Gordon Campbell on marketing the Greens

The current Greens have expressly invited comparisons with the party’s previous incarnations. According to a fundraising email this week from Greens Co-leader James Shaw, the party has just released its “strongest-ever candidate list.” As Shaw put it:

Our returning MPs are joined in the top 20 candidates by new young, Māori and Pasifika candidates, a human rights lawyer and former refugee, indigenous rights activists, climate change campaigners, business people, a farmer, a former diplomat, and a TV presenter.

Apparently, this bandwidth and its chirpy diversity – the youngest MP in 42 years! – outweighs say, their 2005 party list which saw the Greens trying to do their level best with the likes of Jeanette Fitzsimmons. Rod Donald, Sue Bradford, Sue Kedgley, Keith Locke, Metiria Turei and Nandor Tanczos in their top seven positions. Lest this be construed as grumbling about the good old days past and gone, there is a valid question mark over whether the Greens of 2017 are what they once were. While there will be a sigh of relief all around that the old Morris dancing/hemp smoking days have gone for good, it is not quite so evident what the current Greens stand for, beyond getting into government.

The problematic North & South cover has been well enough hashed over. This could be put down to an isolated error of judgement, except that it seems to have been an intentional part of the party’s positioning strategy. It has also been of a piece with (a) effectively signing up with Labour to the current government’s economic settings, via the Greens’ embrace of the so-called Budget Responsibility Rules and more recently by (b) the Greens voting for National’s Budget.

While the Greens have claimed to have been voting only in favour of the family support part of the package, you don’t get to pick and choose in such a vote. Reportedly, the Greens did not inform Labour beforehand of its voting intentions. The episode all but invited Bill English’s jibe at Monday’s post-Cabinet press conference that if Labour and the Greens can’t even form a united front on the core business of being in opposition – which, as English says, entails opposing the Budget of the government of the day – then how can they be taken seriously as a credible alternative when it comes to the core business of being in government?

Any party that presents itself as a party of values runs a particular risk when realpolitik becomes too visible an element in the frame. Less is expected of other parties. In Australia, the Democrats killed themselves off by being too tactically clever for their own good. Here, the Greens’ success to date has hinged on it being able to consistently demonstrate that it won’t trim its core values for electoral advantage. It has relied on being vindicated by history – successfully for example,e on climate change, and on the impact of intensive dairying on water quality. The supposedly ‘loony’ past is now the accepted norm.

Yet the tactical choices that the Greens have been making of late – entirely consistent with Labour’s belief that electoral success for the centre-left depends on it not seeming like a scary alternative – have made its core commitments look more conditional than they have ever been before.

True, there is still plenty of time for the Greens to take strong and electorally unpopular positions as the left’s parliamentary conscience – but right now, the surface noise about the youth and ethnic/gender diversity of their party list can’t disguise the nature of the underlying signals they’re sending. For example: it’s not enough to be against populism. Not when at the same time, you’re endorsing the economic settings that generate it.

At the time when Shaw ascended to the co-leadership there was a lot of chatter about him (a) being more able to do business with National than his predecessor Russel Norman and (b) whether the Greens might be better served by being simply – or primarily – an environmental party. Both those propositions were strongly rejected by Shaw back in 2015.

There is recent good reason for the Greens to be concerned about its usual campaign trajectory. In the last few days of Election 2014, one reason for the slide in the Greens vote was the unfortunate signal that the leadership gave about the Greens readiness to work constructively with either party – a stance that fairly or not, enabled Labour to run late ads about how only a vote for Labour could ensure a change of government. It was enough to shore up Labour’s vote from utterly calamitous to merely disastrous, and to dash the Greens hopes for a better result. In turn, this disappointing 2014 outcome became a factor in Russel Norman’s eventual decision to step down.

