The 2011 general election was a breakthrough election for the New Zealand Green Party. Campaigning ‘For a richer New Zealand’, the Greens won 11.1% of the vote, which translated into 14 MPs. Although the Greens had been in Parliament for the previous 12 years, they had never before been able to win much more than 7% of the party vote. This blog post reproduces a version of a journal article accepted for publication in Environmental Politics, written by Niki Lomax and Bryce Edwards. It argues that the 2011 triumph of the Greens can be attributed, more than anything else, to the significant reinvention of the party over recent years. The Green Party that contested the 2011 election was essentially an entirely new and transformed version of the party that formed in 1990 and was first elected to Parliament in 1999. The Greens, originally regarded as a radical, fringe movement of political outsiders and non-politicians, by 2011 had metamorphosed into a much more conventional, moderate, and professional party. [Read more below]
Another crucial element of the Greens’ repositioning was their ability to take the postmaterialist issues that formed the core of their platform and relate them to the public’s material concerns. This was important because the focus of the 2011 campaign was, more than ever, on the economy. The Greens clearly took this on board, and co-leader Russel Norman coined a mantra for the party to repeat to voters: ‘No environment, no economy’ – emphasising the relationship between materialist and postmaterialist issues. Similarly, albeit more subtly, the Greens’ campaign slogan proclaimed that the party stood ‘For a richer New Zealand’, which cleverly and ambiguously tied together the concepts of an improved quality of life with that of a prosperous economy. This dualism was crucial to the Greens’ electoral success. In an election where environmental issues were subsidiary to material issues, this slogan, which neatly encapsulates the Greens’ overall strategy, was crucial in convincing the public that the Greens were competent and credible.
The economy was the focus of all key debates and the campaign strategies of the major parties. Materialist concerns prevailed in the media: particularly the cost of living and unemployment. New Zealand suffered from the global financial crisis and from the shadow of the European debt crisis. The Christchurch earthquake recovery was also a prominent materialist election issue. The focus on economic issues meant that the 2011 election had a greater left-right dimension than recent campaigns. Postmaterialist issues that had dominated previous campaigns – such as climate change, foreign affairs, race relations – were discussed, but were far from central.
The environment was a valence issue in 2011: no one was ‘against’ the environment, but the parties battled over who had the right variations of policies on climate change, water-use, and energy generation. More generally, a broad environmental consensus prevailed between at the least the two major parties. The centre-right National Party leader and Prime Minister, John Key, was quick to highlight his party’s ‘blue-green’ credentials. In particular he frequently referenced initiatives such as the Home Insulation Scheme, which had been a product of National’s Memorandum of Understanding with the Green Party.
The issue of fresh water quality did gain some traction in the build up to the election. The Green Party had pushed it hard in recent years: Co-leader Russel Norman, in particular, had decried the degradation of water quality in New Zealand rivers, especially those heavily affected by surrounding dairy farming. This issue highlighted the contradiction between the way that tourism is marketed internationally with the brand ‘100% pure New Zealand’, and the reality. Prime Minister Key was questioned about this in an interview on BBC’s Hard Talk programme, which although not broadcast in New Zealand, was heavily reported there, especially because he was seen to have problems answering challenging questions about whether New Zealand’s environment really was ‘100% pure’.
The government’s Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) had been the subject of the main environmental debate during the 2008-2011 parliamentary term, but climate change did not feature strongly during the campaign. The National government’s changes to the scheme were particularly controversial because they pushed back the entry dates for the agricultural sector by two years to 2015 and reduced the obligations of business. Although both Labour and Greens opposed these changes, they chose not to campaign on these differences.
Despite the generally low interest in environmental issues during election year, all changed six weeks before polling day, when on 5 October 2011, one environment-related issue crashed onto the public agenda. A container ship, the MV Rena, ran aground off the coast of Tauranga in the North Island. Environment Minister Nick Smith described the grounding and subsequent oil spill as New Zealand’s ‘worst maritime environmental disaster’, which was soon upgraded to ‘New Zealand’s worst environmental disaster’. Highly toxic oil washed up on one of New Zealand’s most popular beaches, creating the potential for a public health crisis and certain ecological disaster.
The Rena disaster was instantly political. However, although politicians rushed to Tauranga – ostensibly to help with the clean-up – they had to tread the oily beaches with care, as there was no great public appetite for over-politicisation of the incident, and most refrained from using the incident to score political points.
The clear political beneficiary was the Green Party. As one political journalist noted, the grounded boat was the largest and most effective free billboard that the Greens could have asked for (3News, 12 October 2011). The party itself, already campaigning against exploratory plans for deep-sea off-shore oil drilling, used the incident to illustrate that New Zealand could not handle a relatively minor oil spill, let alone any accident on the scale of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon leak.
