Catherine Delahunty, a Green Party MP for nine years, looks at the dissatisfaction within the Greens that led to the campaign to oust James Shaw as co-leader.
I recall standing in the rain outside the gates to the Auckland Domain. It was September 1999, and we were protesting against the APEC leaders meeting.
Bill Clinton was at the meeting in the museum and the grounds were “protected” by armed soldiers. Sue Bradford and I were leading the protest which circled the grounds. Tangata whenua were in front with the rest of us following.
On the back of a truck, a singer was belting out, through a sound system, “This land is not my land”. It’s a version of the Woody Guthrie song that was satirised by my father, Jim Delahunty — and it’s an attack on so-called free markets and free trade.
Rod Donald stopped for a chat and, as he often did, he reminded me that, if I was interested, there was a place for me on the Green list. Jeanette Fitzsimons hurried past in search of her husband Harry who might have been arrested.
This was the norm for Rod and Jeanette, the Green co-leaders in those days. They’d be out there challenging the economic system. It still is the norm for some of the Greens, but times have changed.
Being closer to power but still not powerful can modify behaviour. There is something to lose, and whether it’s worth being closer is a genuine debate.
In 1999, I felt that the Greens were a family I could join and remain true to the radicalism I believed in; remain true to the necessity for a different vision and different economic model which neither Labour or National would ever support.
A small political party is a kind of extended family, where you find other people who agree with your unpopular views. Within the family there are differences over those views but there’s also a strong loyalty to the party when you’re dealing with the outside world.
But a small party can’t choose who joins it and it doesn’t have the blood ties of a family who can’t divorce each other. It relies on its values and its leaders.
The Greens from that time were determined to keep their values at the heart of all their policies and discussions. And the aim was to do this by upholding four key pillars. They were non-violence, appropriate levels of decision-making, social responsibility/justice, and ecological wisdom.
There were, of course, fierce fights about what these meant, but in our debates, we reminded ourselves what we must hold on to, should we achieve more political power. There were contradictions but, naturally, they were easier to manage in theory than in parliament.
But there was also something that some of us could see was missing. There was no recognition of Te Tiriti o Waitangi or Indigenous rights.
When I read the manifesto, I saw that it was silent on this kaupapa. I called a meeting of a few other Pākehā in the party with a Tiriti background — Helen Yensen, Susan Healy and Gordon Jackman — and we started to work on raising this challenge.
There were very few Māori in the party at that time, and we could understand why. But, after a couple of years of work, the party changed the constitution to recognise Indigenous rights and Te Tiriti rather than “the Treaty” .
At one Green AGM, we did a presentation using four green poles to represent the party’s four pillars — and we also recognised the tangata whenua ground they stood on.
It was all about keeping our values in front of the party. I can’t imagine people doing that now. It seems so simple and innocent when we look back. But it had the advantage of being less conflicted than the 2022 Green profile.
I ended up with those four poles that we used at the AGM. They’ve now rotted away into the earth in my backyard along with a bamboo cage we once used for a West Papua protest outside the Pacific Islands Forum in 2011, in Auckland. Some people have water features or sculptures in their gardens. We have the remains of our activism.
These days the Green AGMs are managed differently — and the environmental and social justice crises are even more acute. Some people think being at the table irrespective of your power and numbers is even more critical. But, at the table, phrases like ”degrowth” or “replace capitalism” or “Matike Mai” are not popular.
I remember that, in the days before the Greens had ministers in the government, the safe number for a coalition was passionately debated at all levels of the party. Yet now it seems to be an accepted assumption despite the fragile muscle available to them.
Te Pāti Māori went through the same debate and it changed their history. They survived the rejection of the assumption that being at the table is always better — and they have renewed themselves. It’s tough, but it’s possible.
In this electoral term, the Greens are at the table with an overwhelmingly dominant partner. A number of supporters (and right-wing commentators) have told me that there’s no point in being in parliament if you aren’t at that table.
And they’ve said that the campaign to oust James Shaw is jeopardising the relationship with a powerful government — that it’s a terrible strategy, one year out from an election.
They seem to forget how often we’ve seen leadership change in political parties much closer to elections. They also forget what the values we once stood for require of us.
If there are no strong political parties to the left of Labour, there is no pressure on Labour to change. It’s worth noting how ACT pushes National on their policies and positions without even being at the table.
If no one in parliament is on the left, everything slumps to the right. Of course, that’s not the only continuum in politics. Te Pāti Māori is not on the Westminster spectrum and is now the only party who can influence change with the uncompromising energy of tino rangatiratanga.
When some of us criticise the party that we helped to build, it’s not an act of disloyalty to the kaupapa. The pillars we stand for are still the same.
Some of us on the outside are still trying to stand upright with a recognition that we stand on tangata whenua land. We still want a political party to fight for the climate like there is no tomorrow — and to fight for degrowth, for replacing capitalism, and for Matike Mai.
People I respect, including other former MPs, have said James Shaw is doing the best he can as a minister establishing a framework for possible climate action and building a consensus.
But the people who didn’t vote for him at the AGM have said we need a radical voice on the inside as well on the outside. And I agree. A consensus within the Westminster system will always be weakened by majority rules.
We need a different model of politics altogether which is why the words “degrowth” and “Matike Mai” are so important.
But, in the meantime, we need radical leadership in all spaces. I’m not in a political party any longer, but I feel for the group that I spent 20 years working for, and I honour the effort to demand more principled radicalism.
We need the spirit of 1999 to help inspire 2022.
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