The election of a genuinely left-wing populist leader, let alone one who’s an indigenous woman of colour, has predictably led to right-wing journalists exploding into hot takes with the heat of a newly-born supernova. There have been some more reasonable takes too from more independent journalists, and even from well-embedded journalists in the mainstream media, although even those have got some details wrong. As someone who actually supported Marama, I’d like to set the record a bit straight.
For a start, saying that there is little policy difference between Marama Davidson and Julie-Anne Genter is a bit like saying there’s little difference on education policy between two DHBs: policy development is a completely different branch of the party that neither Davidson or Genter is responsible for, and they are both bound to support bills that align with the policy committee’s decisions under the party’s rules under normal circumstances. (there are provisions for conscientious objection, but these are for extraordinary circumstances, and all candidates are asked what sort of issues they might use these provisions for in their selection interviews, so they’re not expected to be a surprise) It is fundamentally misunderstanding their job to talk about policy differences, when their only word on policy is which of our policies they’d most emphasize in their communications with media.
There are two parts to being a Green Party co-leader: They are leaders of Caucus, (thus, they have significant influence over decisions on Parliamentary tactics, and which backbenchers are spokespeople on what) and they are the chief communicators and representatives of the party, explaining our policy priorities to the public and the media. All their other powers are either specifically delegated to them by the membership for certain tasks, (such as negotiating coalition deals) or purely symbolic. They can’t decide who gets to be ministers. They can’t decide how to rank our list. They can’t even kick people out of caucus on their own. They are not elected dictators like you may be used to, if you’re thinking of the powers that say, National Party Leaders get.
The notion that the selection of Marama Davidson shows any increased unwillingness to deal with National is also incorrect: We were already unwilling to deal with them under Bill English, and Simon Bridges has shown no signs of improved rhetoric or policy that would be necessary for the Party to reconsider this stance. His new “greener approach” has not resulted in anything but greenwashing to date, with enthusiastic defenses of natural gas, oil exploration when we already have more reserves identified then we can afford to burn, subsidized irrigation when we already over-irrigate, and the only examples of environmentalism seem to either be trolling New Zealand First, or doing personal action cleaning up beaches. (Let us not forget, Simon Bridges was a very fast friend of the oil lobby groups as a Minister) Even with Simon Bridges’ poor record, this is also not something co-leaders get to decide on their own. All co-leaders decide is how to approach people that delegates for the members authorize them to have negotiations with- they could pass an offer back to a special general meeting of the party that we didn’t formally negotiate for, but it’s unlikely the party would authorize sudden formal negotiations with National even if they made the first approach to us. Members decide who we coalesce with and when, as part of the consensus decision making of the various Green Party branches, and then send delegates to the relevant meetings to vote on those decisions. All authority within the party must come either directly or indirectly from its members.
While Davidson’s selection does show an appetite for more engagement with communities of colour, a willingness to engage the public on the issue of poverty and benefits, and other left-wing priorities, it’s not entirely fair to say that Julie Anne was a less left-wing candidate than Marama or an opponent of these other values, and in my branch personally, (where Julie Anne won more of the vote than Marama did) there was no discussion as to whether Marama Davidson was “too left wing,” or “not environmental enough” like many media commentators are raising to contrast the two. Julie Anne is a hard-working MP, a talented Minister, and a regular defender of left-wing ideas in finance, transport, health, and other priority areas, (and you can observe her contradicting National MPs on social media regularly if you care to) and doesn’t deserve to be painted as some sort of teal-green. She deserves credit as one of our smartest political minds, and she impressed a lot of people (including me!) who thought this decision was a foregone conclusion, and is merely unfortunate to have had her first shot at this post come up right after the deserved and sudden rise of Marama to #2 on our party list. I hope she is at least relieved that she will be able to concentrate on being a Minister and, soon, on being a new mother- if she were to do only one important thing as Minister for Women, showing from the top that pregnant women can still have high-powered careers will be amazing in and of itself.
Isaac Davison’s piece actually has some of the dynamics confused as far as all other members I’ve talked to- much of the discussion in favour of Genter’s campaign was that she was a safe candidate who would keep the party stable while bringing back soft supporters who voted for us while Labour was in opposition, whereas I personally and many other members in favour of Davidson argued she had a broader appeal, potentially bringing more Māori, Pasifika, and the roughly 3% of voters who came in as voters after hearing Metiria Turei representing their own stories, as well as being able to bring back some of those soft supporters who might have thought they’d be getting genuine left-wing change with Jacinda Ardern but will perhaps be a bit disillusioned with the compromises required to work together with New Zealand First, and want us to be a bit more of a conscience to this government as well as a supporter.
There are some members who signed up for the party under Turei’s leadership, or in the wake of her departure, who publicly noted they would have departed if Genter won- this reflects other demands from supporters of the party for stronger Māori representation in co-led roles (there are several of these below the formal co-leadership: provincial, branch, and network co-convenors, (read: Chairs/Presidents) etc…) and better integration of Te Rōpu Pounamu (the Māori members’ network within the Green Party) into the party’s executive and other decision making structures, and for a voice that all members agree is a counterbalance to the more conciliatory, arguably more centrist style that James Shaw brings as male co-leader, but (perhaps sadly depending on your perspective) these departures would largely have been limited to young Greens and Greens of colour as far as I can tell, and would not by any means have “torn the party in half,” but would have continued worrying trends within the party of not cementing the relationship with the younger voters it so successfully courts, and making moves that potentially alienate New Zealanders already facing racial discrimination from other parties. This should in fact suggest that Davidson’s appeal, rather than simply being a stabilising influence, is broad in groups that should be strong for the Green vote but have not always traditionally turned out strongly, and that it is necessary to maintain the party’s reach into communities beyond middle-class liberals in Auckland and Wellington, who while a strong base for the party, do not represent all of its interests, and clearly largely stand in solidarity with Greens who don’t necessarily look like them, or have the same (sub)urban middle-class concerns.
