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Election Trail 2002 – The Green Factor

The Green Factor

By Selwyn Manning

It’s a disappointment, from an environmental point of view, that the Greens fondle the idea of governance but shy away from any commitment to govern. In this regard it clearly has placed its chance to influence Executive Government policy from within Cabinet in the too hard basket – fearful that should it do so, it will become the latest casualty of small-coalition-partner demise.

The killing of Sir Peter Blake caused us to focus on many things. One lasting impression etched into my consciousness was that message of how the Wandering Albatross, once a common travelling companion as he skippered early round-the-world racers through the Southern Ocean, had become a rare sight.

“I’ve spent such a lot of time on the ocean and I guess I've told the story many times, but to be sailing around the world in our first round-the-world races when our boats used to be surrounded in the Southern Ocean by many, many large albatross, I mean... it was extraordinary. Dozens of them, and they'd be there for day after day. Now, in the same parts of the world you're lucky to see one of these - say, a wandering albatross - one a week, they're nearly all gone... mainly through poor fishing techniques… and you say, 'Well, I don't think the attitude is correct that my children and their children are only going to be able to see what a wandering albatross looks like in a book.’” (Sir Peter Blake, July 2001)

You know, it was a reminder on a personal scale. The environment, the foundation of our planet, of our social condition, our economics, of our spirituality both culturally and theologically - environmentalism’s a vast concept. As Blake reminded, we must act locally AND globally, and we must enable improvement to our environment in all forms, or perishing witnesses we shall all be.

There’s an ethos: it begins with the man [or woman] in the mirror, as Michael Jackson once sang. True, but it’s worth noting that those who burn to make a change for the better need collective representation. And those purporting to be “green” representatives in our political environment must certainly get their acts together to truly reflect, even capture, a mood and desire to bring about change - lest we forget them as irritating irrelevants.

I mean, oh to be Green: the brand here in NZ ought to be clean cut. But of late the Green preoccupation has been almost exclusively political: poncing about with word-games on issues of activism, political positioning on superannuation, on party-hopping, on constitutional issues, sticking the knife into left-ally the Alliance on any matter it can. Predictably, and even rightly, there was much to oppose on the USA’s positioning in its war against terrorism – but the Greens positioned and capitalised on opposing the war on issues smouldering within the Alliance – the Alliance bound by Cabinet convention was defenceless and almost disintegrated from the frustration.

How effective have the Greens been on environmental matters? Green Party co-leader Rod Donald kindly told us via a media statement in March 2001 that preserving the marine environment is the biggest conservation challenge facing New Zealand in the 21st Century. Thanks Rod. Compared to things political, he’s said sod all on that matter since.

The Greens have had a huge task in rallying a confused public against genetic engineering – by and large confusion remains, we’re left relying on gut instinct when deciding to trust or fight this science.

Since the November 1999 Election, the Greens have struggled to establish an environmental branding. Serious exposes into environmental issues have mostly sidestepped the Greens from providing comment at all.

Green Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, clearly the most dedicated and experienced Green Party activist, has led a press release campaign on several fronts but has struggled to front-foot the issues. For example: where was the Green Party when we heard about the Albatross’ plight? Co-Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons issued a press release on December 19 2001 titled “New Zealand no leader in protecting seabirds – Fitzsimons”. It even quoted Sir Peter Blake.

But it was a tail-end-turkey statement really, attached to outrage heralded by Alliance Conservation Minister Sandra Lee. One would expect that the Greens would have interest in advancing the plight of the planet’s ecosystems and species and hammer away at this day and night, co-ordinating concerned NGOs and lobby groups and promoting awareness on a large fat Parliamentary platform. Sadly that expectation is waning.

The Green Party has been vocal in some areas and must be applauded on opposing sow crates, it has highlighted community concern of MAF’s spraying of painted apple moth in west Auckland, calling for an inquiry into the Waihi mining slip, it is opposing the USA’s position on nuclear testing. But then there are a raft of cult-politics campaigns like the “Nandor Poster Design Contest” showing Nandor skateboarding down a path calling for people to enrol to vote, Nandor also wants submissions on the Clean Slates Bill, and then the un-Green-campaigns like the Social Security (Working Towards Employment) Amendment Bill, supporting the TVNZ Bill, the ironic campaigns like not supporting a GE lab raid, applauding moves to make high-speed internet available to rural customers.

