The Greens’ vibe has changed, but have they lost grip on values with a small and large V? For all the strengths and wins of the 2011 election campaign, it also failed

My new theory of the Greens is recycled. The new thing is the old thing, really.

In 2011 we changed some things, and won some votes: not a world-changing number of votes, but a historic number, enough for some more Green growth.

Having celebrated this, I’d like us to remember our roots, honour them, and branch out from them, because to forget them would be perilous for our party and the planet. I'd like us, in the fray of politics, to not lose sight of the true fight.

Chris Trotter said last night that Labour, before it can rebuild, needs to decide who the party is now. This is the right time for Greens to do the same.

We are, fundamentally, philosophically, the opposition in Parliament. We are the radicals and the revolutionaries, and this is true whatever we wear. Radical and revolutionary is what the world needs and what a good proportion of the voting public want.

Until now, the prevailing view within the party on policy seems to have been that because everything is interconnected, and it is all equally important, it doesn’t matter much which bit happens first. The first generation of MPs did their own things and did them well, but at some cost to the Green brand.

Nandor Tanczos called it the multi-choice option: we had, he said, “practised the politics of addition and that has added up to a 5% base ... we give [voters] a multi-choice option and then let them decide for themselves, based on their biggest like or dislike”.

This general election campaign was focused. It was tight, as Jolyon White found out. There were three top priority policies: kids, rivers, and jobs.

They were smart choices. There was an instantly recognisable social policy, an environmental one, and an economic one. Each of them was individually also all three: social, environmental and economic.

The billboard slogan was “party vote Green, for a richer new Zealand”. They showed some healthy children swimming in a clean river, and wind-powered energy for green jobs. They suggested, perhaps, that a richer New Zealand could be reached by a different route than the fossil-fuelled, dairy-fed path we’ve been on.

And, the campaign said as much in the subtext. For example, the Green Room, an online forum scheduled to coincide with the first major party leaders’ debate, told voters that the debate has a new third dimension now.

But for all the strengths and wins of the 2011 campaign, it also failed, irrespective of the size of the resulting vote. Because it did not give real profile to the difference in Green values, or confront the need for a change in values. It did not spell out that a party vote Green is not just a vote for a smart-thinking smart-looking more environmentally-friendly party branded under a different colour.

It may have said the opposite.

We need consumption and growth in green things, and we need fossil-fuelled growth to stop. But even green growth has limits. The Greens’ charter principles of ecological wisdom (including ecological sustainability), social responsibility, appropriate decision-making and non-violence will stand or fall in the end on the values of enough -- values of unselfishness and kindness, civility and restraint.

The need for enough is a physical constraint, on a finite planet. Until the privileged among us say “enough”, the world will not be environmentally sustainable or socially responsible; and in the end it will be a violent place.

This is one thing the former Values party did well, and the 2011 campaign did not. Values crafted a narrative about environmental limits, the need to sustain quality of life, that growth would not be a solution and in fact was the problem, therefore different social and economic policy was needed, alongside environmental policy. They succeeded in writing a coherent story, that people wanted to read and be part of, and that still speaks today.

Values, with a small and large V, is the key. And in fact, it was not just a failure in 2011. With the exception of Jeanette Fitzsimons, the Greens have never done this.

Greens do stand for something very different than the status quo, or should. With Labour and, to a lesser extent, National “nicking our stuff” -- adopting policies and taking full credit for what are in fact Green achievements -- saying so, and explaining why we are the new, the only opposition in Parliament, matters.

It will matter even more, as Labour starts to rebuild.

This is not about misplaced nostalgia for the past, at the very moment the Greens have never faced a brighter more exciting future. It is that future. Because far from being threatening to voters and a political risk, “new political compass” author Paul Ray argues that a substantial minority of voters can be found, unaffiliated to either left or right, because neither represents their values or confronts the world’s problems.

Talk of new values is no more off-putting to such voters than Greens being either confused or vigorously self-identified with the left, whom, for the most part, this group does not like. They are socially liberal and politically progressive. But they have no interest in re-mobilising the hatreds and angers that were last century’s fight, little in identity politics, and they can see that the ways of the left haven’t worked, any more than the ways of the right.

