1 Aug 2022

The Green Party's philosophical tug-of-war

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 1 August 2022

Tackling the Green Party's leadership debacle and delving into the Party brand.

James Shaw

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

To do what is right? Or to accept what is achievable?

To agitate from the impotence of the Opposition benches? Or to compromise your principles, swallow some dead rats, and dip your toes into the muddy waters of power?

Such philosophical musings might seem indulgent – maybe unhelpfully cerebral – in the cut-throat world of politics.

But they've been brought to the fore by ructions which emerged in the Green Party over the past couple of weeks.

On today's episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan sits down with NZ Herald senior political reporter Thomas Coughlan and former Green MP Kevin Hague – who was defeated in the party leadership race by James Shaw in 2015 – to discuss the turbulence within the party; whether the party's priorities have shifted too far from their environmentalist roots, and navigating the difficult compromises of being a minor partner in government.

The ousting

Every year at its AGM, Green Party delegates vote on whether or not to reappoint their co-leaders.

In order to be reappointed, candidates have to win more than 75 percent of delegates' votes.

This year, 32 of the 107 delegates – led by separate movements in the Young Greens and Green Left networks – voted to vacate Shaw’s position, meaning he will have to run for the co-leader spot against any contenders who chose to put their names forward in a vote which will take place some time in the next four weeks. So far, nobody has indicated they will contest the leadership.

While the Greens hold two ministerial portfolios – Shaw is the climate change minister and co-leader Marama Davidson is the minister for family and sexual violence – concerns have persisted for years that Shaw's brand of politics is too moderate and conciliatory.

"James is a good person for the Labour Party because he's ... taking small steps with them," said former Green MP Catherine Delahunty.

Sitting Green MPs echoed those sentiments, with Dr Elizabeth Kerekere telling 1News "James Shaw is obviously on the more moderate side of our membership. People like myself and Teanau (Tuiono) more on the activist side of the membership."

Green MP Teanau Tuiono on the Justice Committee

Green MP Teanau Tuiono also ruled out a run for the co-leadership. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

However, others – including the prime minister Jacinda Ardern, National leader Christopher Luxon, and Shaw's allies within the party – leapt to his defence, saying his accomplishments were being undervalued, that there was merit in winning consensus to ensure policies had a better chance of long-term survival, and that the only way for the Greens to effect real change was through compromise.

The tension

In a nutshell: the Greens are a party with activist roots, and a strong activist presence among its members and delegates. Many believe the incremental, consensus-based approach the Green Party has taken to its ministerial portfolios is at odds with the urgency those matters demand. 

Coughlan says the paradox is that in a sense, Shaw's achievements as climate change minister are anything but moderate.

He spent months persuading the National Party to support the Zero Carbon Act, which passed in 2019. This cross-party support ensured the legislation will survive changes of government in the future, and established the independent Climate Change Commission.

"What is the current Green Party’s greatest success? It's that in 10 years' time, when – if you’re a betting person – the National Party will probably be in government, the governing piece of climate change legislation will be one that was written up by James Shaw. And that is a huge victory," says Coughlan.

Kevin Hague says the 2017-2020 coalition government indeed made big strides in the area of climate change, but he criticises the lack of follow-up.

"I think James himself said, in the last term we created the architecture for a proper response to climate change. In this term we need to use that architecture to deliver an emphatic response.

"I think the government, in this term, has so far completely failed to nail that emphatic response."

Another criticism of the Greens is that the party has strayed from its environmental roots, and focusses too much on what some disparagingly describe as 'culture war issues'.

But Coughlan says this is a misapprehension of what the party stands for.

"The fundamental Green Party world view ... is that environmentalism and climate change are social justice issues, because the climate crisis will hurt people who are already marginalised.

"I think people who believe that social justice is not part of a certain faction of the Green Party are wrong. Social justice is a part of every part of the Green Party. The idea that you could strip social justice out is ludicrous."

The future

Asked whether he thinks the future of the Greens will veer closer to the pragmatic James Shaw side of things, or the more activist mindsets of MPs like Elizabeth Kerekere, Coughlan elects for a third option: a healthy tension between the two.

"I think it's a strength, not a weakness.

"If you have a party stripped of activism, you don't have the Green Party anymore – but at the same  time, if you lose the James Shaw people with ministerial ambitions, you lose that direction."

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