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I am privileged to have been the official representative of the Green Party of NZ at the US Greens Presidential Nomination Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The main purpose of the 5 day convention was to determine who (if anyone) the party would nominate to run against George W Bush and John Kerry for the Presidency of the US.
The party was deeply divided over the issue of supporting a either a low-profile Green (there were several who had put forward their names) or a high-profile non-Green (specifically Ralph Nader). Prior to the voting, passions were running high on both sides of the debate and it was clear that, whatever the outcome, there would be many angry and disappointed people. And now, after the vote, passions have continued to run high, even though the victory by David Cobb was reasonably decisive. I fear it is a debate which will continue to divide the US Greens until a genuinely competent and high profile Green candidate emerges in the future. (My own observation is that there is such a candidate who would be ideal for the next Presidential election, but I’ll come back to that issue a little later.)
David Cobb's campaign was well structured and most of the less well organized campaigns swung in behind him as the ballots proceeded to eliminate the minor candidates. Ralph Nader (in my opinion) did himself a whole lot of no good on two fronts: (i) he announced that he was running as an independent weeks before the Green convention, but nonetheless wanted the party to embrace (if not formally endorse) his candidacy and (ii) he failed to attend the convention in person. I feel that the second point was particularly relevant, given the divisive nature of the selection process. The human touch of fronting up to his opponents in person may well have swung the decision his way.
Anyway, David Cobb has won the party's nomination and he now faces several months of fighting to make any kind of headway with the media, who are just as locked into the same two-party approach to politics as are the big parties. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are vehemently opposed to any liberalizing of the process which would allow any kind of third party even the merest hint of upsetting their comfortable position. They may hate each other, but as soon as there is any threat to their hegemony, they join forces to maintain the status quo, at virtually any cost.
Although she did not allow herself to be put forward as a nominee on this occasion, I was particularly impressed with a woman called Medea Benjamin. A mere slip of a person, she nonetheless speaks in a powerful, inclusive and evocative way and one cannot help but become swept along by the issues she raises. A strong feminist, she spoke eloquently of her opposition to the war in Iraq and held the (admittedly friendly) audience in the palm of her hand. Although she may be physically diminutive, she stands head and shoulders above Bush and Kerry in terms of intellectual ability and personal integrity.
My own involvement was as part of the international contingent of members of parliament and party officials from about 15 countries (ranging from Scandinavia to Burkino Fasso and from Peru to Nepal). We each presented three different speeches to describe the political situation in our home countries. As foreign nationals, we were expressly forbidden by US federal law from mentioning US politics in any way, in case the voting intentions of Americans were to be influenced by aliens(!)
My speeches focused on the reality of our MMP system and the impact we have had on parliament, even though we have always been a minority party. The locals were fascinated both by the system itself and by the process we went through to move from FPP to proportional representation. They are very enthusiastic about moving to what they call IRV (instant runoff voting) which is STV in our terminology. I was very surprised that there was not more angst expressed about the electoral college process used to elect the President, given that it has provided (for the fourth time in history) a minority leader. To change the electoral college would apparently require a constitutional change (though I did receive conflicting advice over whether this was really the case) and the American people just don’t have the fire in their bellies to press for change at the moment (Greens aside!) My personal view is that the electoral college in an anachronism – it may well have been appropriate when the constitution was written, when delegates had to ride horses for days in order to vote for the president, but it is utterly redundant in the age of electronics.
En route to the convention, Sue and I (and our 5 month old daughter Ysabella) stopped off in Honolulu as the guests of the Hawaiian Greens. We were hosted by Prof Ira Rohter, a politics lecturer at the university, who proved to be a tremendous source of information and insight into the political system. After a pot luck dinner at his home, I addressed the 20 or so local greens and discussions continued long into the night.
There were two major surprises for me in Hawaii first that they generate ALL of their electricity from imported coal and oil and second that they import 80% of their food. Given that wind generation appears to be technically feasible, it is a rude shock to see the practical realities of privatized power generation.
Even more stunning was the dependence on food importation. Hawaii has the sort of climate and rich volcanic soil where absolutely anything will grow drop a few seeds from your pocket and in no time you have a vegetable garden and more mangoes and papayas than you could shake a stick at. And the food they import! Like mainland US fare, it is pretty universally revolting, with everything over-sweetened and full of fat. No wonder obesity is a problem in NZ I think of myself as a bit on the chubby side, but in Hawaii, I was slim Jim. Most of the people there are seriously enormous.
