Saturday, April 29, 2006

John Armstrong: All sizzle and little sausage

Plenty of sausage, not enough sizzle. Mike Ward's analysis of what is wrong with the Greens will not alter his status as the rank outsider in the four-way tussle to fill Rod Donald's shoes as the party's male co-leader.

However, Ward's sausage analogy illustrates how the leadership election - now formally under way - has inevitably turned into something of a stocktake of the party's progress after nearly a decade in Parliament.

The Greens' sausage - definitely organic, quite possibly soya-bean to boot - is not to everyone's taste. But the Greens have to believe there is a bigger market for it than they are capturing.

In politics, you need the sizzle to sell the message. Ward says he is good at sizzle. But Ward may be all sizzle and little sausage.

If the flamboyant one-term MP was not the best-dressed male MP in the last Parliament, he was certainly the most sartorially expressive, topping that by winning Wellington's wearable arts award.

While in Parliament, he picked a seemingly unwinnable fight with the makers of disposable nappies. Nappies won. The Great Nappy Campaign was not a success. Ward spent much of the last election campaign riding around the North Island on a recumbent-type tricycle. He would be a very different co-leader. But not one that even the tolerant Greens could contemplate.

Ward's candidacy speaks of the time when the Greens played at politics. That time is over.

The buzzword within the party is "realism". It is a coded way of saying electing Ward or Nandor Tanczos as co-leader would send the wrong message to voters and cut across the party's bottom-line priority of growing its vote.

Tanczos, a far more serious prospect than Ward, has countered by seeking to reinvent himself as a more rounded politician than someone who has been seen as fixated with cannabis law reform. He is handicapped by lingering doubts about his commitment to being an MP, let alone co-leader. He has sought to answer that criticism by displaying huge energy and drive since returning to Parliament following Donald's death.

He has also been quick to turn the co-leadership contest into a debate about the party's future direction. He had to.

The acknowledged front-runner, Russel Norman, has manoeuvred behind the scenes to postpone such a major debate until after the party's Queen's Birthday weekend conference where the co-leader will be chosen. Norman argued that party direction should be driven by grassroots members rather than becoming hostage to the personalities and campaigning strategies of those fighting over Donald's job.

The 100 or so delegates who will determine the co-leader under the STV voting system favoured by the party arguably have enough on their plate in determining who would work best alongside Jeanette Fitzsimons. But not only that. The decision must take into account the likelihood that the next parliamentary term will be Fitzsimons' last and a replacement will have to be found.

Dual leadership - a nod to gender equality - could be a millstone around the party's neck. That was disguised by the chemistry between Fitzsimons and Donald - a chemistry which had Donald stepping back and allowing Fitzsimons to front as the face of the Greens when there was not room for both on a platform.

The order of seniority would be most obviously preserved by electing a non-MP - Norman or the remaining candidate, Unitech lecturer Dave Clendon.

Fitzsimons has already hinted that is her preference. She has complained the party membership has become too reliant on its MPs. Norman or Clendon - both having served in various backroom roles - could concentrate on rebuilding and reinvigorating the party organisation without the distraction of Parliament, while Fitzsimons could concentrate on parliamentary duties.

Squeezed out of the picture, Tanczos could hardly allow the election to be defined on terms favourable to Norman.

The Rastafarian has made a play for those who believe the party should retain a strong environmentalist thrust which should not be overshadowed by the increasing emphasis on "social justice" - the philosophical background from which Norman springs.

Tanczos has cleverly linked this argument to the other major question taxing members' minds - the party's relationship with Labour.

Tanczos is saying the party should avoid being constantly marooned to the left of Labour, which leaves it in a position of weakness when bargaining with Labour.

Worse, the Greens are vulnerable to the emergence of a true left-wing alternative to Labour or to Labour shifting leftwards - just as Act was steamrollered by National pushing to its right.

Staking out a more independent position on the political spectrum would also attract voters sympathetic to Green messages but who feel the party is too far to the left.

Tanczos is seeking to redefine the contest in his terms by offering a strategy which deals with the party's overriding priority: how to stop flirting with parliamentary extinction by hovering too close to the 5 per cent threshold and instead register closer to 10 per cent support, which would enable the Greens to exert far more pressure on Labour.

With the party's strongest support in the inner cities and enclaves around Nelson, the Coromandel and Waiheke Island - all home to alternative lifestylers - Norman has been talking of the Greens making the leap into the suburbs by picking up on mainstream issues such as higher petrol prices, lack of public transport and latent fears that global warming is escalating. That thinking is shared by Clendon.

Both candidates would knock on the doors of business and sector groups to extend the party's reach and to stop people automatically attaching the "whacky" label to everything the Greens do.

They will not be stating it directly but the implication of them saying they can best communicate the Green message is that Tanczos is too typecast to open doors so far closed to the party.

Their candidacies are all about the party making the next step up by looking much more professional and sounding much more focused.

It is something the Australian Greens have successfully taken to heart. Image matters in politics.

Tanczos' dreadlocks and Ward's dandyish suits simply get in the way of the message - as did Donald's braces.

If the Greens want credibility in the suburbs, they are being told they have to smarten up their act - literally. Otherwise, it is going to be fizzle rather than sizzle.

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