How to grow the Greens in from the fringe

The Greens go to their midterm conference this weekend still on the fringe of the parliamentary system and never having had the influence on a government Rodney Hide has had with far fewer votes.

Three years ago climate change was running their way, Jeanette Fitzsimons was government “spokesperson” on energy efficiency, which yielded some dedicated spending, and Sue Bradford and Sue Kedgley got bills through the House.

But they did that from their usual place: outside the power centre. Is this where they are condemned to stay?

The generation-X leadership of Russel Norman and Metiria Turei has yet to develop the national public presence of Fitzsimons and Rod Donald — or even of Bradford. But it is gelling.

They are principles-based, like their predecessors. They have — through Norman’s refreshingly positive, and costed, “Green stimulus package” last year and, this month, Turei’s “Mind the Gap” alternative, redistributive budget, funded with a capital gains tax and targeted at reducing inequality on the ground that that is good for the economy — looked for innovative ways to present the Green message and tie it into humanity and “social justice”.

The Greens have also added 28-year-old MP Gareth Hughes in place of baby-boomer Fitzsimons. He is an attractive and smart young face to put in front of young voters. And he is a Greenpeace activist who organised a march of 6000 up Auckland’s Queen street last year on climate change.

That march, Hughes says, was a shadow of the big anti-mining march early this month. And that tells two stories.

One is climate change’s slackening grip on the public imagination: the Al Gore effect has faded, global warming is not an everyday or proximate experience for the great majority and sceptics have dented climate experts’ numbers in the media debate.

The second story is Gerry Brownlee’s enthusiasm for $194 billion worth of mineral deposits waiting to be dug up to make us as rich as Australia. The fact that much of that bonanza is inconveniently under conservation land reactivated the Manapouri syndrome.

The protests in 1970, which killed the high dam plan for Lake Manapouri, helped spawn the world’s first green party, Values, the Greens’ precursor. Around 3000 have made substantive submissions on mining on conservation land, on top of ten times that number of form submissions.

This looks like a Manapouri-level groundswell. And it includes many National-leaning people, as the Manapouri movement did.

A more history-savvy Prime Minister would have seen it coming. So would one who had first checked with the mining industry, which says only a very small, perhaps tiny, proportion of that $194 billion would actually be extracted even under welcoming government terms over, say, a 10- or 20-year timeframe. Exactly how much would eventually be mined is unknowable without a lot of prospecting, exploration and assessment of costs and returns, set in a global context.

Just how attractive a proposition must be to pass that test is evident in miners’ threat of an investment strike in dig-it-up-and-flog-it-off Australia in response to Kevin Rudd’s super-tax on mining profits. Add in the 3000-submissions public mentality and miners would think even harder about getting out the surgical mining instruments here.

But can the Greens capture enough of this groundswell to keep their nine seats in the 2011 election? If this is a mainstream concern, as Greens say it is, it is perversely more difficult for the Greens to find a point of difference from its big parliamentary next-door neighbour, Labour, which is riding this issue too.

And don’t forget National’s BlueGreens ginger group, which is growing. Big parties have a habit of appropriating popular positions.

The Greens do differentiate from Labour with a 1970s-ish line on “equality” — which they see as an outcome — while Labour has been going for “fairness” — a guideline for policy settings.

Greens take a stronger line than Labour on iwi and hapu rights. They opposed the foreshore and seabed law. They were close to the Maori party before it shacked up with National. They would give the Urewera back to Tuhoe. Turei (herself Maori) says the Greens trust iwi to manage such land well.

Therein lies a tension. Dark greens hold national parks and conservation lands to be sacrosanct national treasures with a transcendental ecological purpose. Dark greens left the Greens while they were inside the development-oriented leftwing Alliance party and rejoined only when the Greens went solo again in 1998. They would be aghast at one northern iwi’s bulldozing of a road through a reserve, to which ministers have turned a blind eye.

So what? Dark greens are extremists.

The so-what is that they are also part of the Greens’ core vote. How to hold that core and still extend the Green vote across lighter green territory far enough and durably enough to win hard influence over a government some time is the conference’s challenge this weekend.