Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Whither Labour ? Wither the Greens?

The long expected resignation of the Greens female co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons brings to an end an extraordinary chapter in New Zealand's political history. For Jeanette and the late Rod Donald were two of the most effective political leaders this country has ever seen.

Both were children of the Values Party which itself was a political expression of 60s idealism, an idealism somewhat out of place in short-back-and-sides New Zealand. The Values Party might have remained a curiousity in the margins of New Zealand politics had it not been for the efforts of one man: Robert Muldoon.

Robert Muldoon was a conservative and a bully but he was also capable of extreme brinkmanship. His election victory in 1980 relied on a razor-thin single seat margin. The fact that National had contrived to gerrymander the electoral boundarys such that it held power but not the support of the majority of New Zealand electors incensed left-of-centre voters when the new Prime Minister continued to embark on divisive policies - such as the Springbok Rugby Tour of 1981.

Muldoon's defeat at the hands of property magnate and political stirrer Robert Jones, whose short lived New Zealand Party split National's vote and assured a Labour landslide, put in motion the wheels of reform in almost every part of New Zealanders lives. Perhaps because most of the Labour 'reforms' were not Labour policy but New Zealand Party policy the disillusionment of New Zealanders with their political system increased even further during the 1980s.

It was in this environment that Rod Donald, acting as a Values Sleeper, began a campaign to introduce proportional representation and it is to the credit of the broadminded National Prime Minister Jim Bolger that this campaign was allowed to proceed to a referendum which selected a Mixed Member Proportional representation system for the New Zealand parliament. Now the stage was set for a Values come back.

After a brief accomodation with Jim Anderton's my-way-or-the-highway Alliance, the Greens finally got their party into gear and pulled away from their former ally to establish themselves as the most powerful left of centre political organisation with Rod and Jeanette in the van. Aided by "non-Governmental Organisations" as "backing vocals" the Greens quickly achieved significant mindshare among former Values supporters, 60s types, rebels, drop-outs and students. It was enough and the Party has repeatedly shown that it can run political campaigns of extraordinary effectiveness based on 'feel good' non-specific platforms.

The Greens reached the zenith of their power when they entered into Confidence and Supply arrangements with Helen Clark's Labour Government of 99-08. Operately obliquely, deftly and discreetly and despite the shock death of Donald in 2005 Jeanette Fitzsimons gradually weaned the Labour Party from a policy of pursuing economic growth (as the country was registering high growth due to property inflation) to one of winning the race to achieve sustainability before other nations. It was, if you like, a case of Values as supreme puppet master to the Labour Party.

Fitzsimons was able to achieve policy wins in energy, energy conservation and transport policy beyond the wildest dreams of a Party with less than 7 percent of the vote. It was achieved by maximising use of subtley placed targets, leveraging off obscure local government organisations, and seizing the policy initiative. Like a brilliant general she bypassed and cut-off opposition rather than battled through it. While she was exchanging barbs with Labour's finance spokesman she had the Prime Minister Helen Clark, energy Minister David Parker and various others eating out of her hand.

And yet the fundamental problem with Fitzsimons success is that it was, and has always been intensely anti-democratic. For Fitzsimons is, and always has been, a zealot. Her entire political career has been built around the mission to reduce energy intensity. Peak oil, climate change true or not have all been stepping stones. Jeanette stands for reducing energy intensity because she deeply believes it is the right thing to do.

The problem is the rest of New Zealand does not. Like Americans and Australians, New Zealanders love big cars, boats, air travel, long hot showers, spa pools and generally indulging their egos with energy. National Conservation Minister Nick Smith was able to score an important 08 election campaign win against the Clark Government by citing Green regulations which would limit the flow rate of New Zealand showers. The frustration New Zealanders felt during the 08 oil price spike was palpable and someone was going to pay for it.

Labour got the serve in November 08. Helen Clark stepped down and was replaced by the traditional hero Minister (trade negotiations) role which was occupied by Phil Goff. The Greens ran an excellent campaign playing to their strengths and despite a mighty swing of the pendulum to the right came back to Parliament in relatively good shape.

The problem is, with the departure of Helen Clark and Jeanette Fitzsimons, both the Labour and Green Parties are dead men walking. Winston Peter's New Zealand First is simply dead and buried.

Labour is carrying on like a zombie that doesn't know it's been blasted with a shotgun. It attacks National in the house as if it had nothing to do with the last nine years in power. Its as if Phil Goff was out of the building when Labour made all the decisions that cost it power and nobody wants to tell him what was happening. Top marks for confidence. Zero marks for self awareness. There are no signs that Labour has learned a thing from its massive election defeat and while that remains true it has almost zero chance of ever making a comeback.

The fundamental problem is that Labour is breaking up. Its connections between its trade union roots, its trendy gay political wing, and its student environmental wing are tenuous to say the least. The old guard of former Ministers are experienced liabilities who remind the electorate only of past arrogances and there is no sign of any contrition or humility. The Party is a shell and it would not surprise me in the least if it exploded or a complete new broom took it over.

By contrast the Greens are strong organisationally but have weak leadership. Russell Norman who only came to New Zealand in 1997 and who has spent most of his life doing odd-jobs clearly has political acumen, having wormed his way up from political secretary to the current Ministers to Party leader, but he does not have the kind of vision or strength of a Donald or a Fitzsimons. Indeed he comes across as an Aussie whinger.

This is not the time to be without vision. Fitzsimons demonstrated great vision but her sly inveigling pissed people off. It demonstrated the danger of the Greens in having strong ideals but little practicality. Like Pacifists after World War One it is impossible to argue against the ideals of disarmament but the issue is practicalities. Russell and his new co-leader need to show a strong grip on practicality which his on-going attacks on New Zealand's main export earner (the dairy industry) with an Australian accent does not suggest.

This next three years is an important one for both parties. Labour needs to rally back around its core values of workers rights and employment. The Greens need to demonstrate that they can be trusted to do more than protest. In fact the Greens are engaged in a battle of survival against Labour. The Greens problem is that in these straightened times the Environment loses its importance. People want to keep their jobs. Labours job is to fight for the poor and that isn't easy to do when all your staff are guppies. In times of financial crisis the public has no time for smart-arses. Both parties need to get noses to grindstone because National's leader John Key is doing a suspiciously good impression of that master of concensus Jim Bolger - and nobody outside National ever beat him.

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