They want someone to represent their new values, about a future for their children, a globally sustainable society, and the need to confront the twin eco-crises: ecological and economic. In an election with record low turnout, it is this kind of disengagement and disillusion that Ray has reanalysed.

Values' ultimate goal was -- and the Greens’ goal is? -- the quality of life. Little of what materially matters is lost, by choosing to live differently, and everything is gained. That is what Greens in the end stand for, not just “a richer New Zealand”; that is the thread running through all processes and policies.

Meanwhile, the old parties favour capitalism and growth and neo-liberal economics, consumption is a goal rather than a risk, both have been laggards on the environment, they fight over who owns the means of producing wealth, and how to distribute it.

However, whilst reaching out to these people, it is just as important to explain why the Green Party has not shifted from its base, and must not, in its eagerness to be popular and polite.

The Green Party is Values’ child. But it was the missing narrative that bound together Values’ people as well as its policy: its radicalism, including a dabble in anarchy, a strong drive towards socialism that threatened to split the party, environmentalism, ecological economics.

Values was white, middle class, highly educated, in short "ordinary" enough, but smart. Founded by a couple of former journalists, their use of new media strategy and influence was a strength, as it continues to be, for the Greens.

It was also, in campaign mode, satirical, good-humouredly radical, stunt-based. A human 50 cent coin chased a human dollar note down the street. A funeral procession was staged along Wellington’s new motorway route (bisecting Bolton St cemetery).

In 2011, “wild greens [were] nowhere to be seen”. And yet, at its heart, Green policy is as subversive and seditious and revolutionary as it ever was. It is about rebuilding the whole cage, and explaining why this is a promise, not a threat.

It is no less important to communicate and keep that part of the brand, as the polite, professional, reassuring part. Because it, too, tells the truth.

Comments (22)

by Kublai Khan on November 27, 2011
Kublai Khan

Interesting critique, Claire.

This may be a post-hangover post-election elation brain explosion, but I think another important concept that was — not missing, but, perhaps — underemphasised in the Greens campaign (and noteably absent from other party's) was the idea of teaching reality.

Values taught reality well. They had a comprehensive vision for quality of life: they spelled it out, they put it in all of their material, their speeches were about it. Simply put, they took people along with them.

The Greens had a beautiful vision: a richer New Zealand in the things that really matter, kids, rivers, and jobs. But

I saw sparks of teaching reality in public meetings. You'd have Metiria talking about child poverty and suddenly you would hear an almost impercetpable click as the crowd got what she was talking about. Or with Russel talking about why we need to stop cows shitting in our rivers and you'd see nods of people acknowledging the wisdom behind the idea.

It was there in the written information that was presented. But who reads that? In a twitter-addled aged the medium of personal exchange and interaction is even more important than when Hargrove wrote about teaching reality.

I think the challenge for us over the next three years is to keep up with the awesome work we've been doing and at the same time to fully articulate that vision. To teach reality about what a Green Government and a Green New Zealand would look like.

by Claire Browning on November 27, 2011
Claire Browning

It's exactly the "imperceptible click" that I'm talking about. The idea that changes it from "meh, sounds nice," to "Yes. I GET that."

However, excellent though the written information was, I don't agree that "it was there" or anywhere near it, or I wouldn't have written the post.

by alexb on November 27, 2011

Its a pretty tough political marketplace though isn't it? After all, the Greens are doing their best electorally when they are behaving more respectably, the media gives the caucus an easy ride provided there are plenty of quirky photo ops, and the radical activist base is quietly marginalised. I am a Green, and I would consider myself quite left wing, but I'm glad that a more moderate Green party has actually delivered on the electoral promise of getting above 10%. I would much rather a more moderate Green party got enough seats to command influence than a small Green party on the fringes of the debate.

by Claire Browning on November 27, 2011
Claire Browning

Alex, I don't think it's either-or binary choices. Left-wing or moving right. "More moderate" or not. Above 10% or "on the fringes of the debate".

