A "bright green" party - how cool

Gareth Morgan has recently called for a blue-green party in New Zealand. I think he's right (partly) but what he actually wants is not a blue-green party, as he suggests.

He's partly right for three reasons: 
  • First, the Green Party is resolutely left - it has positioned itself so that it has only two options for be a party in government: it can be a partner to a Labour-led government or it can usurp the role of Labour to become the leading party of the left.  Labour has resolutely avoided the former, because it fears the latter.
  • Second, the National Party is resolutely pro-growth, on a model that is unsustainable and anti-sustainability. The blue-green faction within National is weak, and unlikely to ever dominate the caucus. The only way a National-led government will adopt green policies is if the electorate gives it no other choice: forcing it into coalition with a pro-sustainability partner.
  • Third, there probably a decent sized constituency for a green(ish) centre-right voters. People who understand the existential threat posed by climate change and unsustainable development; but who don't want the Green Party's moral liberalism or don't understand that the party's policies are actually centrist and moderate, or they don't trust the Greens to be safe pair of hands in government.

The Green Party had a hand in creating that constituency: years of careful and devoted campaigning have raised the profile of green issues, the credibility of the party, and public acceptance of the idea that a green government could be possible. But they have also successfully branded green issues as left or progressive issues. By doing that, they have alienated a potential centre-right green constituency and given succour to a particular breed of climate change denier: those whose political agenda relies on fear of regulation and state control.

The Green Party as we currently know it is locked into this position. It's pre-election statement in 2011 was that it was "highly unlikely" to be in coalition with National, and by 2014 that prospect  was "very, very, unlikely". In fact, if the Greens were being honest, they would say "never, ever".  I know this because I sat through the consensus-building discussion when the 2011 statement was agreed. The inclusion  of even a mild hint that the greens could be in coalition with National was won by political pragmatists who want the Greens to be in government. The party's actual position is dominated by idealists, who would prefer to maintain their ideological purity at the cost of remaining in opposition: permanently, if need be. 

This is now an awkward situation, not really in keeping with the Green Party charter.  Which is where Gareth Morgan's critique really starts to get traction.

The Green Party charter begins, in the first charter principle, by acknowledging the "limits to growth". Referring, of course, to a a profound existential threat, first identified in a book titled The Limits to Growth, published in the mid 1970's. The other three charter principles: social justice, peace and democracy are proposed as necessary conditions for dealing with that threat: 
  • Social justice means allocating resources more fairly between current and future generations, and among the nations of the developed and developing worlds. 
  • Non-violence means avoiding civil and international conflicts over the allocation of scarce resources. 
  • Appropriate decision-making means that only democracy will provide for a peaceful transition of power from government driven by a growth agenda and those driven by a sustainability agenda.

Even the most libertarian of right wing political viewpoints will concede that government has a role in preventing and mitigating existential threats; such as war, famine, and epidemics. But only if they accept the threat is valid.  

And that's the nub of the issue; not just for the Green Party, but for all of us. 

New Zealand's right wing and centre-right political parties currently refuse to acknowledge that unsustainable development is a problem, let alone an existential threat. That's not because they don't understand the science, or don't know how to manage the assets and liabilities on our ecological balance sheet.  It's because they regard the sustainability agenda as a trojan horse for left wing political parties that want to redistribute wealth and  apply heavy-handed regulation, or even central control, to the economy.

As things currently stand, these National and Act supporters are probably correct. There are plenty of Green Party members who regard the party's four charter principles as separate and separable components of the party's political platform. In particular, a solid tranche of the Green membership are there because the Labour Party has moved too far to the centre and no longer has the desire, or the ability,  to create a more progressive (i.e. morally liberal) society, and/or effect a redistribution of wealth and opportunity toward lower income earners.

Those members of the Green Party are, also, absolutely correct. The current problems within the Labour party are manifest because it is at odds with itself over precisely those issues: controlled by the university-educated, socially progressive, and largely middle class members; disconnected from its lower income constituency, who tend to be morally conservative - especially the pacific island communities in south Auckland; and unable to embrace a green agenda because of its roots in a type "smokestack socialism" that regards any job as a good job, even in coal mining.

On that analysis, New Zealand's political spectrum currently looks something like the diagram below, to me, with a cool/uncool dimension and an economically left/right dimension (omitting, for ease of presentation, a third valid dimension, which is morally progressive/conservative).

NZ Political Landscape 2014

The Green Party is diametrically opposed to National on both these dimensions, and on the unrepresented progressive/conservative dimension - which is why it will never, ever, be in coalition with National.

The void area is where Gareth Morgan identifies a gap in the political marketplace. 

I doubt that void represents the unmet need of 1 million absent voters. There may be a constituency of people who did vote, and who voted National, who might instead have voted instead for a "blue-green" party that could be a viable coalition partner for National.

New Zealand First is not going to expand to fill that void, although its environmental policies are actually pretty good. In the 2008 general election (as I recall) Greenpeace rated them second only to the Green Party in overall commitment to sustainability. But NZ First lacks the credibility, and depth of talent in its caucus, needed to be a reliable partner in government. Being primarily a vehicle for its leader's personal political ambitions, it doesn't stand for anything in particular. 

And the Conservative Party is not going to fill that void either, for much the same reasons. 

So yes, there is a void that could potentially be filled by a new party.  And I agree with Gareth Morgan that such a party is necessary, if New Zealand is ever going to avoid the existential threats of climate change and resource depletion, which are now a "clear and present danger" to our economy and our society. 

But it won't be a blue-green party: it might better be described as a Bright Green party. Although it probably wouldn't have the word "green" in its name at all (as that branding is such a turn-off for the conservative right).