The Greens’ story is one of remarkable political triumph and devastating disappointment. Of colour well beyond their name, of idiocy well beneath their ideals, and of earnestness beyond what most of us muster.
Very quickly, a potted history. Their roots go back to the Values Party, an ecological grouping formed in 1972. The Green Party itself was established in 1990, but even though they reached nearly seven per cent of the vote, they didn’t have a show of getting into Parliament until 1996, when MMP was implemented. That year, three Green MPs – Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Phillida Bunkle – got in under the umbrella of the Alliance.
In 1999, they ran under their own name and despite attacks from National that they were a rabble of unemployeds, communists and saboteurs, got seven MPs. They were heady days with high-profile politicians. Rastafarian Nandor Tanczos, unemployed-rights worker Sue Bradford, peace campaigner Keith Locke, safe-food and animal-welfare champion Sue Kedgley. Led by Donald in his trademark braces and beard and the almost saintly Fitzsimons, once voted the politician people would most trust to babysit their children, they gained headlines and made a mark.
They survived in Parliament after the 2002 and 2005 elections, despite a secretive smear campaign by the Exclusive Brethren church in 2005, but were spurned by Labour as a government partner each time, becoming a perpetual wallflower in the delicate coalition dance. Rod Donald died suddenly in 2005, and by 2011, when the party won 11 per cent of the vote, it was led by Turei and Russel Norman. Despite predictions they’d reach 15 per cent at the 2014 election, they actually slipped slightly, to 10 per cent.
Nobody’s really certain what went wrong. They talk about being tainted by the Kim Dotcom controversy, they talk about not getting any media attention in the fortnight before voting, they lament so many young people didn’t vote.
But perhaps there was still a feeling they were just a little too left, too fringe, too tree-huggy – remember the Morris dancing at that party conference? Too dope-smokey. A bit wacky, a bit wild. A party of banning and taxing things.
Politically, it’s suited opponents to characterise the Greens as barmy, a deluded cell of iconoclasts and anarchists.
Former Prime Minister John Key labelled their calls for extended child welfare payments “barking mad”. He called their plan (with Labour) for a national buyer of electricity “barking mad”. Their suggestion trusts should be open to scrutiny was “barking mad”. So, too, was last year’s plan to lower Auckland house prices.
His acolytes have trotted out similar tiresome tropes, such as National MP Tim Macindoe’s parliamentary zingers about the Greens’ diet of lentil soup, and pumpkin and herb muffins. Oh ho, ho, ho, Mr Macindoe. But those views are reflected in society and you don’t have to venture far down the comments sections of online stories to see how some perceive the Greens.
“Fairy-land protest movement… social manipulation… we all would have very short showers, small TVs and low voltage light bulbs… hatred for humanity… paternalism… would send us broke in a very short time.” And that was just reaction to one story.
The Whale Oil website loves dubbing them the Green Taliban, Act leader David Seymour last year insisted they had a “mad ideological underbelly”, and even this year, Prime Minister Bill English labelled them “nasty”.
But the clichéd caricatures that have dogged the Greens ever since they arrived in Parliament seem more irrelevant and inaccurate than ever. There are few activists in their parliamentary ranks now. They talk an effortless business language. They wear suits. They’ve had two decades in Parliament and been our third-largest party since 2008. The Greens have become mainstream. Mainstream, albeit with a few hanging hemp threads and a lingering whiff of patchouli, their critics claim.
Economist Shamubeel Eaqub says there’s little that’s scary about the Greens now, particularly since Shaw, a former international consultant for the likes of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and HSBC Bank, became co-leader.
“When I’ve seen him in front of fairly top-notch business audiences, you could see a lot of people nodding their heads – not the shakes that we used to see in the past. So there’s nothing I’ve seen that seems kooky.”
Eaqub says the Greens being part of a government wouldn’t spook the markets, and the issues they’ve long campaigned on are ones more and more New Zealanders feel are important.
“In places like Auckland, we know that public transport has to be part of the solution. This endless growth in motorways and congestion, the 1960s thinking that if you build more, it’ll be solved, even when all the evidence and theory tells us that’s not possible – I think they provide a nice counter to some of the really quite dispelled ways of economic thinking.”
The Greens’ idea of a carbon tax isn’t extreme, says Eaqub; nor is their top income tax rate of 40 per cent for the top three per cent of earners; nor their plan to get more freight shifted by rail or sea. Their environmental emphasis makes economic sense, given New Zealand trades on its clean green image and charges a premium for it.