There is an argument for putting personality politics – youngest MP in 42 years! Formerly a refugee, now a human rights lawyer! A TV presenter! – ahead of policy. Sure, everyone is tired of ideological gridlock. And I get it that the Greens and Labour really do need to counter the scare tactics that will inevitably be used against them, at the very thought of a change of government. But there are different ways of convincing the public that the left’s policy prescriptions are rewarding, rather than scary – and elsewhere, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have chosen a more difficult route, but with a good deal of success.

Here, the centre left parties have sugar-coated their approach, but haven’t won much traction from doing so. While many people fixated on the gender stereotyping in the North & South image, the magazine’s cover line re-inforced an equally damaging stereotype : “Is the once ‘loony left’ read to rule (and should we be afraid)?” Meaning : while pandering to gender stereotypes may make you more likeable, it doesn’t render you any more likely to be entrusted with the reins of government.

This year, there is even less electoral room for the Greens to temper their message. Not when its Labour partner seems intent on sounding National-lite on the economy, and New Zealand First-lite on immigration and law’n’order. Sure, the Greens will win some votes by looking young and peppy and all in favour of native birds and clean water – but the risk of that lightweight stance is that few conservatives will cross over, and potential Green supporters may well conclude that they might as well vote Labour. So far in election 2017, the centre-left parties are looking like they’ve chosen to move themselves to the right. It looks like a road to nowhere.

Trump’s explainers

As someone who has at times accidentally posted stuff online before it has been complete, I’ve got some sympathy for Donald Trump over yesterday’s ‘negative press covfefe’ tweet from the White House.

The amusing responses did serve to distract attention from the truly batshit offer that Trump also made yesterday, to share his private cellphone number with world leaders. Given the hysteria the Republicans whipped up over Hillary Clinton’s private email server, Trump’s offer was hypocrisy on stilts. Or this week’s version of it.

If you were a Trump adviser though, how would you go about telling The Boss that um… you’re changing his cellphone for security reasons like, right now? ‘Uh, Mr President, it’s great that you’re reaching out to those world leaders who honestly do need to be told a thing or two and you’re the man to do it, God bless you. But we’ve got this great new phone – the best! – and you deserve to have it. It’ll make it so much easier for you to call out, and for them to call in once we’ve set up a special, special line for them to do so. It’ll be only for you. Only you can use it, and only you can know the number. Now, if we can just put that bad old phone in the dustbin. Great! Thank you Mr President…’

If you want to see what it’s like to be a lackey in the Trump administration, look at this poor guy from the State Department. He’s just been asked this great series of questions by an Agence France-Presse reporter:

While you were over there [in the Middle East] the secretary [of State] criticized the conduct of the Iranian elections and Iran’s record on democracy. He did so standing next to Saudi officials. How do you characterize Saudi Arabia’s commitment to democracy? And does the administration believe that democracy is a buffer or barrier against extremism?”

Over to you, Stuart Jones.

The Ultimate Diss

Hip hop has a grand old tradition of beefs between artists. They’re consistent with the competitive ‘dozens’ street talk from which hip hop emerged. Of late Nicki Minaj and Remy Ma (who you may or may not recall from the Terror Squad hit single “Lean Back” in the early 2000s) have been at each other’s throats, with duelling tracks. Last week, the New Yorker magazine reported on the feud, and took the opportunity to diss Minaj for her alleged “obsession” with chart positions, awards, celebrity friends and album sales. Frankly though, I’d think Remy Ma would be the last person with whom anyone should pick a public fight. Ma just got out of prison a couple of years ago after a six year term for shooting someone who had allegedly stolen a thousand bucks from her, and it seems that rifled her purse before driving off, while the victim could have bled out… but luckily didn’t.

After Minaj taunted her, citing Remy’s lack of recent chart action – which hasn’t been so great lately for Nicki either, as the New Yorker also noted – Ma has come back with a gigantic diss track of her own called ‘Shether.’ Be warned: the content is raunchy ( swear words, body parts etc) and confrontational. I don’t think Remy forgot to leave anything out. It makes for a very long seven minutes but in the annals of hip hop beefs, this one is already legend.