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The Greens are Growing - Rod Donald Speech

The Greens are growing

Rod Donald MP, Green Party Co-Leader

Address to 2000 Party Conference, Turangi

10.30am 3 June 2000

When we met one year ago the election was only six months away. We had selected fewer than 25 candidates, mostly from the South Island; we had no money in the national coffers and very little in electorate kitties; we had under 1,500 members, two not quite fully fledged MPs and a small parliamentary staff, a national office run in a spare bedroom by a part-time administrator, and a one percent poll rating.

Today we have five more members of parliament, still no money in the national coffers - but only $5,000 of our election debt remaining, a massive increase in membership to 2,500, a Wellington parliamentary staff of 16, ten parliamentary offices covering the country and eight full-time equivalent staff to service them, the backing of 106,000 party voters nationwide, the Coromandel electorate seat and a poll rating of five to seven percent.

Congratulations to each and every one of you for your role in that victory! I hope we will take the time to celebrate our success amongst the hard work and debate at this conference. And thank you to the voters who believed we were worthy of their support - we are doing our best to earn it!

I would also like to thank our five new MPs. It's great to be part of a team in parliament, especially a team of such outstanding people who are all performing extraordinarily well. You wouldn't believe what a relief it is to share around some of the responsibilities that Jeanette and I had to carry between us. It's also invigorating to see so many new faces involved at the local level since the election. I often say that our MPs are a team of leaders and that statement applies equally to every person at this conference.

We've got a hard weekend ahead of us with lots to do, but never lose sight of the extraordinary victory we achieved last year. It wasn't just a victory for the Green Party and New Zealanders. It was a victory for Green politics globally. Our success has inspired Green parties and Green activists in other parts of the planet, in the same way that successes in Europe, Australia and elsewhere have inspired us in the past. The thin green line around the planet that Australian Senator Bob Brown spoke of at our conference several years ago has become measurably thicker.

The week we spent in the wilderness between the election and the final result coming through certainly reminded me of how difficult our task would be without parliamentary representation. While we made the most of our temporary hiatus by launching a very successful membership drive - which yielded over 340 members by Christmas - that would have been no substitute for a parliamentary presence, let alone the opportunities we now have through co-operation with the minority Coalition Government. Contemplating the future without MPs also caused me to reflect on all the things we should have done better in the campaign - things we must get right next time.

To some extent the election victory was the easy part. Each of us knows how much work we contributed to that success, but I for one would have to say that the challenge ahead of us is at least as great as the one we faced this time last year. Then we had nothing to lose and everything to gain, the media and pundits had written us off as "political compost" - only we knew that good compost grows the best greens! Now we have to prove ourselves. Not just so we can get re-elected and in greater numbers, but to demonstrate that we are making a tangible positive difference to the direction our country, and the planet, are taking.

While at the outset Labour and the Alliance clearly didn't want us in parliament, they are getting used to us - more so Labour than the Alliance - and the role that we play. So too are the opposition parties, the media, and the public. While we've made mistakes, and I'm sure we will continue to do so, I know there is enormous public goodwill and respect towards the independent role that we play. I believe the media understand our determination to be constructive despite, perhaps even because of, a rocky period in February. (Labour decided we were getting too big for our boots - perhaps because of the string of magazine cover stories we were getting at the time - so they publicly tried to put us in our place over three issues - our revelation of a possible government backdown on the GE Royal Commission being the most significant. The media bought their line at the time but in the end we were proved right.) Even National's cries that we are a lap-dog of the Government are becoming more muted as we have opposed urgency where there is no good reason to support it, and have even voted for National bills and amendments which had merit.

Our relationship with the two Government parties is fascinating to say the least. Tentative before Christmas, it is developing into a constructive relationship by and large. The parameters are defined by a protocol between the Government and the Green caucus which was agreed to in concept before Christmas, and even enshrined in the Speech from the Throne, but is yet to be finalised and signed off. Essentially in return for our support on confidence and supply the Government has agreed to co-operate and consult with us.

