James Shaw and Marama Davidson arrive at the Green Party election night event. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)
James Shaw and Marama Davidson arrive at the Green Party election night event. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)

BooksNovember 11, 2021

Why we chose accelerator over handbrake: The Green leaders on the 2020 election

James Shaw and Marama Davidson arrive at the Green Party election night event. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)
James Shaw and Marama Davidson arrive at the Green Party election night event. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)

Marama Davidson and James Shaw recount the Greens’ campaign in the Covid election as part of a series of extracts from the new VUP collection Politics in a Pandemic.

The late afternoon sun streamed through the windows above Karangahape Road in the Auckland Central electorate, bathing the crowd in a promise of the coming summer. It was three days before election day and the Green Party was holding our final big campaign rally.

Early voting had been open for more than a week and we knew millions of New Zealanders had already made up their mind. We were both carrying the exhaustion of a hard-fought election campaign but the energy in the room was electric. When our speeches were over, the crowd stuck around and danced to live music by rappers Church & AP. School Strike 4 Climate kids who were voting for the first time in 2020 moved to the front of the crowd, ducking between long-time Green Party supporters. We both got a good feeling. No matter the result on election day, it was clear to us then that the Greens had run a strong campaign.

Students of politics in Aotearoa will know that one of the golden rules of MMP is that when small parties go into government, they lose voters at the next election. Three days after that campaign rally on K’ Road, the Green Party broke that rule, increasing our vote and restoring our parliamentary caucus to double digits. We did it by putting forward bold policy solutions to move the public debate; strategically focusing our messages about our priorities and our relationship with the Labour Party; and empowering an extensive campaign on the ground. The Green Party’s Chlöe Swarbrick is now the MP for Auckland Central, the party’s first electorate seat win since 1999.

Political positioning

Two things defined politics in Aotearoa as we went into the 2020 election campaign: the popularity of Labour prime minister Jacinda Ardern and the government’s response to Covid-19. Opinion polling suggested that most people who were considering voting Green liked the prime minister, and most New Zealanders supported the government’s world- leading Covid-19 response. We made a decision, the right one, to publicly endorse the government’s handling of Covid-19. This placed the Green Party alongside the prime minister and the “team of five million”, rather than in opposition.

Ardern’s popularity also influenced the Green Party’s overall political positioning. We heard loud and clear from our supporters that their preferred option was a two-party government with the Greens and Labour. Our core message became that the Greens wanted to work in partnership with Labour to go “further and faster” than Labour would alone. This reflected the positive working relationship between the two parties and also the Green Party’s points of difference. We were publicly proud of our achievements as part of the government from 2017 to 2020. And we had plans to build on those achievements, while also acknowledging that the dynamics of the multi-party government had sometimes limited the ability to deliver our preferred policy solutions.

Our approach to Covid-19 demonstrated what this looked like in practice. We were unequivocally supportive of the government’s overall health-first approach, but we also embraced specific points of difference. For example, we called for greater income support for essential workers and rent relief for small businesses; we endorsed the actions taken by some rural Māori communities to protect themselves against the pandemic; and we negotiated exemptions to managed isolation and quarantine fees for New Zealanders returning from overseas to live. We stressed the importance of using Covid-19 economic stimulus investments to promote a low-carbon future to keep our planet stable and ensure nature thrives.

We think that this approach built trust in the Green Party: trust that we would not undermine the popular and effective health-first, science- based leadership of Ardern during the pandemic, and at the same time, trust that we would not fall silent on particular issues of importance.

In contrast, the government’s other support partner from 2017 to 2020, New Zealand First, openly criticised the government’s Covid-19 response, despite its leader Winston Peters being at the Cabinet table where the government’s response was decided, in his role as deputy prime minister. This may have negatively affected trust in New Zealand First, because they were effectively criticising decisions they had been part of making. Their broader message of being a “handbrake” on the Labour Party’s agenda was the direct opposite of the Green Party’s “further and faster” message. Voters on the centre-left clearly didn’t want a handbrake, and those on the centre-right seemed to abandon New Zealand First for other reasons, probably to do with trust. New Zealand First was not re-elected in 2020.

Chloe Swarbrick at the Green election night function (Photo: Sherry Zhang)

Bold policy solutions

For decades, the Green Party has played an important role pushing the boundaries of public policy conversations in Aotearoa. Working with non-governmental organisations and other campaign groups, we have helped bring into the mainstream political discourse issues like climate change, the pollution of rivers and the financial sanctions faced by single beneficiary mothers who refuse to name the father of their children.

In our first ever experience as part of a government, from 2017 to 2020, we could finally begin implementing the policy solutions that we’d been relentlessly pursuing for 30 years. But being in government comes with challenges and while our achievements were substantial, we did have to make compromises that sometimes disappointed our supporters. This might have had the effect of moderating some of our bold policies for the 2020 campaign, as some other smaller political parties have done. But in 2020, we believed many New Zealanders wanted to hear bold policy ideas and it was our job to put those forward.

Announcing policies during an election campaign is an important way of expressing the Green Party’s values and showing voters we have solutions to the issues they care about. Anchored in our party’s core values, we developed six major policy packages across the themes of climate change action, reducing economic inequality and protecting nature. The six major policies gave us a small number of key themes and messages we could focus on throughout the campaign, rather than trying to talk about everything all the time.

We aimed for our priority policies to truly meet the scale of the challenges facing the country, so that they were transformational rather than incremental. For example, our housing policy aimed to completely clear the waiting list for state homes. And our transport policy went beyond the usual urban projects to include a 10-year plan to build high-speed passenger rail between major cities as an alternative to driving and domestic air travel.

