At this weekend’s Green Party annual meeting, the Greens will be considering the prospect of whether they would be willing to enter into a National-led government after the 2011 election. The most evocative but accurate way that the new political positioning of the party has been explained can be found on the official Green Party blogsite, Frogblog, where one Green explains it like this: ‘It's all about leverage for me. The past strategies of the Greenz have resulted in many years in parliament, none in government. By showing off your left wing underpants in the seductive dance of election time you get this... National.. I can ignore that maiden, she'll never sleep with me labour.. I can ignore that maiden, she's 'in the sack' Result? MORE years NOT in government. I'm assuming here that the Green party was formed to get into Government? Or was it just to get into parliament?’ I doubt that the Green MPs would be likely to use this particular analogy to sell the remit that they are putting to their members and eventually to voters. By making their own party sound like seductors or seductresses desperate for sex, the Greens could be seen to be prostituting themselves for power – but perhaps that is quite apt? [Read more below]
There are still many who swear the Greens would never go into a coalition with National. They suggest that Green overtures to National are only pragmatic posturing. But isn’t this akin to the suggesting prior to 1984 that Labour would never implement neoliberal reforms? Or that NZ First would never go into a coalition in 1996 with National? Or the Maori Party would never go into a coalition with National?
What’s more, many of the European green parties that the NZ one aligns itself so closely with have been in rightwing coalitions and are now very much non-left parties. As many environmentalists like Guy Salmon say there is nothing intrinsically leftwing about being an environmentalist, and many of the most successful ones see themselves as rightwing. Salmon has said how he is ‘astounded at how Green the right-wing parties in Nordic countries’ are.
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’.
The reality is that the coalition position that the Greens are heading towards in 2011 is similar to the one that they were working on at the same stage in the electoral cycle back in 2008. At that stage, the Greens were keen to increase the party’s leverage by repositioning the party as a more independent party that might play a stronger role in determining which of the two major parties got to form the government. In ideological terms this meant shifting the party out of the left-flank party status that some felt ghettoized the party.
Internal party dissent, however, caused this strategy to be wound back in 2008. Many within the Greens regarded any talk of supporting the National Party as a step too far. It became obvious to the leadership that Sue Bradford was not prepared to continue as an MP through to the end of the parliamentary term if her party went into the election with any prospect of assisting the formation of a National government. The Green caucus therefore decided that it had no option but to align itself with the Labour Party in some form, albeit with the Greens preaching their political independence.
But now, with Sue Bradford out of the party, the new independence trajectory can continue.
“Having it both ways policy”
The new coalition policy is a “having it both ways policy”. The Greens want to show that they are anti-National to those potential leftwing voters and activists by stressing that the policy says how ‘extremely unlikely’ the party is to get into bed with National, and that they prefer Labour, while to more centrist voters the party wants to stress that it can work with any party and will consider any party on its merits. So essentially the Green leadership want to have it both ways – to be able to distance themselves from National and also show they could possibly work with them.