Where were the Greens when Greenpeace activists again highlighted Japanese whaling and the slaughter that is occurring in our oceans? What is the Green position on 1080 poisoning in our forests? On the spill and seepage of faecal coliform from farms and agricultural blocks into New Zealand’s waterways and lakes? On zoos and whether they are achieving the excuse for their existence in being conservation centres, safe havens, and rehabilitation sites dedicated to reintroducing endangered species to the wild?

No doubt the Greens have policy on all these issues, but they are not highlighting such policy adequately when public interest demands it do so. It has failed to front foot these issues.

Is it fair to expect the Green Party to continually focus public attention onto environmental issues? Absolutely. Actually they were voted in to do this. The public has a right to demand that the Greens, at the very least, CAUSE through rational and skilled debate improved outcomes in environmental issues – but ultimately it must position itself to MAKE change.

So what have the Greens achieved over this Parliamentary term and what are they going to do post-election?

As a thank you for supporting the Labour Alliance Government, the Greens managed to secure in the first Cullen Budget 2000, 11 initiatives costing around $15 million. Most were aimed at resourcing grass roots participation: they secured funding for local environment centres on a contestable basis; legal aid for public interest cases at the Environment Court; local conservation education and awareness programmes; training teachers of environmental education in schools; organic farming pilot projects.

There were also policy development projects: a pesticide reduction strategy, improved biosecurity work, the development of natural resource accounts and some case studies of triple bottom line accounting. And of course the ‘child support’ for EECA so it could both develop the Energy Efficiency Strategy and continue its work funding local projects retrofitting low-income houses for energy efficiency.

It all sounded cool and dandy but as Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said in November: “This seemed like a huge success and certainly the media saw it as novel for a party outside Government to get a say in the spending, however small. But the reality is, if you don’t control the implementation of policy and spending it is still possible for nothing to happen.

“By the end of the budget year work had barely started on a number of our initiatives and we had to work to get the funding rolled over to the next financial year. Some officials spent time and money doing scoping documents for the work rather than the work itself. The most successful have been the projects where the money goes to groups outside the civil service like the environment centres and legal aid, though even these took many months to set up and get running.

”Least successful have been the policy development initiatives for which there is still little to see.”

Fitzsimons rightly says the Greens have made a mark in Parliament, but even she questions whether the party has made a difference: “The list of concrete practical changes to improve outcomes for people or the environment is really quite short. We have got agreement to a lot of processes (enquiries, reviews, working parties, Royal Commission, consultation) but not many outcomes. As you might expect, there are very severe limitations on trying to govern outside Government!”

It’s a paradox.

Why? because it does not want to govern. Let’s explain.

Fitzsimons said to the Christchurch - Ecopolitics Conference on November 30 2001 with National distancing itself from its extreme right position with ACT, migrating to the more “commonsense” position in the centre, Labour’s strategy has been to block National’s walkabout, by consolidating Labour’s hold on the political centre ground with policies designed to make National appear insignificant. Fitzsimons says the result is the two main parties in Parliament have become indistinguishable.

Labour’s strategy mirrors exactly what the Greens have been doing to the Alliance - eroding the Alliance’s centre-left position on societal policies outside of the Green mandate. The Greens want numbers in Parliament. Clearly it believes to get them it needs to annihilate the Alliance. The Alliance, shackled by Cabinet Collective Responsibility is almost defenceless. If the Greens are successful, it opens up a raft of scenarios as a tempestuous left party, the Alliance, collapses. History shows the right is quick to seize such an opportunity. Already, National has been lobbying sympathetic journalists with the idea of a “Grand Coalition” between it and Labour. Such talk convinces the left that Labour is closer to the Tory fold. While the left rumbles away at each other, the consequences provide National a foot in the door, and as the Australian experience shows that’s all that’s required to deliver the Tories an election victory on a plate.

But the bigger picture is not in the Green scheme. Fitzsimons is adamant, Labour’s strategy has left National no room to differentiate themselves – “on the war, on suppression of civil rights, on genetic engineering, on continuing to put more motorways ahead of public transport.

