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: â€œif they give us such idiotic cr@p [as “you voted for it”] we can give it back chapter and verseâ€. I replied with the following:
And not a word after â€œbut you voted for itâ€ 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 â€œbut you voted for it, so STFUâ€ is the super-hero version of the â€œNine Long Yearsâ€ gambit which paralysed the Nats from 1999-2004 and has paralysed Labour for the term so far. You canâ€™t beat it; in the battle of the soundbite, itâ€™s political kryptonite because when they say it, theyâ€™re right. You voted for it: itâ€™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.