Even their harder line on climate change is difficult to criticise, he says. “I think there’s something in the Greens that appeals to people, that there’s an element of responsibility – the kind of tragedy of the commons, that we can’t all just neglect it because everyone else is neglecting it.”
Some groups will always have concerns about the Greens – high carbon industries and the agricultural sector, Eaqub says. But even here, opposition seems to be moderating.
Kirk Hope, chief executive of advocacy group BusinessNZ, says the Greens have been open to discussing policy in a way he finds very encouraging. Likewise, Federated Farmers president William Rolleston says the Greens have become more sensible and measured. “I’ve actually found them good to talk to, to be honest. They’re looking for solutions, they’re willing to think about things and take our views into consideration and that’s a big improvement on where the Greens sat 10 years ago, when I don’t think we’d even have a conversation with them. It’s a different party now.”
Even conservative political commentator Matthew Hooton says it’s difficult to still pigeonhole the Greens as left-wing. He points to their 2014 election policy to use income from a carbon tax to reduce company tax – which put them alongside only Act in promising to decrease corporate tax.
“Beginning with Russel Norman and Metiria Turei, the men have worn suits and ties, and the women have worn Jenny Shipley-style suits. So they’ve worked hard at that.”
They have a strong brand, a solid voter base of around 10 per cent, and their presence has brought clear changes in policy from National and Labour. “Even when they’re a bit extreme, a bit nutty, a bit optimistic about New Zealand’s place in the world, we’re better off having them raising issues.”
Ultimately, Hooton sees the Greens supplanting Labour as the main opposition party. “It’s inevitable. We might all be dead, but basically Labour is finished as a long-term proposition as a brand,” he says. “And if you compare how the business community is currently considering Labour, the Greens are seen as very sensible.”
On election night in September 2014, Green MP Gareth Hughes gathered with party supporters at Wellington’s Bodega Bar, a dark and doglegged music venue. The Greens had gone into the election with co-leader Norman predicting they’d get 15 per cent of the vote and polls supporting that. In the end, they got 10.7 per cent and 14 MPs. No amount of channelled positivity or craft beer could succour supporters’ disappointment.
“There were long faces,” remembers Hughes. “This was a great chance to change the government. And here was John Key returned yet again, with his ideological agenda. And people had poured their heart and soul into the campaign.”
Hughes joined the party as an 18-year-old and was one of the youngest MPs when he entered Parliament in 2010 – the first Green MP who hadn’t served with original leaders Donald and Fitzsimons.
And the changes since then have been marked, he says. “I still remember the days when we’d have papier-mâché sculptures at Green Party events. You’re more likely now to see an ultra-slick PowerPoint presentation with economic analysis and footnotes. Now when you think about a Green, you think about someone in a suit, someone associated with a solar panel or wind turbine, less so with bells and Morris dancing.”
The change in image has been both organic and a pragmatic effort to escape being typecast. “We want to be debating the issues, not what we’re wearing,” says Hughes. “We want to be taken seriously because of the ideas and not have doubt cast on our credibility because of some old-fashioned stereotype. So it was a conscious effort to make sure we had the best brand. But not because we’re trying to sell soapflakes – we’re trying to sell really important ideas in a political battle for values and visions.”
The morale-sapping 2014 election result was compounded by the fact many good Green candidates missed out. At this election also, the party is spoilt for talent: there’s Chlöe Swarbrick, who energised Auckland’s mayoral campaign; human- rights lawyer Golriz Ghahraman; former diplomat/poet/social commentator Leilani Tamu; snowboarder turned dancer and TV personality Hayley Holt; Wairarapa farmer John Hart; lawyer and former international climate-change negotiator Teall Crossen; and Nelson councillor Matt Lawrey. Most pundits agree the line-up is very strong.
The only problem is getting these new faces into Parliament, especially given only two sitting Green MPs, Browning and Catherine Delahunty, are retiring.
While the Greens would like to present an image of fresh enthusiasm, the irony is their MPs have the highest average age of any party in Parliament. Moreover, the party has demonstrated conservatism in choosing candidates, such as when it selected low-profile MP Denise Roche over Swarbrick to run in Auckland Central, despite Swarbrick’s popular momentum.
At the end of February, all MPs and new candidates gathered in Wellington for a selection conference – a political Hunger Games, full of short speeches and speed-dating with delegates who then ranked the candidates in an initial party list. This has now been sent to all party members, who can vote to change it, but usually there’s little movement.
