In the wake of Metiria Turei’s resignation as Greens co-leader there has been much discussion about a perceived tension between the emphasis on social justice or environmental issues. Don Rowe tracked down Greens icon Nándor Tánczos to get his thoughts.
Nándor Tánczos is undeniably one of the grooviest cats to ever make their way into the government of New Zealand. A former radical activist and leader of the Wild Greens, Tánczos was something of an anomaly even amongst the Green party at large during the early aughts. But beneath the dreadlocks is a capable political brain; during his three terms in parliament Tánczos paved the way for the Clean Slate Act, the Waste Minimisation Act and even the growing of hemp in New Zealand. Though he cut his hair in a purification ceremony two years after leaving parliament, Tánczos remains a practicing Rastafarian and these days resides in Whakatāne, far from the bureaucratic crush. As a member of the Whakatāne District Council he continues to be politically engaged, however, and had plenty to say about the struggles of the Green party in 2017.
Being in parliament you dealt with a lot of stereotyping, how does that intense scrutiny impact you personally? People making value judgements on you based on very little information about a small snippet of your life and so on.
It’s a very difficult world because you are in the public scrutiny and unlike some forms of notoriety or being in the media, in politics there are a whole lot of resources focused on pulling you down and investigating any dirt to be found, so it’s a pretty tough life and it’s a 24/7 kind of thing. Your family suffer because you’re away from home an enormous amount, and if you’re in the firing line over anything then your family really feels that. That’s one of the hardest things. It’s pretty tough and you’ve gotta have a pretty thick skin but even then it would be pretty rare that at least some of it didn’t get through.
Particularly in a situation like the one Metiria Turei was in. What are your impressions? Do you think she has been treated fairly by the media or the public?
I can’t say about the public, I wouldn’t want to assume that, but there are people who have gotten behind her quite strongly and others who have been very critical – but certainly the media by and large have been incredibly unfair on her. She’s had some very strong support from some of the bloggers, there’s been some very good analysis by people like Bryce Edwards, but I think in terms of the mainstream media it’s been incredibly unfair. You’re dealing with pretty minor things that were done more than 20 years ago, things done by her as a solo mum trying to raise a family and trying to study to better herself, and you compare those to some of the things that our own Prime Minister did as a minister of the crown who took far greater sums of money that he was not entitled to – and far more unethically and for no other reason than that he could. There’s no argument that he faced any kind of financial hardship.
And of course the reason why is because we have an incredibly vicious attitude in our political world towards beneficiaries. They’re treated very harshly and have been the whipping boy for politicians for quite a number of decades now. That’s all kind of embedded in the system. And the other thing is that she made a statement about it, announced it to the world, in the context of saying ‘actually, we treat beneficiaries really badly,’ and that was the thing that made people upset. She was siding with the poor and the oppressed and that’s what our political world cannot stand.
There are some very uncomfortable themes around class, but also race and gender.
We expect abject grovelling from beneficiaries. There’s class, there’s gender, and there’s ethnicity all tied up in this and we expect grovelling gratitude for any crumb from those people. And that’s the interesting thing, the whole episode has really highlighted that and brought that in front of our eyes. That’s why I say I don’t want to make any assumptions about the public because I think the media, the mainstream media, have really shown their stripes and I think that the public has been able to see that. It’s polarised people, there are people who support her and those who are really opposed to her, but it’s brought that contradiction starkly in front of our face and when the dust settles we’re going to have to find some way of resolving that in our own national psyche.
It seems like there’s a fine line to tread where these discussions are important but at the same time the Green party has in some people’s opinion come along way from what they perceive as the original mandate of being more intensely focused on the environment. Now it sometimes appears to be more about issues of social justice and politics of that nature.
There’s a couple of points I’d make. The first one is that anyone who says that the Green party should stick to the environment fundamentally fails to understand what Green politics is by its very nature. The Greens aren’t the ‘environment party’, they’re the Green party. It also fails to understand what humans are. Humans are a part of nature and our social world is part of the environment as much as the native forest is. We’re part of this world, not some separate thing, and the relationships we have between one another and with the rest of life are all part of the same thing. Green politics has never been about preserving the environment, it’s always been about the relationships we have with each other and the rest of life on this planet. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is back in 1999 when the Green party was first elected, the caucus that I was in, the Greens have always had an extremely strong social justice focus. It’s interesting because back then the criticism was that we only thought about the environment, and it wasn’t even true then. In fact if you look at what the MPs in that first caucus campaigned on, there were more people working in the areas of social justice or social issues than there were people working on the environment. It’s never been true that that is what we did and that’s what we were exclusively interested in, and at the time we were criticised when people thought that’s what we did.
People’s impressions of what political parties do and what they’re about are often quite far removed from the reality of what the party has actually done. People form these general impressions through snatches in the media and it takes a very long time for those impressions to change. Often that’s based as much on what someone said at the cafeteria as what the party is actually doing. Look at the National party – there’s this ongoing perception that seems very difficult to dislodge that the National party are good economic manages but all the evidence says that is just not true. But there’s this abiding perception that National are good economic managers. To me that’s completely unrelated to anything that they actually do when they’re in government.
Another thing I’d say is that when it comes to Metiria and people saying the Greens should stick to the environment, there’s a misunderstanding that’s been spread again in the mainstream media – and I fear that it will take hold – that the Greens lost support in the latest poll because of what Metiria did around beneficiary issues, and I think that that is a complete misunderstanding. People say she made a mistake and should never have said that, but as she said, the Greens have tried everything to get that discussion up in public. It’s been very difficult to get any traction. Well, this has people talking about it, so it worked in the sense of that objective.
That goes directly back to what you were saying around the current media climate. Everybody was clamouring for the scalp. In that environment, is it possible to turn things around?
That’s right. Everyone wants to claim the scalp. I think the challenge for the Greens has been to control the narrative and that’s become very difficult. I imagine they predicted that to some degree, that once that came out it was always going to be difficult to stay on top of it. The problem is what they couldn’t predict is a change of leadership in Labour. I think it will be a challenge to get on top of the narrative again, but I think they could do it. Now is an opportunity to regroup and look at ways to seize the initiative. The real challenge for the Greens is in terms of support on election day. The simple mathematical reality for the Greens is that they do well when Labour is doing badly and they do badly when Labour is doing well. That’s how it’s always been historically, and the difficulty with that is that it makes the Greens very strong in opposition and it tends to weaken them in government. If there’s enough of a swing to Labour to get a Labour-led government, it hurts the Greens. So there’s a more fundamental long-term strategic issue that I think the Greens have to grapple with. How do they solve that dilemma? Because until they do it’s always going to be difficult to be the substantial part of government they need to be in order to make the changes we need to see.
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