It's not easy being Green

Green is the new black, but if the Green Party wants to attract mainstream voters it must confront its daggy image and cliquey mentality

“I don’t want to wear a hemp shirt and hairy knickers, I want a 21st century lifestyle with a coffee machine.” —Dick Strawbridge

Last month, Jeanette Fitzsimons formally announced her resignation from the Green Party co-leadership. She was eulogised as the party’s last true environmentalist, its “organic fig leaf”. Commentators were alluding to a broader problem—a problem for both the Greens and green-tinged voters. Not everyone green-tinged is comfortable voting Green.

Green is the new black, they say. Sustainability is on the lips of many: we’re talking about growing vegetables, seed swapping and keeping chickens in the urban backyard. The Green Party should be verdant. Instead, the Pundit poll of polls puts them at 7.3%, not far off their share of the party vote in the last three elections (7% in 2002, 5.3% in 2005, and 6.4% in 2008).

In theory, it seems conceivable that the “Green” brand might become mainstream. Often the Greens front issues—vital issues—that every other party overlooks or attributes relatively low importance to: animal welfare, food security, food quality, peak oil, renewable energy… I could go on. Yet they’re consistently found lurking on the border of electoral viability. We like them, we think they fill an important role in Parliament, and we know political life would be poorer without them—but we don't value them enough to give them our votes.

To become a mainstream party, the Greens need to be a true centre party, using whatever MMP-style heft they can muster to make sure the Green voice is heard on green issues, whoever is leading government. The political centre is crowded, but the Greens have the brand to sustain it.

But then there is their two-pronged problem: image and ideology.

The image problem might be voters’, attributable to prejudice and stereotype: the alleged “hemp shirt and hairy knickers” difficulty, that would have us all living in a commune, riding round on bicycles and sprouting organic mung beans. It’s true the Green movement has historically tended to attract those who are, shall we say, a bit eccentric—but I saw Russel Norman asking a question in the House the other day, and he was looking sharp. (It was not a bad question, either.) It would help the Green Party if they were to select and highly rank candidates who embody a professional image.

There’s a tired old slur, often found around Peter Dunne, that our Greens are “watermelons”: green outside and red in the middle. In other words, they say they’re about the environment, but principally what they stand for is somewhere on the spectrum that traverses social justice, social activism, socialism and communism. I’m being slightly unfair to Peter Dunne here, because the same line of argument gets rehashed most days of the week on the discussion threads of Kiwi and Frog blogs. Both regularly feature some really distasteful and boring vitriol targeting the Greens in general and Sue Bradford in particular.

To the outside observer, it’s hard to pick whether this is image or ideology. It might be a bit of both.

Now, my best claim to a grasp of political theory is Animal Farm. As any gossip, scandalmonger or liar will tell you, the best—as in, the most enduring, plausible, scurrilous—stories contain filaments of truth. And so it is in this case, when you look at some aspects of the definitions of socialism and communism, and compare them with how the Greens conduct themselves.

On Frogblog, mud gets slung in both directions. Green Party members, responding to arguments like the one I’m mounting, get a bit grumpy. They say anyone who doesn’t like the Greens needn’t vote for them. They might, for example, go and join National’s Bluegreens, or start a new political party. They say this quite vociferously. Curious logic: I would have thought the point of a political party was to try to attract the largest possible number of votes, not burn them off; to achieve wide electoral appeal, not form a clique with your mates.

Alternatively, Green Party supporters say, people uncomfortable with current party strategy should join. Everything the party does, it does democratically, so it’s open to any member to change it from within, provided they can sway a majority of other members to their point of view. Again, beside the point. Most of us don’t want to join a political party, and yet most of us vote. Few of us can afford to invest time and effort gambling on changing the approach of a political party that doesn’t want to change.

The 2008 election offers a recent example. While it’s possible this was a single (big) strategic mistake, and it’s perhaps a bit mean to point to it as evidence of disposition or keep harping on about it, it’s illustrative nonetheless. Shortly before the election, the Greens announced they would not assist National to form a government; in fact, they would actively vote against them on confidence and supply. On all 12 criteria for this decision, expressing “core principles of care for the earth and care for people”, National was, allegedly, heading in the wrong direction. Labour failed to perform much better but overall their policy was closer to the Green Party’s, making them a possible coalition partner.

The subtext seemed to be Labour’s always going to be a better government, no matter how badly they might be behaving. No matter that, in a robust democracy, time out can be salutary.

The criteria included questions about food security, child poverty and abuse, forming a genuine Treaty partnership, free education, overseas ownership of land and strategic assets, keeping New Zealand out of foreign wars, and preventive health care measures such as healthy food in schools. All of this is important—just like having a robust economy is important.  In fact, you need both a healthy planet and a robust economy to deliver the social justice. So… where is the mental block exactly? Is it antipathy to capitalism, or idealism trumping politics, or are the Greens just anti-establishment to the core?

Well before the election it was clear that John Key would reach out. The Maori Party got it right, and the Green Party wrong. The Greens do, and can continue to, hold governments accountable from the outside and take comfort in a few policy crumbs. Someone of Jeanette Fitzsimons’ calibre could have done so much more in Cabinet as Energy or Environment Minister; the loss of this opportunity is a shameful waste. Those fiercely protective Green Party supporters seem to fail to recognise that if the Greens keep taking this line, it will decrease their bargaining power 100% of the time, not just the 50% of the time that a National Party might be leading government.

Who knows where National’s headed with their environment policy. Who knows what policy concessions the Greens might have been able to extract, but take the Climate Change Committee for example. The Greens lambasted it (apparently forgetting they didn’t like the Emissions Trading Scheme much themselves until after it was passed), but they must share some of the blame. If in coalition negotiations the Prime Minister had been able to say to Rodney Hide with his five seats, "I’ve got the Green Party here with nine and they won’t have a bar of this nonsense," does anyone think the terms of reference would have looked the same?

The centre party policy I’ve outlined was Nandor Tanczos’ during his unsuccessful bid for the male co-leadership. He’s still trying here and here from outside Parliament. This gives me some comfort that the Greens are not just misunderstood: sadly, their position looks equally daft, from both inside and out.

There’s a cohort of green-friendly voters out there looking for a political home, perhaps not deeply ideologically attuned to either Labour or National and inclined to put the environment first. If the Greens won’t buff up their political act, perhaps Labour and National can smarten their environmental initiatives. I’m not politically fussy. Won’t somebody, anybody, save me from my melancholy blues?