Sunday, February 10, 2013

Green's Policy Conference in Invercargill

Invercargill Workingmen's Club (a great venue)

The 2013 South Island Green's Policy Conference, held at Invercargill's Working Men's Club was a huge success. The party alternates between a national policy conference and spilt North and South Island conferences. Splitting the conference every other year enables us to have conferences in outlying regions. This enables greater member participation and provides a real boost for local Greens when a large number of our MPs spend time in one place.

11 of our 14 MP's were in Invercargill over the weekend and most spent time outside the conference talking to local people and organisations. I spent time with Jan Logie (ex Invercargill) as she talked to people in the Southland Beneficiaries and Community Rights Centre regarding pending legislative changes that were going to further erode the support available to those in greatest need. I was also able to have discussions with David Clendon about a future Invercargill meeting for small businesses. David is keen to talk about the Green Party's ideas around making businesses sustainable and resilient through their energy use, maintaining employees through to developing a market for a product. The Greens are fully aware that we don't have all the good ideas and listening to what is happening in the real world is an important part of finding the best solutions.

Our policy conferences are an important part of our policy revision and development process. Unlike other parties we are averse to letting our leaders or MPs make up policy on the hoof. This never works and no policy ever operates in isolation from others. A spur of the moment policy statement may have serious ramifications in unintended areas if due diligence isn't applied to its development. Our Policy Committee has the same status as our parliamentary caucus in our organisation and our MP's are bound to the policy as it is printed. This can create difficulties when it ties them to a particular standpoint when new evidence comes to light but as our policies are under constant review, changes can be made. Our MPs can be frustrated with delays but any changes to policy must have some rigour applied to the process.  The strength is that all our MPs are able to comment on policy outside their portfolios because the information is readily available. This is something that you rarely see with National and Labour who allow their leaders and Ministers dictate and make up policy as they wish and this often occurs purely to gain voter support. Unless new evidence comes to hand a thoroughly researched and member developed policy should stand unaltered.

One of the most interesting discussions at the conference was around what should determine policy and there was general acceptance that policies are generally designed to solve an existing issue. The importance and extent of a problem can only really be defined through evidence and data and the solution is developed based on our Party's principles and values. The weighting given to the principles can vary across the membership and this generally provides the points of difference in any policy discussion (should the emphasis be environmental, social or economic). Obviously political elements come to play and if a policy is to be achievable it has to be palatable to other parties and the public. What we don't do is create policy just because it would be popular.

Evidence should be an important part of policy, but research or data needs to be considered in context and with caution. It is easy to cherry pick data and spin its meaning (National and climate change deniers are particularly adept at this), and much research is paid for by those with a vested interest. If the evidence and argument isn't robust it would be easy for others to pick holes in our policy and we would lose credibility. It should also be noted that the scrutiny applied to the Greens is far greater than that applied to the current Government, otherwise they wouldn't have been re-elected or maintain their current level of popularity.

In our discussions around the relevance of the ETS we also talked about the importance of forming alliances and improving relationships with businesses who share our concerns around climate and the management of carbon. We looked at a number of systems to limit the use of carbon in operation around the world and saw that a carbon tax was being increasingly supported. Such a tax is predictable, provides certainty for business planning and the money raised can be used to directly support the transition so that businesses do not overly suffer and employment is maintained.

The face to face conference has huge value when an hour and a half with a group of 8-20 people, with a common policy interest, can achieve as much as an email group can do in a year or more. The facilitation of discussion is very important and we tend to find the most satisfying workshops for participants are the ones that are well managed and all voices are heard. It amazes me how people can come to a policy conference, with a long held and passionately supported view, and change their mind when presented with opposing arguments and have to justify their own. Part of the strength of the discussion groups was the calibre of those who took part, we had MPs, those who worked in fields being discussed, academics and members who just have an interest in the policy. It is important that any policy should meet the standards of academia but be understood by lay people.

We held a number of workshops over the weekend in a range of policy areas and it will be interesting to see if North Island conference comes to similar conclusions as we did. One of our national policy convenors told me that, in his experience, there was generally little difference between the conferences in terms of the consensus reached in each workshop.





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