It Ain’t Easy Being Green: an Unfinished Conversation with Rod Donald

Listener 3 June 2006.

Keywords: Environment & Resources; Political Economy & History;

The last time I talked with Rod Donald was shortly after the 2005 election, walking along Lambton Quay. Rod was very disappointed with the election outcome, for his Green Party lost voter share, and hence seats. He thought that the scurrilous anti-Green election pamphlet did a lot of damage. I said that anyone who thought it valid was too ignorant to vote Green, although it damaged the Greens when the new government was being formed.

But I, too, was puzzled by the fall-off in Green support. I had taken the view that they had a core of six or so percent that would expand over time. But in 2005 they got only 5.3 percent, 20,000 fewer votes than in 2002.

I got on well with Rod, but I especially valued him as a member of the pragmatic wing of the Greens. Like the rest of them, he was passionate about sustainability and justice, but he saw the need to engage with the market. In contrast, the other wing (assuming there are only two) was anti-market (and usually anti-capitalist). Like Rod, I am a pragmatist attracted to using the market to solve certain economic problems not because of some compulsive ideological disorder, but because it often seems to be the best practical way of dealing with them. I know more than most about the market’s defects. But often a market-based solution seems to be the best way. If it is not, I advocate non-market solutions, but very often the solution retains a market element.

I am not saying that this was Rod’s position, but we could discuss these things. I valued the Just Trade newsletter from his electoral office as it provided a critical view of the “free trade” debate. Too many of the advocates of free trade ignore its downsides, which can include job loss, inequality, cultural destruction and the compromising of sustainability. But there are also upsides. I find myself making trade-offs between the two. Just Trade was helpful by reminding us of the downsides. I miss it.

In the end, I have concluded that the specialisation from international trade is broadly beneficial, that to get this benefit small countries, such as New Zealand, need a “rule of law” in the international system to protect themselves from the bullies. So I am cautiously supportive of the system that we call the “World Trade Organization”. Sure, there are parts of it that are defective – sometimes very defective – but I want to improve the WTO rather than reject it.

Rod would have had some sympathies with this view, without totally agreeing, and we would go hammer and tongs over which improvements and how urgent they were. But I’m not sure his views were widespread among the Greens. As for any Opposition party, they are much better at criticising than offering a constructive alternative. (Although, bless them, they have been less willing to leap into scandal mode.) But without one it is hard for the analyst to make sense of the party’s position. Wailing about the downside of an existing policy is not an alternative policy.

That does not solve the problem of the missing voters. The Green core must be smaller than I thought – or Rod hoped. In any election there are votes from those who are not as committed as the Greens might wish. (To contrast Rod’s despair at those turned off by the pamphlet, I cited Labour-sympathetic friends who voted Green, because they wanted a more left-wing government than they got.)

The Greens are torn between resisting change and being at its forefront. That generates their two wings. The nostalgic wing, where many of the core voters and party workers reside, claims to talk about the future but defends the past. The pragmatic wing faces the prospect of its good ideas being adopted by the major parties. But without their radicalism, the adoption would be much slower. Rod was a part of the policy and political management of that tension. Today the Greens look less balanced.

Rod reached Bowen House to veer off to his office. We said that we would continue the conversation. I never saw him again. This column is that continuation.