Finalising the details of how that should happen has been frustratingly slow. It has emerged in recent weeks that this has as much to do with the uncooperative stance of the Alliance as it has with particular sticking points. While I am not about to release the protocol before it is agreed to I would like to make it clear that I feel we have been very accommodating throughout the negotiation. More importantly, we have worked hard to enact the spirit of protocol in our day-to-day dealings with the Government. I don't believe our goodwill has always been reciprocated but most Labour and some Alliance Ministers are learning the value of consulting with us at an early stage on each initiative. At leadership level we have a very good relationship with Labour. A positive relationship with the Alliance would also be beneficial, to both parties. On a number of key policy areas the Greens are closer to the Alliance than the Alliance is to Labour. Co-operating in common cause could gain us more leverage with the senior Government partner.

This last week is a good example. It would appear that Labour have panicked in the face of a drop in business confidence. The drop in confidence has more to do with the dropping dollar and rising interest rates than the employment relations bill, youth rate and paid parental leave but National have spun their anti-government message for all they are worth and Labour has counter-spun that it will slow down the rate of reform. Our message to the government is "remain staunch. After nine years of National voters cried out for 'pro-people' policies when they changed the government last year. Don't disappoint them. And good businesses should have nothing to fear. The government's policies aren't anti-business but recognise that business profits should never be at the expense of employee, community and environmental wellbeing. We endorse that stand and look forward to supporting legislation which ends corporate welfare and rebuilds a more equitable society in New Zealand.

I believe it is in the best interests of Labour, the Alliance and the Greens to build relationships which are co-operative and based on trust, while recognising that we are also competitors for public support. Under MMP it is highly unlikely that any one party will win a majority of the votes and therefore a majority of the seats. Therefore Labour (and National) need to ensure the survival of parties they can rely on in order to govern. That means allowing the smaller parties they depend on to be able to claim some success for government achievements, while also allowing those parties to stand apart where there are significant policy differences.

We are in the very fortunate position of not having submerged ourselves into the Government. I would like to acknowledge all those people who lobbied hard before the election against going into Coalition. In the end we didn't have the choice but I accept that for the time being they are right, and I was wrong. However I would like to make it clear my belief that our current role is a transitional one. I look forward to the Green Party playing a formal role in a future Coalition Government, where we will have MPs at the Cabinet table, advocating our vision of a just sustainable world and implementing our programmes in their portfolios.

We have this parliamentary term to find our feet and gain the experience to take on that responsibility. I certainly want our team to have the opportunity to get our hands on the ball rather than simply offering advice from the sideline.

While our opportunities to contribute to the nation's direction are infinitely larger than they were when National was in government, our influence over the ship of state is small. That does not to take away from our successes and there have been many worthy of note. Jeanette will outline these in some detail but I would like to highlight the most significant one - Jeanette's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Bill - the first Green Act of this parliament. Its tortuous passage and eventual enactment is a tribute to Jeanette's determined negotiating skills, perseverance under pressure and commitment to the issue.

I hope I can achieve an equally positive outcome with my bill on the STV voting system for local bodies which was drawn in the member's ballot last week. STV is to local elections what MMP has been to parliamentary elections. Under the current first past the post system we have struggled for representation, despite strong support in many parts of the country. STV ensures fairer representation for all significant groups whether ethnic, geographic or philosophic. I am confident the number of Greens on local bodies, which currently stands at around 30, will increase once STV is introduced.

Despite our gains I still can't help but feel that we are captive on a super tanker heading for the rocks and only a radical change in direction will stop us from a rush to destruction.

The big issues of the planet remain undebated. The big challenges are not being tackled: the negative impacts of economic growth, the increasing inequality within and between countries, the growing power of corporations at the expense of democracy. What is the role of an elected Government? Is it to protect its people and enhance their wellbeing or is it to cede that responsibility to the marketplace where corporations rule and profits take precedence over equity and sustainability?

