Envirologue by Dave Hansford


Choose Wisely, Grasshopper: the Dilemma of James Shaw

The Greens are at a fork in the road. Their very future depends on the next choice they make.

 If, like me, you’re one of those morbid individuals who reads through air accident reports and the annals of search and rescue, you will detect the background hum of a consistent theme: disasters almost never happen because of one bad decision. Nine times out of ten, somebody made a fundamental error of logic early in the piece – seemingly innocuous and, on its own, nothing catastrophic. Often, they made it because they heeded bad information.

 But wrong turns on the decision tree can have a compounding effect – once you’ve committed to a line of action, you can find yourself out on a limb. Out here, you find yourself vulnerable to other contingencies you may not have anticipated. You sometimes end up forced into further decisions outside your realm of experience, or made under pressure.

 Most disasters, then, are the sum consequence of a train of bad decisions. Every time one got made, the wriggle room for redemption shrank.

Ask the German Greens, who in 1999, found themselves signing off a bombing campaign against Serbian forces in the Balkans. Almost 58 years to the day, the Luftwaffe was once again pounding Yugoslavia. The NATO bombardment killed civilians, and destroyed hospitals and schools in its wake. What should still be keeping the Greens awake at night is that they helped precipitate the very human calamity the action was supposed to forestall: sectarian massacre and rape. A tide of refugees.

Just a year earlier, the Greens had presented an election manifesto that declared an unbending opposition to military action of any kind – even peacekeeping. But they had since discovered that you must be very careful what you wish for. Naturally, they had long craved a place at the cabinet table. But when German voters finally put them there, they found themselves sharing it with Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democratic Party, who had already formulated their plan for military intervention in Yugoslavia.

What does any of this have to do with James Shaw? It highlights the perils of listening to a media that cannot or will not understand the essence of Green values. In Germany, commentators and editors consistently presented Green candidates – Leader Joschka Fischer, Cohn-Bendit and Hubert Kleinert – as ‘moderates’ or ‘realos’ – realists – a brand that assuredly helped the Greens into the Bundestag.

Since his election as co-leader over the weekend, and for long before it, Shaw has been similarly characterised by the commentariat as “modern and moderate” (as though the Greens had, until his emergence, been somehow obsolescent and intractable).

This is the usual right-wing proposition that Green politics are so hopelessly misaligned with reality that they need a good dash of centrism to become relevant. It’s one of those hoary old chestnuts that the likes of David Farrar and Matthew Hooton like to issue as backward complements in order to keep the Greens framed as a marginal force.

But the weekend’s result suggests their membership might be starting to believe it themselves, and that’s pretty bad information upon which to start making critical decisions. Worse, Shaw was even compared by Bryce Edwards to John Key – surely one of the silliest postulations yet – but which was inevitably given gravity by rote.

Right about now, if it isn’t already too late, the Greens may find themselves under pressure to accede to this media guile to turn right and start a sideways shuffle towards the centre. As their German counterparts found out, that can be a perilous path.

This whole argument is predicated upon a contention that the Greens are somehow failing in the first place. Yes, their vote collapsed yet again last election night. They shed more than 36,500 votes – a 14.8 per cent drop on 2011 – and one MP.

Pundits claim nearly a third of prospective voters say they considered voting Green, but were put off by the prospect of an economic policy influenced by people they still regarded as hippies. But that’s just another back-handed attempt to characterise them as untrustworthy, much like David Farrar’s sleight that: “Shaw has the ability to change the brand of the Greens as extremists and anti-business.” 

That “brand” is nothing but the expression of someone wilfully ignoring the altitude, strength-sapping metre by punishing metre, gained by Russel Norman in winning the Greens a new legitimacy as economic thinkers and shapers. To anyone concerned with social justice, there is nothing remotely extreme about responsible action on climate change. Nothing anti-business about insisting that polluters pay, or that speculators pay capital gains, or that those making a profit from a common resource pay an appropriate rental.

Yet some have tried to blame Norman for the 2014 result. That the country veered wildly off to the right last September is a matter of record, but on a night that saw Mana sink without trace, and Labour slump to its worst result in 80 years, the Greens held up the best of any on the left.

That speaks to the very different nature of the core Green voter who, more than any other, is characterised by a deep ethical, philosophical and political commitment. These are the ten per cent, and historically, they have punished parties they consider to have deserted their dogma.

In Japan, an offshoot of the conservative reformist Sakigake Party attempted to merge green and capitalist values. In 2004, the Environmental Green Political Assembly, or Midori no Kaigi, campaigned on a liberal platform while espousing conservative economic policy. Their support evaporated at the polls, and the party was dissolved.

In Germany, the Ökologisch-Demokratische Partei, or ÖDP, formed in 1982 by former Greens, has attempted to take environmental politics to the centre, particularly on social issues. Even though it has held to some core green policies, its share of the national vote languishes around 0.7 per cent. It has but a single MEP.

 Like Aesop’s fox, the capitalist commentariat is offering praise calculated to prompt a critical miscalculation. The German Greens saw themselves as a coalition partner that could effect: “small changes for the better” – a familiar chime. But once they repudiated their keystone peace policy, everything else was up for renegotiation. Following their capitulation over Yugoslavia, the Greens shed roughly a third of their membership.

They did, however, attract new supporters, who stayed loyal even as the Greens turned their back on the welfare state and embraced Schröder’s neoliberal Agenda 2010. They were complicit in the acquisition of public assets, bystanders to the suppression of wages, and the transfer of wealth from poor to rich. They abandoned their election promise of shutting down Germany’s nuclear power industry.

 It was a tragedy that began with a few bad choices. The New Zealand Greens have already taken one uncharacteristic risk by selecting James Shaw. They must now move very carefully, and be sure that subsequent decisions do not precipitate a disaster.

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