Frogs, toadies and tadpoles

There’s been a long and turgid discussion about the Greens’ support for the Canterbury Earthquake Response & Recovery Act (CERRA) on Frogblog, with commenters including many of the usuals from around the blogosphere, Russel Norman and Kevin Hague, and someone called BJ Chip (who I assume is a comms flack) running defence for the Green party. (I can’t figure out how to link to individual comments, sorry). Another commenter, Geoff Fischer, makes a persuasive case against the Greens’ newfound pragmatism, both on the Frogblog thread and on his own site. Whilst I don’t entirely agree with Geoff (I’m a pragmatist at heart) I think his critique is a good one, particularly for the Greens (who aren’t). But there are also strong pragmatic grounds to attack the Greens’ decision to support the CERRA; grounds which, if the Greens are serious about their new realpolitik posture, they’d do well to consider.

I’m often disappointed by the Greens’ persistent — even pigheaded — reliance on the ‘principled stand’ in politics. While valuable among a suite of tactics, it’s overused as a one-size-fits-all response which pigeonholes them as idealistic zealots who don’t compromise and can’t be worked with. But although I think its consistent use is a poor strategy in the general case, it gives the Greens a valuable trump card: the ability to say “these are our principles; if you don’t like them, go ahead on your own”. While it all too often results in other parties abandoning the Greens as irrelevant and going ahead on their own, it does build a powerful narrative about the Greens which speaks to characer and reliability and permanence. Principled politics, as Geoff says in other words, has an objectivity about it which is often lost in modern pragmatic discourse where what often passes for ‘true’ is whatever you can argue. When all the other parties in parliament — even the other parties who (however unjustly) appeal to the ‘principled’ brand, such as ACT — are falling over themselves to betray their principles, it’s all the more important that you stick to your own. Put another way: when your political strategy is to be principled, refusing to act on principle is not a pragmatic decision.

Most obviously, taking a uniquely principled stance at the time when the pressure is greatest to cave in hugely strengthens that narrative mentioned above, ensuring the long-term strength of the brand. It’s easy to be principled when nothing is on the line — the measure of a party’s commitment to principle is how it performs when the stakes are highest. That measure has now been taken.

Secondly, principled politics is what the Greens know. It’s their realm of competence. An idealistic stance would have given them the ability to critique whatever misdeeds the government undertakes in the name of this act with a clear and objectively indisputable line (“we voted against it”), whilst the best they can muster at present is the equivocal, inconsistent line which Norman is running in the Frogblog thread (“we objected to it and we don’t like it but we voted for it anyway because we thought it was the right thing to do”). BJChip demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding how public-sphere political communication works with (her or his, I’m not sure) defence: “if they give us such idiotic cr@p [as “you voted for it”] we can give it back chapter and verse”. I replied with the following:

And not a word after “but you voted for it” will be worth a damn out there in the cold, pragmatic world of realpolitik which the Greens have now decided to enter. In that world “but you voted for it, so STFU” is the super-hero version of the “Nine Long Years” gambit which paralysed the Nats from 1999-2004 and has paralysed Labour for the term so far. You can’t beat it; in the battle of the soundbite, it’s political kryptonite because when they say it, they’re right. You voted for it: it’s your law, you swing by the same rope as the rest if and when it all comes apart. And so you should.

As much as they might believe themselves to be big-game players, the Greens have never even made a serious attempt to master the complexities of pragmatic politics, preferring to leave the cut-and-thrust to others. In the realm they have now entered they aren’t so much frogs as tadpoles. Judging by Norman and Hague’s statements and the spirited defence of BJChip (and others who use the pronoun “we” on behalf of the party), it seems they will attempt to defend the decision to support CERRA as they would any principled stance, with a clear restatement of the whys and wherefores behind the decision, omitting any discussion of the political consequences. This is impossible, because it is clear to even the most casual observer that the decision was a pragmatic one based on the politics.

Third and most importantly, at the electoral sharp end a uniquely principled stand positions the party as a ‘safe harbour’ for voters from other parties who are disillusioned by those parties’ too-enthusiastic embrace of pragmatism. This is where I think the Greens got their political calculus most badly wrong. The Greens’ own membership and support base was not going to be unduly turned off by the fact the party refused to support a bill granting dictatorial powers to Gerry “sexy coal” Brownlee; they may have taken some sort of hit, but the risk was not as dire as it is being spun. But a principled stance against this manifest assault on the constitutional framework of the country would have permitted the Greens to position themselves as the last line of defence against Shock Doctrine authoritarianism; a rallying point for liberal values. “Even if you disagree with our policy orientation,” they might say, “at least you know where we stand, and can rely on us to stand against the worst excesses of government impunity.” Coupled with the ideological moderation signalled by the departure of Sue Bradford and Jeanette Fitzsimons, I believe the Greens stood to gain considerable support from disappointed Labour voters, particularly those who wanted the party to act as a functional opposition to the government — and they might have even picked up a little bit from the other parties, as well.

