Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Te Tai Tokerau by-election

I've always thought that calling the Te Tai Tokerau by-election was a mistake for Mana. Not because of the cost to the country, which is insignificant in the context of what it costs to have a democracy. I thought it was a mistake because of the costs to the party.

Firstly the Mana Party has few resources. While almost the entire Te Tai Tokerau section of the Maori Party seems to have gone straight over to Mana, its bank accounts probably didn't.

Even in terms of human energy, it is a big ask to expect party activists to run a by-election and then have to run the general election campaign straight after. Door-knocking, mailbox drops, stalls and billboards take a lot out of a branch.

Added to this, the Labour Party is free to give the by-election its undivided attention in a way that it could not do in a general election. Especially this one. While the Labour machine may not cut a lot of ice in Ahipara it has certainly made some headway in the southern, more urban end of the electorate. Getting those votes back takes a level of grunt that Mana may not have.

Perhaps most importantly, at this stage in its life Mana needs to be building its organisation, its membership, its policies and its processes, not getting itself bogged down in a skirmish in the North. At the Mana Party launch I challenged the party to avoid becoming the kind of political party that revolves around one man, by building a truly national organisation with strong collective leadership. That means Hone Harawira getting around the country, building branches, shoulder tapping candidates and organisers and inspiring people to get involved. It also means getting the principles and policies of the party clear.

It is by doing this that Mana has the potential to become a potent political force. My hope for years has been to see a third political space open up in New Zealand parliamentary politics, where a combination of small parties is able to challenge the duopoly of National and Labour. As a greenwing activist and commentator it seems obvious that the core of that third force would be the Greens, an independent Maori voice and a genuine left party. Mana has the potential to fill more than one of those spaces, if it is able to bring together the Pakeha left and progressive Maori in the way its launch suggested it might.

Instead Mana is using its time to prove that Hone Harawira has a mandate to be the MP for Te Tai Tokerau. Honestly, I don't think anyone doubted it. In fact (with the benefit of hindsight) it seems obvious that a by-election would be unable to improve on the assumption most of us already had - that support for Hone in the electorate was virtually unanimous. All a by-election could ever do was weaken that assumption, which of course is what the polls have now done. I'm pretty confident that Hone will win on Saturday but he will probably never again look as unassailable as he did before the by-election was called.

That is not to say there have been no benefits for Mana in this race. Hone has been generally acknowledged the winner in his various debates by mainstream political commentators. His political style has had some of the rougher edges knocked off in the tumble of the campaign and the more exposure he gets, the less of a caricature he becomes in people's minds. That undermining of the irrational fear and loathing that many Pakeha have will be useful in the longer term.

But whoever takes the seat on Saturday, Kelvin Davis will consider himself a winner. He has represented the Labour Party well. He will be an MP either way and even if he does not take the seat he will be the man that almost knocked out Hone Harawira on his first run. It seems he is, as he says, a born politician and I'm sure it won't be long before the press gallery starts calling him Labour's rising star and speculating on his leadership prospects. Which is kind of why I'm rooting for Hone – the born activist and shit stirrer. Who Hone represents is those people who rarely get represented in the New Zealand colonial parliament.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Greens step forward

I still have the photos from the day in 1998 that the Green Party left the Alliance. It was the day I joined. I'd refused to become a member before then as I couldn't stand the kind of old left politics that the Alliance represented and I couldn't understand why the Greens would continue to yoke themselves to a party that despised them. Just as I could never understand why we yoked ourselves to the Labour Party when I was an MP, a party who despised us no less.

So I was happy to see the Greens finally take an independent stance on post-election negotiations at this weekend's conference. The Greens have said that they will attempt to work constructively with, and challenge, whichever party leads the government after the November elections but that anyone who wants Green support would need to make “significant progress on Green Party environmental, economic and social policies and initiatives” before that could happen. In conclusion, it is unlikely, but not impossible, that they would support a National-led government, and it is possible, but not certain, that they would support a Labour-led government.

Cue the hyperbole. Bomber says its about loyalty, although he doesn't explain why the Greens owe Labour any loyalty in the first place. Paradoxically, he also says that while he “believe(s) in everything the Greens have ever said and done when it comes to policy” voting Labour would be a better choice. He remains conspicuously silent on how he reconciles this with Labour's record on all the issues he holds dear. Sue Bradford attacks the Greens for “taking a step towards the right". When you see the political world in monochrome then of course black, white, and shades of grey are all you have to describe it. The Greens have always been more colourful than that.

The Greens can be described as 'left', just as the colour of a puriri tree can be described as 'dark', but not adequately so. The Greens have an uncompromising commitment to fairness and equality. They also have a commitment to individual rights and to limitations on the power of the State, but I wouldn't describe them as 'rightwing' either. What I would say is that by rejecting the left / right dichotomy as inadequate to describe Green politics, the Greens become free to adopt what is valuable from either end of that spectrum and evolve it in accordance with their own philosophies. Some people on the left would say there is nothing valuable to be found on the right, and vice versa. That kind of locked-in thinking is exactly the problem. Being 'green' identified provides room for finding creative, holistic, solutions to current social and environmental challenges.

The post-election negotiating strategy is not about the Greens commitment to the 'left' in any case, but their (lack of) commitment to the Labour Party. Labour has time and again shown that it prefers going into coalition with just about anyone but the Greens. Only the Maori Party and Hone Harawira seem more distateful to them. The Greens continuing to pledge themselves unreservedly to Labour would indicate a distinct lack of self esteem and political nouse.

To my mind there are a number of reasons for the Greens new approach. The first is simple negotiation tactics. Only a fool gives their commitment to a deal before negotiations have begun. Actually it is worse than that. In the past the Greens have said only that they won't support National to govern. While they never promised to support Labour, their commitment has always included the recognition that they would have to support Labour if Greens held the balance of power. Allowing National to govern by withholding support from Labour would be as bad as actually voting for National. Labour knows this. What the Greens have done in the past, then, is to guarantee a deal with Labour, before seeing any terms, but only if Labour can't find anyone better. That is what various spokespeople for the left would have the Greens keep doing, it would seem.

The other reason is that sooner or later a child has to let go of mama's skirt. Given the sad state of the Labour Party right now, it seems an appropriate time to do so. The Greens announcement at the weekend does not indicate that they are about to support National to form a government. In fact it suggests the opposite. What it does say is that the Greens are finally standing on their own two feet.