Gordon Campbell on the wilting of the Greens

45745737For a party that thinks global, the Greens have developed a habit of acting local, and by local I mean North Island, and by North Island I mean Auckland and thereabouts. Go back 15 years to the 2008 party list, and there were five South Island MPs in the top 15 on the Greens party list, and three in their top ten. In this year’s provisional list there is one only South Island candidate (Lan Pham) in the top ten, at number ten.

Of the Greens current MPs only one (Eugenie Sage) is from the South Island, and she is retiring this year. This geographical concentration in the upper part of the North Island is striking, and not merely because of the Greens core values about the de-centralisation of power. At one point, the former strength of the South Island branches could propel the likes of Steffan Browning up to number 10 on the list for the 2011 election and Kevin Hague into a male co-leadership contest with Russel Norman. Not any more.

On a related note… while the Greens are perceived to be a party strongly advocating for the environment, the Greens founding principles have always had an equally strong focus on social justice. (Think Sue Bradford, Keith Locke etc) This social justice strand now predominates.

Within the 2023 provisional list, only two candidates– James Shaw and Lam Pham – would be seen as having a clear and primary focus on the environment. That is not to say that the rest of the Greens leadership lacks an interest in the environment, but their backgrounds and route into politics have mainly been via the social justice side of the policy ledger.

The Green Party membership is currently ranking its final list of candidates for the 2023 election. Among other things, the retirement of Elizabeth Kerekere may create an opening for environmental activists (e.g. Lam Pham, Steve Abel) to rise in the rankings, perhaps even to electable positions this time around. Formerly, someone as prominent as Abel has been in environmental activism would have been up the party list and into Parliament long before now.

How to explain the shift? Obviously, the big voter concentrations are in and around Auckland, and north and east of it. Social justice issues – housing, income inequality, the impact of alcohol and drugs on ethnically diverse communities etc – all explain why social activists from metropolitan areas have risen to prominence within the Greens.

It looked like a sound tactical idea. A decade ago, Labour’s timidity on social issues did create openings that the Greens had high hopes of exploiting, and increasing to a 15-20 per cent share of the vote. A junior role in a risk-averse Labour government has shut off that possibility.

At this point, there seems to be only one Greens office in the South Island, in Christchurch. Everywhere else (including Nelson/Golden Bays) the Green Party contact points seems to consist only of email addresses. Given this re-allocation of Green Parry resources it seems hardly surprising that this has skewed the candidate rankings, and the MP roster.

Such trends seem ripe for correction. Water quality, intensive dairying and renewable energy all feature strongly in the party rhetoric. Surely, these issues need to be better reflected in the Green Party’s final list. Arguably, the Greens need more advocates in Parliament for whom environment degradation (local and planetary) is their main, driving concern.

Footnote: The Kerekere resignation has been comparable to the aborted coup-without-a replacement launched against James Shaw at last year’s party conference. Namely: An own goal that needn’t have happened.

Evidently, the Greens feel that their systems of social etiquette and caucus co-operation cannot tolerate someone like Kerekere. That being so, it isn’t hard to see why the Greens have not made much policy headway with Labour’s hardliners, who have never been renowned for playing nice in the political bearpit, either.

Too bad. The late Titewhai Harawira has recently been canonised despite – or because of – her lifelong reluctance to compromise on matters of importance. Making other people feel good was never Titewhai’s top priority. It does not seem to have been Kerekere’s either. Every political parties needs one or two such people, who are willing and able to fiercely stand their ground, regardless.

Too bad that some people in the Greens have rated workaday deference above the qualities that made them value Kerekere so highly in the first place. In the end, a single email expressing private frustrations got leaked to the media on the eve of the party list rankings, amid anonymous allegations about her attitude. Eventually this whispering campaign made Kerekere feel she had no future with the party.

Unless evidence emerges of some worse sins committed by Kerekere – kicking puppies, bringing Big Macs to caucus lunches – the Greens have only themselves to blame for this loss of talent.

Coro, the aftermath

As expected, the Coronation ceremony was weirdly one of a kind. It combined an Anglican version of freemasonry rituals with a display of clockwork militarism worthy of North Korea.

