PRINCIPLE AND PRAGMATISM are not, as Radio New Zealand’s Guyon Espiner attempted to assert on this morning’s Morning Report, incompatible. They are, however, obliged to get out of each other’s way. If the Greens’ Metiria Turei has a principled objection to aspects of NZ First’s immigration policies, then she needs to be careful about how those objections are expressed. Especially when she and her colleagues are also committed to the principled objective of bringing a progressive government into existence on 23 September.
Pragmatism is all about working out what you want most. This morning, Metiria informed New Zealand that her top priority is securing a change of government. Obviously, she would like to see her own party playing a major role in any new government. Furthermore and ideally, the progressive administration she’s after would include only the Greens and the Labour Party. There is, however, a very strong likelihood that the two left-leaning parties will not secure sufficient electoral support to govern on their own. Realistically, the support of Winston Peters’ NZ First Party will be required to drive the National Party from the Treasury Benches.
All of which raises the question of why, over the course of the weekend just past, Metiria felt moved to attack NZ First’s immigration policies in such uncompromising terms. Whether or not their policies are “racist” – a charge vehemently denied by NZ First – the question arises: what principle was served by levelling such an accusation?
It certainly wasn’t the principle of doing everything within one’s power as a co-leader of the Green Party to put an end to the cruelty and incompetence being meted out by the present National-led Government. Nor was it the principle of collegiality: of doing everything possible to ensure that the inevitable differences between the members of a Red-Green-Black coalition can be resolved amicably and in the spirit of generous compromise. Even the principle of racial equality was ill-served by Metiria’s intemperate accusations. Dismissing people and parties as “racists” not only discourages dialogue, it also generates hostility and a hardening of attitudes. In this context, Metiria’s charge that NZ First is a “divisive” political force takes on a grimly ironic aspect.
Simply put, Metiria’s claim that she takes a pragmatic approach to the political exigencies of coalition government cannot be sustained. A pragmatic politician would not have drawn public attention to matters about which there remain serious disagreements between the Greens and NZ First. Ideally, she wouldn’t have mentioned NZ First at all – preferring instead to promote her own party’s policies. If asked to comment on potential areas of difficulty between the Greens and NZ First, she would have highlighted those areas where the two parties are in agreement. At all times, her objective would be to demonstrate how easily and how well the two parties could work together. In relation to NZ First, nothing Metiria did over the weekend, or on Morning Report, could be considered pragmatic – or principled.
Which leaves a great many progressive voters asking themselves: “Why did she do it? What’s eating the Greens?”
In light of the Greens’ recent ideological contortions on the subject of immigration, it is possible to interpret Metiria’s attack on NZ First as being driven by internal – not external – considerations. It is possible that the immigration issue has become a symbol of the increasingly bitter divisions that have opened up between idealists and pragmatists within the Green Party. If so, then NZ First has been made the whipping-boy for offences much closer to home.
Given that the Greens long ago left behind their original mission of bearing witness to the need for fundamental environmental, economic and societal change, this sort of internecine bickering is unforgiveable. Accepting the need for pragmatism means accepting the definition of politics as the art of the possible. It also means accepting that morality is not indivisible. That for good people to have a chance of achieving anything at all, a lot of bad people must remain unpunished.
If the sixteenth century Protestant leader, Henry of Navarre (later to become the very Catholic Henry IV of France) was willing to concede that “Paris is worth a mass”, then Metiria Turei should be willing to concede that the Ninth Floor of the Beehive is worth biting her tongue over Winston’s shortcomings.