By Chris Trotter*
The exposure of Elizabeth Kerekere is at once trivial and important. That members of the same political party can harbour intense dislike for one another should surprise no one. As the Nineteenth Century British statesman, Benjamin Disraeli, famously quipped: “No, Mr Speaker, before me sit my opponents. My enemies are seated behind me.” That the full measure of a member’s dislike may occasionally surface in view of the public is equally unsurprising – no matter how amusing its expression. What is indisputably important, however, is when the inadvertent revelation on internal party animosities reveal ambitions and machinations serious enough to affect the future political course of the entire nation.
Elizabeth Kerekere is not only an ambitious politician, but also, within the confines of the contemporary Green Party (of which more later) an effective one. To rise from an unwinnable nineteenth ranking on the Green Party List in 2017, to ninth position (and a parliamentary seat) in 2020, to a provisional ranking of fourth in 2023, indicates a willingness to exploit the dynamic internal divisions currently racking the Green Party. Kerekere’s leadership role in securing the passage of the legislation outlawing so-called “conversion therapy”, coupled with her ground-breaking academic research into takatāpui (a Māori person who is gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender) strongly suggests an ideological orientation towards the Greens ultra-radical faction.
Editor of The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury, explicitly identifies Kerekere as: “someone who has been rumoured to have been positioning a far more extreme woke clique within the Greens”. The accidental release of Kerekere’s chat-group criticism of fellow Green MP Chloe Swarbrick – “omg what a cry-baby” – is characterised by Bradbury as “messaging co-conspirators who are involved in manoeuvring a new co-leadership team of Kerekere and Ricardo [Menendez-March]”.
Menendez-March was born in Mexico to a Mexican father and a New Zealand mother. Returning to New Zealand with his mother, Menendez-March first entered the political arena as a serious player when he became the convenor of Auckland Action Against Poverty. An articulate and resourceful advocate, he was unsparing in his criticism of Jacinda Ardern’s failure to deliver on her promise to dramatically reduce child poverty and homelessness in New Zealand. Ranked tenth on the Green Party List, Menendez-March entered Parliament one place behind Kerekere in 2020.
With neither Kerekere nor Menendez-March susceptible to the increasingly disqualifying “Cis” prefix (she being lesbian and he gay) and with both MPs being considerably more comfortable espousing radical cultural ideas than most of their Green Party caucus colleagues, it was hardly surprising that they should find themselves cheered-on by the two Green Party “networks” at the core of the ultra-radical faction – the Rainbow Greens and the fervently anti-capitalist, Green Left.
Adding a further wrinkle to this factional manoeuvring on the part of the “ultras” is the overlap between party activists on the one hand and parliamentary staffers on the other. Well-resourced and supremely well-located at the very centre of political power, these staffer-activists appear to have been extraordinarily successful at lifting their preferred parliamentary candidates into winning positions on the Party List. Undoubtedly there are some within the Greens who blame these radical apparatchiks for the fiasco surrounding James Shaw’s re-election as Green Party co-leader in 2022. Inevitably, less radical Greens will also blame them for Kerekere’s dramatic rise from 9 to 4 in the List rankings.
Those familiar with left-wing political history will object that all “big change” parties have their ultra factions. No matter how fierce they might appear, however, the radicals’ numbers are so small that, should they be foolish enough to force key policy issues, a huge moderate majority stands ready to slap them down. The question is: has the Green Party still got a moderate majority? Or, have the Greens – always a very cliquey outfit – undergone the same degree of membership burn-off that has undermined so many “progressive” organisations? There is a degree of emotional violence in highly-motivated radical activists that only the most robust spirits are either willing or able to face down.
The Green Party of Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald, within which the principal ideological divide fell between the radical environmentalists and the eco-socialists (with some avant-garde “treatyism” and second-wave feminism off to the side) has long since ceased to exist. The Green Party of 2023 is a volatile mixture of “decolonising” Māori nationalism, revolutionary anti-capitalism, and uncompromising Rainbow zealotry. The idea that these are nothing more than frothing eddies of youthful activism, and that deep down the slower currents of ecological wisdom and political responsibility continue to flow serenely on, may soon be exposed as the purest wishful thinking.
The test will be the final Green Party List. Over the next few weeks the Green Party membership has the opportunity to study the provisional list presented to them by the party’s ruling bodies. If the provisional list seems wildly out-of-sympathy with the membership’s mood, then members have the power to re-organise it from top to bottom.
If those deep currents of ecological wisdom and political responsibility really do exist, and are not merely figments of New Zealand’s political imagination, then the all-too-obvious activist-staffer-Green MP shenanigans revealed in the leaked chat-group exchanges will be severely punished. Elizabeth Kerekere will be lucky to find herself left where she is at ninth position on the Party List. A Green Party determined to signal to the electorate that it has no place for such “mean” and all-consuming ambition would slot her in at twenty-ninth!
If, however, Kerekere remains where she is, or even leapfrogs over Chloe Swarbrick into third position, then we will know that there is no steadying majority of moderate Greens to keep the party within the confines of electability. It will be clear that the extraordinary civility and gentle strength that won the admiration of even the Greens’ electoral rivals under Fitzsimons and Donald really has gone. The effect upon the tens-of-thousands of Green Party voters who recoiled in disgust when the chat-group exchanges were leaked will be profound. Their faith in the Green Party as a responsible political organisation run by principled grown-ups (already strained by the nonsense associated with Shaw’s re-election and Marama Davidson’s “It’s cis, white males” comment) will be shattered – and their votes will be lost.
That will be extremely important. Because it may well see the Greens fall below the crucial 5 percent MMP threshold. On current polling, a Labour Party stripped of its Green allies will have insufficient parliamentary support (even with Te Pāti Māori) to form a government. Electoral victory will be claimed by National and Act.
And that will be no trivial matter.
*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.