Marama Davidson has been elected Green Party co-leader. Thomas Coughlan reports on what this means for the party.

The Green Party has elected Marama Davidson as its new co-leader. Davidson entered Parliament in 2015 following a career in human rights advocacy.

“It is the greatest honour of my life to be elected the co-leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand,” said Davidson. 

“I will be a leader that strives for consensus in everything I do,” she said.

It comes at the end of a long period of turmoil for the Green party following previous co-leader Metiria Turei’s resignation ahead of the election last September. She resigned following a scandal over benefit payments she wrongfully claimed in the 1990s. The scandal split the party and saw the Greens lose six seats.

The race to replace Turei was only formally announced in February. Campaigning finished on March 26 and voting only finished yesterday. It was conducted by a delegate vote, which is similar to the way presidents are elected in the United States.

Green party members vote for their preferred candidate at branch deliberations. Each branch sends a number of representative delegates proportionate to its size to vote for their preferred candidate. Davidson won a resounding victory winning 110 to Genter’s 34.

Davidson was widely-tipped to become the leader. Her candidacy was seen as a sensible response for a minor party that might struggle to define itself during its first term in Government and drop out of Parliament altogether in 2020. Other parties like the Alliance and New Zealand First had struggled to breach the five percent threshold to re-enter Parliament after a term in Government. 

Davidson mentioned this concern in her acceptance speech.

“My number one goal as co-leader is to make sure that doesn’t happen to us,” Davidson said.

Davidson is not a minister and is therefore not bound to support Government decisions she disagrees with. Davidson can consolidate the party’s base and appeal to its radical sentiments by distancing herself from some of the less palatable concessions of her colleagues. 

This provides a contrast to both co-leader James Shaw and Julie Anne Genter who must support the government, at least on matters pertaining to their portfolios. 

However, Davidson told Newsroom last week that she is not wedded to remaining outside Government and would follow the decision of party members on whether or not to become a minister should the opportunity arise at the next election.

This is a likely prospect. Genter herself told Newsroom in a previous interview that the Greens’ internal party committee recommended in both 2014 and 2017 that both co-leaders should become members of the executive. 

There are downsides too. Genter talked-up the fact ministers have extra resource and visibility to make the case for reelection. There is also a negative precedent for the one-in-one-out tactic. The Maori Party went into the 2017 election with one of its co-leaders, Marama Fox outside the executive and failed to win a single seat.

Where to now

The Green Party has a flat hierarchy which leaves its leaders relatively less powerful than those of parties like National and Labour. They are important figures for articulating policy and fronting debates, but do not have any particular power as part of the party’s constitution. 

But Green Party leaders have had a significant role in steering the party towards certain policies and ideas. Russel Norman brought the party closer to government by making peace with some aspects of market economics. That legacy was continued by Turei and Shaw. 

Davidson is seen as a return to the more radical past of the Greens. This side of the party has been shut out of the leadership for nearly a decade. It lost the male co-leadership when Norman beat Nándor Tánczos in 2005 and the female co-leadership when Turei beat Sue Bradford in 2009.

She is opposed to a renewal of the restrictive Budget Responsibility Rules  Shaw signed up to in 2017.

The rules commit Labour and the Greens to budgets that generate surpluses and keep government spending at historic levels relative to the overall size of the economy. The rules commit the coalition to paying down debt to 20 percent of GDP and keeping government spending at roughly 30 percent of GDP, the historic average of the past 20 years.

Davidson mentioned the need to remedy a decade of low spending on Sunday.

“Newsflash, Steven Joyce was right, there is a fiscal hole,” she said before citing the state of Middlemore Hospital as evidence of the previous National Government’s skewed priorities.

She spoke scathingly of the rising inequality in New Zealand and the need to improve the conditions of the poorest. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson shows no sign of loosening the strait-jacket so this could be a point of contention in 2020. 

Davidson is also supportive of new and higher taxes, including higher income tax, which Labour has ruled-out of its Tax Working Group discussions. 

The election saw the party wrestle with the question of whether one of the party’s co-leaders needed to be Maori. The party’s constitution binds the party to honour the Treaty, but does not commit it to having a Maori co-leader. Had the party elected Genter it would have been the only party in Parliament without Maori in its leadership. 

Davidson has also suggested she wants to grow the party’s support among minorities and in the regions. Many of these voters will never have voted Green before.

Davidson will need to be confirmed at the Party’s conference in June. 

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