Gordon Campbell on the Greens’ room for political pragmatism

Try and guess which party I’m talking about. They’ve led the way in promoting women to leadership positions, and in allowing their MPs to vote according to their conscience. They’ve never won much in the way of electorate seats, but one of their main pitches to voters involved a promise that they’d keep Parliament honest. The support for this party has largely come from middle class, urban-based, educated and younger voters disillusioned with the major parties. Long debunked as being too idealistic to make the compromises necessary to make policy gains, they’ve been described as a politically impractical ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ kind of party. Who are they?

Congratulations. You’re right: I’m talking about the Democrats in Australia. And their fate is instructive, if you’ve been wondering how the New Zealand Green Party should be positioning itself for this year’s election. In the twinkling of an eye, the Democrats went from holding the balance of power (along with a few other independents) in the Senate between 1981 and 2004, to vanishing from the Australian political landscape altogether by 2008.

What happened? Well, the Democrats went into steep decline after they pragmatically (a) voted in 1996 for the Howard government’s workplace reforms that they’d previously fought against and (b) finally voted in 1999 for a GST tax they’d previously opposed, both times in pursuit of policy concessions from the Howard government. The voters never forgave them – and no amount of frantic changes of leadership subsequently, could arrest their decline.

It is a very relevant example. Because the Greens here are currently being criticized by the commentariat for not making the same kind of pragmatic choices that sunk the Democrats. If only the Greens hadn’t ‘boxed themselves in’ by ruling out working with National. If only they would trade off their ‘hard left’ social justice agenda for some nice environmental gains that everyone could agree on, assuming these wouldn’t be too ‘extreme’ for agri-business to tolerate. If only the Greens acted like every other pragmatic bunch of political chancers in Parliament. What a golden future could be theirs! Real power, a seat at the Cabinet table. What’s wrong with the Greens that they can’t see that etc etc?

Well, it’s easy to reach such conclusions if you regard politics as a chess game wherein you just push the pieces around the board to maximum advantage. No doubt back in 1999, the smart money was telling the Democrats that this GST vote was their real chance to step up, to play in the big leagues, and to score some genuine gains on the side for what they believed in. In fact, it proved to be a quick route to political oblivion.

Here’s the basic problem : if you’re a party whose foundation appeal is that (a) you’re not like other parties, and (b) that you hold certain values to be more important than Cabinet baubles, then you can’t pursue power at any price without this being seen for what it is : a betrayal of your very raison d’etre. Political commentators may scoff at such naivete, but it is a reality that values-based parties ignore at their peril. Call it Metiria’s Law – parties will be punished for pragmatism in proportion to their prior claims to virtue.

Sure, pursuing power over principle can work for those political parties that long ago lost any pretence of a commitment to idealism; but such parties pay a different price, in that an increasingly cynical electorate perceives them as being only the lesser of two evils, at best. Down the years, the Greens support has derived from the sense that they offer something more than that – and that this shouldn’t be traded away for a one time gain on say, RMA reform or irrigation, important as those may be in isolation. Not if this would mean propping up the government’s agenda on say, welfare policy and workplace reform.

As has been said many times, the Greens are not merely an environmental party. Social justice is just as basic to the party’s foundation principles. National’s recent belated, concessions to beneficiaries still leave it nowhere near compatible with the Greens’ positions on welfare issues as outlined at its recent conference. On industrial relations policy, there is no common ground at all.

Those commentators who claim that the Greens have given themselves no negotiating room need to indicate where – on say, industrial relations policy – National would be willing to move. Obvious answer: not at all. On the current signs, negotiating with National would require the Greens to trade off virtually its entire social justice agenda for environmental gains. In doing so, they would become the de facto Blue Greens ie, a badge of environmental virtue attached to a centre-right agenda. It would be absolutely suicidal for the Greens to go down that road.

In fact, the last ten days of the 2014 campaign showed just how poisonous it is for the Greens to be seen as being open to all takers. After then co-leader Russel Norman gave an interview inadvertedly intimating that the Greens negotiating position was more open to National than previously supposed, the Greens spent the last week of its campaign in defensive mode shoring up its base, against Labour claims that only a vote for Labour could now guarantee a change in government. The Greens’ eventual result in 2014 was below expectations. So much for being rewarded for apparent pragmatism.

So… the commentariat may well think it has been foolish of the Greens to commit to Labour as the only possible partner in government. Yet on policy grounds, the reality is that National is not an option, and the Greens cannot afford to treat their very point of difference as a political party as being somehow, simultaneously, up for grabs. Its not easy being Green, but that fundamental dilemma cannot be argued away as being simply a tactical mistake. Because if they were like every other party and power was paramount, they wouldn’t be the Greens. And any pat on the head they got from the commentariat (and a handful of centre-right voters) wouldn’t compensate for the kick in the pants they’d get from those voters who expect better from them.

Footnote: In fact, the Greens went to the boundary edge of pragmatism this year when it signed up to the so called Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR) that entail acceptance of the current economic settings. (This would restrict government spending, especially come the arrival of the next inevitable downturn in the business cycle.) At the time, that BRR decision could be rationalised as a strategy to insulate Labour from the inevitable claims that any Labour-led alternative government arrangement that had the dreaded Greens on board would somehow be lacking in economic ‘credibility’.

So far though, Labour hasn’t been able to deliver much in return for the Greens’ willingness to meet them half way on the economy. Labour’s polling is still below the 30% mark. In recent weeks, the Greens have resorted to Plan B, whereby they shore up their base and win votes as a stronger party of the centre-left than the hapless Labour team. To all intents, this would suggest that election 2017 is already over, and that the Greens now appear to be positioning themselves – pragmatically, but with principles still relatively intact – for 2020. For the Greens, the winnable votes are on the left, and always have been.

Song for Gareth

The only party with even less interest than the Greens in trading principles for power is the Opportunities Party – which continues to languish in the polls as it pursues its real aim of fostering political debate along something other than the traditional lines. With that in mind, here’s a live performance by Gareth Morgan’s favourite singer – the great Arkansas musician and writer, Iris Dement. This time, Dement is singing about the consolations of a life being lived apparently in vain.