The Green Party belongs out front, not dead centre

Yesterday, a third candidate entered the race to become the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand’s male co-convenor: Vernon Tava. He is running as an out of Parliament candidate on a platform that the Greens should be a party of sustainability, not a party of the left. We should, he suggests, strive to hold the balance of power.

While I agree with him on a lot and respect his intellect, I seriously disagree with his vision for the Party.

This post is the first of three. Here, I deal with the substance of his platform and argue that it won’t work. In the second, I will give a few reflections about how he has launched this debate, and suggest that it has unfortunately stifled other important conversations. In the third, I will sum up where I think the Party should go.

In short, I believe we must not be dragged into the mire of centrist politics, but instead stand uncompromisingly on our kaupapa, our ethics, and our vision. If that looks left, so be it.

Here, I’m going to summarise my understanding of Vernon’s position, and explain why I think it is philosophically flawed, strategically misconceived and tactically broken.

The proposal: a ‘Green-Green’ centre party

When I have crossed swords with Vernon about this on social media, he has several times suggested that I have misunderstood his position. Other commentators seem to see something in him that they either want or fear: a call for a ‘blue-green’ party. So I think it’s important to be clear what he is saying, and what he isn’t saying.

I have no problem with a 'broad church' movement with ecological integrity. Here, Fast for the Climate activists provide an example of how this can be done.
I have no problem with a ‘broad church’ movement with ecological integrity. Here, Fast for the Climate activists provide an example of how this can be done.

You can read the whole thing here (and an important follow up here), but I understand his key points to be:

  • Philosophically, the Greens’ charter is neither traditional left nor right wing, but built on new principles of sustainability (I totally agree!);
  • The Greens should focus back on their core Charter principles of ecological wisdom, social responsibility, appropriate decision-making and non-violence (I’ll buy this – but think we must build on them);
  • Being neither left nor right, the Greens can and should seize the centre (without being centrist) and hold the balance of power (And here’s where he loses me);
  • The Greens can do this without changing their policies, but just their messaging and framing (I don’t think this is possible – or desirable); and
  • While – importantly – he doesn’t suggest the Greens should go with National, he does suggest that the Party’s public political positioning simply should not say which party the Greens would go with, or even express any probability (I don’t think this can be believable).

There’s a lot more to his position, but I think those are the key elements. If I’ve missed something, let me know in the comments.

The philosophical problem: our Green kaupapa isn’t in the middle – and shouldn’t be!

As Vernon notes, the traditional Green position – derived from the Values Party before it – is that we are neither left nor right, but out front. Though I have in the past had some misgivings about that, discussions with Vernon and reading Claire Browning’s Beyond Today have convinced me that this is where we should be. The Green Party is and should be a new kind of political party, a progressive force dealing with the issues that the other parties haven’t even thought about yet, with deeper, richer and more lasting principles than can be captured by a single axis political spectrum.

None of those things sound like any kind of middle to me.

So it is a deeply compromising mistake to equate out front with the centre – which is where Vernon has said we should be, and which is the only place that can really hold the balance of power.

To unpack this mistake, we need to look at what the political spectrum actually means. New Zealand is a liberal democracy. This is very important, because it constrains the left-right political spectrum within the limits of liberal political thought. I risk speaking in a jargon that is comprehensible only to other political philosophy majors here, but the point is that both what we call left/liberal/progressive and right/conservative/reactionary sit within the traditions of liberal political thought. Both sides of the spectrum agree – in principle if not practice – on the basic tenets of individual liberty handed down through the democratic traditions of western political thought.

The left and right just disagree on what definition of liberty we should use. The right focuses on the freedom from government intervention. The left focuses on the more nuanced freedom to define your own life, which requires certain economic and other resources. If you cannot afford food, the left says, you are not truly free – no matter how little the government intervenes. This philosophical divide leads directly to the left and right’s different ideas of social justice: to the right, social justice is keeping what you earn, being a free economic actor; but to the left, social justice means everyone having access to the bare minimums needed to secure the freedom to actually live a good life.

The centre, therefore, is the position between left and right: a mixture of libertarianism and liberal egalitarianism.

We don’t fit there. Our philosophical roots are much bigger than left or right liberalism. They are something new – and here I know Vernon and I agree totally, not least of which because we studied this under the same teacher: they are principles of strong sustainability.

