The Greens' double digit strategy

The Greens' success could be down to Labour's struggles or a sign of the times. But it could also be down to a carefully crafted game plan that seems to be pushing all the right buttons

As the days roll by and the Greens retain their giddy, double-digit heights in the polls, it's time to wonder whether the perennial underperformers have finally cracked it and convinced a new cohort of voters that the party can be trusted with their vote.

The answer, of course, is that only time will tell. The Greens have repeatedly flattered to deceive during election campaigns, only to see several percentage points evaporate like heat from an uninsulated home (or flow away like a river) come polling day.

If the Greens can keep it up just a little longer and put themselves into a new mid-party bracket all their own, then it’s interesting to consider why. How’d they do it?

The obvious answer is that the Green party has benefited from Labour’s lack of momentum and popularity. As Rob Salmond has pointed out more than once, our Poll of Polls show that the left vote has mostly been moving around within centre-left parties, not pulling in others from the centre.

Or it could just be, as some have said, that their time has come.

But it seems to me the Greens have done a few very canny things to give themselves every chance to profit at this election. First, they’ve risked taking their eco-base for granted and extended a hand to the middle classes.

As Russel Norman admitted on Q+A back in May:

The challenge for the Greens, I think, is to actually move out, move more into the suburbs and to appeal more to suburban New Zealanders, if you like.

So what tactics has the party used to achieve that strategic goal?

First, the party has backed itself to talk long and hard about economic issues. Talking with Green staffers last year, I was told there was a bit of debate going on inside the party as to where to spend their energies. I pointed out that this year would be an election focused on economics and asked how they’d handle that, given the impression amongst some punters that Green parties are long on loopy, lovey-dovey spending promises and short on hard-headed business nous.

The Greens’ internal debate was whether to stick to environmental issues and its core business or step boldly into the economic debate to try and change that perception. Wisely the latter path was chosen and Russel Norman in particular has spent the year talking to anyone who would listen about responsible and sustainable economic growth.

The political subtext was to say to those suburban voters: If you care about the environment and social issues you can trust us with your vote. We’re not going to run off and blow it on cuddly blankets for weka and compulsory anti-nuclear classes.

Next, they came up with the “highly unlikely” line in regard to the chance of a coalition deal with National. The party had previously ruled out a coalition with National, painting itself into a lonely left-wing corner. But hey, it was honest and that was the Greens way.

This year they got cannier. The base would be reassured that hell would likely have to get icy before any such deal took place, but the dog whistle to the wider electorate was that the Greens were neither a Labour party poodle nor a bunch of leftie idealists. Hey, the party said, we’ve done a memorandum of understanding with National and the world didn’t end. In fact it got lots and lots of houses insulated. We can do deals. We can get green change. We are relevant.

It was a risk, no doubt. But so far the core greenies haven’t rebelled and the wider electorate is biting. So far.

The final trick has been to boil down its campaign promises. The Greens, like other minor parties, have typically rolled out policy on everything under the sun. And indeed the Greens still have policy on “sexual orientation and sex/gender equity”, “Defence and peacekeeping” and “toxics”. But they’ve pushed those well into the background. Keith Locke and Sue Kedgley might have resisted such tactics, but the times have changed. It’s now smart suits, not rainbow jerseys.

Norman and Turei are disciplined and focused on three priorities – 100,000 green jobs, 100,000 kids out of poverty and clean rivers. The second tier policies are about transport, opposing foreign ownership, rebuilding Christchurch and the like.

The message from party strategists is that they’re not pretending they’ll lead a new government, and so don’t need a full suite of policies. Indeed, the public don’t want to hear about the Greens’ on this, that and the other, so they’re sticking to the policies they will try to advance with any future government (in other words, they’re focusing on their most acceptable policies and steering media and voters away from the rainbow jersey policies).

Each of those choices have helped re-brand the party and made it friendlier to the political centre. It seems to be working. But is it enough? The voters will decide come election day, but it seems like the party has insulated itself as much as possible from more election day disappointment.