There is an op-ed in the Herald about the Greens this morning, which re-runs the tired argument that we should only talk about environmental stuff – we should leave everything else well enough alone. If we did this, and became a “centrist” Green party – which didn’t talk about social or moral issues – then we would be more popular. Why? Well, because everyone loves the environment.
The op-ed is by Daniel Batten, the chief executive of Auckland-based bioinformatics company Biomatters. It raises a number of interesting points worth responding to. The op-ed isn’t online, so I’ll reproduce the points I want to rebut below.
1. Why does the Green Party require that you also swallow the red social-engineering pill and the multi-coloured hallucinogenic pill? Would it not be better served by avoiding matters unrelated to the environment, and redefining itself as a party with a distinct focus: its raison d’etre, sustainability and the environment? By only identifying with left-wing economics, does the Green Party not substantially reduce its political influence in the New Zealand MMP environment by discouraging a large pool of environmentally concerned people who are economically right of centre from voting Green? Why on Earth are they saying anything about matters that do not relate to the environment?
There are several answers to these questions. In no particular order, they are as follows.
First: we are human beings, not environmental automatons who see ‘preserving the natural environment’ as the one and only goal of society. To say that the Greens should only talk about preserving the natural environment is to say that Green politicians and members should ignore wider society, and shut up when asked what they believe about it.
Second: everything is interconnected. Almost all of the policies that see the Greens written off as far left have as one of their goals the long-term preservation of our natural environment so that humanity can survive, and thrive, for generations. Our trade policy? Well, arguing for greater economic self-reliance is to argue that it makes little environmental sense to move goods around the world – at great cost to world’s CO2 emission levels – when more people could buy more of their stuff locally. That’s a simple environmental argument: buying local means the same amount of goods don’t have to be moved, which means you don’t have to burn as much unrenewable (and environmentally destructive) fuel to move them. Our view of international relations? Well, it’s based on the idea that war is the most environmentally destructive phenomenon that humanity has unleashed on this planet. If every state in the world pursued a foreign policy based on pacific resolution of disputes, on the principle of non-violence, then our natural environment would be in a much better state than it is now. Our health policy? Well, it’s premised on the idea that trying to prevent illness before they occur will lead to greater human wellbeing which, in turn, will put less of a strain on the planet’s resources. When many of our people are sick, there’s a greater incentive to rape and pillage the environment in order to provide them short-term comfort. I could do this for all Green policies.
Third: a great contributor to the Greens’ success – if you look at all the available polling and research – is its holistic view of the world which promotes ecological sustainability, social justice, non-violence, and appropriate decision-making. The Greens have a strong brand, which informs the great many issues we speak about. Those people who do vote for us do so for myriad reasons, and come to us because of our positions on all sorts of issues – there are the students who like the tertiary education policy; there are the human rights acolytes who like our strong stand against the state’s intrusions on civil liberties and our staunch opposition to war; there are the bike-to-workers who like our transport policy; there are the worried parents who like our campaigning for safe food; there are farmers who are support our advocacy of organics; there are young people who like a political party that uses a different kind of language to conventional political parties; etc. For every issue the Greens stay silent on, another part of the party’s support base will be peeled off.
2. What have they actually achieved since their entry in Parliament?
Well, we’ve achieved a great many things. Go and have a look at this page. Many of these things are not sexy, and do not get media coverage – but they are worthy accomplishments, which have done great environmental and social good for our country.
3. Have they successfully communicated to the public that global oil production has peaked? Are we better informed about global climate change? No – but we do know that Nandor rides a skateboard and Keith Locke likes body paint.
Well, the peak oil issue is an interesting one, because it is an issue that the Greens have been spectacularly successful in raising in the public consciousness. When Jeanette first asked Michael Cullen about peak oil last year, he didn’t know what it was. Now politicians across the political spectrum, the mainstream media, and the public are all coming to grips with the idea. Jeanette delivered a very eloquent “State of the Planet” speech in January, which led to a slew of features and editorials in the mainstream media about the issue of the end of cheap oil. Of all issues over the past few years, the end of cheap oil is the one which the Greens have had the most success in raising awareness.
However, partly the issue here is what the media are interested in talking about. In almost all cases, the media prefers the frivolous and the scandalous to the substantive and the policy-based. So, what people will remember about the Greens’ 2005 campaign will be the Exclusive Brethren smear and Keith‘s Newmarket walk because they are the things that got the greatest amount of media coverage.