At university (all love and respect to Kathy Smits!), liberal political thought bored me. Where Pablo‘s classes dealt with real, hard questions like the transition to democracy, how to predict (and engineer) revolutionary political changes, and the meaning of economic development, my classes on liberal politics just seemed to waffle on about thought experiments involving shells and beaches, where real, complex people were somehow to be stripped back to rational actors devoid of unearned advantages and capacities (devoid, that is, of personality and humanity). Feminist critiques of classic liberalism especially held more appeal to me.

But the politics of sustainability are where I found my true ideological home. I didn’t learn these first in a lecture theatre, but in a decade as an animal liberation activist and punk rock kid – and, more recently, through five years deeply embedded in the international climate movement. I’ve learned more from African and Latino/Latina activists about ecological and social justice than in any university class. So when I studied international environmental law, I found an intellectual expression of all those lyrics I loved from 1990s hardcore punk records. I found the new politics I was looking for: The Brundtland Report – just like my favourite band – called for a new ethic.

That new ethic is sustainability. Where the left – in effect – by taking a deeper conception of liberty, adds social justice to classical liberalism, the politics of sustainability begin from the opposite end: justice between people, between generations, and between humanity and nature. Liberty, to Green thought, is not the starting point, but just one element of a tripartite conception of justice. Where leftist thought aims – at most – to end the oppression of some people by other people, sustainability demands the end of injustice between whole generations – and between humanity and the planet. Traditional liberal thought looks only at justice between humans in one moment in time, whereas sustainability looks also to justice across time and justice with nature.

Activists at the Lima climate talks calling for equity between generations.

These are big ideas, and these are Green ideas. As the Charter says, sustainability is paramount.

To take the politics of ecological sustainability and slam it back into the single axis political spectrum of liberal democracy is to strip sustainability of its meaning – and its beauty. If you’re in the centre, you’re in the middle between others’ ideas. Green ideas aren’t in the middle between libertarianism (the right) and liberal egalitarianism (the left). They’re something much bigger, where the left achieves – at most – one axis of our three. Trying to fit Green thought into the political spectrum is like trying to fit a cube onto a line.

[Of course, this is a simplification – especially of the left-right political axis. It is an ugly kludge of too many different ideas and metrics created by trying to slap all possible political ideologies onto one single line. In the sense that the spectrum runs progressive/reactionary (after all, we’re out front!), then I’d say we are still left (That too, though, is an over-simplification: Green ideas reject any linear narrative of progress, which raises questions about just what progressive means…) – but not in the socialist/capitalist spectrum or the liberal/conservative spectrum. On those, we might look left, but we’re something else entirely.]

On this much, I expect Vernon and I broadly agree. He has already stepped back from his use of the word centre. Where we differ is that he believes we can capture the balance of power without becoming centrist or centre.

Strategically, we can’t take the balance of power without compromising our values

Most commentators equate being centrist or centre with holding the balance of power. Vernon argues that the Greens can somehow hold the balance of power without adopting centrist policies.

I just don’t buy it.

To hold the balance of power, a party needs to have politics that can swing towards either of the two major political blocs: left and right. You need to be able to do a confidence and supply or coalition deal with either major party, and work with their support parties. This is why the balance of power is traditionally held by populist centrists like the eternally recurring Winston Peters or the profoundly unreasonable reasonable man Peter Dunne. They swing this way and that, holding the balance of power by following the winds of power.

We can’t swing this way and that to hold the balance of power without compromising the principle of sustainability.

Take any important policy issue you can think of. Draw a line from National to Labour. Now think about where you’d put the Greens based on our current policies or even just based on our Charter. Can you find even one where we sit between National and Labour? Here are a few examples:

  • Yeb and Carlie
    Philippine negotiator Naderev ‘Yeb’ Saño hugging my friend and colleague Carlie Labaria at the Warsaw climate talks the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. While Yeb’s own brother dug bodies out of the ruins of their hometown, Tacloban, National Party MPs laughed at Russel Norman quoting Yeb’s speech to the UN.

