The New Zealand Greens jump to the right

The NZ Green conference on June 3 elected a new male co-leader, Russel Norman, to fill the vacuum left by the death of Rod Donald. It also saw a jump to the right under the tutelage of David McKnight, author of Beyond Right and Left. We republish this review of the conference by Scott Hamilton from NZ political blog, Reading the Maps.

The NZ Greens used the conference to make a determined effort to rebrand themselves as a 'centre' party that could form a government with either National or Labour. In her speech to the conference, female co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons called left and right 'old-fashioned political labels', and said that her party had important things in common with National.

Fitzsimons' remarks were echoed by the conference's keynote speaker, Australian political commentator David McKnight. McKnight is an ex-Marxist who now supports the US occupation of Iraq and insists that Green politics is "not about the rebirth of left" but about "a new kind of conservatism". In a book he published last year called Beyond Left and Right, McKnight pointed to the supposed "historical universalism of the market as a democratic force" and claimed that "it makes environmental sense to use market mechanisms".

McKnight and Fitzsimons set the stage for Russel Norman's first speech as co-leader of the Greens. Norman has always been regarded as one of the more left-wing members of the Greens [he is a former member of Resistance in Australia], so many people were surprised when he spoke to the conference in tones that echoed Fitzsimons and McKnight. Praising the "undoubted power of the market", Norman confirmed that the Greens were open to deal-making with National as well as Labour. Norman even reached out to Simon Upton, architect of the health 'reforms' of the last National government, by saluting Upton's support for a regressive tax on carbon use.

Responses to the speeches by Norman and his comrades Fitzsimons and McKnight have not been slow in coming. Editorialists and commentators in the mainstream media have applauded the "political maturity" and "realism" the Greens have supposedly shown in jettisoning left-wing labels and opening the door to National. On the other hand, many on the Kiwi left have been horrified by the Greens' exercise in rebranding. Activists who had looked to the party as a parliamentary bastion of left-wing policies have been sadly disappointed.

All the fuss caused by the Greens' latest move to the right has meant that little attention has been paid to the finer details of Russel Norman's conference speech. This is a pity, because Norman's speech tells us a great deal about the ideology that underpins the Greens' political agenda. Titled Learning from Easter Island - Crunch Time for Planet Earth, Norman's speech attempted to draw a parallel between the supposed fate of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the 16th and 17th centuries and the trajectory of modern western society. Using Jared Diamond's bestselling book Collapse as a source, Norman claimed that Easter Island was depopulated in the 16th and 17th centuries because of the way its Polynesian inhabitants had treated their environment.

The way that Norman tells the story, the small population and devastated landscape that greeted European visitors to Easter Island in the 18th century were "chilling" products of a "hierarchical" culture that had become obsessed with building giant statues at the expense of the environment. The famous stone heads that cover the island are examples of waste and decadence. Norman warned that unless the Greens get their way "our civilisation will collapse into resource wars and famine just like Rapa Nui". Norman's speech received a standing ovation when it ended, and the Green Party website is proudly offering it to visitors in text and audio formats.

But Russel Norman's use of Easter Island history deserves to be criticised, not acclaimed. Norman has advanced a view of the island's history that makes its people responsible for their own suffering, but there is overwhelming evidence that these people were victims rather than villains. Easter Islanders suffered genocide, not the self-induced 'ecocide' Diamond and Norman describe. It was Europeans, not Polynesians, who killed the islanders in such numbers that they were brought to the brink of extinction by the end of the 19th century. Jared Diamond's account of Easter Island history may have impressed Norman, but it has been demolished by academic historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists. These experts have shown that Diamond was guilty of ignoring a vast amount of textual, oral and archaeological evidence when he wrote the chapter of Collapse that deals with Easter Island. In his paper From Genocide to Ecocide: the Rape of Rapa Nui social anthropologist Benny Peiser summarises the case against Diamond:

While the theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island's self-destruction: an actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui's indigenous populace and its culture. Diamond ignores, or neglects to address the true reasons behind Rapa Nui's collapse. Other researchers have no doubt that its people, their culture and its environment were destroyed to all intents and purposes by European slave-traders, whalers and colonists - and not by themselves! How did the once well-known accounts about the 'fatal impact' of European disease, slavery and genocide - 'the catastrophe that wiped out Easter Island's civilisation' - turn into a contemporary parable of self-inflicted ecocide? In short, why have the victims of cultural and physical extermination been turned into the perpetrators of their own demise?

