Davidson: very Green, very outspoken and a lot to prove

There’s a joke that does the rounds in Wellington whenever the Green Party makes a public announcement. As staffers explain the arcane levels of consultation and internal democracy that go into making sure that policies please the party’s many interest groups, they say: “It’s very Green.”

A year ago, they were saying it about the Greens’ co-leadership election too, which was an outwardly cordial and convivial contest between Marama Davidson and Julie Anne Genter. This wasn’t like the ugly David Cunliffe vs. everyone else contests in the Labour Party. It was friendly — “very Green”. 

Sitting down with Davidson and Genter during the contest, I was struck by the practised cordiality of the two candidates. Neither could be prodded to break rank (and not for lack of trying on my part). 

But all was not well behind the scenes. The contest brought to the fore an identity crisis for the very soul of the party. At its heart was a question of whether the Greens were radical enough — and whether, as a party of Government, it would naturally move further to the centre, losing its activist raison d’être.

The contest began before the election really got going, as the party scoped out who might run. 

Eugenie Sage was senior enough, having been in Parliament since 2011 — longer than co-leader, James Shaw. She was believed to be placid enough to have effectively handed control of the party to Shaw. 

Genter was also a member of the 2011 intake and a competent minister with an eye for detail. She would have assembled her own power base, but as a political ally of Shaw’s, she would not have  put a halt to the apparently unstoppable inertia dragging the party to the centre. And as a minister, she has less scope to criticise the Government. 

Then there was Marama Davidson. Entering Parliament in 2015, she was the least experienced potential contender and initially hesitant to run. But she was popular with the party’s activist left, who lobbied strongly for her to put her hat in the ring in the hope she would counterbalance Shaw’s perceived corporate-ness and pull the party back to the left. 

In the end, only Genter and Davidson ran. The public cordiality of the contest was undercut by the leaking of brutal comments on private Facebook groups which said a number of members would quit the party if Genter won. Not very Green — not at all. 

Sitting down one year later, Davidson admitted the time after the leadership battle was difficult.

“We went through some tough stuff and none of it was very secret,” she said. 

“I had to pull the party together”.

She interpreted her victory as a mandate for a strong non-executive voice in the leadership team. But the first few months were difficult. The Greens had haemorrhaged staff through the first half of 2018, stretching the party’s back room. The chaos came to a head in June when the party forgot to lodge its Parliamentary questions. 

Then further chaos erupted in August, when Davidson told a protest she would reclaim the C-word because she was sick of being slandered with it online. The episode quickly spiralled out of control. 

Looking back on it now, Davidson is mostly disappointed the story became about the appropriateness of the word, rather than the fact she was campaigning against the online abuse she received.

Observers felt it showed a lack of focus from the Green leadership as the campaign drew ever more attention, diverting people from the party’s work elsewhere. Less time thinking about climate change, more time thinking about, well, the c-word. 

Davidson says the thing she’d do differently next time is try to make sure the episode stayed on the message she wanted, rather than being diverted to a different issue. But she thinks the whole episode proves her point. 

“Brown women in politics have a certain double standard judgment that I’m not going to change that means I have to be extra mindful,” she said. 

Usually politicians stay away from loud, divisive topics that threaten to divert attention from their party’s core issues. But Davidson clearly has not been deterred. 

Defending herself, she notes the extraordinary scrutiny also faced by incoming American congresswomen and women of colour, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. But this is complex, as Omar was recently forced to apologise after comments about Israeli lobbying in the United States were interpreted as anti-Semitic. 

Davidson understands the controversy, “I’ve heard first hand about that lobbying,” she says, noting she was on the Women’s Boat to Gaza in 2016, which led to her briefly being detained in Israel. 

But she thinks the issue can be debated in more complexity, saying it is possible to be critical of the state of Israel without being anti-Semitic.

She believes we should be calling out other states too: Saudi Arabia, Australia, the United States — even New Zealand. 

“We must call out oppressive powers and we can absolutely do that without bringing down a whole entire people”.

It’s a typically Davidson response: responding to a question about focus and message discipline by wading into one of the world’s oldest geopolitical disputes.

“I… reject completely ... that you can’t do more than one thing at once,” she says, while adding she’s not naive about the fact that a lack of focus could hurt the party. 

Davidson still has a lot to prove — especially to the hard left of the party who lobbied so effectively to elevate her to the leadership. Criticising the Government from her position is hard — some would say impossible. The searing attacks mounted by Opposition MPs like Judith Collins, and Chris Bishop in question time are impossible if, for all your critique, you still essentially want the Government and its ministers to survive.  

Davidson could go harder in future. She thinks one of the main reasons the Maori Party didn’t survive was because it failed to properly hold the National Government to account. She sees continuing to put pressure on Labour as being essential to the Greens’ survival in Government. 

Davidson's work with her Government colleagues has focused on improving rights for tenants. Photo: Thomas Coughlan

On the other side of the equation, concessions won by Davidson from within Government, like Phil Twyford’s work on improving rental properties, are significant but hardly enough to take back to a hungry electorate in 2020. 

There is the suggestion this has meant some on the hard-left of the party are dissatisfied with her leadership. On Sunday, she will make a speech to party members at the Greens’ summer policy conference about the wellbeing budget and the environment. The conference has some big decisions to make, not least of which is whether to sign the Greens up to another round of Budget Responsibility Rules for the next parliamentary term.

With both Davidson and the membership strongly opposed, its likely the party will junk the rules for the next election. However Labour, which will control the finance portfolio in any future left-wing Government is likely to sign back up.

The looming question for the Greens is whether or not they can force the larger party’s hand – getting them to release, or even loosen the purse strings in any future Government. 

Doing so would require some intense political posturing. The Greens would essentially ask Labour to risk tarring themselves with he brush of profligacy and fiscal irresponsibility — something the party has worked for years to avoid. 

It’s a tall ask, nothing New Zealand First wouldn’t do, but then again that sort of politics isn’t “very Green”. But maybe, now the party is in Government, that’s just what they need.

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