    Going right to the core of it: On climate change, Labour is streets ahead of National. They aren’t good, but there’s common ground there. In 2009, just as New Zealand first elected this National Government, I wrote my Honours in Law on New Zealand’s emissions trading scheme as it then was, concluding that it didn’t go nearly far enough – but at least it went somewhere. We had a cap and trade scheme, and National took the cap off and turned it into straight up subsidy for polluters. The Greens can work with David Parker running our ETS. There’s common ground there. Less than I’d like, but some. We can’t work with Simon Bridges running it. There’s no common ground there. None. Labour MPs don’t deny climate change is even happening. Senior National MPs deny climate change. I struggle even to articulate just how embarrassing it can be to be a New Zealand at the UN climate talks now.

  • The same goes for our main environmental law, the Resource Management Act. Labour passed it and upheld it. Its principal architect, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, tears apart our current climate and environmental law. National has gutted the Resource Management Act over and over again, and is primed now to do it again.
  • James Shaw at the Pride Parade
    James Shaw at the Pride Parade

    On the social side, securing equality for people of all sexualities flows directly from both the intragenerational justice aspect of sustainability and principle of non-violence. Denying homosexual and other LGBTQI people equal access to basic legal rights like marriage is inherently an act of violent oppression.  When I marched with the Greens in last month’s Pride parade, I did so with James Shaw – who (like my oldest and best friend) calls a lesbian couple his parents – and with MPs who had voted unanimously for marriage equality. In 2005, 36 National Party MPs voted to explicitly define marriage as only between a man and a woman; only one Labour MP voted in favour. When Labour MP Louisa Wall introduced her marriage equality bill in 2013, 88.2% of Labour MPs voted in favour, but only 45.7% of National. Worse, National MP Melissa Lee joined the Pride Parade – despite voting against marriage equality!

  • On the topic of non-violence, just compare Clark’s refusal to send combat troops to the second Iraq War (and, indeed, only agreeing to send non-combat personnel after truly extraordinary US pressure) to Key’s slow blundering mission creep towards involving New Zealand in turning Iraq’s civil war into a third Iraq War in as many decades.
  • On appropriate decision making, another of our Charter principles: Sure, Labour’s record of passing legislation under urgency wasn’t good, but National’s is far, far worse. The same goes with Official Information Act requests and even written questions in Parliament.

It doesn’t take particularly deep thought to think of other examples where Labour’s policies, though falling short, sit much closer to our own than National’s.

On each, we’re past Labour. It’s no wonder, then, that to the average punter we look left of Labour – even though our ideas come from a totally different place.

National’s core ethics – like those of the Abbott, Harper and (to a lesser extent) Cameron governments are based fundamentally and inexorably on unsustainable resource growth. National is founded on, funded by, and fronted by the prophets of unsustainability. We are talking about a party that runs oil and tobacco lobbyists as candidates and mobilises a dirty politics machine built on the campaigning principles of the American right – the exact same campaigning tactics that prop up the Harper, Abbot and Cameron governments. Governments that National has tied us to ever more; this weekend especially, Five Eyes is the obvious example, but as a climate policy guy, I think first our increasingly core role in the Umbrella Group bloc in the climate talks.

Make no mistake. Naomi Klein is right. Contemporary capitalism is incompatible with a just transition to a safe climate future. Whether the market itself can shed much of the baggage of the contemporary right’s ideology, internalise the externality of carbon emissions, and empower non-Annex 1 States to secure their right to the good living through a new model of clean development will determine whether we have a bright green or dark green future. Either we green capitalism, or capitalism will fall to something else.

Niether ecosocialism nor Kingnorth's Dark Mountain offer anything to help the true struggles of indigenous activists on the front lines of the climate justice fight.
Niether ecosocialism nor Kingnorth’s Dark Mountain offer anything to help the true struggles of indigenous activists on the front lines of the climate justice fight.

[That’s not to advocate socialism, but to say that we need something new. Vernon’s characterisation of ‘Eco-Socialism’ is simplistic. The global climate justice and ecological justice movements are far from socialist. I say this having actually argued climate justice with socialists in socialist Venezuela through successive sleepless nights. In a strange irony, Vernon cites dark green prophet of collapse Paul Kingsnorth in condemning eco-socialism. Kingsnorth, like the ecological justice movement, sees a need for something other than capitalism or socialism. Kingsnorth’s ideas, like much primitivism, have more appeal the further you actually are from the hard face of subsistence living. I cannot see my activist friends from developing states accepting a civilisational retreat that will leave their peoples suffering first and worst just the same as contemporary capitalism does. And I’m fairly sure that’s not what Vernon advocates either, which makes the Kingsnorth citation odd.]

