JULIE ANNE GENTER’s entry into the Greens’ co-leadership race presents Green Party members with a hard choice. Either, they will opt for sentiment and symbolism, and elect Marama Davidson. Or, by electing Genter, signal their determination to prioritise cool-headed pragmatism and substantive policy achievement.
Some commentators have already decided that the Greens’ “activist base” will vote in overwhelmingly numbers for Metiria Turei’s “natural successor”. As both a Maori nationalist and a fervent fighter for social justice, Davidson openly celebrates the sort of street-level agitation that the “Baby Boomer” Greens look back on with pride, and which some Green “Millennials” regard as the only “authentic” way of doing Green politics.
The assumption here is that these “activists” constitute a clear majority of the Green Party’s membership. A swift review of Green leadership elections, however, raises serious doubts as to whether the party membership really is as radical as many New Zealanders believe it to be.
Following the tragic death of Rod Donald in 2005, Green Party members were presented with a choice between Nandor Tanczos and Russel Norman. They chose Norman. A few years later the choice was between Sue Bradford and Metiria Turei. They chose Turei. The last contest was between Kevin Hague and James Shaw. They chose Shaw.
The historical pattern here is clear. Asked to choose between a candidate associated (at least in the public mind) with radical and/or controversial political causes; and a candidate unburdened by an excess of electorally-negative baggage; the Greens have consistently opted for the latter over the former.
In the face of these historical precedents, the smart money would be on Genter – not Davidson.
That historical preference for a safe (or, at least, safer) pair of hands is likely to be accentuated this time around by the traumatic experiences of the 2017 General Election campaign.
Just how likely is it that a majority of the Green Party membership stands ready to embrace a candidate who proudly aligns herself with the radical policies of Metiria the Martyr? Do they really want to witness their female co-leader engaging in ideological fisticuffs with the leaders of the Labour Party and NZ First? Are constant headlines highlighting the policy differences between the coalition partners and their activist sidekicks more, or less, likely to see the Greens lift their share of the Party Vote in 2020?
The political trajectory of the Green Party over the past ten years has been towards precisely the cool-headed pragmatism and substantive policy achievement that Genter, more than any other member of the Green Caucus (with the possible exception of Shaw himself) has come to represent.
At her announcement on Parliament’s forecourt, she told the assembled journalists that she wanted to help the Greens develop a “clear, bold and distinct vision for 2020”.
Decoded, her message is all about presenting voters with the sharpest possible contrast between the Greens’ and the coalition parties’ election manifestos. Genter is betting that the Green Party truly is, as she told waiting journalists, “the future of politics”, and that if the Greens’ vision of a sustainable New Zealand is presented in a way that doesn’t frighten the electorate, then the Greens position in the House can be improved dramatically.
That is a goal which can only be achieved, argues Genter, if her party “manages the risks”. Which is the closest thing to a “dog whistle” anyone is ever likely to hear in the mouth of a Green candidate. The message, aimed at what Genter clearly believes to be the “moderate” Green majority, could not, however be simpler – or more brutal: The last thing we need now, after waiting 20 years for a place in government, is another Metiria!
It’s a dog-whistle to which a great many Green Party ears will prick-up and listen.
Assuming the fight remains a straight-forward contest between Davidson’s symbolism and Genter’s pragmatism, the pragmatist will, almost certainly, join Shaw at the top of her party’s greasy pole.
The entry of a third candidate – most likely the Conservation Minister, Eugenie Sage – would, however, signal an effort by the Greens’ “old hands” to blunt the increasingly sharp edges of the Green Party’s ideological differences.
The risk, however, is that the membership might fail to take the hint, and that the moderate vote would be split between Sage and Genter – allowing Davidson to come through the middle. Should that occur, the Minister for Women, and the Associate Minister for Transport and for Health will simply have to put her head down and wait for better weather.