“We are now left expressing ‘confidence’ in a Government that supports the bombing of the desperately poor; has declared its intention to embrace genetic engineering wholeheartedly as a key part of its economic strategy with just a two year delay; proposes anti-terrorism laws that contravene basic civil rights; is intent on free trade agreements with no safeguards for New Zealand jobs; and has done almost nothing to reduce poverty or invest in tertiary education. It is becoming a serious threat to our self-respect,” Fitzsimons says.

That is the most succinct statement by a Green MP on the Party’s late-term view of what it supports as a Government. Clearly they hate it.

Are the Greens happy to allow a National led government to return to power? Is it happy to see income related rents for state house tenants chucked out in favour of market rents? Bulk funding returned to education centres? The competitive model returned to hospitals, schools, law and order, welfare, and implemented for travelling on roads? If the Greens want to become “The” centre-left party at the expense of the Alliance and the left-factions of Labour, then perhaps it ought to canvass those living within the lower-socio-economic expanses. It might get a few surprises.

What to do? Fitzsimons says: “There is, of course, a third option and that is to remain an independent, non-aligned force in Parliament, giving formal confidence to no one, voting for legislation on its merits and supporting the budget of the party that seems the lesser evil.”

And who would that be? That question remains unanswered.

Is it a coincidence that National Party leader, Bill English, has announced he wants to establish nine new Marine Reserves to honour Sir Peter Blake? Wink wink.

Here’s a scenario: later this year, if a sizable slice of vote goes from the Alliance to the Greens then the delicacy of election night proportions may leave Labour trailing alone slightly behind a National/ACT/New Zealand First block – a block with inherent positioning problems itself, but the possibility exists for a rightwing return. Would the Greens like the beast they helped create?

Here’s another: Labour’s hope, should the Alliance vote collapse, would be for it to gain those votes to span from right of the political centre-mark, carving into National’s vote, and broad-marking across to the far left. That would leave left-factionalised squabbling within caucus and Labour on the Treasury Benches. No room for the Greens and certainly no advantage for the party that carries the environmental mandate in its pocket.

Surely the Greens, a party that holds an ideal spanning the left-right political spectrum, could do much to establish an allied pact with other political parties closely aligned and receptive to its “ideal”. If this includes the two parties that make up the current coalition government then surely the Greens could advance a “Green Cabinet in Waiting” strategy. That would likely carve a reasonable slice from the hide of National – that is if National is its true political opponent.

The Greens are a young party evolving in a competitive market. But it is worrying that it casts aside with clever argument and seeming irrelevance one’s expectation that its members make real change, environmentally.

Fitzsimons hits on this view: “If Green policies are to be implemented – and surely that must be a major reason for coming to Parliament at all – then at some stage Greens must form part of Government. The question is when that is appropriate and under what conditions.”

There are five conditions she says:
· Numbers in Parliament – “seven is too few and twenty is more than enough”
· A coalition agreement – “that nails down a few key policies and timeframes in a form that cannot be weaselled out of and gives us the portfolios and resources to implement them”
· Agreement in the party – “on what these should be, and understanding that we will lose many other arguments in the Cabinet”
· Ability to differentiate our position from the coalition partner – “This change to the Cabinet manual was negotiated by the Alliance but has hardly been used and needs to be expanded”
· Be actively involved with significant movements in the community – “for mutual support on the issues we and they are trying to progress”.

Fitzsimons says: “It may happen next year [2002 this election year] or it may not happen in my lifetime, but it will happen.”

It’s a disappointment, from an environmental point of view, that the Greens fondle the idea of governance but shy away from any commitment to govern. In this regard it clearly has placed its chance to influence Executive Government policy from within Cabinet in the too hard basket – fearful that should it do so, it will become the latest casualty of small-coalition-partner demise.

Again, surely this is nothing short of political cowardice. Surely the purpose of any political party is to one day become at the very least a part of government. Yes there are risks, like being exposed publicly to scrutiny in a way opposition parties never do, and being voted down in Cabinet and being held to Cabinet collective responsibility. But to deny itself the opportunity to make change, denies itself the purpose of a party’s existence. Surely.

For the democratic equation to be accurate, the Greens must clearly state whether it is a serious Parliamentary party determined to be part of a government. Come on, wake up and smell the estuary.

To settle for less is a disgrace.

© Scoop Media

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