While Vernon definitely doesn’t argue that the Greens should go with National, holding the balance of power requires voters to see a plausible case that the Greens might go either way. If both voters and other parties don’t see a realistic possibility of a Blue-Green coalition, the Greens just won’t hold the balance of power.

There is no plausible narrative that the Greens could go into coalition with National. It’s just not believable. Only if National had no other options would they even look at us as a coalition partner. A grand coalition between Labour and National is a more plausible option, because those two share more with each other than National does with us.

Plus, so long as our policies, values and candidates don’t change, the mainstream media will still see us as left, and wherever we position ourselves, they’ll keep dumping us back into that box.

How, then, can the Greens hold the balance of power between National and Labour? Can we somehow frame our policies to take the balance of power without hollowing them out?

I don’t believe so, because even if we somehow did, our new framing would attract a new pool of centre-green members, who, over time, would pull our policy from green-Green to some shallow take on centre-green. If we pitch our messaging to attract centrist voters, we’ll have centrist voters forming our policy committee and drafting our policy. For all the reasons outlined above, centrist policy is not and cannot be green-Green policy.

Both philosophically and strategically, then, I think that trying to seize the balance of power is deeply misguided. But is it a short term tactical tool, to break from the shackles of Labour?

The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela has brought petrol prices down below US$0.01 per gallon. The left too has far from a clean green record.

A hollow play for the centre is tactical failure

In short: No. It’s not good tactics.

A play for the crowded middle won’t lift our vote short term. Vernon talks of speaking to numerous people who would vote Green if we were not so red-Green. I have two responses to this:

  1. If we play for the centre, we will lose much of our base. I was volunteering in the Auckland Party office the night that TV3 news twisted Russel’s words into suggesting we were considering a deal with National, and my partner, Rachel, worked on the campaign team. Everyone I’ve spoken to, then and since, says that the most negative reactions we got during the campaign came after that erroneous news report. Our people just don’t want us to go with National, and so if we sell them a plausible narrative that we might, we’ll lose them.
  2. If we play for the centre, we still won’t actually capture the centre. It’s a crowded place in there. We’d be fighting Winston on Winston’s turf, and Winston’s good at fighting his turf. The Maori Party, United Future and New Zealand First all play for the centre benches – and the Maori Party especially has suffered for it. Plus, I simply don’t believe that we can capture these blue green voters if we retain our ecological integrity. They want to have their cake and eat it too. A play for the balance of power is a play for centre-Green and blue-Green voters, who want all the pretty baubles of contemporary capitalism without the belt-tightening needed to confront ecological crisis. Put to the test, when faced with a choice between economic interests and ecological interests, blue greens choose economic interests.

Let’s look at the key tactical suggestion at play here: Vernon suggests that we just don’t say which party we’ll go with. Trouble is, Paddy Gower and friends will keep asking. If we refuse to say, we’ll look cagey and evasive. Voters don’t like evasive. It’s naive to think they’ll stop asking – and it’s naive to think that saying nothing won’t be taken as saying something. People have already questioned whether the Nation spun Vernon’s entry into the race as more centre-Green or blue-Green than it was. Winston can survive by being an enigma, but we can’t. The media and the voters just won’t let us.

That’s why I like our existing positioning that we’ll go with whichever party matches our policies most, but that it’s highly unlikely we’ll go with National. It’s honest, and done right, it’s simple and direct.

Ultimately, if there’s one thing I learned from the 2014 election, it’s that credibility and integrity matter to voters. Voters won’t vote for you if they do not see you as a credible alternative government. If we try to adopt framing that’s at odds with our true values and our policies, voters will see right through it, and we’ll look like frauds.

We won’t win hearts and minds by looking like a hollow shell. Let’s be a party of sustainability, green-Green from top to bottom – but not playing for the centre and not trying for a balance of power we can’t take and we can’t hold. We belong out front, shifting the centre, not dead in the middle.

