Comment

What the Greens needs in a co-leader

Do the Greens need a Metiria Turei heir-apparent, or a more radical option? Damon Rusden examines a co-leadership race between two very "intelligent and charismatic" women

If you happened to miss the 2017 election, one of the most pivotal moments was the co-leader of the Greens, Metiria Turei, announcing she had committed benefit fraud when she struggled in her younger years.

It drew out the intuitively conservative, those who see the law as sacrosanct and the hard-left who defend any decision made necessary by the pressures of poverty.

Regardless of the inevitable judgment that came from the admission, it was a genuine attempt to bring poverty to the front of the national conversation.

What this did to the Greens was interesting to see develop – not a split, but a much more vocal difference in opinion. The debate became less about rationale, presentation and reactionary strategy and more about broader vision.

This is not by any means a bad thing; any political movement needs to have strong principles and long-term goals to shape society and make them electable. The Greens' movement has this more so than any other, but the people who move this political vehicle need to be cohesive.

This leadership contest will help iron out exactly how they do that and with what narrative the majority of the party would like to see. 

There is nothing wrong with healthy debate. Much of it is about differences in policy, implementation or strategy. But when a party is divided about vision and leadership it creates an emphasis on internal personalities. 

As a Green member, the co-leadership race is going to be very important. It is a race between two very talented, intelligent and charismatic women – I'd be happy to see either take the helm as female co-leader. But it will irrevocably change the narrative and perception of the party.

Genter is a natural attraction for the educated, urban liberal who has an intellectual fascination with politics. She is also a prime candidate for the logical problem solvers, who rapidly vanished to The Opportunities Party.

Turei undoubtedly left big shoes to fill. And those shoes were filled with a history of unashamed radicalism, activism and grassroots movements. Being tangata whenua and embracing her culture and utilising it to bring people to action was rare in politics, and refreshing.

She leaves behind a legacy of what the Greens have always stood for, and some of the many reasons I am part of the movement – collectivism, consensus and radical action. She harnessed this energy and polished herself enough to blend in with the professional (and frankly bland) part of politics – Parliament.

The Greens showed a willingness to embrace the suits-and-establishment types by electing James Shaw as our male co-leader. We needed someone with economic acumen and a background in private sector sustainability to appeal to a broader audience turned off by our more radical stances.

But who do we need to supplement that?

The beauty of a co-leadership model is the ability to have two distinctly different people, experience and expertise united behind one movement. It is meant to enhance, not debilitate. And it has done a stellar job so far which will continue regardless. But while the personalities emerge and the campaigns unfold, there is a simple strategic logic that I find. Who do we want to reach out to while we are in government, and who is best placed to do so?

Marama Davidson has community in her very fiber, and is passionately outspoken on important issues many fear to even mention at dinner parties. She has charisma coming out of her pores. This adaptability and outreach is important. And she is heir-apparent to Turei.

Julie Anne Genter is a wicked debater and a leader in her field when it comes to urban development, with the intellectual weight to wear down anyone who tries to promote our current unsustainable and extractive-based economy. She’s certainly radical and visibly terrifies some of the National team when she hammers them with logic from across the floor. Genter’s appeal lies in her depth of knowledge about policy, and brilliant ability to point out the flaws of the Opposition and to defend our own. This will be a huge asset in government.

Davidson already has a presence in Māori communities, and among the impoverished. This is a difficult demographic because of inter-generational Labour support.

However, Genter is a cabinet minister and Davidson is not. There are huge restraints on Genter’s ability to criticise Labour due to the convention of collective responsibility. The reality is that the Greens need to be able to distinguish themselves and that’s difficult for Genter to do.

One recent policy example is the ‘wellbeing measures’ being included as national indicators of success. This is a compassionate idea that aligns the people and the economy, rather than one doing violence to the other. It was paraded as a ‘government’ policy, but the work and agenda-setting was done by the Greens. It was a concession given out of the confidence and supply agreement and was implemented by Shaw.

The Greens need to maintain a high profile, stay unique and receive the credit for what they have done. Both Genter and Davidson are capable of doing this, but in very different ways. And thinking long-term, they appeal to very different demographics. 

Genter is a natural attraction for the educated, urban liberal who has an intellectual fascination with politics. She is also a prime candidate for the logical problem solvers, who rapidly vanished to The Opportunities Party.

Davidson already has a presence in Māori communities, and among the impoverished. This is a difficult demographic because of inter-generational Labour support.

Both demographics have the potential for growth, and already the Greens have base camps ready to kick into campaign mode.

Where I think the Greens need to strategise is the rural regions – there are many, many people who are natural environmentalists who simply have the wrong idea about the Greens or are turned off by their focus on urban areas and/or social policies.

Any new co-leader needs to tap into this demographic with a good campaign and articulate leadership, especially with the messaging of water and farms. The Greens have brilliant solutions (I had to sear them into my brain for my campaign) that are a win for everybody, but the communication and active effort is lacking. This is part of what I am looking for in either candidate. Not the ability to sing with the choir, but to reach those who are not traditional Green voters.

It will be an interesting time in history for the Greens. Both brilliant people which they are lucky to have, but with very different styles and leadership. It will be a vote by members of where the party wants to go.

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