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Happier times: James Shaw and his former co-leader Metiria Turei, photographed for The Spinoff by Adrian Malloch
Happier times: James Shaw and his former co-leader Metiria Turei, photographed for The Spinoff by Adrian Malloch

PoliticsJune 16, 2017

Greens in search of glory

Happier times: James Shaw and his former co-leader Metiria Turei, photographed for The Spinoff by Adrian Malloch
Happier times: James Shaw and his former co-leader Metiria Turei, photographed for The Spinoff by Adrian Malloch

Not everyone will tell you this, but the Green Party is doing a lot of things right – which is more than you can say about most of the others. So why aren’t they polling better?

Kermit will always be right: it is never easy being Green. Even when the world needs you more than ever – you know, Trump and Paris, another deep fissure in the Antarctic ice, droughts and floods and wars, all of that – even now it’s a shock how many people find it easy to turn away. Your enemies pile in with helpful suggestions on how you’re too green or not green enough, or too red or not red enough – as if it weren’t obvious that what they’re really doing is trying to destabilise you. Worse, much worse, your friends do the same. All that social media advice from people who say they’re allies and yet they seem to be doing just the same things as the saboteurs. Some people, all they do is complain.

Bill English and Steven Joyce and their team must be enjoying it all just so much.

Still, the Greens are up 1.3 percent in the latest poll (Newshub) and despite all the talk about NZ First, they have maintained a clear lead on Winston and his crew. So the Greens are clearly doing something right. Just not everything.

If you were them, what would you do – something like this?

1. Refresh your lineup

Every caucus needs a mix of experience and new energy, and the Greens didn’t really achieve that in the last election. So your 2017 party list would promote some smart new people to high winnable places, and demote some existing MPs to the marginal spots. It’s essential but it’s tough to do: powerful party members will be alienated, and your list has to deliver the right mix however well or badly you do in the election.

This time round the Greens have made those calls. Whether they get 20 percent or 7 percent or anything in between, the new caucus will have a balance of new and experienced talent.

James Shaw. Photo: Adrian Malloch

2. Neutralise key critics on the right

That would be the business community. It was Russel Norman who pioneered the idea of male Green MPs routinely wearing suits, but it’s James Shaw who wears them best. He’s become a respected voice among business groups – they don’t always like what he has to say, but they like him and that means at least they listen, far more often than they used to.

Shaw’s detractors on the left may not want to admit it, but he possesses a vital skill in politics: he can impress people who are not his natural allies.

The Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR), which the Greens and Labour created and have signed up to, adds substance to this. “Fiscal irresponsibility” was the routine trope that leading Greens critics like Steven Joyce threw at them, but the BRR gives the lie to that. It’s not a weird idea they dreamed up to mess with their supporters, either. A similar commitment has been adopted by many social democratic parties around the world.

Looking credible to business is not just a political manoeuvre. As the OECD noted just this week, economic growth in New Zealand will before too much longer require a much greener economy. Someone has to move the business community towards that way of viewing the world, and guess who that is? For the Greens to succeed with core policy commitments, they need a working relationship with business.

3. Fix any issues that made you especially vulnerable last election

That would be the boat with everyone rowing in different directions. As a meme, it worked. Hence the Greens’ and Labour’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), whose success to date demonstrates that the two parties can work together.

The Greens can be damned either way on this. Agree with Labour and they get complaints they might as well be Labour. Disagree, as they did over elements of the government’s budget last month, and people say the MOU is falling apart. The fact is, during the run-up to the election the Greens have to demonstrate both independence and a cooperative mindset. It’s not the end of the world when they make a decisive gesture in either direction.

Yes, that MOU means the Greens are not available to prop up a National Government. But most of the people who say they should be do not appear to be prospective Green voters anyway.  Also, see the next point.

4. Reaffirm your core purpose

That would be climate change and protecting the environment, and it would also be social policy, because the Greens have always been a progressive party.

Can the climate change and environmental stuff be done while supporting a National-led government? The core environmental platform of the Green Party boils down to two things: an end to the rapid intensification of the dairy industry; and a climate change strategy based on the real approach of reducing greenhouse gas emissions here, rather than the fake approach of buying carbon credits overseas.

