|The Greens have been almost invisible since the 2020 election. Despite massive crises impacting on people’s lives, such as climate change, housing, inequality, and the cost of living, they’ve had very little to say.
On this week’s highly contentious issue of politicians being banned from Parliament by Trevor Mallard, the Greens have demurred, saying it’s not really an issue for them. Co-leader Marama Davidson channelled her more conservative impulses, commenting that all activists simply need to face up to the consequences of their actions.
Greens neutered on the big issues
Although Mallard’s clampdown on dissent could be seen as a beltway issue, the Greens are failing to make noise on really substantial issues that urgently require debate and solutions. In the last week, there have been important reports released about the crises in housing, infrastructure, and climate – all of which the Greens have gone very quiet on. And the biggest issue of the moment – the cost of living crisis – is something the Greens have hardly anything to say on.
It’s particularly illustrative that on climate change, the Greens have refused to rock the boat. The Government’s low ambitions and minimal actions in this area get a free pass from the party. This is partly explained by the fact that the Greens themselves oversee this government portfolio, with James Shaw as minister.
Similarly, since Marama Davidson took the ministerial baubles of a housing portfolio, they have been much less critical. She occasionally makes noises about her government needing to do more, but these calls – such as when she wrote an open letter to herself and her colleagues about essentially needing to try harder – come across as somewhat bizarre.
It’s worth noting that Davidson ran her campaign to replace Metiria Turei as co-leader on the basis that she would be the principled radical “speaking truth to power”. But then she took a ministerial position that has no departmental reports or responsibilities. And instead of holding the Government to account, she mainly attacks the Opposition.
In enacting and defending the government’s line on core issues like housing, inequality, and the environment, the Green MPs have caused great consternation amongst party activists. Earlier in the year, it was reported that the problem had become so big that activists were stepping away from the party.
Former MPs made an intervention through the media, to warn that the Greens were in trouble. Sue Bradford and Catherine Delahunty spoke about a failure of leadership in the party, alleging climate change and inequality had fallen victim to the Greens’ “stifling” cooperation agreement with Labour. Russel Norman, the former co-leader and current head of Greenpeace NZ, said the party’s position on climate change was “simply not credible”.
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Instead of issues that any leftwing party would normally be playing a leadership role on, the Greens have been focused on the adoption of new internal party rules about their leadership.
The changes that have been characterised as “woke” include dropping their requirement to have one male co-leader, while retaining the requirement that one leader is a woman, and adopting a rule that one leader must be Māori. There are several other changes to the party organisational structure, which the party says is about adopting a “te ao Māori framework”.
The changes have been explained as the party honouring its status as a Tiriti-centric partner, and an evolving understanding of gender issues. In addition to this, it can be seen as an answer to activist complaints that the party has become too comfortable with power and jettisoned its radicalism.
To some extent, the new party rules work as an answer to those who want to see more radicalism from the Greens. The woke approach, as opposed to taking on a more socialist or environmental radicalism, can be defined as being concerned with the actions and identities of individuals, rather than classes and other social groups. The term emerged from the black civil rights movement to signal that someone was awake to the injustice of the world, especially racial and social injustice. It takes up concerns mainly around race, sexuality and gender.
But it’s been repurposed in recent years to describe the hijacking of progressive parties and causes by self-promoting and self-serving educated elites. It’s associated with policing language and the bounds of debate, and focuses on getting individuals into elevated positions in society, rather than changing society itself. It can be seen as a highly moralistic and middle class form of liberal and leftwing politics.
Will a more woke approach make the Greens more attractive?
Shifting the party more into the socially progressive sphere with its pioneering stance on the identity of leaders is more symbolic than policy-orientated. But it will undoubtedly increase the Greens’ appeal to its more urban, educated, and middle class traditional activist base and constituency. It’s this Wellington Central style milieu that is most interested in this brand of radicalism, and places an emphasis on the need to see greater progress made in these areas of Treaty and gender issues.
Other Green Party constituencies might be less enamoured with the more woke approach. Historically, there has been a socialist strand of the party (epitomised by MPs and activists like Bradford, Delahunty, and Keith Locke), and a more environmental wing (formerly led by the likes of Jeannette Fitzsimons, Russel Norman, and Gareth Hughes).
The dominance of the Davidson-led woke faction of the party might yet alienate these other constituencies, which in the past have played a key role in elevating the party’s electoral support. The coalition of divergent ideologies has been a key part of their success in the past – especially when the Greens used to poll around 15 per cent. Arguably, the bulk of such support was a vote for the environment rather than for pioneering identity politics.