I'm talking about a narrative that transcends the crowded political marketplace in the centre that everyone else is fighting for; that says, we are about something different, that is actually about finding a durable solution to the current problems, to sustain quality of life, for all, for ever. Which, there's no escaping it, does require radical reform. According to many many people who are not radicals.

What's required is not moderate, but you don't have to be "radical" in the accepted sense to agree.

People will still get it or they won't - but the point is about winning the hearts and minds of more people, not fewer. 10% and beyond, to 20 or 30 and Opposition status and government.

by glenn p on November 27, 2011
glenn p

Thanks for the article -- a very interesting topic.

My exposure to the election build-up was essentially through radio (really only National Radio) and the newspapers. I don't watch television and I didn't attend any meetings. My lasting impression from the radio (especially) and newspapers (less so) was that Russel Norman did very well at 'teaching reality', if I understand the term as others have used it. Whenever Dr Norman was interviewed, I came away with a better understanding of the issue, whereas whenever another politician was interviewed, I learned nothing or couldn't follow what he/she was saying. I think this is a skill that Dr Norman has -- to explain things well -- and irrespective of whether you agree with his point of view, you are very likely to come away more knowledgable. This is important, because those who can explain well are viewed as experts. I view Dr Norman as an expert on economic issues, because he can clearly explain an economic situation. Of course, any person or party could (and should) do more/better to educate, but my view is that it is unfair to say that the Greens didn't do well in educating the listener/reader (at least in terms of what I was exposed to).

In terms of the Greens image, I think that they were very clever to focus on being mainstream. I have always thought that a party should focus on their 'weakness', where a weakness may well be a public misconception of the party. The last things that the Greens should be doing is wearing quirky clothing and playing drums. Their perceived 'weakness' is economics, so they should talk about business and economics and show that it is infact something they know a lot about, more than parties and individuals that are perceived as being economic experts but have been shown to be otherwise (as evidenced by the world's financial problems). I already know they stand for the environment and the poor, I don't need to be convinced of that. Likewise, right-wing parties have a reputation (fairly or unfairly) of being uncaring, selfish and hateful of beneficiaries or those in need. Therefore, they should focus on what their policies will do for the poor, not the rich. They have already convinced the rich, they need to convince the poor. A bit off-topic but in a similar way, vegans are probably best able to change the public's opinion of them and veganism by pumping a lot of weights, getting ripped and walking around as Adonises.

None of this is about shifting from what you believe in. It's about challenging public misconceptions. So my question is, even if the Greens presented themselves differently, were their policies actually different this election?

by John Norman on November 28, 2011
John Norman


Thanks for mention re Ray of "compass". Helps me understand how when Tim Watkin on Jim Mora's show @ RNZ a week or so back told of the PM being 'all antenna and no compass' - a new one for me at the time - though now perhaps anchored.

Re the sloganned richer I, too, made a double-take on first seeing it roadside. Then, return journey it occurred to me to allow them the benefit of the doubt. But of course in saying that I'd be more accepting of quality AS richer/richness etc.

Thirdly, having once arrived in NZ to what you alluded to as the old Values Party and realised its ChCh people were running derivative script(from memory originally German, anglo-german etc) I'd have to say that nowhere in your piece and its reference to Ray was mention the big E-word with its high potency back then.. missing since.

Mebbe materialism and materialistic is the suffocating overlay in communication, too.

by Steve F on November 28, 2011
Steve F



"............Or with Russel talking about why we need to stop cows shitting in our rivers and you'd see nods of people acknowledging the wisdom behind the idea........."


Where can the cows shit then? ....not directly into the river of course but within the context of the question it eventually runs off into the rivers.