After the convention, we were also hosted by the Philadelphia Greens. It is a lovely city, though we were frustrated in looking around too much because the temperatures were in the 400+C range and humidity around 90% - thoroughly enervating. But we did manage to see the Liberty Bell (it was in an air-conditioned building!) and a number of the early historical buildings where documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed.
Our meeting place in Philadelphia was fascinating an organic vegetarian restaurant where much of the food was made from soy, but looked, felt and tasted like fish, beef, pork, etc. It tasted just fine, but it did leave us wondering a little about the meaning of vegetarianism if all the food is made to look non-vegetarian.
Anyway, during the meeting we again traversed the relative merits of the electoral systems of the US and NZ and I’d have to say that we are really privileged to have MMP. For all its short-comings, it is still vastly preferable to FPP. In general, too, the US Greens are focused far more on the peace issue than we are here and my perception is that they are a far more "mainstream" group with less activists than we have here.
The convention itself was a tremendous experience for us. Sue, Ysabella and I were joined by Aucklanders Lindis Capper-Starr and (belatedly) Jeremy Hall for a number of the activities, so we were a tight little bunch of Kiwis away from home. Lindis shared our billeted accommodation in South Milwaukee with a wonderful man named Don Wescher. He is a 64 year old bachelor who has scarcely travelled at all and his house was jammed full of stuff, but he opened his home and his heart to us, ferrying us to and from the convention centre and the airport in his decrepit old Subaru. Great guy.
And Milwaukee was a pleasant surprise too. It lies on the western bank of Lake Michigan and has very extensive areas of parkland along the lake shore. It was hottish and humid while we were there, but the winters are pretty severe, with snow on the ground for months and the lakeshore freezing for several hundred metres. Occasionally it freezes all the way across to Michigan which is out of sight beyond the curvature of the earth. Milwaukee struck us as a very liveable city not too many people and lots of cultural activity, including a stunning art gallery on the waterfront.
The original mission for us was to visit Sue’s brother, who lives in Pennsylvania, and despite the later commitments of the Greens convention, we did manage to see him, albeit for only six days instead of the planned 2+ weeks. On one of those days, we visited the Capitol building in Harrisburg (the capital city of Pennsylvania) and were befriended by a Republican Senator who was utterly delighted to have happened upon a NZ Member of Parliament. We were given a personal guided tour through the whole (very impressive) building, including photos of me sitting in the Speaker’s chair in the Senate. He never asked and I never volunteered that I was a Green MP, but I daresay he will be somewhat surprised when he receives my thank you note on Green letterhead!
Some general comments and impressions of the USA. As always, Americans are warm, friendly, hospitable people who are very difficult to dislike. Their government is, of course, a completely different scenario which is increasingly seen as quite alien to the population. My general impression of the governing process is that it is rather like a family in which the grandparents worked hard and made a great fortune, but the succeeding generations have done little more than fritter it away. But in the meantime have become spoilt brats who throw tantrums.
It's hard to buy decent coffee there it's all filtered stuff into which they put powdered creamer to make an utterly vile and undrinkable brew. Almost impossible to find a latte or cappuccino – I was almost (but not quite!) tempted to brave Starbucks in the search for something even moderately palatable, even if it is hideously over-sweetened. Some places used "half and half" which is allegedly half milk and half cream, but from the contents list looks more like half chemicals and half water.
I still find their custom of tipping to be totally barbaric, though my impression was that people were less demanding about tips than they have been on previous visits. Similarly, I found the idea that something which might be advertised as being say $4-99, then has tax added to it (by an amount which varies from state to state). Virtually every transaction in a shop is for figures like $23-57 or $6-23 and your pockets rapidly fill with pennies. Why not just show a price which is inclusive of tax, so that you’re dealing with $5-00 or $37-50 instead of lugging around vast quantities of virtually worthless coppers?
Similarly infuriating is their persistence in using their version of Imperial weights and measures. Petrol is in US gallons, ice cream in quarts, distances in feet or miles – phooey, really makes you appreciate the simplicity and sense of the metric system!
Overall, we had a wonderful trip. Ysabella proved to be an excellent traveller, with scarcely a gurgle out of her on any of the flights, even the long hauls across the Pacific. I daresay it will be very different when she becomes a toddler! Like all conferences, some of the best events are not planned, but are the people you meet outside the main rooms, or the places you stumble across when you’re lost.
Great place, and we had a great time, but there is certainly no place like the blue skies of home!