Our Māori campaign extended this approach. The Green Party has worked hard to establish a record of aligning with Māori political aspirations, grounded in the place of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in our party’s charter. Our consistent advocacy of bold policy solutions for issues impacting Māori gave us a proud platform to stand on, including in the live TV debates.

The Green Party also published a full policy manifesto at the same time as we officially launched our election campaign. Think Ahead: Our Green Vision for Aotearoa laid out a suite of solutions across a range of areas. The broader manifesto meant people and sector groups with particular interests (for example, animal welfare or workers’ rights) could clearly see our priorities for those specific areas. It also meant our candidates, our volunteer doorknockers and people browsing the party’s website had easily accessible key points in most major policy areas.

The wealth tax

Our wealth tax policy became a flashpoint. Originally, we’d announced it early in the campaign as part of our Poverty Action Plan. The wealth tax would pay for a Guaranteed Minimum Income that would have lifted hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty. It would also rebalance the tax system away from relying on the wages and salaries of working people, and towards taxing accumulated wealth such as investment properties. The timing was intended to set the scene for what truly transformational policy looked like; Labour, National and New Zealand First had not yet announced any substantive policies.

We specifically designed the wealth tax with a threshold that meant only 6% of New Zealanders would pay a tax on their assets worth over $1 million. With the revenue from that, we calculated that we could ensure everyone had enough income to live with dignity. This resonated with a lot of people, whose sense of community, fairness and helping out was growing in the immediate context of Covid-19. It also occurred against the background of the broader structural wealth inequality that has got worse in recent decades, most obviously in the housing market and with persistent child poverty.

The backlash from the National Party was swift, but in their haste they made mathematical errors which discredited their critiques of the wealth tax and undermined their brand as a party that is strong on economic issues. In the final weeks of the campaign, National reignited their attacks on the wealth tax on social media and through statements to the news media. The Advertising Standards Authority found at least one of National’s online attack ads to be misleading. A conservative lobby group ran a major direct mail campaign, sending letters to people who they thought might be impacted by the tax.

National’s campaign refocused attention on the Green Party’s wealth tax and, by extension, the Green Party. By the time election day arrived, our research showed that a huge majority of people who were considering voting Green had heard of the wealth tax policy, and it had a strong net positive rating among those people, meaning it is likely to have attracted many more people to vote Green than it deterred.

Prior to this, the prime minister had ruled out a capital gains tax in 2019 despite the Labour Party campaigning for one for about a decade. The public debate about structural economic inequality and the housing market had been left somewhat directionless. Our wealth tax put a bold new idea on the table, one which mainstream commentators have now added to the menu of potential policy interventions that governments should consider.

Our field campaign

As the co-leaders of the party, we spend a lot of time focusing on getting our messages out to voters through the media. But we also know that face-to-face contact is essential to build our party’s support. Growing our support and our movement happens bit by bit, community by community, by meeting people where they are and taking them with us – not by winning over the so-called median swing voter.

In 2020, we hired more professional organisers to support our volunteers. At least 7,137 people volunteered their time to help with the Green Party campaign, around 1,000 more than in 2017. We focused our efforts in urban centres with historically strong Green support, looking to bring back some voters who had turned away from the Greens in the 2017 general election. And then Covid-19 hit.

We joined other political parties and put our campaign on hold. All our public communications simply echoed the public health messages. Then, as we got back into it, our extensive face-to-face campaign plan had to change quickly. Unable to knock on doors while Covid-19 alert levels were raised, our volunteers hit the phones instead, chalking up 206,000 contacts with voters nationwide. We also expanded our text messaging programmes to reach younger voters less likely to own a landline phone. As a party, we had 68% more conversations with voters than in the previous 2017 election campaign.

We moved events online to Zoom “town halls”, which were oversubscribed. Ironically, this meant we were actually able to attend more events than we could have in person. Online events made it easy to speak with volunteers and supporters in different parts of the country, all in one day. This was a silver lining for both of us, because as party co-leaders we both experience the tension of needing to campaign nationwide but also in our home communities.

The second Auckland lockdown in August threw everyone out again and led to the election itself being postponed. We encouraged our campaign teams to take a break and reset mentally. Election campaigns are marathons, but everyone has to sprint at the end. A delayed election creates the risk that people start sprinting too soon and collapse before the finish line.

The last few weeks were a whirlwind of public rallies, TV debates, doorknocking and our final policy announcements. The final campaign rally on K’ Road in Auckland Central brought it all to a head, in a place that just a few days later would turn from a National-held seat to the Green Party’s first electorate seat in two decades. 

Growing the Greens

The 2020 election can be seen as an evolution in MMP politics for Aotearoa, and for the Green Party itself. We proved that small parties can grow their support when in government with larger parties. We proved that Green Party electorate candidates running “two tick” campaigns can boost the party vote in those electorates too and, in the case of Auckland Central, win. And we did not simply trade voters with the other parties of the centre-left bloc: support for the Greens, Labour and te Pāti Māori all grew.

In parliament’s adjournment debate before the election, one of this chapter’s authors, James Shaw, had reflected on the Green Party’s achievements during our first ever term as part of a multi-party government. They were significant: from the Zero Carbon Act, ending new offshore oil and gas exploration, and greater protections for Māui and Hector’s dolphins, to record investment in conservation, cycleways, and the prevention of sexual and domestic violence. If that was it, and we were not returned to parliament, there was a lot to be proud of. But we also knew that there was plenty more work to do. The 226,754 New Zealanders who voted for us have entrusted us to continue that work. With an enlarged caucus and strong party organisation, our success in the 2020 election means that we will.

This is an edited extract from Politics in a Pandemic: Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand’s 2020 Election, ed Stephen Levine (VUP)

Read the party leaders’ reflections on the 2017 election, from Stardust and Substance, here

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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