If the list remains the same, and the Greens polling stays at 2014 election levels resulting in 14 MPs, it would mean only one current MP, David Clendon, was replaced, and only three new faces would make it into Parliament for the Greens – party staffer Jack McDonald, Hart and Swarbrick – with most of their fresh talent missing out.
It’s a scenario political commentator and academic Bryce Edwards says would harm the party, given his view that many of its current MPs are largely ineffective.
He believes part of the problem is the Greens’ list selection process, which gives all party members a say. “So the Green MPs aren’t actually concerned with campaigning to increase the party vote. Instead they spend their spare time campaigning to keep their positions with Green activists, because it’s the Green activists who so strongly determine who stays in power.”
And this might not be the only problem facing the Greens, despite many things looking promising for them.
Edwards says the international mood that resulted in Brexit and Donald Trump, with its anti-elite, anti-metropolitan, anti-liberal sentiment, will work against the Greens. “Although the Greens come from a tradition of being quite anti-
authority and anti-establishment, I don’t think they channel that any more, and the anti-establishment mood of 2017 around the world and in New Zealand is quite different to what the Greens represent. Mostly it’s a mood that’s against people like Green MPs, quite frankly.”
New Zealand First stands to gain the most from any New Zealand version of that sense of discontentment, and will supplant the Greens as Parliament’s third-largest party, Edwards predicts, although he feels the Greens will still get around 10 per cent of the vote.
Massey University professor Claire Robinson agrees this won’t be the Greens’ breakthrough election. Labour and the Greens cannibalise each other’s vote, and the risk is that people wanting to change the government will simply vote for Labour as the most realistic option. “The Greens started as very much a niche party. And they are really struggling to find another competitive position. So you either become Labour-lite, which is where part of the party seems to be going, or you stick to your niche, which means you’re probably never going to grow to a very large extent.”
No matter how good or worthy their policies are, voters are ultimately motivated by self-interest, not wider issues like climate change or clean rivers, Robinson says. “People say, ‘What’s in it for me?’ And if what’s in it for me is, ‘My house is going up in value, I can buy a better car, I might be able to send my children to a better school’ – those are the things that at the end of the day a lot of people vote for.”
On the upside, Robinson thinks the Greens’ prospects might be better in 2020 when the public is more likely to have tired of National.
But even if they defy these predictions and do well, even if they do find themselves in negotiations to form a government, the outlook still won’t be good, warns Matthew Hooton.
“Even if they get 15 per cent, they’re destined for terrible disappointment. There is no scenario under which Labour and the Greens would have enough support to govern alone. So Winston Peters is required. That means the Greens will be shut out. And they’ve ruled out supporting a National-led government, so they will be done over once again and there will be absolutely nothing they can do about it.”
Hooton insists there’s no reason Peters would be interested in working with the Greens or having Shaw or Turei in positions of influence. Even though Labour and the Greens have a memorandum of understanding and Labour promises to talk to the Greens first about a coalition, negotiations with New Zealand First will be much more important, Hooton says, because Peters could equally go with National – whereas the Greens don’t have that bargaining chip.
“It’s quite cruel. They think Labour and them have reached this agreement. Poor old Greens. It’s all a bit tragic, really.”
James Shaw gets out of the taxi, across from his favourite cafe in Wellington’s Aro Valley. But instead of just popping across the road, he walks 15m up the pavement to a pedestrian crossing, crosses there, and walks back down the other side to the cafe. God, the Greens don’t even jaywalk.
Shaw lives just above Aro Valley, home of the Greens’ most productive polling booth in the country. Though he joined the Greens as a 17-year-old schoolboy, he’s hardly the bohemian stereotype associated with the inner-city area. His business background and broad appeal saw him approached by four other parties to stand for them, before he entered Parliament with the Greens. He didn’t have a second coffee with any of those other suitors, adamant the Greens were his natural political home. But as if to emphasise he wasn’t hidebound by lefty ideology or liberal dogma, Shaw proceeded to reference Margaret Thatcher in his maiden parliamentary speech.
To those who say he’s been very much part of the Greens’ image change, he says yeah, of course the party has changed the way it presents itself – how it communicates, the tone, how they dress. They’ve become more pragmatic as a means of getting into government. But that hasn’t changed who they are, or diluted their policies.
“I think that we’re no less idealistic. The National Party has changed, too. This isn’t Jim Bolger’s National Party. It’s not Robert Muldoon’s National Party. Has the Labour Party changed? Yes, it has.”
