Do the Greens have a candidate vetting problem?

12 weeks after the election the Green Party’s 14th ranked candidate in 2017 opts out of politics and joins a morning television program. Shortly after the election it is discovered that one of their new MPs fudged her credentials as a human rights lawyer. Another successful newcomer has a more established social media presence than the business experience she claims to have. The former co-leader was ousted after volunteering (at whose behest is still a mystery) that she committed benefit and electoral fraud when younger.

The first three people replaced seasoned politicians such as Kennedy Graham, who capably handled his MP responsibilities (Mojo Mathers, an eloquent champion of the disabled, just missed out entering parliament at number 9 on the list, having been leapfrogged by neophytes at numbers 7 and 8). Two of the three new candidates mentioned above come from well-to-do Auckland backgrounds (which is a stretch from the traditional Greens grassroots) and share with the third (another Aucklander) a complete lack of political experience other than undergraduate degrees and campaigning for office. The unsuccessful list candidate-turned-TV-bubblehead recently is quoted as saying that her single greatest moment was to be invited onto a TV dancing show rather that being selected as a candidate for a party that she once said she felt “passionate” about.

Let me clear that I am sure that the ACT Party attracts weirdos and self-aggrandized liars in droves, and that even the two major parties and NZ First could well have people with inflated resumes and/or dubious backgrounds on their MP rosters. But I expect more from the Greens because they are supposed to be the truth that speaks to power in parliament and the idealists who hold parliamentary cynics in check as well as keep Labour honest from the Left side of the table. So I am a bit disappointed by how things played out in the run up and aftermath of the election.

Beyond the fact that all the list shake ups in 2017 managed to do is lose the Greens votes when compared to the previous elections (11 percent and 14 seats in 2011, 10.70 percent and 14 seats in 2014 to 6.3 percent and 8 seats in 2017), they also resulted in the Greens being the third-party step-child in the Labour-NZ First led government coalition. The distribution of cabinet seats is evidence of that (no Green minsters in a 20 member Cabinet). The Greens may claim that the 2017 list was the “strongest ever” but if so the strength being measured did not translate into votes or political power. In fact, one can argue that their strength, such at it is, lies in the first six names on the list, with what followed being a mix of opportunistic shoulder tapping for newcomers and insult to steadfast old-timers.

Renovation and rejuvenation are always part of any Party’s reproductive process, but in this instance what resulted was a political still birth.

Given what I outlined in the first paragraph, I think that to some degree this is due to poor candidate vetting and selection processes within the Greens. In 2017 the operative campaign logic appeared to be about style over substance and the seemingly naive belief that everything a candidate claimed to be true about themselves was in fact true. This is dangerous because not only do political opponents have the means to verify candidate claims in a hostile manner (as was seen in the case of the human rights lawyer), but it leaves the Party exposed to ridicule and marginalisation should candidates with doctored or inflated resumes be shown to be inept or incompetent in fulfilling roles assigned to them because of their supposed expertise.

Again, this is of no consequence when we talk about blowhard parties like ACT. Nor do I wish to be mean to the people in question (I simply think they needed to spend more time honing their political skills by working for the party and/or in public policy-related fields). But the Greens worked hard for two decades to be taken seriously on the national stage and it would be a pity if they squander the gains made by allowing unqualified candidates/MPs to champion their cause without proper due diligence having been done on their backgrounds. Because at the rate they are going (losing more than four percentage points compared to the previous two elections), the Greens risk following the path of the Maori Party into political oblivion.

27 thoughts on “Do the Greens have a candidate vetting problem?

  1. Isn’t this just the nature of modern politics? Aren’t the voting public looking to elect “personalities”, preferably fresh, young, media-friendly, self-confident, ambitious and not afraid to promote themselves? Can political parties resist going down that path? Would the Greens fare better in a parliamentary election if their candidates were demonstrably people of principle and deep political awareness? I doubt it myself, and I doubt whether the Green Party would want to put that idea to the test.

  2. Perhaps you are right Geoff, but that is precisely what seems to me to be the problem with the Greens. They have abandoned principle for political expediency assuming that “personality” will carry the day. But even if it does, that augers poorly for their parliamentary performance and as I mentioned, their pursuit of style over substance got them a 4 point drop in the vote.

    It is no longer the party of Ron Donald, Jeannette Fitzsimons or even Russell Norman. It has gone Right. It has gone “personality.” And it has gone down in the polls. The question then is: who is the captain of this sinking ship?

