The political value of 'do' versus 'don't'

The Greens, about to change co-leader at Queen’s Birthday weekend, have a choice. Do they stay a “don’t” party or do they become a “do” party? The time is ripe.

Greens are a mixture of joy and gloom: joy in their own lives, lived according to principle; gloom about the rest of us, slurping up the planet’s goodies.

A couple of years back, they were running high. Al Gore’s film got people excited and worried about global warming. Helen Clark made “sustainability” the centrepiece of her government’s rebranding. It was at last easy being Green.

The Gore effect wore off. The Greens’ mired Clark in a whacking/smacking controversy. The economy edged off its highs, then slid into recession. Immediate economic climate change supplanted the distant atmospheric version in pubs and clubs.

The Greens did a bit better in the election than in 2005. But that could be put down to Labour’s slide. Liberal-leftists didn’t have to worry that voting Green might keep Labour out of office. It was going out anyway.

Nevertheless, there was a small but significant change — in the Greens’ advertising. The impersonal “planet” was still there, to be saved (though actually it will long outlast humans). But voters were also invited to vote for a girl — a person, with a human future.

Those advertisements invited voters to vote for doing something, to assure a good future for children. Saving the planet, by contrast, is a call to stop doing things. “Do” versus “don’t”.

There are “don’t” constituencies. Winston Peters founded his party on immigration, economic and Treaty of Waitangi “don’ts”. His “do’s” came late and were for the old. The Maori party is more “don’t” than “do” — understandable, given the long struggle to regain status. Hone Harawira’s anger infuses his politics.

But most voters, however grumpy, go for “do” more than they go for “don’t”. That is part of John Key’s sunny success (so far — avoidable mistakes are beginning to accumulate): he is upbeat. Had Clark and the Greens been able to present the whacking/smacking initiative as good for children instead of, as conservatives painted it, bad for adults, it might have been a voting plus, not a minus.

Apocalypse is a minority taste. It can be exciting but the only response is repentance and reform, which implies error and, worse, sin.

But right now there is an opportunity for the Greens. The global economy — and especially in the rich west — is in trouble. The most likely engine of recovery is the east Asian economies. They have financial reserves and their consumers are not loaded with debt they must pay down.

New Zealand shares the rich world’s awful household debt and has a whopping country debt on top. But, on a long list of comparative advantages, it has resources, energy and a to-die-for green brand, which can be a building block in recovery.

The Greens have spent more time identifying our disregard for the brand, epitomised in declining water quality, than identifying how to make economic use of it.

Until now.

The “Green stimulus package” launched on Friday was refreshingly upbeat. It aims to create assets and cut economic (and other) costs with a raft of costed initiatives, many of which make economic sense as well as green sense: efficient use of energy, for example; insulation of houses; renewable electricity generation (a long-term winner).

It is mainly a “do” package, focusing on energy and transport efficiency, waterways, state houses and community initiatives, with forestry to come. Outgoing co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons reels off examples of production lifts on farms which fence off water areas and re-vegetate their surrounds. The package proposes subsidies for that sort of action.

The message is to use state funds to create lasting assets which have long-term economic and other benefits.

To underline that, a parallel is claimed with the United States 1930s “new deal”, which it says was “an integrated programme of activity”. Its roads and dams had a lasting economic benefit.

Actually the new deal was see-what-works and stop-start and drove the recovery less than did a burst of innovation and productivity growth. And for President Franklin Roosevelt the market was to rule: his role was to restore its health, not supplant it.

The Greens remain suspicious of the market, especially the global market. They vote against free trade agreements while making much of environmental interconnectedness. They seem to see economic systems as in some manner artificial but ecosystems as organic.

They have yet to grasp and push the full entrepreneurial potential of ecosystem services, which include offsets to “dirty” activities, using conservation land as branding for high-end natural products, maintaining biodiversity and selling ecosystem management skills.

But the package is a shift.

There is money to be made in green economics. This is a propitious time. It secures the clean-green brand. It offers Greens scope to shift their image from “don’t” to “do”.