This casual fusion of the monarchy with military will surely have not been lost on some members of His Majesty’s former colonies. If New Zealand were to become a republic, would our elected head of state be able to dispense with the parades of martial power? One can only hope so.

To be effective, the Coronation ceremony really needed to have a relatively young person at its centre – someone able to emerge from it shriven and transformed for their new life of service. When performed on a 74 year old, the ceremony looked more like elder abuse.

Question: Will Charles still have the energy to risk doing what he seemed poised to do 30 years ago, in promoting say, peaceful co-existence with other faiths like Islam, and genuine action on climate change? The ceremony had a lot to say about “service” but nothing at all about leadership.

It didn’t help matters that the ceremony was carried out in the same church where centuries ago, the wedding of Charles and Diana had also taken place. Watching Charles and Camilla get crowned in front of the same altar inevitably conjured up ghosts. Arguably, if this saga had been a TV series, this conclusion would have been considered to be too grim to contemplate: Charles and Camilla on their thrones, Diana dead and her children estranged. Fade to black.

As a ceremonial spectacle though, the young and impressionable (e.g. Prince Louis) could be forgiven for yawning in the aisles. Suffice to say, the quality required was endurance, best represented by Penny Mordaunt holding aloft the 3.6 kilogram sword of state for what seemed like hours in a formidable display of arm and shoulder strength.

Footnote: While the coronation ceremony was High Anglican, the ceremony made good on Charles’ desire – first expressed in the early 1990s – to be not just a Defender of The Faith” of Henry VIII, but of all faiths.

Islam – which is the second largest religious denomination in Britain – has often appeared to hold a special priority for Charles. As he recalled in his remarkable speech “Islam and the West” in 1993, Charles had made a personal plea to General Norman Schwarzkopf at the outset of the First Gulf War for the US to spare the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala from its bombing raids.

In similar vein, Charles referred in the same speech to the sufferings of Bosnian Muslims during the Balkans war, noted the rich history of scientific innovation under Islam, and pointed to the traditions shared by the “People Of The Book” ” i.e. Christianity, Judaism and Islam. He went on to speak of the role of women:

The rights of Muslim women to property and inheritance, to some protection if divorced, and to the conducting of business, were rights prescribed by the Qur’an twelve hundred years ago, even if they were not everywhere translated into practice. In Britain at least, some of these rights were novel even to my grandmother’s generation!

Women, he continued, are not automatically second-class citizens because they live in Islamic countries. “We cannot judge the position of women in Islam aright if we take the most conservative Islamic states as representative of the whole.”

For example, Charles said 30 years ago:

“The veiling of women is not at all universal across the Islamic world. Indeed, I was intrigued to learn that the custom of wearing the veil owed much to Byzantine and Sassanian traditions, nothing to the Prophet of Islam. Some Muslim women never adopted the veil, others have discarded it, others – particularly the younger generation – have more recently chosen to wear the veil or the headscarf as a personal statement of their Muslim identity. But we should not confuse the modesty of dress prescribed by the Qur’an for men as well as women with the outward forms of secular custom or social status which have their origins elsewhere”

One could cite similarly progressive ideas he has expressed about climate change – well before these became fashionable. Global warming is a topic on which Charles has amassed considerable scientific knowledge and expertise.

The point of all this being… Charles could now choose to use the regal platform as head of the Anglican Church in Britain to actively promote inter-faith understanding. He could also promote social justice in a country whose social infrastructure is crumbling after 12 years of Tory mis-rule.

Given how thoroughly Charles has schooled himself in the issues involved, his urgings could go well beyond the usual bromides. Of course, there will be conservative forces urging passivity, and these will probably prevail. At 74, Charles may be happy to be merely the nation’s kindly old uncle.

Yet if he did happen to choose a more activist role, this would have implications for our own debate on becoming a republic, which has always assumed the status quo set by Elizabeth II will continue. It might. It isn’t very likely that Charles The Activist King will step out onto the world stage. These days, he may well prefer to promote the “unity” of irrelevance, rather than risk adding to the processes of polarisation.

Maybe so. But in the years left to him, it will be interesting to see how Charles does balance the forces of inertia against his own lingering desires to (finally!) make his mark.