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.

Comments (7)

by alexb on November 09, 2011

Frankly, the Greens are the only party that has put forward a solution to get people back into work by creating Green jobs. Sound economic policy and environmentally friendly. I think this is a sign of things to come as our society begins to realise that our economy is entirely based on our environment being in good shape. I'm not sure if the Greens will ever become a major party getting a third of the vote, but I do think they have cemented their place in the 21st century political landscape.

by Tim Watkin on November 09, 2011
Tim Watkin

You might have said the same about the Alliance or NZF at one point or another, Alex... I don't think any minor party can afford to think it's cemented anything.

As for the Green jobs package, is it substantive enough to be called a solution? Can public-private partnerships in greentech create 50,000 jobs? Over how many years? And if so, why haven't they been created already?

by Richard Watts on November 09, 2011
Richard Watts

I understand your skepticism. You're right in saying 'show me the money' or proof. The policies of the Greens have been proved effective when applied overseas so there is no reason to think they wouldn't work here.

The poliocy of planting trees alongside rivers and streams will prevent a lot of runoff from reaching the water ways. You have to remember that the flipside to less water pollution is more nutrients staying on the farms. If farmers spend less on importing fertilizer they have more money to spend in the wider economy. Trees have another benefit in that they effect the micro-climate of a region, more rain equals more productivity from grass and other crops.

In a nutshell green policies either mean greater efficiency or more dependence on local goods and services. We can substitute imported oil for instance for bus drivers. Everything has a flow on effect, if we can have better public transport then people won't need to buy as many vehicles from abroad and this money can be spread throughout the economy.

Why haven't these jobs been created yet? The Green party needs a mandate to implement them.

by alexb on November 09, 2011

Tim - True, there have been other minor parties which gained similar heights, but the Greens are part of an international movement, and it is undeniable that issues of environmentalism and sustainsability are becoming more mainstream. I should qualify my statement with, if the organisation of the Green Party can maintain their discipline and unity, then they will have cemented their place. The other difference between them, and NZ1st and the Alliance, the latter two were both built around cults of personality, whereas the Greens have shown they can change leaders without the party disintergrating.

by Ang on November 10, 2011

That's an interesting point about personalities and a change in leadership Alexb.  Another possible point is that the Greens are so reliable and full of integrity, they're almost boring.  And for many voters who want politicians to run the country rather than squabbling and grandstanding, that's attractive.  On the downside is their lack of ministerial experience.  If they ever become alliance partners again they need to ensure they have ministerial posts, so they can reassure the public they can actually do the job.

by Tim Watkin on November 10, 2011
Tim Watkin

That is a good point about leadership Alex. That sets them apart. But nothing is forever. Even though this strategy of reaching out to the suburbs/middle is popular while it's working, if vote is lost how will the eco-base react?

by Tim Watkin on November 10, 2011
Tim Watkin

Richard, the jobs are meant to come from public-private partnership. Now I know the Greens think they can prompt them with "incentives" (preumably tax breaks or grants), but if the SOEs saw greentech as a way to create jobs and the private sector saw profit opportunities, wouldn't they be talking already?

It's not new for SOEs to do such things - Keith Turner got Meridian (I think) out into the market 10 years ago, doing joint ventures and the like. Has that stopped because government hasn't given them the mandate or because it's not good business? I'm not sure. Just askin'

As for the jobs... Riparian planting? Fine. How many jobs there? A few thousand directly, around 8,000 indirectly. Any skills learnt? No. Are the jobs long-term? No, only so much planting to be done.

Same with the insulation. Around 4,000 jobs, but they too are finite. Some transferable skills learnt, however.

The bulk of the jobs are meant from us capturing 1% of the renewable energy market around the world - but that is hugely competitive already, you're going up against the likes of GE and dozens of smart-as-hell Silicon Valley companies or well-connected Chinese companies or further-along Spanish and Danish companies... and so on. And even if you can get our companies going, winning market share takes money and lots of time. These jobs won't come quickly.

I'm not saying it's a bad plan; I'm just saying let's look at it for what it is.

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