  3. I agree that Fitzsimons and Rod Donald were politicians of a higher calibre than some of the present Green Party caucus, and they actually succeeded in establishing the parliamentary Green Party on what looked to be a solid foundation. Principled politics requires politicians and voters with the patience to wait years or even decades before they enter the legislature, and even longer before they can take a hold on the reins of government. I am not sure that Green Party politicians or voters have that degree of patience, hence the resort to expediency. You seem to be suggesting that there is at least a niche role available for a principled left wing political party, and the Greens, by sacrificing that position in order to play the political game in a similar way to the major parties, have done themselves a disservice, and I can’t argue against that.

  4. Well Geoff, you pretty much summed up the core of my disappointment. Given all of our disagreements about myriad other things, this is a milestone of sorts.

  5. “12 weeks after the election the Green Party’s 14th ranked candidate in 2017 opts out of politics and joins a morning television program.”

    So what? Does holding green values mean you’re not allowed to work in television? She has to pay the bills and being a candidate doesn’t do that.

    “Auckland backgrounds (which is a stretch from the traditional Greens grassroots) and share with the third (another Aucklander) ”

    What’s Auckland got to do with it?

    “but if so the strength being measured did not translate into votes or political power.”

    The list never translates into votes. I would guess that 99.9% of voters don’t look at the list when they are making their voting decision.

    The Green party’s low vote in 2017 was nothing to do with the candidates and everything to do with Metiria Turei.

  6. I’m sorry you have decided the entirely fabricated attacks on Golriz have any substance. More generally, singling out for attack three young Green female MP/candidates seems to contain more that a little hint of misogyny.

  7. I knew someone would go down the “you–misogyny” path but am surprised that it is you who took the bait.

    It is not about girls and boys. If you run for office on principle, then you better have principle on your side all the way through. In the last election, the Greens did not.

    You are welcome to tell me how a loss of 6 seats in the last election turns into a strategic gains.

  8. Mike:

    Working for the party or a real policy relevant job would have been a better choice, IMO. I just see an attention-seeker who used the Greens as a temporary vehicle for her own ambitions, who then moved on to another media job when that vehicle did not deliver I would expect a bit more commitment from a true Green politician.

    The preponderance of Aucklanders is a problem because if nothing else it suggests a disconnect with rural concerns in spite of the environmental championing as well as the appearance of an urban hipster orientation. The Greens need to expand their base beyond that.

    If what you say is true about lists not mattering to voters, what was up with the flashy Green PR campaign (including that magazine cover) that featured the newcomers so prominently? Beyond the eye candy appeal to (presumably) 18-35 year old urban males, the campaign thrust seemed to me to emphasise the Green team as much as the brand.

    You are right that Turei’s fall was significant. I would still like to know the real thought process (and who was involved) behind that gross miscalculation on the part of such an experienced and competent politician.

  9. What jumped out at me was:

    a) Your acceptance at face value the rather miserable and trumped up hatchet job on Golriz Ghahraman, surprising to me because you are usually much more skeptical of right wing smear jobs and an indicator, perhaps, of a willingness to believe the worst in this case.

    b) The use of “bubblehead” – a sexist pejorative – to describe Haley Holt and

    c) A curiously vague use of language to attack Chlöe Swarbrick, who is after all only 23 years old and got a list place primarily on her demonstrated electoral appeal, not her business acumen.

    Not a good look when viewed collectively – three women, all under I think 37. However, upon reflection I will take your word for it and I shall withdraw the accusation of misogyny – and replace it with one of ageism!!

    Firstly, perhaps you have found the youthfulness of these three candidates jarring compared to the USA, a country that seems to present an endless parade of family values male politicians aged between 55-75 whose only use for a women under fifty involves taking copious amount of viagra first? The New Zealand electorate is quite different from the United States in this regard. Age is not seen as much of a barrier, and in fact a leavening of youth is seen as a very good thing indeed. Tub thumping, bible bashing moralisers in their 50s-70s get exactly nowhere here. It is easy to dismiss these young women as slight candidates if you think a politician has to be over 50 to be any good.

    Secondly no doubt once you were an under 35. I know I was. Trying to get ahead at that age requires all sorts of creative padding of the CV. In the case of Ghahraman, who I personally see as an exciting prospect if she has a thick enough hide to shrug off the appallingly racist and misogynistic attacks aimed at her and clearly designed to break her personally, the fault lies with the party failure to anticipate the nasty line of the attacks on her and make sure she was squeaky clean. As for Swarbrick, she is just 23 – how much business experience does ANYONE expect a 23 year old to have? You always read any 23 year olds CV with a rye sense of humour and a bit of skepticism. Haley Holt has spun a career in broadcasting that is the envy of many and her long term commitment to the Green agenda has never been questioned.

