The overwhelming victory of Marama Davidson in the Greens co-leadership election sends a very direct message from the party’s activist base to its MPs, particularly its Ministers.
The activists want the party to be the progressive force on the left of New Zealand politics.
Davidson is thoroughly in tune with this strand of thinking, and her election is also a clear signal to anyone left in National who still thinks they can do a deal with the Greens.
Co-leader, James Shaw, was generous in his praise for the defeated candidate, Julianne Genter, with what might be seen as a veiled reference to her more traditional Green values when he described her as the biggest hippie in the caucus.
Perhaps more ominously Davidson’s election will strengthen the Greens’ position on the left of New Zealand politics allowing Labour more latitude to occupy the centre.
That could squeeze National further to the right.
Even so, Shaw yesterday was careful to stress that the Greens are a broad church party who have been making big gains in Government.
He ticked off from the last week alone, the transport policy and the decision to end funding for large-scale irrigation As evidence of the Greens influence within the Government.
And he tantalisingly suggested another big announcement this week would show the influence they are having.
However it is not all peace and love with Labour and NZ First.
Davidson herself conceded that the party is having difficulty coming to a final decision on the waka-jumping legislation.
“This new position of the Greens being in Government, there are going to be policies that come down the pipeline, and Bills that come down the pipeline that we are going to have to grapple with,” she said.
Asked what she had concluded about rank and file membership views on the legislation after her countrywide meetings with members during the leadership election campaign, she said the party was going to need regular, open communication with its members to make sure they knew what was going on.
“That does not mean we are going to fully all agree with every single thing, but we will need to create a space where our members feel they are participating and are pro-actively included, particularly on those controversial issues.”
The stakes are huge.
If the Greens decide to vote against the legislation, not only will it fail; but it will drive a wedge through the middle of the three parties of Government.
There is pressure on the party leadership to vote against; in the audience yesterday was former Green MP, Keith Locke, who has said the bill is abhorrent to a parliamentary democracy.
Davidson is the daughter of the Whale Rider actor, Rawiri Paratene (who was at the leadership announcement); she’s the mother of six children and began life after University as an insurance salesperson for State Insurance. Since then she has moved on to youth work, a profession in which she has played senior roles at the national level and has worked at the Human Rights Commission.
She is fluent in Te Reo and proud of her East Coast and Northland upbringing.
But it is her home in South Auckland which seems to have had the most influence over her politics.
She is close to resigned Green MP, Metiria Turei, and is a passionate advocate on behalf of her low-income South Auckland neighbours.
“In this country, two men own more of the wealth than the poorest 30 percent of the adult population,” she said in her victory speech.
“The richest ten percent have more than half of the wealth while 90 percent of the whole population owns less than half of the entire nation’s wealth.”
She talked passionately about the potential for extinction of much of our indigenous biodiversity; of the rates of homelessness, child poverty, youth suicide and incarceration.
“And that is alongside some of the highest carbon emissions in the developed world and rivers so polluted; we can’t even swim in them anymore.”
She said both the social and the environmental crises were the result of a “flawed and broken” economic model which had devastated many provincial and rural areas during the 1980s.
“We are still feeling that impact here now,” she said.
“Parliament needs to turn out faces to the streets, to communities right up and down this country and understand the hardship and struggle that so many of our people are facing.”
Shaw said Davidson’s campaign for the leadership had energised and inspired the grass roots of the party.
“And I think that is because of your deep roots and your connections to communities that are struggling around the country.
“You lit a wildfire through the party.”
And Shaw argued that the connection that Davidson has with the party’s grass roots was particularly important now they were in Government.
He sees the fact that she is not a Minister as particularly important.
“One of the great risks is that we run off down the path of being in Government, doing all sorts of good work, but we don’t take all of our people and our supporters along with us,” he said.
“If you look at the history of support parties under MMP that has largely been the reason they have fallen apart because they haven’t m,managed to keep their supporters on board.”
But that communication will be a two-way street — and just as Davidson will be explaining what the Greens are doing in Government to the party; the party will be reminding her of what it wants its Ministers to do in Government.
The fact that she was elected by such a large margin — 110 to 34 — suggests that what the members want is a more radical party.
How that will go down with the electorate will get a real test in the Northcote by-election.
The party’s general election candidate, Rebekah Yaung, got 2457 votes; to make the electorate the 27th highest in the country for the party.
It’s a small total to defend, but National Party polling apparently shows that last week’s transport policy, particularly the fuel tax, is already an issue in the electorate.
That is the question now for the Greens; how much the views of their activists are likely to increase their share of the vote.
Meanwhile, Labour can relax with this leadership election showing that the Greens want to move away from Labour and not contest the same vote.