By Chris Trotter*
Perhaps the greatest service Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald rendered the Greens was making New Zealanders believe they were democrats. Their engaging personalities and considerable political skills masked the fact that Green politics has never been (and likely never will be) democratic. The whole ethos of the Green movement, here and overseas, is minoritarian. By concealing that fact, Jeanette and Rod made the Greens electorally viable.
What happened to James Shaw on Saturday, however, has exposed the Greens’ minoritarian political culture for all to see. Once voters grasp the enormity of 30% of Green delegates to the Green AGM being constitutionally empowered to overrule the wishes of the 70% of delegates backing Shaw – an overwhelming majority – the party faces electoral death.
But, why minoritarianism? Partly, the Greens loathing of majorities is attributable to the social milieu out of which the green movement arose, but mostly it is based on their unshakeable conviction that their view of the world is the only correct view, and that, unfortunately, most of the human species are simply too stupid to recognise the fact. Greens are elitists – and proud of it.
If challenged on this point, the Greens will point out that they were the ones who first recognised the existential threat posed by climate change – and that was long before the mainstream parties were even willing to fully acknowledge its reality. They will remind us that it was the Greens who first recognised how seriously corporate mendacity had compromised the fruits of genetic engineering. Who, they will demand, were the first to elect co-leaders and make their party te Tiriti centric? The list goes on and on. As Rod Donald was fond of reminding New Zealanders: The Greens are not on the Left, the Greens are not on the Right. The Greens are out in front.”
All very well and good – until the seers and prophets responsible for this farsighted vanguardism are presented with the practical difficulties of running a political party aspiring to electoral viability. At that point it becomes necessary to find a way to prevent the purity of the party’s principles and policies from being forced to endure the lowest-common-denominator arbitration inherent in the crude majoritarianism of democratic decision-making.
The Greens’ solution to this problem was the adoption of “consensus-based” decision-making. Superficially, this sounded super-democratic. Rather than allow 51% of the party to dominate the remaining 49%, the Greens would do all within their power to ensure that their principles and policies enjoyed the broadest possible agreement.
Few voters, however, bothered to follow the logic of the Greens’ argument right through. If they had, it would very soon have become obvious that “consensus-based” decision-making allows the faction composed of the party leadership and its hangers-on to exercise a veto over the party’s ultimate direction. Unwilling to embarrass or challenge the people in charge, party delegates could be prevailed upon to delay, postpone, or simply compromise out of all recognition, proposals supported by a clear majority of the membership.
Should the veto-wielding minority prove intransigent, however, constitutional provision was made for the blocking of consensus to be over-ridden by a supermajority vote of 75% + 1. Turn that around, of course, and you have conferred veto powers on 25% + 1 of the members and their delegates.
This is hardly a recipe for genuine consensus, more a guarantee of simmering resentments and ceaseless factional manoeuvring. It is also, presumably, the reason why the constitutional provision which laid James Shaw’s hopes low on Saturday was approved. If a minority leadership clique could exercise its veto over the wishes of the rank-and-file majority, then it was only fair that a rank-and-file minority of just 25% + 1 could negate the unopposed candidacy of an incumbent co-leader with upwards of 70% membership support.
That a constitution permitting such antics was entirely unsuited to a political party seeking genuine political influence – up to and including Cabinet positions – does not appear to have occurred to either the people who drafted it, or the members who voted for it.
What it does point to, however, is a party unwilling to embrace the brute realities of parliamentary politics. There is absolutely no point in making its MPs available for Cabinet posts, if a quarter of a party’s members are resolutely opposed to its MPs engaging in the delicate business of building cross-party support, accepting the compromises inherent in coalition politics, negotiating in good faith with those interest groups most directly affected by proposed policy changes, and otherwise engaging in the “art of the possible” that is democratic politics.
It is simply astonishing that James Shaw, who has demonstrated considerable political skill in securing the support of four out of the five parliamentary parties for the Government’s climate change legislation, could be treated so appallingly by an intransigent minority of the Greens’ membership for doing precisely what 70% of the party asked him to do.
Nor is it just the abusive conduct directed against Shaw personally that is astonishing. Even worse is the message sent by the 30% of delegates who voted to re-open his nomination. Clearly, they are not in the least bit concerned what the rest of the country makes of their actions. The single most important lesson of party politics: that disunity is death; has failed to sink in.
With most of Shaw’s opponents supposedly located in the “Youth Wing” of the Greens, it must be assumed that the example of the Alliance is too far in the past to offer these children any guide as to what happens to a small political party which very publicly attacks its leader and then proceeds to tear itself apart.
And it simply will not do to explain away the self-destructive character of their decision by referencing the anger and despair of the generations destined to endure the worst effects of global warming. If the urgency of the climate crisis has already passed beyond the capacity of parliamentary politics-as-usual, then come out honestly and say so. Let the Greens’ Youth Wing put it to their party membership that there must be no more coalitions, no more compromises, no more democracy. Let them ask the electorate instead for the equivalent of wartime powers to fight the greatest threat to human survival since the last Ice Age.
They should be prepared, however, for considerably more of the Greens’ membership than 25% to reject such a policy. More importantly, they should be prepared for something pretty close to 75% of the New Zealand electorate to signal their willingness to stand up and fight for democracy.
If the only reason “the Greens are out in front” is because nobody else is willing to go anywhere near them, then Rod Donald’s bold assertion is no longer a boast – it’s an epitaph.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.