The Green Party has become vulnerable because they’ve become more risk averse and less radical, writes Catherine Delahunty, who was a Green Party MP for nine years.


This is the first general election since 1999 where I’m not actively involved. I became an organiser for the Greens that year, then a staff member for Keith Locke and Nandor Tanczos — and I was elected in 2008 on my third attempt as a candidate. 

I was an MP for three terms and I’ve never worked harder in my life, apart from when I had a sleepless baby. My main portfolios were education, water, and Te Tiriti, and I’m still working in these spaces without the resources of parliament but also free of the pressures and constraints. 

I was looking forward to being an onlooker at this election but, so far, being an observer hasn’t been that much fun. It’s great to be free from the roller-coaster, the billboard dramas and the panic as time runs out. But I’m still anxious. 

No matter what we might think of the current government, the prospect of Covid-19 being managed by a hybrid of the National Party, ACT, and any of the small party, narcissist conspiracy people (such as Jamie Lee Ross, Billy Te Kahika, or Hannah Tamaki) is terrifying. 

The polls make this ghastly scenario unlikely but, in the last week or so, some of the contradictions in the larger parties have been highlighted, notably Labour on wealth and tax and the Greens on the Green School in Taranaki.

Five weeks out from polling day, the Greens don’t have the luxury of introspection. They have to get out there and show the people that they have a coherent story to tell. 

The Green School debacle needs little rehashing, except for the need for a strong response that highlights what the party’s policies already say. Which is that equity and environmental justice are inseparable — and solutions must be based on both platforms. 

Teachers are still angry, and they talk to me because, for nine years, I was the education spokesperson for the Greens. Funding to enable wealthy people to send their children to private schools where they can learn to be sustainability elitists was never in the plan. 

The plan has to be an increased state investment in public schools, and I’d argue, kura kaupapa, kōhanga reo, and anti-racism education for all teachers who aren’t Māori or Pasifika. The education system is still working on its assimilation agenda which is still failing tangata whenua and Pasifika students, as well as disabled students and those who learn differently. The private education system is even less accessible to change and working hard on maintaining its privileges. 

The Greens need to raise the flag for an equity programme in public education which could be anything from championing the needs of diverse students and their support staff, to a funding boost for not-for-profit early childhood education centres, or a truly radical commitment to teaching history without pretending we’ve addressed either colonisation or racism. 

If they want some specific employment programmes for Taranaki, there’s no shortage of work to be done in public school maintenance and classroom support.  Or how about some properly paid anti-racism education programmes led by manawhenua and allies to shift the longstanding barriers that have held back Taranaki and many other rohe from healing and justice? 

The challenge for small parties inside a coalition is to survive and hold on to your kaupapa. The Alliance and the Māori Party are object lessons. Just being “at the table” feels good to ministers from the smaller parties, but it can make you invisible. Pleasing the larger party in government by good behaviour as a stable partner is rarely rewarded at election time. Differentiation is as essential as concrete gains.  

The Greens are vulnerable on the differentiation issue because they’ve become more risk averse and less radical. This trend can be seen all over the world as the Green parties get sick of being in opposition and suit up to get more power. 

With eight Green MPs in our parliament, the leverage is weak. Hence the complete lack of progress on core issues like mining, no Green profile on water quality, and debatable achievements for the climate. 

If the Greens want to inspire us with their commitment to whenua, they need to say they’ll fight to cap cow numbers, ban coal and gold mining as a priority, and make climate targets compulsory, especially in agriculture. 

They’ve made wonderful individual gains in some areas. Jan Logie’s work for the protection of women from sexual and domestic violence is a shining light. Julie Anne Genter should be the Minister of Transport. And Golriz Ghahraman has returned Green foreign policy to a principled and brave advocacy, from the embarrassment it was when it was led by Kennedy Graham.

Also, conservation, waste, and cannabis issues have moved forward. Their housing, welfare and workers rights policies are well ahead of Labour. Marama Davidson is human and believable on these issues because she knows them from the inside.

In terms of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the Greens can claim a big picture commitment. But, as one of the architects of that position, I can see its weaknesses without an implementation strategy. Are the Greens visibly campaigning as champions for Tiriti-based constitutional change to fulfil the genuine power-sharing promise of Te Tiriti at this election? If not now, when?

I’m pretty sure quite a few of us do not want Labour governing alone, which will help the Green vote. But there are options, such as cross benches independence or just confidence and supply, which might be a better choice than full coalition with a small number of MPs. 

Independence has power, and integrity and gains can be negotiated. It’s been heartening to see the Greens state a new position on this in the last day, challenging Labour on wealth tax issues and asserting a willingness to be independent if not heard on this matter. 

It would also be heartening to see Debbie Ngarewa-Packer of the Māori Party make it to parliament.

When the Greens were in confidence and supply arrangements with Labour more than a decade ago, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford led the work on energy conservation and buying local, and a considerable amount was achieved.

Even in opposition, I managed to get the Te Pouhere Taonga Act changed to allow tangata whenua to determine the cultural competence of archaeologists. And I negotiated to create a fund to clean up toxic sites from mining and timber treatment, and other polluted sites. To be clear, I care far more about the bigger issues of green, left, and Treaty politics than who gets power for the next three years. 

After October 17, there is a debate to be held by the Greens whatever the election result. That debate is between cautious centrism — which, in this country, means right-wing leanings — and acting to the left of Labour, not just having progressive policies. 

The soul of the party built by Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons is at stake. The soul has nothing to do with avoiding risks and everything to do with pushing the edge. If no significant political party pushes the edge for radical change, the spotlight goes on to personalities and social media slogans rather than on political ideas and values.

This has in fact happened and it benefits the utterly inequitable status quo. The focus on celebrity leaders versus kaupapa-driven groups has had a dire effect on all of us. Western democracies are stagnant and in some places at risk from neo fascism. 

Indigenous models are ignored in places like Aotearoa, a colonised island in the Pacific, which could and should commit to transformational change such as suggested in the Matike Mai report.

Many voters don’t vote on policy but on how a message makes them feel. The kindness mantra has been appropriate in the Covid crisis because it makes many of us feel more connected and united. 

We all need to feel our politics, but not as kneejerk reactions — more as human spaces where we can see how to participate at a flaxroots and community level. Sadly, current politics is a long way from that place. 

I want to vote for a party which is more than kind — a party which lives and breathes Te Tiriti, equity, degrowth economics, and healing the whenua. And one that’s brave enough to fight for climate justice and to tax the rich. 

The middle-class middle of the road is a crowded, dangerous place for visionaries who risk getting run over if they try and stay there. I really hope the Greens have the debate and make the call to stand on the edge with all the people who have no choice where they stand and must be heard. 

With regard to political mistakes, having made quite a few myself, I feel for anyone being hounded by the media, and I know many of us are still traumatised by what happened to Metiria Turei for representing the edge. If the Green School is an edge, it’s one we need to avoid, but I think it’s a business — and, as a business, it’s doing well for itself at our expense. 

The problem with getting ministerial power and becoming isolated from your base is that you work from your personal politics and instincts — and, if those instincts are status quo instincts and not party policy, you end up in trouble. 

The opportunity for the Greens is to seriously review how ministers are held to account before the disaster, not afterwards. Co-leaders must be accountable. Unquestioning loyalty helps no one be a better leader.


Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki. She mainly works in the campaigns against multinational goldmining in Hauraki and is active in the national solidarity network for a Free West Papua. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother. 

© E-Tangata, 2020

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