And in recent months, the Greens’ opinion poll support has been going backwards. This week’s Newshub poll had them dropping to 8.4 per cent, down 1.2 points, which was generally in line with other polls.
Hence if the Greens continue to prioritise woke concerns at the expense of focusing on crises in terms of cost of living, inequality, housing, and climate, it’s possible that the party could sink even further.
Leftwing political commentator Martyn Bradbury, who votes Green, has said that the move will increase the “perception that the Greens are just a Feminist party with some environmentalism thrown in” and could result in a loss of the male vote to the Labour Party. He says that in a time of increased economic anxiety, “a political cultural backlash is brewing” against woke politics, and leftwing voters are part of this. He argues: “The Greens will herald their non-binary co-leadership model as progress, the wider electorate will see it as emblematic of a woke dogma that alienates far more than it can recruit at a time of peak economic anxiety.”
Likewise, Chris Trotter argues that after the Greens’ change in leadership rules, “their electoral future is bleak”, as it “will likely strike a great many Green Party supporters as both self-indulgently radical and blatantly unfair”. He says that “the loyalty of Green voters will be tested even more strenuously” if James Shaw is toppled as a result of the rules.
Trotter argues that if the loss of votes “is greater than 81,000, and Chloe Swarbrick fails to hold Auckland Central, then the Greens will cease to be a party represented in Parliament.” That seems like a lot of votes to lose, but he points out that in one election the Alliance lost 134,000 votes.
He believes party activists too often assume that their voters think about issues in the same way as themselves, and can be blind to how badly such changes will go down outside of the meeting room. Trotter thinks they will lose more traditional supporters than the “number attracted to the Greens because they have altered their constitution to reflect their opposition to binary, heteronormative gender relations”. The Greens now look exclusionary, rather than inclusive – which can be very alienating. To many potential voters, the change will “make the Greens look like a political party that would rather be politically correct than politically successful”.
Questions about the woke change
Will the change in leadership rules really make a difference to the representation of traditionally under-presented demographics? After all, in terms of the requirement of the Greens to have a Māori co-leader, this has already been the informal practice anyhow – for the last fifteen years with Metiria Turei and now Davidson.
Officially, these identity politics changes have been justified on the basis that politics doesn’t provide a “level playing field” for the representation of women, Māori, Pasifika, and LGBT+ politicians. But as rightwing commentator David Farrar has pointed out this week, the current Parliament is 49% female, 21% Māori, 11% LGBT+ and 8% Pasifika.
Farrar also says: “So under this new rule, you would never have had Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald as co-leaders. It also means that Chloe Swarbrick can’t replace Marama Davidson as a co-leader as Chloe is not Maori. She could replace James though.”
Of course, there are likely to be all sorts of knots that the Greens get into in trying to follow the prescriptive new identity rules. For example, although the party likes to believe that they have a strong connection to Te Ao Māori, they are very unpopular in the Maori seats, and in South Auckland.
So, without having a lot of high calibre Māori candidates and MPs to pick from, future co-leadership decisions could be fraught. For example, if Davidson suddenly stepped down now, the only viable replacement is Elizabeth Kerekere, who has little experience and accomplishments compared to the likes of Swarbrick, or those with ministerial experience like Eugenie Sage, Jan Logie, or Julie Anne Genter, who would all be ruled out of contention.
Rules to replace James Shaw by Chloe Swarbrick
Some have suggested that the change of leadership rules is really about protecting the leadership position of the underperforming Marama Davidson, while creating an opportunity for popular Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick to replace Shaw.
Matthew Hooton speculated about this in a column last month, saying “The stage is being set for Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick to join Marama Davidson as a co-leader of the Green Party, replacing James Shaw.” And certainly, with Swarbrick at the helm, the Greens will have a greater chance at growing their popularity.
All this, of course, has been denied by the party, and Shaw himself claims he’s more than comfortable with the change. Some speculate that any such replacement of Swarbrick for Shaw might occur after the next election when he could move onto to other positions outside of Parliament.
Nonetheless, the shift to a decidedly more woke orientation could be a useful way for the Greens and Labour to start differentiating themselves from one another. At the moment the Labour Party is also increasingly associated with more woke concerns than that of a more traditionally focused leftwing party – and this can be seen as a big part of the Government’s polling decline.
But perhaps if the Greens can take on the more middle class woke role in politics, this might leave the Labour Party to focus more on economic and material concerns. Such a division of labour on the left might be a more enduring and successful way for this Government to be re-elected in 2023.