The media images of oil-doused bird carcasses and the extent of the pollution made the Rena disaster a material environmental issue. In the wake of the grounding, one TV-commissioned opinion poll showed that for voters the single most important election issue was the ‘cleanliness and quality of our natural environment’ (3News, 31 October 2011), followed by the more predictable food prices, good quality education and healthcare.
The Rena disaster only partly explains the Green Party’s success in 2011 because the Greens were already doing very well in opinion polls. A more important change had been occurring within the party itself.
A New-look Green Party
In 2011 the Green Party projected a significantly modified political message. More professional than ever before, they were more pragmatic and had a considerably less radical appearance. These factors combined to attract a broader, more mainstream constituency. The old Green strategy had secured them a consistent parliamentary presence, and 5-7% of the vote over four elections, an achievement unparalleled by any other minor party in New Zealand, but their ambition had grown beyond mere consistency. The Greens now wanted a double-digit result and a greater chance of participating in government, and they knew it would take a new Green Party to achieve these goals.
Throughout the 2008-2011 term, the Greens repositioned and rebranded themselves as a pragmatic, more moderate party that could appeal to a broader, ‘middle New Zealand’ constituency. They shed much of their radical image, opened the door to co-operation with all parties on the political spectrum and emphasised their economic aptitude. Consequently, both voters and the media took the ‘new Greens’ more seriously.
The ‘new and improved’ Green Party’s main break from the past was in personnel: none of the seven MPs elected in 1999 stood for re-election. The leadership had changed well before the election, with Russel Norman replacing the late Rod Donald as male co-leader in 2006, and Metiria Turei superseding the retiring female co-leader Jeannette Fitzsimons in 2009.
The contests for these two co-leadership positions were significant pivot points for the direction of the party. The membership chose Russel Norman over his main rival, Nándor Tánczos, at least partly because the latter was the Greens’ most controversial MP; New Zealand’s first Rastafarian MP, best known for his long dreadlocks and support for the liberalistion of cannabis laws, he would have been an odd choice for a party wishing to target a more mainstream constituency.
Likewise, the 2009 contest for a new female co-leader was between Turei, a modernising and telegenic younger MP, and Sue Bradford, a high profile but controversial left-wing activist. These leadership choices represented the party membership’s support for shifting away from old stereotypes and making the party more palatable to moderate voters. Upon losing their contests, both Tánczos and Bradford chose to leave Parliament, and this itself helped foster the perception that the Greens were less radical. The remaining Green Party veterans, Sue Kedgley and Keith Locke, decided to retire at the 2011 election, allowing for the rise of a younger, more academic caucus.
The Green Party’s campaign strategy
The new generation of Green politicians was very keen to promote a more respectable image. Greens had long been perceived as ‘hippie, sandal-wearers’, but now business suits and ties became de rigueur.
It was not just in attire that the Greens presented themselves as more conventional – the party also deliberately presented itself as more business-friendly through a key strategic decision to combat their perceived economic incompetence. This defined the Green’s 2011 election campaign.
The party’s co-leader and economic spokesperson, Russel Norman, gave numerous interviews and speeches on the future of New Zealand’s economy, preaching ‘fiscal conservatism’ and the need for ‘pragmatic capitalism for a carbon constrained world’ (Norman, 21 September 2011). The party produced detailed economic policy documents that outlined a vision for a ‘smart, green economy’ and a well-received plan for the creation of 100,000 ‘green jobs’. Following the policy launch, journalist Denis Welch wrote: ‘no pie in the sky here; just closely argued (and properly costed) policies that make National look behind the times and Labour off the pace’ (Welch 2011, p.50). This kind of media narrative had an enormously positive impact on the public’s perception of the Greens.
Supplementing the heavy focus on its economic credentials, the Greens’ campaign platform presented three priorities: ‘Jobs, Rivers, and Kids’, an effective and succinct way of communicating a comprehensive manifesto in a memorable sound bite, and signalling that the Greens were more than just an environmental party. The ‘Jobs, Rivers, Kids’ mantra also tied in well with the Greens’ over-arching campaign slogan, ‘For a richer New Zealand’, a core strategic move that enabled them to court the materialist and postmaterialst vote simultaneously.
The Greens repositioning had a highly positive effect on their portrayal in the media which, in the past, reveled in playing up stereotypes and emphasising the Greens’ most controversial policies – cannabis law reform in particular. By 2011 the media narrative had changed. The story became about how the Greens had evolved and become more economically pragmatic and mainstream. Other coverage discussed their momentum in opinion polls, often framing it as ‘the rise of the Greens’, or alternatively, stories focused on the party’s policy announcements. Indeed, the Greens received the most net positive coverage (21.2%) of all the parties (Roff and Walters 2011).