We are not the only dairy nation with the problem. Consider the Dutch. Anyone who has visited Holland from late November onwards will easily be able to recall the unbelievable overpowering stench in the countryside, which for a nation such as The Netherlands, means just about anywhere there is a road. This is a result of the ubiquitous "shit spreaders" . These are truck tankers with spray booms that fold out from the sides as they drive around the pastures. Onboard pumps force the noxious, nauseating liquid through the booms that distribute this nitrogen loaded ordure quite liberally over the farmland.  The stench is quite unbelievable but the mind has a remarkable ability to adapt and eventually it just becomes another background feature. Like rotten eggs in Rotorua.


This nutrient cycle in Dutch farming is interesting. The live animal population in The Netherlands at any one time is around 110million. Between seven and eight for every inhabitant. Thats a lot of manure. In fact it's quite a lot more than is required to replenish depleted soil to grow crops which are then fed to the domestic live animal population. But the farmers return it to the soil anyway because there's nowhere else to put it.

Contrast this to places like New Zealand and Australia, where crops are grown, exported to Asian countries where they are fed to the animal and human populations and the manure ( nitrogen) is not returned to the soil where it started from. Hence the Southern soils are becoming gradually depleted of nitrogen. A one way road for resources. Too much shit, too little shit, a farmers dilemma.

by MikeM on November 28, 2011

Hence the Southern soils are becoming gradually depleted of nitrogen. A one way road for resources.

On a similar topic, last year I attented a talk by Professor Dave Craw, regarding the mining industry in New Zealand from an academic perspective.  One of his predictions for the next hundred years is that we'll have high interest in mining the large amounts of phosphate sitting on the sea floor off the East Coast of New Zealand, to replace all the phosphate from the soil that we're sending away in the food we export. Presently New Zealand imports a lot of phosphate, most recently from Africa. Presently phosphate is so cheap on the global market that the value of the phosphate itself is lower than the shipping costs to get it here, but he doesn't expect this to remain practical long term, and anticipates another environmental outcry when someone suggests scraping it from the bottom of the ocean.

by Jeanette Fitzsimons on November 28, 2011
Jeanette Fitzsimons

It's the old dilemma, isn't it? You don't scare the horses in an election campaign. For God's sake don't mention the oil and food and water crises our kids are going to have to live with or the urgency of climate change action or the need to reduce consumption at the same time as greening it. To be fair, the time for educating the public is during the first two years of a term. Election year is for reinforcing what they have learned, not for confronting them with scary new ideas.

The problem comes when a lot more people are elected on the "mainstream" message. Will they feel too beholden to the mainstream people who have elected them to tell it like it is now they are there? It's too early to tell. But I hope that the party will recognise the huge contribution made to our cause by the likes of Occupy and will not denounce its radical roots and the Values analysis. This morning a bunch of us from our valley blocked the gold miners from coming in to their site and escorted them out of the valley at walking pace behind a large red banner. Greens will continue this kind of direct action. We don't expect our leaders to engage in it during an election campaign, but the test will be how they deal with this tsuff aftr the election.

by Claire Browning on November 28, 2011
Claire Browning

MikeM and Steve F: fascinating. Just fascinating. I'm sure that would have been a valued contribution, to whatever thread you were supposed to be on - this one, not so much.

Thanks Jeanette.

by MikeM on November 28, 2011

Sorry Claire, right you are.  I'm a sucker for tangents.

by Claire Browning on November 29, 2011
Claire Browning

No worries Mike, I'm sorry too for being grumpy. I should have just said: "troll much?". Which as it turns out, you weren't.

by Claire Browning on November 29, 2011
Claire Browning

Dear glennp

I don't know where your comment has gone - I saw it early this morning, and now it has disappeared. But it was fabulous. If you read this, please come back and post it again - and my apologies on behalf of Pundit. We seem to be having some problems with the site.

by Steve F on November 29, 2011
Steve F


I concur with most of what you say in your post, and I also concur with Mike...Tangents float my boat as well.....I draw an analogy of your thread to a beautifully crafted organically grown wine..The tangents add that layer of vitality and interest over what is a body of sublime bouquet flavour and richness . It stands it apart from the mass of austere and mediocre.........

