To be successful, green parties must preserve a fundamentally dichotomous reputation. The development of the New Zealand Green Party exemplifies this. The ability to be seen as both insiders and outsiders, may seem inherently contradictory, however, as the New Zealand Green Party shows, it is entirely possible. This provides an interesting lens through which to examine the history of the Greens and the factors that have contributed to their success. This post is the fifth of five posts, written by Niki Lomax, based on her recent University of Otago Politics Department Honours dissertation which discusses the path the Greens’ have taken to get to this point, focusing on what has made the Green Party successful and what barriers has it faced in its quest for success. [Read more below]
Like Europe, green politics in New Zealand first emerged out of the New Social Movements (NSMs) which were explicitly unconventional extra-parliamentary movements. Green parties, consequently, have persistently been associated with stereotypes connected to 1970s counter-culture. Initially, this NSM factor was advantageous. The New Zealand Green Party in the early 1990s was able to capitalise on its outsider status and rejection of conventional party politics to achieve an impressive 6.85 percent of the vote in the 1990 election. This was all the more impressive considering that under FPP a Green vote was a protest vote. FPP significantly limited the Green Party’s potential; the adoption of MMP in the mid-1990s made parliamentary entry possible for the Greens and other minor parties that had been marginalised by FPP.
However, as Peter Mair observes, although outsider status may facilitate parliamentary presence, it fundamentally limits the potential of green parties beyond this. It became clear between 1999 and 2005 that the Green Party’s connection with grassroots activism was reinforcing a perception that the party was unreliable, destabilising and radical. This made the prospect of a red-green government unattractive to both the public and the Labour Party. The Greens’ outsider status had become a barrier to success rather than a facilitator.
This prompted a clear shift in Green Party strategy. If the Greens wanted tangible policy progress they would need to increase their share of the vote to have more parliamentary weight. To achieve this, they needed to move beyond their reliable postmaterialist constituency and target a broader mainstream vote; or as the Green Party framed it, they needed to move ‘into the suburbs’. This repositioning saw the Greens become increasingly electoral-professional, representing further erosion of their adherence to the Anti-Party Politics (APP) model.
The Green Party’s use of professional marketing in 2008 was well received. It had become apparent to the Greens that professionalism was necessary if they wanted to be electorally competitive. Additionally, the Greens distanced themselves from NSM stereotypes, abandoning dreadlocks in favour of suits and ties. Led by Russel Norman, the party strengthened its economic credibility with well researched and reasoned economic rhetoric, which aimed to emphasise that a green economy is not about being anti-growth, but about pragmatic capitalism suitable for a carbon constrained world.
The Greens have also emphasised their openness to cross partisan co-operation. This theme is communicated in their 2011 campaign pamphlet which reads: ‘For over a decade the Greens have been working in Parliament, across the political spectrum, to advance smart Green solutions, with lasting benefits for all New Zealanders.’ The National-Green home insulation scheme is frequently used as an example to demonstrate this and, by not ruling out a support agreement with the National Party, the Greens are emphasising their pragmatism and commitment to policy progress. Since 2006, the Green Party’ has clearly repositioned itself to deemphasise old stereotypes and present the party as more professional and mainstream.
Importantly, the Greens have not completely abandoned their outsider status. By retaining certain aspects of the APP model they preserve their distinction. This enables them to credibly describe themselves as an ‘independent’ alternative and critique the major parties for their ‘Coke and Pepsi’ approach. The Greens’ highly democratic party structure, their gender balanced co-leadership model and their involvement in extra-parliamentary political engagement are examples of this APP legacy. Preserving these elements of an outsider image is important for the Greens, not only because prevents them from alienating their postmaterialist voter base, but also because it is an integral part of the Green brand.
The Green Party has become skilled at preserving its insider/outsider status; inside enough to be seen to have influence on policy, but outside enough that they can critique the government and avoid undermining their distinctive brand. As a team, the co-leaders do an excellent job of preserving this balance. While Norman presents the pragmatic face of the party by discussing the benefits of a green economy, Turei is the compassionate face of the party discussing social justice and child poverty. It is a delicate balance to preserve. If the Greens over-emphasis their insider status they could risk undermining their outsider status and vice versa. The inherently dynamic nature of party politics means that this balance is always at risk of being disrupted.
