Opinion: Julie Anne Genter would deliver effective tonic of political realism for Greens as they up weigh who should be co-leader

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

Metiria Turei could have said a lot during the seven or so months which have passed since her hugely dramatic and equally traumatic exit from politics.

No doubt there has been no shortage of offers giving her the opportunity to spill the beans on her roller coaster ride to oblivion just as last year's election campaign was gathering speed.

In the space of little more than four weeks, she went from nearly Leader of the Opposition to nobody after her confession of once having been a welfare cheat predictably rebounded on her on a scale which her unrelenting self-righteousness guaranteed she never saw coming.

For subsequently maintaining her silence, she deserves no little credit.

Her ghost stalks the Greens, however. In particular, it is stalking the upcoming election of a new female co-leader to fill the vacancy created by her spectacular demise.

In some quarters of the party, Turei the Welfare Fraudster is both martyr and saint; a veritable Joan of Arc and Mother Theresa all rolled into one.

She may have failed on her intention to transform the nationwide debate on poverty. What matters is that she tried.

There is consequently huge guilt about the way she was treated by the party following her decision to go public.

The blame for the opprobrium that was subsequently heaped upon her was apportioned almost exclusively to the media. That was a cop out of massive proportions.

It was much easier to blame the media for her fate, however, than admit to the real reason why she had to quit.

Her consistent refusal to divulge any detail about the circumstances surrounding her fraud was tarnishing the party's image.

The party's stance was untenable. It was blaming the media for doing their job. It was saying it was okay for James Shaw to join the Opposition hunt for the scalps of Bill English and Todd Barclay, National's errant former Clutha-Southland MP.

The application of similar scrutiny to Turei's behaviour was somehow deemed out of bounds.

Turei's downfall was the first time in a very long time that the Greens had felt the heat of the media blowtorch on its highest setting.

Now that they are party to government, such bouts of relentless questioning and grilling by the media will be the norm. The Greens can expect it to occur on anything and everything no matter how big or small or how important or trivial.

The two major parties have long intituted tried and trusted procedures for coping with both the highly predictable and the completely unforeseen.

And if there is one constant in politics, it is to expect the unexpected.

The question is whether the Greens have the necessary political management mechanisms in place to ensure the party is not an accident constantly waiting to happen.

The omens are not good. The party's handling of the New Zealand First-instigated legislation which will block MPs from party-hopping has been as shambolic as it has been shabby.

As the minister responsible for Statistics New Zealand, Shaw's handling of the numerous census-related gripes was adequate rather than exemplary.

The Greens are in a very odd space. A party which has seen the number of votes it previously received cut by nearly 40 per cent does not usually find itself part of any governing arrangement.

Backing for the party is hovering just above the five per cent threshold. Normally that would focus the mind. The Greens' minds are very much focussed elsewhere.

The abiding impression of the Greens is of lambs locked in the top deck of a truck-and-trailer unit.

So consumed are they with the grassy vistas opening up in front of them that they are oblivious to their drawing ever closer to journey's end, namely the holding yards of the local freezing works.

One senior party figure should be exempted from such accusations of complacency, however.

The playing field would appear to be too heavily tilted against Julie Anne Genter overhauling the front-runner in the two-horse race to become female co-leader.

As a Maori and someone deeply rooted in the party's "social justice" wing, Marama Davidson's candidacy ticks all the right boxes.

She is not a minister. She is thus positioning herself as the voice of the party. That is important.

The Greens have long toyed with the concept of one of its co-leaders not being part of a ministry, instead being a two-way conduit ensuring relations between the hierarchy and the wider party do not sour as a result of the compromises and concessions required for a multi-party government to function effectively.

Davidson is second in the rankings of the party's eight-strong caucus. Genter is third. Were Genter to become female co-leader, it would be regarded as a slap in the face for Davidson. Moreover, given Davidson is the closest thing to a clone of Turei, it would also be regarded as a slap in the face for the memory of Turei.

These obstacles will have forced Genter to take a different tack as she seeks to woo members ahead of the party-wide vote on the co-leadership which will be completed early next month.

Her carefully coded message is that installing Davidson in the post would see the resumption of the status quo prior to Turei's departure.

That might have been okay in Opposition, but it is hopeless in the white heat of government.

During a head-to-head debate with Davidson last week conducted by Stuff, Genter was surprisingly frank. She indicated an unhappiness that the decision to highlight Turei's bout of welfare fraud back in the 1990s had followed consultation with only a select few in the Greens' caucus.

She bemoaned the absence of a viable risk management plan should Turei's admission backfire — which of course it did.

Davidson's push on poverty would drive the Greens even further down the dead end street which sees them run smack bang into Labour. It would see them competing with the Prime Minister for ownership of child poverty as an issue. That would not be a contest that Davidson could hope to win.

Genter made a brutally honest assessment of the Greens' chances at the 2020 election, saying recovery to the 11 per cent backing that the party received in 2014 would be a "good start".

To reach that level would require recapturing the roughly 95,000 votes which switched to Labour in 2017 — a task made even more arduous by having to get the better of such a formidable campaigner as Ardern.

Genter is issuing a big wake-up call. That is sufficient reason why the party needs her as co-leader. The challenge for the party membership in coming weeks is to switch from supping on the sickly sweet political correctness being flogged by Davidson and start imbibing the bitter, but far more effective tonic of political realism advertised by Genter.