In theory, a National government could adopt both those policies. It’s not impossible – in fact, in time, I’d say it’s inevitable. The National Party gets many of its good ideas from the parties of the centre-left. And the day will one day come when even they understand that they can’t keep trashing the environment and our international reputation. Apart from anything else, our trade prospects will be impacted.

But would the Greens hasten that day if they gave the government confidence and supply? There’s no evidence for it.

The government has based its economic strategy on anti-green policies. More mining of fossil fuels – in the ocean and even on conservation land. A transport strategy straight out of the 1950s. Worst of all, a doubling of export output from the land: not by adding value to what’s produced, but by the continued rapid conversion to intensive dairy. In order to produce more of a very basic commodity: milk powder.

The government has also presided over cuts to spending on health and education and a housing crisis fast turning into a catastrophe – not for everyone, but for prospective first-home buyers and those most in need.

The most productive strategy to change all this is not to prop them up. It’s to change the government. That is why the Greens can’t be neutral.

5. Build your base, finances and organisational strength

The biggest lesson from the Corbyn campaign? In my view, this: there’s real political power in activating a big supporter base through social media. The Greens have been busy building such a base (to be fair, so have some of the other parties).

The final version of the Green Party list is instructive. It’s the result of a party-wide membership vote, which the leadership committee overseeing the process did not massage, even though the rules permitted them to. The members elevated some high-flying youthful activists like Hayley Holt and Chlöe Swarbrick, despite their being quite new to the party. That’s a big change for the Greens, who have tended to be populated by long-serving older members. The change came at the expense of some low-impact older MPs like Denise Roche and David Clendon, and it suggests the party has had quite a big membership refresh.

Clockwise from top left: Green candidates Chlöe Swarbrick, Jack McDonald, Hayley Holt and sitting MP Denise Roche

6. Build a policy platform that will lead to progressive achievements

For all that they’re doing right (see above) there are still two big things the Greens could get a lot better at.

Policy is one and leadership (see below) is the other. Now they’ve shown they can work with Labour it’s critical they find themselves a few key policies that set them apart. High-profile, easy-to-understand, game-changing policies. Policies they can achieve in their first term in government, so voters get a real, concrete sense of what they might be voting for.

Not policies that look economically impossible, at least for now (like a universal basic income). Not policies on topics that are essentially irrelevant to their success (like immigration).  Maybe they think they already have the right policies. But they don’t, because they’re not polling well enough.

The Greens used to be called everyone’s second-favourite party. These new key policies should have the potential to make lots of people elevate them to first-favourite status. Policies that will get them past 15 percent in the September election. They’re at 12 percent now and – as the party with the strongest claim to represent progressive politics in Parliament – they should have 15 percent as their minimum target.

What policies? I don’t know, I’m not a Green Party policy boffin. But I’m sure they won’t mind if we all break the internet with suggestions.

7. Galvanise the hearts and minds of voters

It’s still the most important thing, and the hardest. Making the voters pay attention, talk about you, like you, want to give you money and vote for you… it’s about policies, of course, and organisational strength, and strategies for dealing with your opponents and all of that, but beyond everything it’s about the character of your leaders.

There is no one model for electoral success as a leader. Helen Clark was not like John Key and neither of them was like David Lange. You don’t have to squeeze yourself into a box. But you do have to be likeable. Plus, you have to be decisive and also modest, and seem smart but not smartypants, and be confident but not arrogant, and convey the sense that you know what you’re talking about and that you yourself believe what you want us to believe. You have to be trustworthy. And did I say, you have to be likeable.

All of that adds up to being inspirational. Being the people we want as our leaders, because we believe in you.

The thing is, right now nobody owns these things. We don’t really have those leaders in our parliament. So that’s the challenge, for Greens co-leaders James Shaw and Metiria Turei and for all their colleagues: time to step up. 99 days to go, and a party conference in mid-July – time to show us what what these new Greens really mean.

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