What media largely has failed to cover, is that Marama’s promise to be highly respectful of and communicative with the membership and draw harder lines about what the party can support by using the party’s constitution and procedures as bottom lines rather than mere formalities, to ensure that our wider constituencies are brought with us. She promised to be there on the ground as co-leader to bring attention to important protests for our rights as New Zealanders in that same spirit. There have also been controversies within the party about certain decisions made to work together with Labour (such as the budget responsibility rules) that may have not properly followed those processes and/or remain controversial to members, and even though in some cases we may reluctantly support bills to hold the government, these tradeoff decisions do need to be well-communicated to the party’s members and wider base.
While we absolutely have the power to prevent the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill being passed, (and Davidson was clear she wanted a mandate from Members on whatever the party does in these sorts of situations) it might be a relatively small concession1 to secure New Zealand First’s co-operation and a political battle worth losing in order to get their co-operation on other bills, especially if the legislation can be made less painful. If she can manage to navigate the treacherous waters while also making sure new strategic announcements from the party (like that we are going to start ceding some primary questions to National whenever we aren’t asking real questions of ministers from other parties) aren’t met with surprised incredulity, and perhaps are even scrapped if they don’t receive a sound endorsement, she will have already achieved a lot in the eyes of members who support her. Being a grassroots-style leader of a progressive party when we require a fundamentally conservative and centrist party to support our legislation and get anything done is not an easy road to travel down, and it will require both authenticity and restraint in equal measure from Marama, and she will need to build a relationship of respectful differences of opinion with New Zealand First’s front bench of Peters, Martin, Mark, and Jones if she is to be effective.
It is refreshing to see her not only representing genuinely left-wing priorities as mainstream, but also saying that if radical change is needed to achieve those priorities, she’s not afraid of being called a radical. A lot of supporters have wanted a more radical voice in a leadership role, and Davidson looks to already be delivering on that in her initial interviews, effectively communicating the needs of more marginalized communities to mainstream New Zealand, and doing so in a way that makes those on benefits and in poverty sound like ordinary people who deserve dignity and respect, and linking those struggles to more mainstream anxieties about underfunding in health and education. While that may drive right-wing reactionaries mad, we’re going to have a real test as to whether the radically ordinary conversations we started having during the election about the voices and dignity of beneficiaries and those in poverty (and not just child poverty, but also working poverty, or simply insufficient benefits to live on) were what caused the Green Party’s loss in fortunes, or whether it was the perception that there was more to Turei’s scandal and the disunity of caucus with the departure of Kennedy Graham and David Clendon.
The reality is that we have a benefit system in this country that encourages people to lie to survive. We have capitalist incentives to have workers frequently paid so little they subsidize the existence of marginal businesses with unacceptable lifestyles where they eat junk, don’t replace anything they can afford to leave broken, and spend most of their money on rent and bills, and that we think it’s necessary to have government subsidies for families because employers can’t keep up with decent wages, all the while we’re underfunding our hospitals so badly they’re leaking sewage and infested with toxic mould. We have teachers paid so little they can’t afford to live near the schools they teach at, or buy houses, yet we trust them with the very future of our country and our families. And if Marama can have the hard conversations about those issues while still bringing them back to how they’re connected to caring for our people and our environment as well, she will be doing very well to help the Green Party stay in Parliament next election, and to help New Zealand become a better place.
1 I know anyone who’s a fan of Andrew Geddis or themselves values the law is probably screaming about that statement, and I agree that it’s bad law, but it’s entirely possible it will have little to no practical effect this term in Parliament, and be immediately overturned the next, (it certainly will be if the Greens have anything to say about it) if New Zealand First can’t secure a lifeline back into Parliament by the next election. Labour has pretended to publicly be suddenly Very Concerned About Proportionality whenever the topic of this bill comes up, which is absolute rubbish, and suggests they may be willing to have a change of heart when the time comes. If they were really concerned about proportionality, the best thing they could do is to lower the Party Vote threshold, and Labour doesn’t even seem keen to jump at the 4% recommended by the electoral commission after we voted to keep MMP, which is the very first thing we should be doing, and should arguably be attacked as an SOP to the same bill.
There are dangers that say, we might potentially be called to a war that Labour and National want to support but they have an unwilling backbench who would have gone rebel without this bill or some other nightmare scenario, but in all reality its most likely application is to make sure none of Winston Peter’s various backbench supporters grow a spine. I think in reality principled defectors are very likely to be upheld by the electorate in either a by-election or the next general election- that is how it has always worked in the past. Really, the TPPA should have been the most likely thing to cause a backbench revolt among Labour, yet there were no MPs crossing the floor on that, and the bill hasn’t passed yet, so I think in practical terms the ship has sailed on backbencher independence anyway at the moment. There is also the possibility we might secure additional safeguards, or a sunset clause, that would allay some fears. I do feel absolutely certain that if we don’t vote for that bill, Winston is going to punish the Greens for it, likely by simply blocking any legislation that looks even marginally like it was the Greens’ idea.
Note: I’ve been a bit quiet on Marama and Julie Anne during the campaign, this is due to the fact that I served as a delegate for my branch and thought it would be inappropriate for me to comment given the various squares I would have to circle to do so, so have simply stayed mum outside of correcting people attacking either of the candidates.