The most negative coverage was the revelation that the party was closely linked to a coordinated, nationwide project to deface the National Party’s election billboards. It was a testament to the Greens’ newfound professionalism that the leadership managed to turn what could have been a severely damaging scandal into a public relations success. The mini-scandal occurred a few weeks prior to election day, when about 700 opposition billboards were plastered with alternative slogans such as: ‘The Rich Deserve More’, and ‘Drill it! Mine it! Sell it!’. When it became apparent that co-leader Russel Norman’s own parliamentary secretary was closely connected to the vandalism, Norman acted fast in putting the staffer on leave, issuing a statement condemning the actions, and helping authorities deal with the alleged crime. The Greens even went as far as helping to purchase and erect replacement billboards for their opponents.
Another key part of the Greens’ repositioning for 2011, was the party’s much-heralded change of stance on coalitions. Previously the party had gone into elections with a very clear policy ruling out the possibility of forming a coalition with the centre-right National Party. This stance had long concerned party activists, and at their June party conference, the Greens declared that a post-election coalition arrangement with the National Party was ‘highly unlikely’ rather than impossible. The Greens also repeatedly highlighted their successes during National’s first term: specifically, the home insulation scheme. This change of orientation was largely because the National government was predicted to retain office without much difficulty, and the Greens needed to assure voters that they could be relevant and achieve progress under a centre-right government. Commentators described this as the party ‘opening the door’ to National, even if it was only ajar. By showing themselves to be co-operative, the Greens emphasised their relevance, that environmental progress could be achieved, even under National, and that a vote for them was not wasted.
An October opinion poll showed that the idea of a National-Green coalition was not as unpalatable to voters as might have been assumed. When asked ‘If John Key opened the door to a formal coalition deal with the Greens - should the Greens say yes?’ 63% of National voters and 60% of Green voters said ‘yes’ (3News, 3 October 2011). This suggested the Greens had cultivated acceptability among National voters.
The Greens’ highly-professionalised and polished campaign distanced the party from its more amateur past. Election advertisements were often superior in sophistication and production values to those of mainstream parties. The Greens also embraced social media more than other parties. Online, Green volunteers were asked to complete ‘missions’, such as delivering pamphlets, and the more of these tasks they completed, the more stars they received. Their website was expertly designed, with prominent links to Facebook and Twitter, the party’s Facebook page receiving more than twice as many ‘likes’ as the Labour Party’s. The candidates also did a lot of tweeting and online chronicling of the campaign. Another example of the Greens’ online innovation was the ‘Green Room’ – a webcast forum that coincided with televised leader’s debates from which the party was excluded. While it is unlikely that this initiative reached many people who were not already planning to vote Green, it demonstrated their superior use of the web as a campaign space.
Green Party electoral success
The Greens final election result tally was 247,372 votes (11.1%). One of the most impressive aspects of the result, was that the party’s gains were not geographically concentrated, but nation-wide. The party increased its share of the vote in every one of the 70 electorates – the only party to do so. As usual, the Green vote was particularly strong in the urban university electorates Wellington Central, Rongotai, Dunedin North, and Auckland Central. In Wellington Central – the most highly educated electorate in the country – the Greens even succeeded in beating Labour, securing 28% to Labour’s 27% of the party vote.
There is no doubt that the Greens made much of their electoral progress at the expense of the Labour Party, which slumped to a record national low of just 27%. A high percentage of Green voters ‘split their votes’ between the two parties: 44.4% of those who gave their party vote to the Greens gave their electorate vote to a Labour candidate. New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional electoral system allows each voter two votes: one for a candidate to represent their local electorate, and one for a party which is used to determine the overall make up of parliament.
A Green future?
The Green Party’s 2011 success presents them with several challenges. A closer race between Labour and National in 2014 might see some soft Green support drift back towards Labour in an attempt to oust the incumbent centre-right government. The Greens insist that, rather than disaffection with the Labour Party, it is their own modern and progressive values that have attracted a larger support base. If the Labour Party successfully rebuilds, this assertion will be put to the test.
Central to the Greens’ campaign was the assurance to voters that green policy could be implemented whichever major party was in power. Therefore, to maintain credibility, during the 2011-2014 parliamentary term the Greens must demonstrate measurable progress towards achieving ‘good green change’. The Greens renewed their Memorandum of Understanding with the National Government in December 2011, but as yet no new projects have been included in that arrangement.
2011 was a turning point for the Greens, but 2014 has the potential to be an even greater one. Already there is speculation that if Labour manages to rebuild, the next election could see the formation of New Zealand’s first red-green government. Then, for the first time, the New Zealand public might see the Greens operate in government and deal with collective cabinet responsibility.