And it's okay to be grumpy. Sometimes. Good to know it's not just a man thing....

by Isaac Freeman on November 30, 2011
Isaac Freeman

This is a fascinating article. Any successful political aprty or movement has to encompass people with a variety of perspectives, values and goals. It seems to me that the Green Party's culture has allowed such open and respectful dialogue within the party that people outside often fail to recognise that different views exist at all. As the Greens grow in prominence, the news media will pay more attention to differences between Greens, so it's probably valuable to define what some of those differences are, before they're defined for you. Otherwise, the story is likely to be framed in terms of Left Greens and Right Greens, which doesn't shed any light on what Greens are.

It's good strategy for a minor party to focus on a single value, to attract active supporters and make the most of limited media attention. But the Green Party isn't a small party. There are multiple Green values, and I think the public is ready to see that you contain multitudes.

I think Claire identifies some of the values that attract people to the Greens: radicalism, quality of life, sustainability. I've personally become a Green voter because of another value that I see in the Greens that seems to be lacking in every other party: respect for scientific evidence.

Greens recognise that the way we govern must be shaped by the best information we have about the physical world. We can't wish away climate change or peak oil or ocean acidification, and we can't treat them as political lobby groups to balance against other interests. It's disturbing that such a fundamental point needs to be made, but it makes my choice of party to vote for pretty straightforward.

Except when it isn't. I'm sure it will seem like ancient history for people within the Greens, but "Corngate" has cast a long shadow for many people. I couldn't bring myself to vote Green in 2002, because the party's position on genetic modification seemed like blatant scaremongering. I felt similarly about nuclear power. In 2005 and 2008 I voted Green, but only after looking very carefully for any signs of further departures from evidence-based politics. Many of my friends, who skew towards scientific backgrounds, didn't even consider the Greens: all they knew about you was Corngate. They respected other Green values, and they weren't put off by radicalism, but rejection of scientific evidence was a deal-breaker.

This year, however, the stigma has lifted somewhat. I don't know how representative my particular circle is, but it it's anything to go by there's a constituency for the Greens that is only now re-emerging.

I'd hardly be consistent if I expected this tissue of anecdote, impressions and personal narrative to inform serious policy-making. So suffice it to say that I think the Greens are big enough to present more than one value to the public. And thanks, Claire, for a thought-provoking read.

by glenn p on November 30, 2011
glenn p

Thanks Claire, here it is:

There are a couple of other considerations that I'd like to throw into the mix.

The first is that I think it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we have a society with static beliefs -- one in which there is a large politically neutral/central group and smaller groups to the political left and right, which decrease in size/popularity the further they are from the centre. Of course, it is easy to see why we would see society this way, and resign ourselves to one of two choices: to run a campaign that is true to what we believe but only attract a small section of the population, or to run a campaign that dilutes our policies but is more attractive to the majority. This is how I find most political commentators view things. It is as if all opinions are equal, and that the proportions of people holding each set of beliefs will remain the same forevermore.

But (and as I'm sure people don't need me to tell them), not all opinions have equal merit. Some are based on knowledge, hard data, open-mindedness, courage and compassion, while others are based only only some of these or none at all. History (or at least my vague understanding of history) has shown that mainstream beliefs have changed. There seem to be plenty of examples of radical left-wing ideas that have become mainstream in a relatively short period of time, such as identity politics (e.g., anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia), the anti-war movement, welfare and the environment (e.g., something as 'everyday' as recycling). Arguably some things may have crept in from the right as well that I am not so stoked about, such as increased consumerism, exploitation of foreign workers, and changes to financial systems. But all in all, it seems that it is indeed possible to change mainstream beliefs, and largely for the better.

I guess part of Claire's argument (and I apologise if I am wrong), is that the Greens (and I mean not just the party, but the left-wing movement in general) have traditionally fed these ideas into society, and after a period in which these ideas are lambasted as being the dreams of hippies and stoners, they become mainstream, because people finally see that they are based on some universal truth. At which point the Greens move onto the next idea to introduce and the process repeats. The Greens thus never end up in power, yet have the greatest influence on society.

