a decent job of balancing their core environmental message with their attacks on wider fronts. If nothing else, the “more diffuse” approach told the party faithful that the social justice element of the Greens message had not entirely disappeared with Sue Bradford.

There are other DEW Lines. Perhaps because the gallery looks much the same, the uniform appearance of those attending the party conferences of the two major parties – or of Act – rarely rates a mention. Yet image is a reliable news standby for any media who find themselves with time on their hands at a Green Party conference. Those wacky Greens are either wearing dreads and morris dancing – or this year, doing the exact opposite ! Egad, Norman at least was wearing a suit and looking normal ! Others, allegedly were even looking somewhat glamorous. (Norman has in fact, been wearing a suit most days, ever since he entered Parliament.)
At the conference, the keynote speeches of Turei and Norman reflected the emerging division of labour between the two – with Turei continuing her attacks on the widening gaps between rich and poor, while Norman hammered away at how the government’s economic policy is increasingly divorced from its necessary duty of care for the environment.

At times, Turei almost appeared to be channelling Bradford in both her language – eg “National’s attitude is basically,,,let the rich get richer and let the rest eat the crumbs swept off the fat cats’ table” – and in the shoutouts to Unite and the rest of the union movement. Mindful of the prior media criticism though, Turei placed her comments on the mining issue ahead of the content on social inequality, and ahead of the laundry list of other Green perennials ( progressive pricing, capital gains tax, support for MMP etc) that comprised the rest of her speech. In particular, the mining comments tried to rebut the charge of being slow off the blocks :

Last August we challenged the claim that it was just a “stock take”. In October, we revealed that the “stock take” included Mt Aspiring National Park, among others. In December….We showed that miniscule mining royalties are not worth more than the damage to our economy, worth more than our pride, worth more than our sense of place and identity.
By February of this year, we had forced the Government to change its agenda….

It smacked of protesting too much, and too late. Honestly sir, we did do our homework. (The Greens can often seem like pushy fifth formers, angling to be taken seriously as potential school prefects.) The speech also highlighted that Turei is currently the weak link in the team. That situation will not be helped by the fact that her messages on income inequality have largely been divorced from substantive economic policy – thanks to Norman’s command of the economic policy side of the equation. As a result, the party’s stance on income inequality is reduced to Turei complaining about injustice, while Norman expresses the bulk of the economic policy in a ‘credible’ fashion.

Significantly, the only substantive part of Turei’s response to income inequality – namely, making the first $10,000 of income tax free – is largely presented as a social welfare issue, and not as an economic policy plank. For her own sake as well as that of her party, Turei needs to be entrusted with more pro-active policy substance.

Not surprisingly, Norman’s speech was a more solid affair, making familiar points about how – especially in a country that depends on agriculture and tourism – economic policy cannot be pursued at the expense of the environment. In that respect, having a Greens conference in Christchurch was a genuine lucky break, given the recent sacking of the elected ECan panel and ongoing concerns about irrigation and water quality. Norman made the linkages locally and internationally, very ably :

As we hit the limits of the planet’s capacity to carry us, countries involved in commodity production are doing pretty well. But, it also means that big commodity importers like China want to get control of the resources of commodity exporters – that’s why China wants to buy the mining company Rio Tinto in Australia and Crafar farms in New Zealand. We should turn them down just as Australia turned down the takeover of Rio Tinto.

But what type of commodity producer do we want to be? Producing low cost commodities that are simply sold into the bulk commodity markets is not a good strategy.

A strategy based on producing more and more and selling it at the lowest price possible will destroy the environment on which we depend, while other countries undercut us on price anyway. It’s a double hit.

Consider Fonterra’s goal of annual production growth of about 4%. This means doubling production about every 16 years. But to double milk production over the next 16 years is to devastate the environment. Already, many of our rivers are unfit for stock to drink the water from, and we can’t take our kids for a swim there. Already we have health warnings that newborns are at risk of nitrate poisoning from water taken from wells. I repeat, babies in Canterbury are at risk of blue baby syndrome caused by too much nitrate in our drinking water.

Doubling dairy production would hurt New Zealanders. It would also sabotage our clean green brand, and destroy the natural resource it’s based on.

In sum, the Greens can be reasonably satisfied. Evidently, public support for the Green brand has not been significantly affected by the departure of Fitzsimons, or by the tentative start that Turei has made in her new role. Nor does it seem to matter that none of the new MPs – David Clendon, Kennedy Graham, Kevin Hague, Catherine Delahunty or Gareth Hughes – have made a discernible impact in the House, or registered with the public at large. It is at such times that the loss of Sue Bradford feels quite acute. Polarising figure that she was, Bradford would have been a more substantial counter weight to Norman than Turei has so far proved to be, and – arguably – would have provided a more convincing rallying point for a centre left likely to be in opposition for the next four and a half years at least.

The real test for the Greens has been deferred. Next year, it will have to decide whether and on what terms it can possibly co-operate with a National party that – if anything – is likely to be even more extreme during its second term. That of course, will entail yet another DEW Line for the Greens. Damned for betraying its principles if it colludes in any way with a National-led government, and damned for being irrelevant if it doesn’t. Life will not get any easier for the Greens between now and the next election.


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