Sue Bradford announced last week that she is leaving Parliament, citing disappointment at losing the co-leadership contest. It's an honest statement and she is to be admired for that. She did not add that she is unhappy at the direction the Green Party is headed, but there is no doubt that she would have steered a very different course from that intended by the current leadership. Perhaps she saw little place for herself in the new, unaligned, Green Party.
Sue was a sometimes controversial figure, but there is no doubt that she has played a key role in the early development of the Parliamentary Greens. She has also played an important role in Parliament, but that is all about to change. Despite her brave face, life after Parliament will be hard to adjust to. Once gone, she is unlikely to get any support from the Greens during this difficult transition, and I hope that her personal support system is strong. She will need it.
Her stated desire to get back to the grassroots is most welcome. The Green Party has often been criticised for sucking the energy out of the grassroots movement and expending it on getting people elected. Green MPs are useful to have in the House, but the Green Party does need to consider how it returns nutrients to the soil from whence it sprung. Shedding leaves from the top is one way of doing that. With her considerable knowledge base and extraordinary capacity for work, Sue will certainly build some humus in the community. I wish her well.
The question of where this leaves the Party is interesting. With both Sue and Jeanette stepping down early the Greens caucus will soon include David Clendon and Gareth Hughes. David is a small business advisor and works with the Sustainable Business Network. He has the potential to build much stronger links with small business and new business and this, as I have said before, is crucial to enlarging a uniquely Green constituency, one that is so poorly served, practically and ideologically, by both Labour and National.
Gareth is a young and creative climate change campaigner. He will strengthen important connections with the growing movement around climate change, especially its energetic and passionate youth activists. He will also bring experience with e-organising and campaigning methods that will help cement the Greens reputation as the most innovative and tech-savvy party political campaigners. The crucial issue will be whether the Green caucus is capable of supporting him well in an environment that is hostile to young people and innovative thinking. It will be a test of the co-leadership's ability to create a strong team that looks after its players, something the party has not really managed to achieve in the past.
Along with new MPs Kennedy Graham and Kevin Hague, David and Gareth signify a change in the Green Party's political orientation and flavour. The Old Left element of the party, once so influential, will be scarcely represented once Sue has left. Keith Locke, considered by many to be the archetypical communist, is actually nothing of the sort. While he is the oldest member of the Green caucus, his mental youthfulness and his sense of empathy have prevented him from becoming sufficiently doctrinaire. With this new influx, the Green Party is likely to become a more emphatically 'green-wing' party than has been possible in the past.
Does this mean that the Green Party will become less radical? I doubt it. The Green Party, for all its hype, has never been particularly radical. Sue has enjoyed a well deserved reputation for militancy, but this is hardly the same thing. Militancy is a strategic position. Radicalism is about the fundamental goals, and whether the solutions being offered address the root causes of the problems at hand. Sue Bradford is known and respected for her work around poverty, but her solutions have largely focussed on such things as benefit rises, workers rights and more state support for the community sector. These are worthy and important goals, but State munificence and higher wages cannot substitute for genuine social and ecological connectedness, nor for reducing resource consumption.
The departure that does threaten to deradicalise the Greens, in my view, is Jeanette Fitzsimons. Although she is not militant, she possesses a dangerous mind (dangerous, that is, to the status quo). She has spent considerable time thinking about what the fundamental causes of our ecological and social disintegration are, and the contradictions and difficulties we face in attempting to address them. Of course articulating this in public is a risky business for politicians and while Jeanette was not always effective at painting a broad green vision in the public mind, it always looked like she saw one. It may not be the role of a political party to advocate truly radical solutions, but unless the Greens continue to think about them they risk being shipwrecked on the shoals of immediacy.