Matt McCarten: Hats off to Greens for seamless transfer of power

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I've always liked Green Party MP Sue Bradford.

The first time we met was during a dispute with an employer which had locked out its workers. Bradford, with her husband Bill, joined an occupation of the worksite I'd organised. The scenario being: the boss locked the workers out of their jobs, so the workers locked the boss out of his offices. The cops were called but with dozens of low-paid elderly women workers passively blocking the doorways, they gave up.

The cause was just. Agreement was reached where the workers got their jobs back and the boss got his office back. Bradford was a prominent leader in the unemployment cause and a master tactician at confronting injustice by direct action. I was grateful for her support.

Bradford, like me, tends to polarise people. We worked closely when I was president of the New Labour Party and she was its vice-president.

Several times over the years we've been on different sides. But she's always been a consistent fighter for the disadvantaged. As a prominent leader of the unemployed movement in the 1980s and an MP now she hasn't changed that much and my respect for her remains.

So when Jeanette Fitzsimons announced she was stepping down and Bradford put her hand up for the job I assumed she'd get it.

I thought Sue Kedgley would be a possible contender as I didn't know much about Metiria Turei. Since she became an MP she seems to have acquitted herself reasonably well. But I was a bit unsure of her seriousness given her background as a joke candidate for the McGillicuddy Party and then as fringe legalise cannabis electoral candidate.

But it's clear the party activists wanted a strong contest for their future leadership and they got it. Turei obviously impresses them and she won over the majority. Unlike the other parties, the Greens really try hard to make an effort to have their members decide their leaders.

National and Labour, on the other hand, follow a traditional parliamentary intrigue process. Their system requires MPs to plot against an incumbent. When they think they have a majority they carry out an ambush at a caucus meeting. If they lose the first time they try again later. After a successful assassination the winner reshuffles the caucus to reward supporters and dump opponents. Ordinary party members are expected to fall in behind the new party boss until they are deposed.

The Greens and Maori leadership are constitutionally elected by their conferences each year. The reality, however, is that once elected an incumbent has the role for life. Any challenge is not seen as a healthy democratic action but as an almost hostile act against the party. Other countries recognise this farce and have resolved the problem by setting term limits for their political leaders.

Putting aside that glaring inadequacy, the Greens do have a healthy process once a vacancy occurs. The nominations for their parliamentary leaders are open to any party member, not just caucus members. The unusual election of Russel Norman, a non-MP at the time, to replace Rod Donald was a huge success and a break from the usual self-perpetuating party elections.

I thought the other healthy aspect of the leader nominees is that they are required to travel the country and attend branch membership meetings together. There they make their presentations and answer questions. The branches then elect delegates to go to their annual conference with either a mandated vote to support one of the candidates or they may choose to give them a free vote.

Given that each branch's position was genuinely known by the time everyone got to the conference last week in Dunedin, there was no surprise when Turei's victory was announced. That's why there was little fallout over last weekend's result. Most people will accept with good grace their favoured candidate lost if they think the result was a genuine outcome of an informed choice by many others. Having it as an open process where all members can actively participate (as opposed to a passive postal ballot) gives any new leader a genuine and real mandate.

Unlike when Norman and Nandor Tanczos competed for the other leader vacancy, the Bradford and Turei contest wasn't over the party direction or policy. They are both identified more as social justice campaigners rather than environmentalists and are on the liberal-left of the political spectrum. I'm told it was more about having a fresh face than anything else. If that's true, then even in the touchy-feely world of green politics it seems older women get traded for newer versions.

That aside, the victory for the Greens last weekend was not only about their example on how to conduct a leadership battle, but also that the party is now unquestionably bigger than the individual. Jeanette Fitzsimons has been the intellectual heart of the Green Party since the start. Yet there has been a seamless transfer of power to two new leaders who until recently were relatively unknown. The brand Green is here to stay and Turei and Norman are going to be around for a while.

Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald should take a bow.

- Herald on Sunday

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