However, they were absolutely not the issues that the Greens campaigned hard on. For example, we released some stellar policy documents – have a look at our toolbox to tackle the end of cheap oil, our Auckland and Wellington transport plans, and our energy policy. All of these were important policy releases on core, environmental issues. But they got next to no media coverage. Why? Well, because in a tight, two horse race, the third parties only got a look in when silly things happened: Winston’s bashing of Bob the Builder and Act’s dodgy billboard. However, we diligently tried to communicate with the voters directly on these issues, bypassing the media lens. Countless public screenings of two documentaries – one on peak oil, one on safe food – were held around the country, with impressive audiences turning up to hear about these issues. The Auckland and Wellington transport plans were distributed to houses around our two largest cities. Our campaign literature focused squarely on what one would probably call core, environmental issues: transport, energy, conservation, the end of cheap oil, safe food. The only campaign plank that didn’t fall under this rubric was our ‘fairer society’ platform.
4. Most New Zealanders were against native forest logging, most were against genetically modified food and most New Zealanders say the environment gives us our distinctive sense of identity, yet the Greens have almost no representation of the people who make up this majority. Where is the business community within the Green Party? The urban professionals? Or farmers? … There is a large community of people with a green agenda who are not catered for by any political party.
Well, first of all, the Green Party does have a diverse range of members, including farmers, businesspeople, and urban professionals. Have a look at our caucus, for starters: Jeanette is a farmer and business owner; Rod has set up and run various businesses since a young age; Sue K, Keith and Metiria can be described in their education and activities before Parliament as ‘urban professionals’. The question about where our ‘urban professionals’ are is particularly weird, because our support is greatest among urban professionals. Take a look at our best electorates in this year’s election, and you’ll find they’re basically a roll call of urban, highly-educated electorates: Wellington Central (15.7%), Auckland Central (13.1%), Rongotai (12.2%), Dunedin North (10.4), Banks Peninsula (10.2%), Christchurch Central (9.5%), and Mt Albert (8.9%). The next tranche could be described as environmentally conscious provincial/rural electorates: West Coast Tasman (8.5%), Nelson (7.3%), and Coromandel (7.2%).
The other mistake the author makes is in assuming that someone caring about something automatically means that they’ll vote on that basis. Yes, the vast majority of Kiwis care about the environment. Yes, the vast majority of Kiwis would probably like our environmental policies. However, that doesn’t mean that their votes will be determined by environmental issues.
There are two separate questions. Do you care about West Coast logging and climate change and peak oil and safe food? Will how you vote be determined by these issues? Many more people will answer yes to the first than to the second. You may care about the environment – but how much do you care? Is it a vote-determining thing? And that’s one of the many dangers with restricting the Greens to what many people call “core environmental issues”. In so doing, you may carve out a niche that doesn’t attract more than – say – 2 or 3% or New Zealanders.
5. A perfect example of how the party marginalises itself is its stance on the decriminalisation of marijuana. What does this have to do with Green politics or saving the environment? Nothing. Then why have an opinion on it, particularly if it is an opinion that distracts people from core environmental issues and is not a mainstream political view?
Well, because we believe it to be the right policy. The Greens are fundamentally a socially libertarian party – believing that if a crime is victimless, it shouldn’t be a crime. So, while the state should be very concerned about young people smoking cannabis, about the criminality associated with gangs’ drug dealing, and the health effects of particular addictions, it should not criminalise adults who choose to smoke cannabis. Now, given this belief among the caucus and the membership, two courses are possible. First: stick up for and defend the policy, and try to convince Parliament to take steps in the right direction. Second: ditch the policy for political expediency, and lie about the Green Party’s true beliefs. The second path is simply not credible for a self-respecting political party.
6. It needs to promote a new definition of family values that emphasises the hypocrisy of all socially conservative parties that promote (so-called) family values, while pursuing greed-based, shortsighted policies that guarantee that our children will inhabit a world worse than us.
Well, there have been previous attempts to come up with “centrist”/more socially conservative Green movements in New Zealand. Two such parties stood for the 1996 election: the Green Society and the Progressives Greens. They got 0.37% of the vote between them. National has had a green faction – the Blue Greens – but its views have been crushed in that party’s politically expedient moves to ditch Kyoto and the carbon tax, and to decrease petrol tax. Perhaps the reason that environmentalism and right-wing economics don’t mix is that the first opposes greed as being environmentally unsustainable while the second deifies greed as the solution to all humanity’s problems. Indeed, when environmental organisations run a ruler over parties’ environmental policies, it’s the New Right ones that invariably do the worst.
7. The Green Party remains the only party that is thinking about the sort of world our children will inherit – both major parties pay lip service to this while offering voters instant gratification. It is for this reason that the Green Party needs to do a better job of focusing on why it exists, and a better job of widening its support base.
Well, I agree with all of this, except that we probably have different views on what “widening its support base” means. Certainly, I’d like to see the Greens’ support widen from 5% to double-digits over the next few election cycles. In any case, a debate about the positioning and the future of a political party is always healthy and, as always, I’d welcome your feedback on where you think the Greens should be heading…