Wednesday 27 July 2022


The Greens’ current co-leadership wrangle reminds me of former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s famous comment “Only the impotent are pure.” 

Whitlam was talking to an angry State Labor Party conference in Victoria in 1967, shortly after taking over as party leader, and pledging to overhaul the arcane policies and practices that had kept Labor out of office through eight elections since 1949. His essential point was that political change could only come through winning elections, but that there were compromises that needed to be made to achieve that. 

The dispute within the Greens that has ousted – temporarily at least – James Shaw as the party’s co-leader is less about his performance and commitment than his pragmatism. It is a classic example of the conflict Whitlam was referring to. As Climate Change Minister, Shaw has responsibility for not only the most important long-term issue facing New Zealand, but also the one dearest to the Greens’ hearts. 

He knows that to make sustainable progress he must do much more than keep the Green Party’s activists on-side. Far more importantly, he needs to win over not only the major party of government, Labour, but also enough of the National Party to ensure the policy momentum is maintained when a change of government occurs. He also knows that he needs at least tacit, if not more active, support from the business community, and major greenhouse gas producers like industry and agriculturalists. 

To that end, he has skilfully steered New Zealand to a position where, following the passage of the Climate Change Act in 2020 and the establishment of the Climate Change Commission, the future direction of New Zealand’s climate change response has been broadly settled. Although there will be inevitable modifications under future governments and as international circumstances change, the approach established by Shaw will remain, at least for the foreseeable future. 

Of course, that has involved compromises and may not be as “pure” as Shaw may have wished, but the building blocks for the future are now in place. Over time, as the policy mechanisms begin to bite, there will be sacrifices, some harsher than others, required of just about every sector of New Zealand’s economy and society. There will be tough political and commercial decisions to be confronted, but they are the necessary price of a credible and sustainable approach to our climate change response. 

The immediate political challenge now facing Shaw and future Climate Change Ministers, of whatever political hue, is building, then maintaining, popular support for not just the overarching response to climate change, but also the specific measures that will be proposed from time to time. That is likely to be a constant challenge for governments from here on, which will require political deftness and sensitivity New Zealand governments have not been all that good at demonstrating. Shrewd compromise without losing sight of the endpoint will very much become the future name of the game. 

All of this is anathema to the Greens’ hardcore activists, for whom such pragmatism is weak and unprincipled. They would far rather a Greens’ Climate Change Minister prepared to take on the “vested interests” in government and business head-on, demanding more radical confrontation, and imposing solutions by legislative and regulatory diktat if necessary, with little consideration for their consequences, other than their environmental benefits. For them, extremism in defence of the environment is no vice, to paraphrase the infamous statement that cost Barry Goldwater the 1964 United States’ Presidential election.[1] 

The activists’ commitment to the “purity” of policy is laudable, but as Whitlam warned, without political power it is ultimately unachievable. Shaw clearly understands, even if the more radical section of his party chooses not to, that politics is fundamentally the art of the achievable, which is not always the same as the desirable. As a politician with a focus on doing things, Shaw correctly sees each step as progress towards a goal, and knows the importance of taking people with him, unlike his activists who cannot see why their full, perfect, and pure solution cannot be imposed – immediately. 

All this goes to the heart of what the Green Party’s role should be. Having finally achieved office after years in the political wilderness, the party is struggling to decide whether it has been worth it. Shaw’s critics accuse him of wasted opportunity, while his supporters say his conciliatory tone has brought about steady achievement, making the compromises of being in government worthwhile. 

If the outcome of the current co-leadership process is a more radical, sharply defined and activist-led Green Party, it will make working with Labour as a support partner in this Parliament, and potentially beyond, more difficult. That could cost the Greens the middle ground support they have assiduously built up in recent years, leaving the party “pure” but “impotent” in Whitlam’s terms, but relegated to permanent Opposition. 

Unlike his activists, Shaw understands that forever feverishly worrying and talking endlessly about issues will always run a distant second to accepting the harder challenges of getting directly involved and making the necessary sacrifices to do something about them.   


[1] In accepting nomination as its Presidential candidate, Goldwater told the Republican National Convention in 1964 “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”, hard-line comments widely held to have been influential in contributing to his landslide defeat by President Lyndon Johnson.

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