  10. The collapse in Green support in 2017 has a a couple of tactical origins. Firstly, if Jacindamania has taught the Greens anything at all it should be that disaffected Labour voters are tribal beasts who flirt with the Greens mainly to send their true love a message and secondly in the inept planning and management of Turei’s revelations. Why anyone thought her revelations would be a good idea is anyones guess, but plenty of heads should – but probably didn’t- have rolled. This second point overlaps with the inept failure to anticipate the attacks on Gharahman and points to a systemic, wider problem of strategic incompetence in the Green party.

    The Greens have been in parliament in various guises for 21 years. In that time, they have failed to grow their core voter support much beyond 6% or use that platform to develop a strong electorate presense to ensure they have 2-3 electoral ‘lifeboats”. IMHO, this is a strategic catastrophe of the highest order because it means that after 21 years the Greens remain an elite cadre party representing a narrow band of voters and relying on elite consensus politics for policy gains (the most egregious example of which was Sue Bradford’s Section 59 repeal, something she and the Greens arrogantly and lazily relied entirely upon an elite consensus to pass and effectivel paved the way for nine years of National government).

    IMHO, the lack of any sort of organised electorate base means it’s professional parliamentary wing is increasingly imprisoned within the managerialist politics of the Thorndon bubble. To my mind, this is the real origin of green strategic ineptness. After three decades they still don’t have any sort of formalised institutional base in the community from which to draw it’s advice and external talent for a pool of MPs. Poor decisions are made by an out-of-touch and complacent party machine that isn’t half as clever as it it thinks it is and lacks the nous to think through and anticipate the political consequences of what it does or does not do.

  11. Sanc:

    I focused o these three candidates because the Greens, not me, made them the centrepiece of their election campaign. Had the young male farmer from Wairarapa been given as much attention, I would have looked at him a bit closer.

    I happen to think that Ms. Ghahraman will make an excellent MP, but was let down by her equivocations about the Rwanda trials (which allowed critics to scrutinise her real as opposed to presented role). I agree that the Right went hard at her and that a lot of it was sexist and bigoted, but that is one reason why I was dismayed that she put herself in such a position, especially since there have been questions about her story about the circumstances of her arrival in NZ. She will learn from this and go on to bigger things.

    I disagree that resume inflation is normal practice for 23 year olds. It is dishonest, pure and simple. Doing so to appear wise and experienced beyond one’s years in pursuit of a political career may be common amongst mainstream politicians but again, I expect better of the Greens. Ms. Swarbrick would have been better served working as a Green staffer and learning the ropes, but she is too obviously ambitions to put in the time and effort as an understudy. I hope that I am wrong but foresee her getting stomped and/or ignored in parliament.

    I have said all that I will say about Ms. Holt.

    I appreciate you deciding that I may not be a misogynist after all but had a good laugh at the ageist label. Perhaps you are right, although my criticism is based on lack of credentials or shallowness, not age per se. I have known many people under 30, including my own peer group back in the day as well as several generations of former students, who were and are far more capable than the likes of Swarbrick and Holt. I have urged many of them to pursue political and/or public service careers. So in my own mind it is not about age.

    Also remember that I have lived in NZ for 20 years so am familiar with the electoral demographics, which among other things saw, again, low turnout by younger voters. So the Green youth strategy did not pay off, at least not during last year’s campaign. Moreover, after party voting Green the previous five elections, I did not do so last year because of who they ranked and who they dropped as well as the increasingly blueish tint of their policy platform. If I am not alone in that decision, then it was not just the young who shunned them.

    I am afraid that the comparison with the US was an odd tangent rather than a good contrast (presumably done simply because I am a Yank by birth, although Argentine by cultural inclination and naturalised Kiwi in the making). Beyond the fact that (even) I would not draw any inferences from US politics other than to note the NZ Right’s imitation of some of its more unsavoury aspects, your characterisation of US politicians is an overdrawn stereotype that, if applicable to the GOP in some measure, is completely unrepresentative of the larger range of politicians at the national, state and local levels. So I shall just assume that you were enjoying giving me a jab and leave it at that.

