The political press has come a long way since 2005. When Rod Donald passed away it seemed that, for the media at least, the only good Green was a dead one. Overnight he went from being naive and dangerous to an astute political strategist, without whom the Green Party was finished. The inconvenient healthiness of the party has been a warning to tea leaf readers ever since.
So it was good to see a more circumspect reaction to the resignation of Jeanette Fitzsimons as Green co-leader. Speculation has turned, not to the demise of the party, but to its next steps. In choosing between Sue Bradford and Metiria Turei the party has an important strategic decision to make. Members know that the party's fortunes do not rest on one person alone, but that the wrong choice of successor would be most unfortunate.
It is a good time to be choosing. Jeanette's announcement may have been hastened by an inconvenient leak to the Sunday Star Times, but it's clear that she had been planning for some time to announce her resignation around now. It leaves plenty of room for a good leadership contest, with time to mop up any fall-out before the next election.
The challenges before the new co-leader will be considerable. The contest itself will be long and hard. Green leaders are chosen by the membership rather than, as in most parties, by just the MP's, but it is a delegated vote. This means that the sympathies of branch office holders, as well as the broader membership, are crucial in a tight contest.
The challenges once they become leader will be greater. Jeanette is widely respected and highly regarded, with a strong appeal among both fiery militants and cautious reformers. She brought intellectual weight to the Greens, with solid hard work along with the ability to be quick on her feet.
But the Greens don't need just more of the same. Jeanette and Rod Donald were in many ways a perfect match. Rod: the brilliant tactician and media fiend,, the team builder, the warm and charismatic attractor. Jeanette: the strategist, the intellectual steel, colder and more formidable. Since Rods death that balance has not been found. The question is not so much who can fill Jeanette's shoes, as who can do the best three legged race with the smart but brash Russel Norman. Someone strategic rather than tactical, but warm and charismatic, an attractor and uniter.
There are two things that the Greens need to do to become powerful rather than just necessary. The first is to build a team. The Green MP's have proven to be effective campaigners in their separate areas, but struggle for a coherent message. Ask anyone what they stand for, and the reply (once you get beyond “the environment”) is liable to be a grab bag of discrete issues rather than a clear philosophical position. A co-leader who can pull the threads together rather than just fight their corner could unlock enormous synergy.
The second thing needed is to describe a distinctly Green political space to attract a new generation of environmentally minded unaligned voters. Until the Greens redefine the main political divide, away from 'Capital / Labour' to 'Sustainable / Unsustainable', they will always be fighting on someone else's ground. There are few votes to be found left of Labour, as the Alliance found out, and even those will mostly disappear when Labour in opposition seeks to claim them back.
The strategic direction of the Greens over the next decade will determine whether the last election result was a spring tide or a symptom of their sea level rising. In that sense, this co-leadership contest is crucial.
(printed Waikato Times 27/2/09)