Can the Greens modernise? That is the real question

The last time the Greens changed leaders, in 1995, three options were debated: one leader, two of different genders or 693. The 693 was the total Green membership at the time and many in Green and green politics abhor traditional notions of leadership.

This weekend there are two options: an MP or not an MP to co-lead with Jeanette Fitzsimons. That question will be decided before the vote on who is to be leader and if passed would bar all candidates save Nandor Tanczos, for none of the other three are MPs, though Mike Ward was until last year.

Not since Bruce Beetham tried and failed to hang on as Social Credit’s leader after losing his seat in 1984 has any party represented in Parliament seriously contemplated a leader outside — though, of course, Fitzsimons is inside.

But the real choice for delegates this weekend is not who will be co-leader (much speculation centres on last year’s campaign manager, Russel Norman). It is whether the Green party will modernise.

Greens would protest that they are already the most modern party, having long telegraphed the threats to the planet, and thereby to human sustenance, of linear economic development. They want to “empower communities” and improve the quality of life.

As super-healthy cycling sexagenarian Ward, long-time Nelson city councillor and mayoral candidate, put it on Agenda on Saturday, Greens could cut taxes by persuading people to “get out and get some exercise, eat well, get rid of some of your work so you’re not quite so stressed out” and so not cost the state so much to fix them up.

But most voters want more, not less, linear economic development and see Greens and greens as killjoys out to stop them doing what they want. They don’t believe, or don’t want to believe, apocalyptic talk.

There are killjoy Greens. There are also purist Greens who want to conserve every last snail and rare tussock. And there are preaching Greens who scarify decent folk with undeserved damnation.

They reflect greens in society who form the core of the Green vote. The Greens’ time in the Alliance taught them what happens when they take that core support for granted. Membership now is many times 693.

But there is another side. Most Greens and greens in my experience live joyous personal lives, even if they preach gloom. Ward does and he says: “There is a whole bunch of things that we can do to make life better for ordinary people apart from just increasing their incomes.”

Aha! Optimism and positivity. It is that side of environmentalism the National party will aim to inject into the platform it is building to lure back greenish liberal centre-right voters who have been AWOL for several elections.

And such a National party could posit a post-2008 deal with flexible Greens. An undercurrent in the post-2005 Green debate has been a worry about the left-of-Labour label the party has acquired when they want people to see them as really a new force, neither left nor right.

In fact, the Greens could do a limited-objective deal with a future (non-Brash) National-led government — provided they can accept flexibility, trade-offs and (temporary) second or third best. That is, provided they modernise.

What is wrong about Solid Energy relocating rare snails (at $8000-$10,000 a snail) from a valley it wants for coal? The snails live on and the nation benefits from exports. (Climate change implications are another matter but someone somewhere will dig up coal to meet world demand.)

What is wrong with deals with foreign investors to “buy” carbon credits by planting trees on the conservation estate and leaving them to grow old (mitigating climate change) even if trees change the landscape or the trees planted are not natives or not the area’s traditional natives and if the secondary forest that grows up under those trees are the happenstance of bird droppings, not ancient Aotearoa?

It is planet- and climate-friendly and it makes money.

And why does the government (which has a killjoy strand) have to in effect confiscate the carbon in trees planted before 1990 and thus work against its own Kyoto protocol objectives by discouraging reafforestation? What is wrong with relaxing the rules and thereby improving the prospect forest owners will replant?

The government would have to concede some property rights it claims for itself. But the objective is to build carbon sinks, not dance on the head of an ideological pin.

And what is wrong with tradable rights to leach nitrate into waterways as means of stemming the awful pollution of rivers and lakes through converting land into dairying? Are capitalists so bad that their own preferred methods cannot be used to coax them along?

None of these examples is open and shut. But in each case the idea is to work with people for environmental gain, not against them. If we believe the killjoy sort of greens, humans stand condemned of the original sin of desiring material goods. But surely there are more ways into heaven than through purgatory.