4 thoughts on “The Green Party belongs out front, not dead centre

  1. “To take the politics of ecological sustainability and slam it back into the single axis political spectrum of liberal democracy is to strip sustainability of its meaning – and its beauty.”

    Perhaps this is why most voters fail to see sufficient meaning or beauty in our policies? I think you have inadvertently captured the primary communications challenge that the party faces in the hegemony of the left/right axis.

    Speaking of that hegemony, do you think that your sample of ‘important policy issues’ would be representative of a typical voter’s list? Perhaps a couple of items on your list would bolster a ‘left of Labour’ perception, but in my opinion it is our policies on the classic ‘left/right’ spectrum issues which earn the label.

    Most voters who I know well would head their list with other issues, and want to know whether the Greens would die fighting for those issues or could work alongside the voter’s preferred left/right party. They mostly start with economic issues, where I do not feel the Charter principles bind us to specific outcomes, yet we allow ourselves to be stranded on one sideline. This causes too many to write us off from the start, when we might have found common cause, introduced them to new perspectives, and won them over.

    It is certainly easier to imagine working with Labour, but as the newcomers it falls to us to do the hard work of expressing our values within the National supporter’s mindset as well. There is nothing in your definition of ‘left/right’ that intrinsically prevents co-operation with either, so why can’t we find that way? Maybe certain individuals stand in the way, or even their party structures, but if we reach their support base then those people can change their representatives.

    I don’t want to just wait until my friends and relations die off, because I’ll be gone with them and the world will be 30+ years further into trouble. Nor do I want to alienate them on the basis that they are distant on the policies which matter most to me, if they are not so distant on what matters to them.

    1. Thanks Martin. That’s a really thought provoking and challenging comment.

      I agree with your call about the communication challenge we face.

      When it comes to important policy issues, no doubt you’re right – they are different from the classic core issues your average pundit or punter identifies. But I think the point would hold true if I picked out issues like health, employment or education.

      On economic outcomes, I agree to a point: the Charter or principle of sustainability doesn’t lock us into one economic model. However, it does lock us out of any economic model that cannot secure justice within generations, justice between generations, and justice with nature. The test for whether market capitalism can survive the 21st century will be whether it can either decouple economic growth from resource growth or decouple capitalism from economic growth.

      All forms of capitalism (and socialism!) tried to date have failed on that measure.

      This is where I think we need to separate capitalism from contemporary models of capitalism.

      What your comment has made me think though, is that we also need to distinguish between the right in principle and the right as currently politically expressed. There are some tensions between any right ideology and Green ideology, I’d say – because Green ideology is in my ways socially ultra-progressive. However, we can definitely work with conservatives of conscience, and need to think about how we can do that. But I am fairly sure we cannot work with any of the dominant right political parties across the Anglo world.

      Reaching the conservatives of conscience in their support base will be extremely hard. I don’t know if it’s possible. Just as in going for the balance of power we’d be fighting Winston on Winston’s ground, we would be fighting a very sophisticated political machine for its very base.

      I see climate change as presenting a profound challenge for the right, even more than for the left. The question for us is whether we can devise ways to appeal to conservatives of conscience. The question for the right is whether they can reframe their ideology in the context of ecological crisis.

  2. Great post and some amazing photos.

    The Greens have so far failed to make a compelling case that an egalitarian society is more sustainable within ecological limits than an inherently libertarian one.

    I hope that the upcoming campaigns on Climate Change and Inequality will help us tell that story; that social responsibility is the necessary consequence of recognising the limits to growth.

    Until we can do that the Greens will look like an environmental Party with a hidden (or not so hidden!) socialist agenda. Simple as that.

    1. Thanks man! Especially for the compliment on the photos – don’t know if you saw, but my camera was stolen last year and so I was only just getting back into it at the Pride Parade.

      I can definitely back what you’re saying though: We need to tell the story of ecological justice, not the stories of ecology and social justice. There’s a lot coming from academia and social movements about the intersectionality of these issues, and that’s the story we need to tell. We need to not push on social and environmental fronts separately, but together. I’ve seen some great stuff from Global South diplomats and civil society leaders especially saying that climate change is primarily a social issue for them, not an environmental one.

Comments are closed.