  12. “Beyond the eye candy appeal to (presumably) 18-35 year old urban males”.

    I think you’ve really got the wrong end of the stick on this particular point, emphasising women on the list is to appeal to other women, as well as feminist men.

  13. James:

    You could well be right. Ms Ghahraman’s credentials aside, I saw this as pandering to a (dumb) young male demographic, particularly with regard to the selection of Ms. Holt.

  14. Dang, Sanc.

    While writing the post I worried that I was being a bit too harsh in my assessment but you came in and laid a smack down stronger than James Brown! And I agree with very bit of it, although as I said with regard to Geoff’s earlier comment I tend to see the Greens as a decisive niche party whose main purpose is to keep Labour honest by holding a principled progressive line in the face of “3rd Way” appeasement and cynical politics manoeuvring (say, on the issue of trade versus human rights). For them to do that well over time, as you say, they need to develop a solid electorate base and stop with the Leninist “democratic centralism” that you so well explained.

  15. “wo of the three new candidates mentioned above come from well-to-do Auckland backgrounds”

    Although the Greens identify as a party that has a lot to offer the poor, their support has always come chiefly from the middle class. Whether this is a sign of the poor not knowing what’s good for them or the Greens’ rhetoric not matching the reality is a question for another thread*, but it doesn’t seem that surprising that the Greens’ candidates should match their voters’ socio-economic profile.

    It’s also notable that Fitzsimons and Donald, who have been identified in comments as the standard Green leaders should aspire to, also came from pretty well off, upper-middle class backgrounds. So clearly affluence isn’t a problem, or at least, it isn’t a new problem.

    Also, I agree with Sanc that the main reason the Greens lost votes is the Turei revelations. We could portray that as a problem of vetting, but it wasn’t a 2017 problem – Turei became an MP in 2005 and leader in 2009, so if Turei’s problems are a sign of a vetting problem, it’s a pretty ongoing vetting problem.

    Looking back there have always been some weak candidates among the Greens with some undesirable baggage – remember Steffan Browning’s musings about homoeopathy curing Ebola?Some good vetting in 2014 could have cured that too.

    One odd thing about the Greens, among both critics and supporters alike, is people tend to write about the party as if it had just popped up – I recall one NZ blogger recently writing that the Greens had “shown there was an alternative to Labour in 2017”, as if voters hadn’t been aware of the Greens as an option for the left wing vote in 2014, 2011, 2008, 2005 or whatever. I guess that is in part successful political marketing by the Greens – voters like novelty, after all, and it’s probably easier to appear novel than to actually -be- novel. Although their perpetual outside-of-government role can’t hurt.

    *although it’s a pretty common phenomenon for Green parties worldwide, especially in Europe

  16. No Green party in the world has every got more than 15% of the vote. Except once: the 2011 Baden-Wurttemberg state election, which occurred two weeks after the Fukushima nuclear reactor explosions.

    Greens can’t win by being green, except in fluky scenarios like the one given above, they have to be something more. But just adopting the neoliberalism of the Labour Party and, more recently, their identity politics too, and tweaking them to be slightly more left wing isn’t going to cut it.

    They have to be very different, especially in the economic policy, if they want to become the main party of the left. And if they don’t want to do that then they need to give up their economic and identity stuff and just focus on their environmentalism and pacifism and forget about ever trying to get more than 15% again.

    That is the fundamental issue the Green Party is struggling with at the moment. When Labour was flailing about over the last few elections becoming a better copy of Labour was a good strategy, now that Labour, with Ardern, is nearly back to its old strength that strategy is not working so well.

  17. Thanks guys. This has been illuminating. I guess my bottom line is that things started heading South for the Greens when they decided to drop the watermelon identity and move rightwards (you may remember a previous post on this). Staying on the Left might have made them more conscious of having to move off that urban middle/upper class “elite” core and out into the hustings (including the working classes), and to develop a coherent sustainable macroeconomic vision that incorporated the pacifist/human rights/humanitarian concerns that motivated the Greens early leaders.

    The move to the Right, to include candidates such as Starbrick and Holt who had/have no connection to these traditional concerns and who in fact are lauded for their “success” in market-driven environments, is indicative that the soul of the party may have been lost.

    So rather than sexism, misogyny or ageism, you can put my critique down to ideological disillusionment.

  18. @Pablo: When would you say the Greens started to move rightwards? Forgive me for not digging through your prior posts, there are a lot…

  19. I think the shift began under Russell Norman but has gone full blown tilt under James Shaw. Turei was a bit of a counter-balance but now that she is gone, the MP line up does not have much red in it, nor do the policies.

