The deadly luxury of knowing you are right

A day with the Greens is bracing, lashings of icy air, apocalypse and utopia.

The Greens, like many small parties before them — for example, the Social Crediters, now submerged in the Alliance — have the luxury of certainty of their analysis and prescription.

Unlike the Social Crediters, however, they can draw comfort and reinforcement from recent history’s march, now quickening with global warming, towards their thinking.

Note, “towards”, not “in step with”. However much mainstream politics has edged down an environmentalist path since the successful petition to save Lake Manapouri and the emergence of the Values party 30 years ago, the mainstream still sees Greens not so much as saviours of the planet as off the planet.

Greens want a new paradigm, marrying middle-class social conscience and communitarianism to a spiritual respect for the natural environment.

This is not the stolid “red-green” revisionism of 1980s marxists, still championing a disappearing proletariat. When the Greens oppose free trade, it is not (or not just) to preserve old jobs, as the Alliance and New Zealand First want. It is because Greens see free trade as inimical to their future of small-scale, local, resource-based activity.

And Greens practise their beliefs. This makes them both considerate and difficult bedfellows.

Their principles dictated their opposition to Michael Cullen�s superannuation fund. That was readily deducible months ago. Taxing people to invest in foreign business runs counter to investment in a Green future at home.

Rod Donald argued this case fluently on Sunday. On Thursday Bill English delivered a powerful attack on grounds of orthodox economic efficiency.

And the price the Alliance extracted for its support, more money for capital projects, including the kiwibank, has helped shoehorn Cullen into the political pinch of raising debt faster than his fund.

He is now left dependent on a rickety deal of convenience with Winston Peters, miles short of the broad consensus the fund needs for confidence that it is not yet another short-stop manoeuvre.

Yet, serendipitously, by insisting on future possible individualisation of the scheme, Peters has spotlighted a potential escape route for the government on general social policy from its snookered position between limits to revenues and heroic ambitions.

A degree of “ownership” of the welfare state through a system of state-backed semi-individualised accounts, such as is proposed by the Australian Labour party�s Mark Latham, bears closer study than Labour�s centralisers have yet given it.

It is a curious feature of this government that, though the welfare state is its raison d’etre, it can hardly be said to have a welfare state strategy. “More” was a tactic to win the 1999 election. It is not a strategy for the globalised 2000s, which severely constrain the amount of “more” that can be delivered.

Instead of a dedicated welfare state strategy, the government is coming at the welfare state circuitously, via “economic transformation” and the “knowledge society”: the state educates us all more and better and frequently for higher-paying jobs furnished through research, development and investment.

“Economic transformation” is an evocative phrase and has given the Prime Minister, at least temporarily, the commanding political heights and political space. Without equally evocative language, National is confined to tactical assaults which have so far not seriously dented the government.

So halfway through its (first?) term, the government has room to manoeuvre.

And Helen Clark and her senior ministers — who are as intellectually strong and administratively competent a core cabinet as has been seen since maybe the mid-1980s — are showing signs they might just make use of that manoeuvring space to flesh out “economic transformation” into a full-fledged strategy.

“Might”, not “will”. The governing parties’ underlying philosophy was developed in the nineteenth century for the twentieth century and recent neoliberal and environmentalist accretions are superstructure.

So if after 2002 the Greens, with an underlying philosophy developed last century for this and the deadly luxury of certainty, join the coalition, that will be fascinating.