The Greens get radical

The Greens have got their mojo back.

After years of watering down policies and desperately trying to make themselves more respectable to the mainstream, they have made an abrupt shift to the left. This puts the party more in sync with those voters who want genuine change – perhaps picking up on a greater mood of radicalism in parts of the electorate.

The Greens’ sudden embrace of the radical zeitgeist during the weekend might even come to be seen as a turning point for the party. Co-leader Metiria Turei’s launch of a radical new welfare policy, accompanied by a radical admission of her past welfare deceit, was the most interesting thing the party has done, perhaps ever.

Radical social welfare reform
The reaction to the Greens' bold new welfare policy programme has been euphoric on the political left. Chris Trotter, who had previously been highly critical of the Greens moderate election campaign, suddenly launched into proclamations of Green greatness: “Metiria Turei has rescued the 2017 general election from the timidity and moral squalor into which it was fast descending. In a speech that brought tears to her listeners’ eyes and cheers to their throats, the Greens’ co-leader carried her party out of the shadows of moderation and into the bright sunlit uplands of radicalism that have always been its natural habitat. The Green Party’s AGM of 15-16 July 2017 will go down in history as the moment when it repudiated the “insider’s” devilish bargains – and reclaimed its soul” – see: The bright sunlit uplands of radicalism: Metiria Turei and the Greens set the 2017 election on fire.

To Trotter, the party’s new welfare policies are “revolutionary” and he hopes the response from the public, or at least those at the bottom of the heap will be equally radical. Trotter says that Turei’s proclamations are “nothing less than a call to arms. Requiring the Ministry of Social Development to stop treating its ‘clients’ as second-class citizens: making a bonfire of work tests, drug tests, bedmate tests and all the other oppressive means of ‘sanctioning’ beneficiaries will have the same electrifying effect as the cry that swept through Paris on July 14, 1789 – ‘To the Bastille!’” He goes on to compare Turei, with her admission of benefit fraud to help her poor family, as akin to “Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables.

Similarly, a Southland Times editorial – The system made her do it – asks “So should we hum a few bars from Les Miserables as backdrop to Metiria Turei's acknowledgement of benefit fraud?” The newspaper says any question about the wisdom of whether Turei should have made her declaration or not is merely a “beltway” one, and although it expresses sympathy with her (“It would take a stony heart to judge her harshly in personal or political terms”), ultimately the bigger issue is the new welfare policy.

Missing radicalism located
According to Simon Wilson, the announcements were significant in the evolution of the party as, until now, “the Greens' amiable but sometimes over-cautious co-leaders, have established trustworthy and likeable but bold has eluded them” – see: The Greens roar into election mode. He says “arresting policy” has also “been missing” but in the weekend the party finally put forward “policy materially different to anything their opponents are selling.”

It was as if Metiria Turei were channelling Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. And in fact, Sanders’ US campaign was cited during the weekend as something to emulate. Tim Murphy reported: “Sarah Helm, the campaign's organiser, opened the public part of the Greens' meeting by declaring this election needed that something extra. The conference has placed the Greens on the risky side of radical. Probably just where they want to be. Citing the campaign successes of Bernie Sanders in the US Democratic primaries and the Dutch Green Party, she said the party knew it wouldn't grow the Green vote and change the government if it didn't have "a more ambitious policy platform than ever before’.” – see: Greens go for the big bang.

Murphy describes the shift to the left as giving the Greens a new point of difference, and repositioning the party “firmly at the most ‘progressive’ left-hand end of the progressive left side of politics.”

Turei is effectively asking New Zealanders “Which side are you on?” says Stacey Kirk in her column, Metiria Turei makes a risky admission, politically and legally. This is an “ideological line in the sand” that will polarise voters into deciding just how much they care about economic inequality. Kirk says: “In Turei's startling admission and vow, to significantly bolster the role of the welfare state, she's counting on New Zealanders to not only voice concern over inequality but to collectively do something about it that may go against the nature of their very core.”

Kirk also suggests the new shift is a manoeuvre to shore up the Greens’ core vote and reassure those who fear the Greens have become too moderate: “Where the Greens have tried for years to downplay their most left of leanings, play up their economic credentials, some core Greenies may have been getting concerned at just what the modern Green caucus was prepared to give up to get into Government.”

So just how radical is the policy really? Long-time social policy academic and welfare campaigner Susan St John gives the policy a definite thumbs up, and points to “two breathtakingly bold policies buried in the depths” – see: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

The first allows “sole parents to keep their sole parent support when they attempt to repartner.  She is the one to say, not WINZ, when she is in a partnership in the nature of marriage.” The second is “making the In Work Tax Credit available to all low-income families. Wow. Wow. Just WOW. This is the bit that is missing from Labour’s Families Package. The Greens know that you simply can't cure child poverty by relying on increasing the Family Tax Credit (FTC) alone. Of course that has to be done too to restore the lost value for working low-income families.  But increasing the FTC by enough to address child poverty would be prohibitively expensive. The Greens know that the In-Work Tax Credit doesn’t work as a work incentive and simply punishes families when they fall on hard times.”

Of course, those on the political right also regard the package as radical but in a very bad way. David Farrar says “The Greens policy on welfare is truly terrible. It reverses policies which have successfully dropped the numbers on welfare to record lows” – see: The Greens condemning kids to poverty plan.

Farrar is particularly concerned about getting rid of all sanctions and responsibilities for beneficiaries: “Basically the Greens want to abolish welfare fraud by getting rid of all the requirements around honesty and looking for work! This is like abolishing crime by getting rid of the Crimes Act! We have one of the most generous welfare systems in the world. But it is based on there being both rights and responsibilities.”

Could the Greens' radical policy actually be implemented?
It’s big and bold but to what extent could such a policy actually be implemented? According to Isaac Davison, “Andrew Little said his party would be open to adopting parts of the Green policy, in particular scrapping some of the ‘perverse’ benefit sanctions” – see: Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei admits she lied to WINZ, as party announces radical welfare reforms.

But both Labour and the Greens have signed up to their budget responsibility rules, which will make it difficult to afford. And Labour will be reluctant to consider any of the substance of the proposals.

Leftwing blogger Steven Cowan says: “the best Labour can come up with is a promise to take a look at some of the "parts" of the Green's welfare platform. That will probably mean it won't go beyond the title page and the introduction. While Metiria Turei might say the Greens will negotiate with Labour once they are in government, most of us will have no confidence that the Greens' welfare policies will remain unscathed by such negotiations” – see: Labour: A fly in the Green’s welfare ointment.

Finally, anyone in Dunedin this evening is welcome to attend a University of Otago Politics Department open lecture/discussion on the upcoming election – see: Election 2017: How healthy is New Zealand’s democracy? I’ll be participating, taking about “The new radical political zeitgeist and its impact on the 2017 New Zealand general election.”

Tomorrow’s column will look in more depth at Metiria Turei’s welfare declaration.

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