The party with the most to do after Saturday’s by-election is the Greens. But the party that came out of the weekend in the worst shape may turn out to be Act, writes Simon Wilson
There’s a whole bunch of reasons why the Greens didn’t do well in Mt Albert and none of them should be acceptable. This is a political party that desperately wants to help form the next government, yet it is stuck in the polls, at around 10 per cent, and the by-election decidedly did not help.
Labour won 77 per cent of the vote; the Greens trailed with 11 per cent. Why did Labour do so well? They had many more people on the ground; the seat was theirs anyway; National and Act stayed away; the Greens don’t do well in by-elections because they’re a list party; and despite recent controversies centre-left voters wanted to signal confidence in Labour. And most of all, everyone likes Jacinda. Sure. But what it all boils down to is this: Labour sucked up all the oxygen and the Greens were left gasping for breath.
Labour’s Jacinda Ardern shared the love with the Greens’ Julie Anne Genter, but she definitely didn’t share the votes. For both parties the by-election was a chance to build to the general election in September, but only one of them took it.
It’s not a bad loss for the Greens. They can bounce back. But that should be cold comfort. Genter is one of their senior MPs and when they put her up for the contest they must have been hoping for a valuable step forward. They might have been happy enough with a 65:20 result, although even that wouldn’t have been great. But what they got is very disappointing.
Now what? The Greens need to jumpstart their campaign, and soon. They can’t risk that Labour will carry the by-election pattern into the general election, resurrecting itself at the Greens’ expense. If that happens, either the centre-left will not be large enough to form the next government or Labour will partner up with NZ First and exclude the Greens from power.
Either outcome would be a disaster for the Greens. They’re not in parliament to be a ginger group. They’re there to be in government. And to be assured of that, they really need to be bigger: their 11 per cent share of votes in the last general election gave them 14 MPs but it’s not enough. They need 15 per cent, or more.
In other words, they have to persuade half as many people again to vote for them this September, compared with 2014. Can they do that?
Attention focuses now on the party list. They’ve just had their list conference and the draft has gone back to the branches. Everyone in the party gets to vote.
The Greens list for 2017 can’t look like the list for 2014. Of course there must be some continuity: they need to offer political experience at the top. But they must also complement that experience with fresh, youthful, charismatic energy. Credible candidates who will galvanise media and voter interest. Several such candidates, sitting in the top 15.
This is actually another reason the Greens desperately need a bigger caucus. Although renewal is always essential in a political party, only two of the Green MPs have announced their retirement, which adds to the pressure on new candidates. Party members have some tough choices to make: some of their incumbent MPs must be shunted down the list. It’s uncomfortable and the debates can be bitter. But that’s what political success demands.
If Green Party members are in any doubt about this, they should take note of what Labour’s doing right now with its candidates: choosing skilled, new high-profile people with charismatic clout. From Willie Jackson to Deborah Russell, Labour is selecting people who will suck up a lot of the centre-left oxygen come election time and will also provide their caucus with serious talent in the years to come. If they promote Jacinda Ardern to deputy, they’ll suck up even more of the oxygen.
What else should the Greens do? Well, first off, they have to command the progressive vote. Force Labour to compete for votes with National, NZ First and the Maori Party, not plunder the Green support base. Some bold and brave keynote policies are required for that.
How about: A clear and urgent target for every child to live in a warm, dry home? Yes, there’s massive policy work to do on that. So just do it.
How about: Reset the entire framework for urban transport. The best way to get all modes of urban transport working well is not to “favour them all equally”, which is merely the Joycean formula for maintaining the clogged-up status quo, but to give absolute priority to cycling and walking. Sell that idea.
How about: A flagship economic policy that shows how to achieve a synchronicity of economic and environmental goals.
How about: Reset the rivers debate with a much higher and faster target to clean them up. The Greens already have this policy but now they have to make much more of it.
Perhaps most of all, the Greens have to command the green vote. They used to be known as “everyone’s second-favourite party”, which was little more than a licence for people to like them without having to vote for them. And now they contend with the view that green values are strong enough in National and Labour for the Greens themselves not to matter so much. But that’s not true. The battle is not won.
Now, incontrovertibly, there’s climate change. It’s a far bigger threat to this planet that anything previously faced by most people alive today. Not just for the ravages of wild weather, but for the wars and floods of refugees it causes and for the economic destruction it threatens. And New Zealand is not, or will not be, immune from any of it.
The Greens have to sell the idea that if you care about climate change, you have to vote Green. No other party will lead the fight against it.
Are we hearing that?
Meanwhile, over the weekend the Act Party held its annual conference. Normally in election year party conferences are rousing affairs, with lots of calls to action and other upbeat motivational stuff. And normally at Act conferences, whatever the year, you are likely to see a bevy of yellow-shirted young party activists all enthusiastically fired up to spread the great gospel of libertarianism and the free market.
Weirdly, none of that happened in the Act conference this time. The room was largely filled with men who were significantly older, wealthier and whiter than the norm. When the youthful party leader and sole MP, David Seymour, addressed them, he must have felt he was talking to his father’s bowling club.
Election success these days comes with policies, personalities and money, of course, but it also needs people. Door-knocking, staffing the phones and chatting up a storm on social media are now regarded as essential. Looking at the Act delegates, it was very hard to see most of them doing any of those things or even organising other people to do them.
Seymour announced a progressive policy of reduced sentences for prisoners who do literacy and drivers’ licence courses – in other words, equip themselves with baseline skills to hold down a job when they get out. It’s a good policy, and there’s good evidence overseas it will work.
But he wrapped it in an extension of the punitive three-strikes policy. Dealing effectively with crime – something everyone agrees we should do – requires a commitment to fresh thinking around solving the causes of crime. That’s not helped when you keep beating the old “lock ’em up!” drums of law and order at the same time.
Act polls at one per cent or less and survives entirely because National indulges it in Epsom. Even Epsom voters don’t give it their party vote, which they surely would if they believed in what Act stands for. The party conference suggested nothing is about to change. Act seems to be neither fighting fit nor bursting with good ideas. After three terms of a centre-right government they believe has been moribund, it was a bit of a surprise.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.