So the decision manifestly fails on grounds of principle, and because the Greens are a self-declared party of principle with neither a strong history nor any particular skills in the exercise of realpolitik, it is doomed to be a failure in practice as well. One silver lining, though: since the Greens stand to gain nothing from it, their support for CERRA doesn’t really indicate that they’ve sold their principles out for power as “Tory toadies”; more that they simply lost their nerve. This stands in contrast to Labour, whose support for the act was obviously based on pragmatic grounds of political calculus, and principles of good governance be damned. This is especially the case for Christchurch-based MPs like Brendon Burns, who is leading the red team’s defence in a particularly distasteful fashion. They are complicit in the power grab. The Greens and their principles are just casualties of it.


15 thoughts on “Frogs, toadies and tadpoles

  1. The bill was passed in one day. There was not enough time to think things through as much as you have. We have have a luxury of time and distance that they did not.

    It is easy to see how mistakes like this happen when you look at the context. Democracy is supposed to move slowly for a reason.

  2. The “Blitzkrieg” tactic of driving through legislation before an effective defence can be mounted (a la Rogernomics) is well-understood by the Greens, who have been warning about its use by the government since late 2008. Aside from anything else, the fact that such a course was being followed provides more reason, not less to vote against.


  3. the Green MPs argued vehemently against the bill. then they vote in favour of it. saying that there was not time to think things through is a pathetic joke and a copout. i voted Green in the last four elections. if they do not come back and say they made a huge mistake and come up with ways to at least try to make amends, well, i won’t be voting for them. they made a massive blunder and now they are either silent or are trying to defend it. this seems like a good way to lose a lot of their previously loyal voters.

  4. … this seems like a good way to lose a lot of their previously loyal voters.

    sjw, to who?. What voting choices do Green voters have – especially if they wish to vote for green issues?.

  5. Bruce, I expect the greatest beneficiary of this will be the ranks of those who say “They’re all as bad as each other. Why bother?”


  6. if they don’t apologise for this mistake and come up with a serious set of proposals on how to prevent future screw-ups like this i will change my vote to ALCP.

    i really don’t take kindly to being told i have no choice. the mask slips and we see the true antidemocratic face…

  7. I’d thought this was a confession that the Maori Party have (as yet) achieved nothing, apart from getting the FSA renamed!

  8. TBD, there’s grim irony in Labour, having spent most of the past five years and all of the past two bagging the māori party for treading the path of conciliation, compromise and minor concessions on Foreshore and Seabed now taking the exact same approach themselves, and indignantly defending it when challenged.

    Thing is, I’m fine with Labour’s strategy regarding CERRA: unlike the Greens, they couldn’t just walk away and expect the electorate to accept it. Pragmatic cooperation and compromise is legitimate and reasonable for a party which has never claimed to live or die by immutable principles and has no love for the Quixotic symbolic stand. So Labour working with National on this I can accept. What I’m not happy with is the quality and magnitude of the concessions they gained which are hardly worth half a damn. In this regard they have done considerably worse than the māori party on FSA, who at least managed to fail at their objective without turning us into the People’s Republic of Brownleestan.

    (Course they voted for CERRA too, and are no better).


  9. The most worrying thing about this for me is that it tells me the Greens are not prepared for government. Why? They seem to feel that they are not responsible for legislation that they voted for – that they have internalised the idea of themselves as the conscience of parliament, concentrating on scrutiny and criticism of the policies of others, that they appear to feel that their vote doesn’t matter. That is, if they are only responsible for legislation they speak warmly of, not legislation they vote for.

    It’s hard to imagine how a formal coalition agreement with Labour would work on this basis, and also hard to see how anybody else could scrutinise Green policies when the party refuses to accept responsibility for legislation that they voted for in the house.

  10. I most certainly agree Lew that giving undemocratic powers to Gerry Brownlee is bad, but Annette’s post was convincing enough that it ain’t a hanging offence, albeit one that has significantly curbed my enthusiasm. Initially I was slightly surprised the Greens voted for it- but on reflection they’re bourgeois flakes obsessed with relatively trivial issues like animal rights and naturopath witchdoctors. And they have an authoritarian streak!

  11. To my mind the whole CERRA fiasco has exposed all our political elite as being nothing more than pragmatic, authoritarian mangerialists.

    Political expediency combined with the current prevalence of the cult of mangerialism sees all issues not in terms of principle or ideals, but as problems to be managed via a media strategy. it just so happens that this time the problem to be managed was democracy.

  12. I think the greens will accept the error they have made and retreat from their weak justifications. As a green voter the brand is not broken for me because the movement is bigger than individuals and their decisions, however mind-numbingly bad. Part of the unbrokenness may be the lack of choice that is there for someone of my political sensibilities.

    It’s bleak on the left at the moment.

  13. i wonder how long it will take for them to come clean and admit they were wrong to vote for the Gerry Dictatorship Act. the justifications they have put up so far have been utterly disingenuous, imo. digging a bigger hole…

    maybe they’ve joined Gerry’s mining brigade…

  14. Lew FWIW on the basis of a few years of frog-blogging BJ Chip appears to be a retired engineer who moved here from the US, now a Green part member. But I can see how you’d think he’s a comms guy.

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