  20. Yeah that is my take too. Although Turei was always formally on board with the possibility of going with National in theory (if not in any given election). But the tradition has a long history – I remember Nandor Tanczos, when running for the Green co-leader’s seat, declaring that the Greens were “not a left wing party”, and he was not exactly a marginal figure, nor did he presumably come up with this idea on the eve of the contest.

  21. The irony is lots of conservative commentators (to use the term loosely) like to complain about how they would love a Green party that “focused on environmentalism” without “any of that socialist stuff”, despite realising that they’ve had it for at least five years.

    But I remember Sue Bradford saying in 1993 (!) there was a faction within the Green party who were quite happy to make the unemployed work for the dole, as long as they were working at something environmentally friendly like cutting tracks in the bush.

    Bryce Edwards has a great post on it here:

  22. What is gained by the use of the terms “misogynistic” and “racist” and “ageist” except in circumstances where someone is actually advancing a misogynistic, ageist or racist argument?
    To use these terms as epithets seems to me particularly unhelpful, and in this case it has diverted us from the real issue which Pablo raised which was the veracity (or otherwise) of Ms Ghahraman’s political profile. Pablo did not criticise Ghahraman for being young, Iranian, or a woman. He criticised her somewhat deceptive self-representation. To me this is an issue of some importance, just as Metiria Turei’s boast or at least unashamed acknowledgement of past dishonesty was highly problematic for me, and, I believe many other New Zealanders. Pablo seems to think that if the Green Party is to survive and thrive it must do so on the basis of a conspicuously high level of personal and political integrity. That requires other virtues such as courage, humility and self-sacrifice. I believe that what really sank Metiria, and almost cost the Green Party its foothold in Parliament, was her apparent lack of humility, her inability to look the New Zealand public in the eye and say “I was wrong, I am sorry I did what I did, and I regret my actions as a young woman”. Who knows what might have been the outcome if she had taken that route?

  23. The problem is that you can’t write off ‘youthful indiscretions’ as something you grow out of and a natural part of being young and inexperienced, if you are running alongside 23 year olds.

    I guess Gareth Hughes was the initial young upstart in the greens a few elections ago, but he at least seemed to have put his time into the party beforehand, and seems to be performing well now.

    Someone like Swarbrick seems to be using the party as a means for themselves, with so little actual involvement on the left, other than a vague political stance of anti authoritarianism, and being young. Recall after the mayoral race, there were stories of her talking to multiple parties about running for them. The loss of Mathers or Graham for her is pretty galling.

    There seems to be a trend of young, ‘cool’, but not overtly ideological politicians right now (archetype Trudeau), hopefully the greens can avoid this, and manage to remain a steadfastly ideological party.

  24. @Jeremy: At the risk of repeating myself, there are many people within the Greens who don’t see the party as left wing, and therefore presumably don’t have any problem with candidates with no grounding in the political left.

  25. A current Nat MP not long ago described a small NZ town to me in a one on one conversation as “a white oasis in the middle of a black hole of shit.” I know the guy personally but he badly misjudged my position on racism. How many more share this sentiment? I guess racists need representation too. There are bad personnel calls made all the time by every party but some get more scrutiny than others.

  26. I guess that in comparative perspective, dilettantes and unqualified opportunists are a lesser evil when compared to racists. And that is a Green virtue–it may be a lot of things but harbouring racists is not one of them.

  27. I wonder who the “current Nat MP” is and what town he hails from. Kerikeri is one place that might fit his mangled mixed metaphor and in any case it is a region which illustrates many of the problems of contemporary New Zealand society. People in Kerikeri, mainly European, live pleasantly privileged lives. They want those of us who live outside, in the poorer parts of the rohe, to work their orchards and forests, and they are frustrated by our preference for doing things our own way and in our own space. They don’t understand or have any sympathy for our culture and values. They see our people in Kaikohe, for example, as a “black hole of shit”, and we, on the other hand, see them as venal, grasping and corrupt (which in many cases they are). But capitalism, not racism, is at the root of the problem, and capitalism is inherently anti-racist. So it is not enough to be anti-racist or to clamor for social “diversity”. Anyone who holds to a system which effectively protects the interests of a privileged affluent class is just as much a part of the problem as those sad cases who see themselves living in “a white oasis in the middle of a black hole of shit.”

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