Governments have always understood the importance of national identity. New Zealand has historically expressed it through our celebration of sporting success. This Government is trying to foster that same sense of nationhood through arts and culture. While that is laudable it is equally symbolic rather than substantial. I want us to celebrate the people who work in factories and on farms as much as our sporting heroes. I want us to recognise the contribution skilled manual workers have made and could make to our economy and our society if only they were given half the chance. I want the Government to put as many resources into a Buy New Zealand Made campaign as it puts into its Uniquely New Zealand arts package, or its export and tourism promotion packages.

The new Government continues to be dazzled by the globalisation agenda. Despite all the empirical evidence pointing to the failure of free-trade, Jim Sutton and even Helen Clark wing their way around the world trying to cut new trade and investment deals with countries with which we can't compete fairly because of their poor employment conditions and environmental standards. When will they accept that after Seattle the WTO's agenda is on the rocks. People's movements, having given up on their governments to defend their rights, demonstrated the power of direct action and will increasing do so until governments come to their senses.

For the record - I know I have made this issue a conference perennial - New Zealand's latest trade figures show a deficit of 3.5 billion for the year to April. When the May figures come out we will have "achieved" six consecutive annual trade deficits. The free-trade zealots refuse to face up to the fact that the more we open our borders to imports, the larger our deficit grows, despite the best efforts of exporters to keep up with our insatiable demand for imports.

The consequences are wide-ranging. The Industrial Supplies Office of the Ministry of Economic Development have just updated their calculations which show that for every million dollars of unnecessary imports we lose 15.7 jobs, pay out $159,000 dollars in welfare payments, lose $118,000 dollars of taxation revenue, and reduce spending power by over a quarter of a million dollars.

Yet government policies allow importers of sweatshop goods to compete unfairly with New Zealand manufacturers, and exporters from developed countries like Australia get far more government support than our domestic producers.

We have the antidote to globalisation - it's our Buy Local Campaign and it continues to appeal across the board because it is plain common sense. The free trade versus fair trade struggle gives us the opportunity to practice what we preach. At the same time that we join with the world-wide movement of environmentalists, unionists, activists, etc to challenge the growing power of global corporations, we can also be building the sustainable alternative at the grass roots.

And it's grass roots action which distinguishes the Green party from traditional political parties. We are much more than a parliamentary party, we are a social change movement.

Community action is what we do best. We will continue to build our credibility by putting our policies into practice whether it's buy local, waste reduction, public transport, or organic food. We also have to set our sights firmly on the next election. Our success last year was due far too much to lucky breaks and our "freshness" on the political landscape. We can't trust to luck next time and we may not be perceived as the fresh choice for those unhappy with the establishment parties.

Proving our worth in parliament and raising our profile in the community will all help to get us re-elected in greater numbers, but party members need to get on with the core business of party politics. I am talking about fundraising and finding high calibre candidates in particular. At last year's conference I said in my speech "We have a plan. It's breathtakingly simple - Jeanette will win the Coromandel and every other candidate will campaign for the party vote to push us over the 5% threshold." Well, it worked and you'll be pleased to know that we have a new plan for the next election which we can debate at this afternoon's strategy session.

The other key area we need to devote more attention to is policy. Our unique role in relation to the minority government adds an extra dimension to policy development. We not only need to put together a cohesive policy platform for the next election. We also have the opportunity to significantly influence the government's programme and budget right now. So instead of working on policy in isolation, we can focus some attention on shifting existing policy programmes and expenditure towards our goals. That's a much harder task than what we are used to. It involves more negotiation and compromise but it also delivers rewards in the short term. And that is after all surely why we are in politics; to make the world a better place, not only in the future, but also right now.

And for those of us who want to act local please start work on next year's council elections. Many important decisions are made at regional and territorial government level and the opportunities for Greens to have a positive influence are only limited by our imagination and determination. I hope the experiences of successful councillors such as Joel Cayford, who is speaking on Monday, will inspire more people to take the plunge and stand for their local council or community board next year

There is no shortage of challenges for the Greens. We have more opportunities than ever before to realise our vision. The question, as always, is do we have the will?

We are the party of the new millennium. I believe we have already established ourselves as the third force in this parliament and we have the potential to become the third largest party at the next election. Believe we can do it and we will!

ENDS

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