The real idealists – not in a good way


    In 1975, my school class was asked to write an essay about which party we would vote for in the General Election if 12-year-olds were granted the vote. I’m not sure why I found this so exciting; perhaps because no one had ever asked me my political opinion before. I can’t remember my ponderings, but I do remember my teacher, Mrs Snodgrass, telling me in front of the class that I had chosen Labour only because my parents had.

    Hunterville, where I went to school, is in the Rangitīkei electorate, a rural National stronghold since 1938 (apart from two terms of Social Credit’s Bruce Beetham).

    What was the bee in Snodgrass’s bonnet? Perhaps Labour, in her mind, was such an avant-garde choice that only indoctrination by black-poloneck-wearing, bongo-playing Marxist parents could explain it.

    But my parents, I wailed, (making things worse without realising it), were voting Values, not Labour.

    I might as well have said they were doing time. Snodgrass became empurpled and lost the power of speech.

    I cannot recall why I was a Labour supporter as a child (it might have been the song Big Norm), but I’m proud of my (farmer) parents for voting for Values – the world’s first environmental party – when none of their neighbours did. We knew this, because voting tallies were published in the Whanganui Chronicle. I can’t remember the exact figures, but they went something like: National 1,300; Labour 28; Values 2.

    Values was a taste of the future. It made the environment a political issue for the first time and campaigned for homosexual law reform in an era when being a gay man was a criminal offence. In 1979, Values became the first party in Aotearoa to be led by women.

    Even though 83,241 people voted for Values in 1975 – 5.19 percent of the vote – under first-past-the-post the party never got into parliament.

    In 1990, Values, including Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald, merged with other groups to form the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. The first Green MPs entered parliament in 1996, thanks to mixed-member proportional representation: MMP.

    Despite being demonstrably right about issues such as biodiversity, social housing, climate change, homosexual law reform and abortion reform, for years the Greens were painted – as Mike White wrote in North & South in May 2017– as “too dope-smokey”. “A bit wacky, a bit wild. A party of banning and taxing things.”

    “Politically,” White continued, “it suited opponents to characterise the Greens as barmy, a deluded cell of iconoclasts and anarchists. Former Prime Minister John Key labelled their calls for extended child welfare payments ‘barking mad’. He called their plan (with Labour) for a national buyer of electricity ‘barking mad’. Their suggestion trusts should be open to scrutiny was also ‘barking mad’.”

    And yet the party’s great insight – that the environment was an urgent issue requiring political action – has been adopted with varying levels of enthusiasm by all serious political parties today. Even National has accepted the need to decarbonise our energy system.

    “A lot of the idealism of the 1960s was spot on,” as musician Steven Van Zandt once said. “From the environmentalism to the war to the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, you name it.”

    The leftist idealist is a common trope. Idealism, when used pejoratively, is an accusation never made against the right, which is odd when you think about it.

    If idealists work for the abstract world they dream of, and pragmatists focus on the world as it is, then the Green’s focus has (GM obsession aside) been perfectly accurate. Climate change is here. Biodiversity is crashing. They were right.

    Realistic Green Party policies reduce the costs of social suffering and inequality and improve environmental protections, public health and public transport, and as the NZ Herald’s Simon Wilson has explained, make voting Green a logical choice for business.

    On the other hand, there are the parties who seem to have their head in clouds of ideology, with revenue projections in the orbit of planet Pluto.

    The belief that wealth is a moral achievement, that every child has equal opportunity, that the rich will care for the poor, that community groups can build enough social housing, that poverty can be cured by charity, that education can pay for itself, that government austerity will fix mouldy hospitals, creaking infrastructure, tertiary institutions and the environment – these are fairy stories.

    There is an obvious solution, one adopted by the most pragmatic of parties. According to an IRD study, Aotearoa’s 311 wealthiest families, combined wealth: $85 billion, are paying an effective tax rate of 9.5 percent. A salaried worker earning $80,000 per year pays an effective tax rate of 30 percent. The Scrooge McDucks, in other words, are undertaxed. (For an explainer, see the online article Richest families’ effective tax rate is 9.5 percent by Bernard Hickey.)

    Fixing this seems pragmatic to me, although it is funny how policies tend to be called ‘pragmatic’ only when they crush those who are already suffering. • Jenny Nicholls

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