Drawing on dozens of sources, Peiser describes in meticulous detail the atrocities visited upon Easter Islanders by Europeans - atrocities that Norman completely ignores. Pesier's conclusion is that Diamond and his co-thinkers are guilty of something close to holocaust denial:

It is extremely unlikely that the oral traditions of violence, deportation and genocide belong to the pre-European era, that is, 200 years before the 19th century era when the natives experienced real attacks, violence, genocide, abductions and deportations ... Diamond's theory of the island's self-destruction holds up only as long as the legendary traditions of violence and genocide are relocated to a time before the island's violent encounters with European visitors and raiders. That is why he disregards explicit testimony by the survivors of Rapa Nui's genocide.

Peiser reveals that Diamond's account of Easter Island history was invented by Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian adventurer and author who believed that the Polynesians came from South America. Heyerdahl's theories were discredited by experts on Polynesian culture and history decades ago.

Peiser's arguments have been reinforced by the conclusions of a study completed last year by a team of US archaeologists and anthropologists. Working with Easter Island's museum staff, the team conducted extensive digs on the island over several years. They found that population decline on the island was caused by the slave trade and European diseases and that deforestation was caused by rats rather than islanders. Reporting the team's findings to a conference of the American Anthropological Association, Botson University archaeologist Patricia McAnanay noted that theories like Diamond's "essentially blame the victims".

Russel Norman has been responsible for conveying a completely false picture of Easter Island history to his New Zealand audience. How has he managed to so misrepresent the subject? It is difficult to believe that Norman, who worked for many years as a professional researcher and has a long-standing interest in history, was not aware of the criticism that Diamond's account of Easter Island history has received. It seems likely that, like Diamond himself, Norman has chosen to ignore masses of incovenient evidence because the myth of a Polynesian 'ecocide' suits his worldview and his political agenda.

Like Jared Diamond, the New Zealand Green Party has a tendency to blame all manner of environmental and social problems on the choices that ordinary people make about what goods and services they consume. Most of the Green Party's policies are designed to discipline working class people into consuming 'politically correct', 'green' goods in order to solve social and environmental problems. Not coincidentally, many of these 'green' goods and services are provided by the 'green' businesses that help fund the party and provide a chunk of its membership.

A good example of the Green approach to environmental problems is the tax on carbon use Russel Norman is keen to promote alongside Simon Upton. Like GST, the proposed carbon tax would be an effectively regressive tax, because it would pay no attention to the different incomes of the people at whom it is aimed. A freezing worker in Otahuhu earning $30,000 a year would pay the same rate of tax as an organic farmer making $100,000 a year in the Coromandel.

The Greens' domestic policy of using the state to discipline the working class and to promote locally-owned 'green' businesses implies a certain approach to foreign policy. Although they usually oppose US foreign policy in faraway places like the Middle East, the Greens strongly support the interventions of the Australian and New Zealand governments in the Asia-Pacific region. These interventions are typically made to protect the interests of the locally-owned businesses that the Greens support against the 'big bad' capitalists of countries like the US.

The Greens' support for Anzac interventionism is symbolised by the role they have played in promoting the ongoing recolonisation of the Solomon Islands by Australia and New Zealand. In 2003 the party gave its wholehearted support to the Anzac troops that landed in the Solomons to enforce neo-liberal IMF 'reforms' at the point of a gun. Green support for the intervention has never wavered, despite the fact that the RAMSI occupation force controlled by John Howard's government has taken control of all important government ministries, imprisoned 2 per cent of the Solomons population, cut the public sector workforce by a third, used its firepower to stop strikes and suppressed protests against electoral corruption with tear gas and batons. Green foreign affairs spokesman Keith Locke boasts that "New Zealand forces have done a very good job" in the Solomons, and in April of this year Locke's fellow MP Metiria Turei visited the Solomons to declare the farcical elections overseen by RAMSI "free and fair".

Russel Norman's distortion of Easter Island history fits the purposes of the Green Party in two ways. In the first place, it puts the blame for environmental and social problems squarely on the shoulders of ordinary people, avoiding any tricky references to concepts like capitalism and imperialism. The Polynesians of Easter Island suffered disaster because they were greedy and stupid; today, the working class of New Zealand will suffer a similar disaster if it does not submit to the wise guidance of green capitalism and its political representatives.

On a deeper level, the myth of Easter Island reflects the Green Party's racist attitude toward the Polynesian and Melanesian peoples of the Pacific. The patronising argument that the natives of countries like the Solomons need the 'help' of white Australasia if they are to avoid disaster chimes with Norman's story of a stupid Polynesian people who had spoiled their island paradise by the time Europeans arrived.

The racism of Russel Norman's account of Easter Island history is a reflection of Green Party ideology, not some sort of aberration. Everyone on the left should reject the ideology of 'green capitalism' along with Norman's lies about Polynesian history.


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