Today the Green Party is celebrating a landmark that is well worth reflecting upon: ten years in Parliament. In our fluctuating MMP environment, that's quite an achievement. In this regard, various media are reporting some of my brief comments on the party’s achievements, current standing, and future. See the news articles on the TVNZ and NewstalkZB websites. I’m reported as saying that ‘the Green Party is sporting a “bland” new image and its biggest achievement is that it has survived’. This blog post expands on some of these comments, and draws attention to a new academic textbook chapter written about the Greens. [Read more below]
The Greens electoral success
The Green Party’s success can be seen in the fact that it is the only new party to have breached the 5% threshold in every general election that its stood in under the new electoral system. Its proportion of the vote between 1999 and 2008 has been: 5.16%, 7.00%, 5.30%, and 6.72% (an average of 6 per cent in the four MMP elections contested). This indeed suggests some sort of endurance and perhaps permanence – even if the achievement of this MMP threshold has only just been achieved, at times, by a whisker.
This 6% average has hardly rattled the two-party dominance of elections. In recent years, other minor parties have won much more significant vote tallies: the Alliance (of which the Greens was once a component) won 18% in 1993 and 10% in 1996; New Zealand First won 13% in 1996; 10% in 2002 – but both these parties are now gone from Parliament. Further back, of course, Social Credit won 16% in 1978 and 21% in 1981. And Bob Jones’ New Zealand Party won 12% in 1984. Thus the Greens’ ongoing 5-7% niche vote is a significant but moderate achievement. But surviving in Parliament at all is the main accomplishment, especially when so many parties have been established in Parliament but failed to survive there.
Achievements and a new direction
In celebrating their ten years in Parliament, it’s interesting to see what the Green co-leader Russel Norman emphasises as the party’s accomplishments in today’s press release. The three policy trophies he cites are: National’s home insulation fund, Labour’s electrification of Auckland's rail system, and the so-called anti-smacking bill. These are all relatively non-left, non-economic policies, which is not to say that they are incompatible with leftwing values and programmes or that they have no connection with economics, but that they represent the Greens newfound emphasis on the more postmaterialist environmental values of the party. What's more, Norman is reported on TVNZ as claiming 'the party will continue to push for sustainability, fairness, peace and democracy' - which is a statement that just about any politician of left, right, or centre could proclaim, and thus reflects the Greens' attempt to widen their catchment and ditch their leftwing image by issuing blander-than-bland statements.
An academic textbook chapter on the Greens by John Wilson is instructive in this regard. Wilson argues in his chapter in the latest Raymond Miller edited New Zealand Government and Politics (5th edition) that the party has faced a dilemma of being pigeonholed as leftwing, but is moving to correct this:
The… dilemma for the Greens is that, like other Green parties worldwide, they are perceived (by their members, the voters, and other political parties), as clearly part of the left. This places them in an uncomfortable strategic position, unable to act as a pivotal party that can easily turn to the right for a coalition partner.
Thus, Wilson points out that ‘During the 2008 campaign the Greens attempted to put some substance into the Green catch-cry that they were “neither left nor right, but out in front”’. Hence, the party’s campaign strategy for the 2008 election was to concentrate on three policy areas: greenhouse gases, dependency on oil, and food safety’ – all relatively non-economic, environmental and postmaterialist issues.
Furthermore, the Greens are taking a more pragmatic orientation to power – ‘especially at the leadership level, the need to enter coalition arrangements and gain ministerial portfolios if Green aims are to be advanced meaningfully has taken on greater prominence’. Also, Wilson says, the party has ‘professionalised its approach to the media and diluted the purity of its policy ideals with a view to increasing its appeal as a prospective partner in government’.
Much of Wilson’s analysis is in line with some previous material written on this blog. See:
Have the Greens sold their soul?
Green Party celebrity politics
Metiria Turei – the next Green Party co-leader
Sue Bradford - the Greens' futile left option
The Greens’ 2008 election campaign
A bad marriage leads to divorce – the splintering of the Greens
Sue Bradford: The Green Party has lost its radical edge and differentiation