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Darleen Tana, Julie Anne Genter, Golriz Ghahraman and Elizabeth Kerekere have all faced allegations of inappropriate behaviour in the past 13 months
Darleen Tana, Julie Anne Genter, Golriz Ghahraman and Elizabeth Kerekere have all faced allegations of inappropriate behaviour in the past 13 months

OPINIONPoliticsMay 3, 2024

Can the Green Party’s holy mission survive its fallible disciples?

Darleen Tana, Julie Anne Genter, Golriz Ghahraman and Elizabeth Kerekere have all faced allegations of inappropriate behaviour in the past 13 months
Darleen Tana, Julie Anne Genter, Golriz Ghahraman and Elizabeth Kerekere have all faced allegations of inappropriate behaviour in the past 13 months

A week that began in triumph ended in an all-too-familiar disaster for the Green Party. Duncan Greive asks if there’s something in the mission that breaks its best and brightest.

A long, strange week for the Green party began with a fantastic poll result. On one level this is hardly surprising. The national mood is grim, with stubborn inflation and a double dip recession driving a drift up in unemployment. That last bit is in part deliberately engineered by a coalition elected on a theory that the leviathan of the state had grown too enormous and self-involved, and the medicine was an enforced fiscal diet to return it to something closer to a pre-pandemic scale. 

The public service, understandably, didn’t enjoy the prescription, and has resisted its application in various ways. Add in rows over Aukus, fiery Crown-Māori relations, continuing tensions over the war in Gaza and a collapsing media tasked with covering all this and it’s unsurprising that the coalition’s honeymoon was more of staycation at a budget motel than the languorous world tour the 2017 government enjoyed.  

Yet while Labour has forgotten it was in government, as Hayden Donnell mordantly pointed out last week, the electorate has not. So it’s on some level natural that support draining out of the parties of government would go disproportionately to the Greens – part of the previous government, but barely, and certainly untainted by its role.

It’s not just that, though. When everything feels bad all the time, it’s natural to wonder if we need something more than addressing bracket creep and a tweak to immigration settings. Surely there’s something more profound and structural available, if only we dare to dream it? That’s basically the whole point of the Green Party – not just minor variations on that same broad basket of policies, but a whole new way to imagine society. And such a position is not as fringe as it once was.

Julie Anne Genter on the campaign (Photo: Supplied)

So: a political and economic climate seemingly bending toward its belief system, and a big bang of a poll suggesting the party is in its strongest position in years. Former leader James Shaw made his valedictory speech this week, an opportunity to underline the party’s most significant achievement in building a broad consensus on climate legislation. That should have been the week’s story: a great poll, Shaw’s legacy, and the seamless transition to a visionary young leader in Chlöe Swarbrick.

Yet senior MP Julie-Ann Genter’s behaviour in the house, and the explosive allegations of bullying which followed, have ensured that far from basking in the moment and figuring out how to further exploit it, the Green Party ends this week in chaos. 

Not for the first time, either. In little more than a year the party has endured five separate immensely testing challenges. The run began with the bullying allegations levelled at Elizabeth Kerekere, which ultimately led to her resigning from the party. Next came the shoplifting charges against Golriz Ghahraman, which precipitated her resignation from parliament. At the other end of the challenge spectrum was the shock death of Efeso Collins, a beloved new MP who seemed to embody everything the party aspired to be. Shortly after came what should be the most troubling allegation of all: that of migrant exploitation at the family business of MP Darlene Tana.

Then Genter walked across the house and stood over Matt Doocey, a National MP who, in addition to being associate transport minister is also the first minister for mental health – a position he pitched partly due to his own struggles. He has been very public about these, in a way which is strikingly copacetic with the Greens’ general “bring your whole self to work” philosophy. To cross the floor like that and stand yelling over anyone was incredibly strange, but Doocey was a particularly poor choice of target.

The next day brought allegations that it was not an isolated incident, and that the victim this time was even more sympathetic than Doocey. Jenna Lynch brought a powerful package to lead Newshub’s 6pm bulletin (a perfect, poignant reminder of what we lose from July 6), featuring an interview with a florist who claimed Genter approached her furiously in her shop to remonstrate over her opposition to a cycleway. Most troublingly she claimed Genter did so while filming her, manifestly without consent – a fact Greens’ co-leader Marama Davidson conceded.

Genter is not just any MP – she holds the electorate in which the shop sits. She’s a former minister and among the longest-tenured MPs in her party. That any constituent should have to deal with such a person in their place of business, intimidating them and shooting footage for having the temerity to exercise such a basic democratic right is indefensible.

Unless you believe you’re on a holy mission. What ties together both Genter’s incidents is that both seem animated by a belief that making far bigger and bolder moves on climate change, right now, is essential to the earth’s survival. That’s a valid perspective – but it seems to have spilled over into behaviour which is on the face of it bullying and deeply antidemocratic. 

The problem for the Greens is that it now seems like an established pattern. First Kerekere, then Gharaman, then Tana and now Genter. While all their situations are unique, there are too many in quick succession for the party to dismiss as isolated incidents. 

Former Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman (Photo by Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

The common thread is a transgression of norms – and norms which seem very core to the Green Party’s sense of self. Bullying your colleagues. Stealing from small businesses (albeit under manifest distress). Exploiting vulnerable migrant workers. And now intimidating people exercising their democratic rights. 

The reason this should sting more for the Greens than any other party comes back to the way it presents itself – as a party that will not compromise on its principles, and that represents a deeply felt idealism, set against what it implies is the compromise and cronyism of most of the other parties in parliament. There’s a reason why this feels bigger for the Greens than Peters’ spat with Bob Carr (which is, in truth, a bigger story) – because NZ First’s whole schtick is about that kind of behaviour. The Greens’ brand, by contrast, is about a level of moral conviction above and beyond any other party in politics.

Admirable, sure, but not without cost. Recent events suggest such a posture seems to carry a near unbearable weight. The kind of people attracted to that vision of politics will unavoidably feel like they must embody all that it contains. When you set yourself up as the better angels of our being, of the only party that really cares about the climate or seeks to give voice to the powerless, it creates a pair of very powerful forces. 

The first is an expectation that you shall be without sin or human failing, as the sometimes sanctimonious rhetoric of the Greens leads to a level of hyper-vigilance of statements and positions on a vast range of issues – a persistent ideological purity test which few could withstand. The second is an ends-justify-the-means belief in the righteousness of the cause, which radiates out of Genter’s actions.

Those two forces working in tandem must create an awful pressure. The kind that recent events suggest results in good, well-intentioned people cracking with some regularity. For the Green Party, this week is a microcosm of its recent history, and has to prompt a level of introspection. Something about its unflinching dedication to its causes seems to be breaking its best and brightest, and bringing them into hard conflict with the party’s self-image. It’s hard to imagine its ambitious goals being achieved until it can figure out how to stop that happening.

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