Mair argues that when green parties transition from being a challenger party to being part of the parliamentary cartel, the compromises made for the sake of inclusion causes internal conflict and undermines the party’s ability to critique conventional parties. This is ultimately limits the potential for green party success. Therefore, insider status has the potential to be as problematic as outsider status. The biggest test for the Greens and their ability to maintain a balance between their dual reputations will be the question of government participation. If at some point in the future, the Greens agree to form a coalition with Labour or National this could threaten their insider/outsider balance and ultimately undermine the party’s credibility. Looking at the New Zealand Greens, political scientists Dann and Bale agree with Mair: ‘the opportunities [coalitions offer] are accompanied by constraints of collective cabinet responsibility and the distinct possibility that, whatever the party’s achievements, it will endure more in-fighting and garner fewer votes in the next election.’ Political inclusion will prove incredibly challenging for the Greens as it will essentially represent the complete erosion of their outsider status.
As much as the Greens maintain that they can exert influence outside of government, it is clear to voters that they would have considerably more influence inside government. The Greens are certainly aware of this too. The Green Party is unlikely to be satisfied with the limited opportunities a Memorandum of Understanding provides indefinitely; ministerial posts present attractive opportunities for significant policy progress. Green candidate Holly Walker stated in 2010: ‘Long term, I would love to see a Green government. I would also love to see the Greens in government. I think we should aim high.’ If the opportunity arises, how the Green Party handles inclusion will determine its future success.
In terms of the 2011 election, the Greens have the potential to achieve a higher electoral result than ever before. There are several factors that could potentially work in the Greens’ favour. First, their repositioning will theoretically enable them to overcome many of the barriers that have hindered their success in the past; for example, the perception that they are unreliable and economically incompetent. Second, the current weakness of the Labour Party could see some support from the traditional left shift to the Green Party. Third, the political impact of the current Rena oil spill could prove electorally advantageous for the Greens. Environmental issues on the public agenda will be highly beneficial for the Greens in terms of both media exposure and policy salience. In this case the disaster’s proximity to the election makes it particularly relevant. The political landscape is inherently dynamic and it could be that the Greens’ insider/outsider position, combined with circumstance conducive to success, will see the Green Party reach the higher limits of their success potential in this election. Polls conducted in the week before the Rena disaster had the Greens at 9 and 9.8 percent. It will be interesting to see what impact Rena has on poll results once the election campaign is underway, an ultimately what effect it has on the electoral result.
The Green Party’s quest for success has reached another turning point. The Greens are now positioned to achieve significantly greater electoral success than ever before. While Mair suggests that there is a limit to green success, he does not explore exactly what that might be. The New Zealand Green Party will prove an interesting case study in this respect. How the Greens deal with success and the potential pressures of inclusion will ultimately determine their electoral future.
Niki Lomax’s full dissertation is available as a PDF: Download Niki Lomax Vote For Me Greens DISSERTATION 14 October 2011.
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The above blog post is the fifth of five posts taken from a dissertation submitted for the degree of Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the University of Otago, by Niki Lomax, and entitled ‘Vote for Me: The Green Party’s quest for success’. Niki can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org The dissertation was supervised by Bryce Edwards.
 Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, “For a richer New Zealand,” (Election pamphlet, 2011)
 Dann and Bale, “Is the Grass Really Greener?: The Rationale and Reality of Support Party Status: A New Zealand Case Study,” 350.
 Holly Walker quoted in Nikki MacDonald, “Green Growth,” Dominion Post, ‘Your Weekend’ supplement, 20 November, 2010, 10
 On the 6th of October 2011, a container ship ‘Rena’ ran aground off the coast of Tauranga causing hundreds of tonnes of oil to spill into the ocean. Environment Minister Nick Smith described it as the ‘worst maritime environmental disaster’ in New Zealand’s history. See: NZ Herlad staff, “Rena oil spill: cracks get worse,” New Zealand Herald, 12 October, 2011, accessed 12 October, 2011, http://www.nzherald.co.
 These polls were a ONE NEWS Culmar Bunton poll and a 3News Reid Research poll, both published on the 2nd of October. See: “More poll woe for Labour and Goff,” TVNZ News, 2 October, 2011, accessed 12 October, 2011, http://tvnz.co.nz/politics-news/more-poll-woe-labour-and-goff-4430770 and “Latest 3 News poll shows Nats' support twice that of Labour,” 3News, 2 October, 2011, accessed 12 October, 2011, http://www.3news.co.nz/Latest-3-News-poll-shows-Nats-support-twice-that-of-Labour/tabid/419/article ID/227986/Default.aspx#ixzz1aduf3Yqx.