The above would suggest that the Greens should stay on the sideline, as they will never represent the views of the masses. But I am not convinced that this has to be the case. The difference between the Greens being viewed as lunatics with scary ideas and being viewed as experts with solutions to problems comes down to the presentation of their ideas. Any idea can be presented in a multitude of ways. I'm not going to diss protesters and activists for even a minute, but it can be argued that the human mind does not respond well to confrontation. If we make an effort to understand how the other person views the world, perhaps we can then show them how our own ideas are extensions of their own (not that I'm any good at this...).

by Megan Salole on December 02, 2011
Megan Salole

Hi Claire

I always love reading your perspective on the Greens, I think that the hammer and the nail often connect.

But this time I was surprised to read "But for all the strengths and wins of the 2011 campaign, it also failed... Because it did not give real profile to the difference in Green values, or confront the need for a change in values" because although many commentators understood the underlying intention behind the 'Richer' campaign, you seem to miss it, and that surprised me.

The very purpose of using the word "richer" was to poke and provoke a reaction. Our focus testing revealed that it surprised people. They weren't expecting the Greens to use this language, normally a term used associated with luxury and abundance of money. This incongruence made them question by what the Greens mean when they say Richer, and therein lay its power as a campaign tool – it gave us access to the economic debate, on our terms.

And therein lies the confrontation around values. When the Greens assess richness - they are talking Quality of Life, a shared sense of prosperity, a New Zealand where everyone is doing ok - not just a fortunate few. Where our rivers are clean, our children are thriving and our workers are in jobs that are safe, clean and are good for our environment. This is a direct provocation - asking that New Zealanders consider what truly makes them rich and ask whether we are asking the right questions and striving for the right goals.

This was a direct challenge to the value set of New Zealanders. Our role is still very much to charter the new course.

My own personal opinion is that I'm not sure that if we want to be a powerful political force that this is congruent with an angry activist attitide that we were once known for. We have experienced more success being a party which focusses on solutions, which lucklily we have in spades. Is this a shift in values? I dont think so. The intention is the same, the roots are firmly in the same place they started in, but its a practical, pragmatic force for positive change.

There is room on our politcal spectrum for angry activism, and ideological parties and I am personally very grateful to have them in the mix. Thank goodness we have help onto MMP! But Greens are finding their success and power in making good green change happen regardless of who is in power, and until the people give us more of a mandate we will need to work this system to the best of our ability.



by Megan Salole on December 02, 2011
Megan Salole

Ooh - I should say that I was the Campaign Manager for the Green Party this year!

by Claire Browning on December 02, 2011
Claire Browning

Why does activism have to be angry? My point is that it doesn't - and it can be as solution-focused as you like, I am all for that, but it still should call a spade a spade, and not pretend to be "mainstream" when it isn't. A genuinely sustainable society will be a revolution, in all sorts of ways.

There are many respects in which I have nothing but praise for the campaign. And no, I didn't miss the point of the billboards: it wasn't that hard to grasp. However, in my view, it presented an alternative type of vision to New Zealanders, rather than really challenged their value set. It said, let's be clean and green and smart. Which is great. It did not say: this is what, in the end, being clean and green and smart will require.

Of course, you can only do so much at once, and politics is politics; I am a policy girl, for my sins.

I am concerned to make sure that we don't lose sight of the goal. This year, I genuinely couldn't tell; and there are many days when I wonder if some in the party ever knew what the goal was in the first place.

by Antoine on December 02, 2011

By the way (thread derailment)

Why cant we get those billboards out again

I have this vision of that billboard with the smiley young lad down at the river with his family, sitting next to an image of someone dashing round in suburban shopping mall hell shoving expensive presents in their trolley, with a subtitle "What kind of Christmas would you rather have?"

Might help to get the point across that life ain't just about consumption


by Claire Browning on December 02, 2011
Claire Browning

> Might help to get the point across that life ain't just about consumption

Or election campaigns! Or politics. Yes. Plus, it's not just - vote in this bunch of 13 very nice people, then forget about it for the next 3 years - it's a way of being.

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