But would he stand on Parliament’s steps holding a Tibetan flag to protest against the arrival of a Chinese delegation, as his predecessors Donald and Norman did? “Depends on the circumstances. I think I’d prefer a diplomatic approach.”
Sometimes high-profile acts were the best strategy, sometimes not, Shaw says. “I have no problem with the idea that we have a role to play in being the bold, visionary party that tries to stretch Parliament. At the same time, I’m not interested in emulating Trump’s ‘make shit up because it’s going to get me in the papers’. In fact, I’m utterly committed to not being that kind of politician. I want to be the reverse of that politician. And if I have to sacrifice a bit of media coverage, I’d rather maintain my integrity and I’d rather stand with science and fact, even if it’s occasionally a little bit dull.”
When people accuse the Greens of softening policies to appeal to the centre ground of voters, Shaw says it’s more a case of the centre ground coming to them. Issues such as clean rivers, public transport, energy efficiency, climate change – even medicinal cannabis – have become very mainstream and been picked up on by their opponents.
But to be truly effective, Shaw insists, they can’t rely on just influencing other parties from the sidelines. “The Greens have to be in government if we want the things we say we want. I think it’s been demonstrated over the last 20 years that in order to make progress, we have to be in government, that being in Opposition is insufficient.”
Party research showed that in 2014, around 30 per cent of voters considered the Greens, but only 10 per cent actually voted for them, and for many, not voting for the Greens rested more on a general feeling, rather than specific policies. The research showed those non-voters were concerned about their ability to govern the country, their economic accountability, and whether they’d be stable coalition partners.
“It takes a long time to shift perception,” says Shaw. “It’s like changing banks. You can decide you want to, but it can take a long time to actually go through the process of doing it. But if we can’t convince people who’ve been consistently for the last two or three elections giving their vote to National, we will not change the government.”
The concept of National supporters switching to the Greens might seem extreme but at the 2011 election, 20 per cent of National voters said the Greens were their second choice. So the trick is to tread that fine line between boldness and blandness, to resonate with voters but not scare them. It’s the political Goldilocks conundrum – not too left, not too right – ahhh, just right.
While the Greens won’t yet reveal all their election policies, Shaw says the issues will be similar to those they ran on in 2014. The three pillars will be the state of our water; the cost of living and making ends meet; and government transparency and accountability.
There will be a carbon tax, but a one per cent cut in company tax funded from it; there will be a capital gains tax on property other than the family home; the top tax rate will rise to 40 per cent but that will affect only three per cent of earners – 97 per cent of people will pay less income tax.
The party doesn’t support a change to superannuation at present, and insists a cross-party consensus is crucial. Last year, its drug policy changed from decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use to legalisation – something most people presumed was already party policy, Shaw laughs. Only New Zealand citizens and residents will be able to buy land.
On issues like immigration, though, Shaw is less definite, recognising population growth is placing stress on our infrastructure and environment but unwilling to comment on whether current levels are too high – instead saying the flow needs to be smoothed out and planned for. However, the party’s policy is for long-term net migration to be no more than one per cent of the population – meaning current levels would have to be significantly reduced.
Of course, whatever the party’s policies, the reality is they first have to become part of a government coalition to have any chance of implementing them. This depends on Labour improving its polling, and the fortunes of other parties such as New Zealand First.
Shaw doesn’t agree that working with New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, if necessary, will be as difficult as critics predict. “I think we’ve learnt that whatever Winston’s rhetoric is on the campaign trail, in government he tends to be pretty docile. It’s just politics. I’m losing precisely zero sleep about that.”
Co-leader Turei says Peters is unpredictable but things had moved well beyond the days when Peters insisted he wouldn’t work with Greens in Cabinet.
Turei is the party’s most experienced MP, the former lawyer entering Parliament in 2002. In the 90s, she ran for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, and later McGillicuddy Serious, at number 27 on their list in 1999, somewhere between Rodney Hansen (a sea gypsy) and Samuel Cumming (a couch fungus).
But beyond any easy jibes, Turei has been a strong part of making the Greens more acceptable and attractive to voters, and making a party that was in some ways a coalition of activist interest groups into a more homogeneous unit.
And she insists the issues they’ve campaigned on and the values underpinning them haven’t changed, despite perceptions the Greens are now more mainstream. “I think it’s just another word for popular. And I quite agree – we’re much more popular.”
But if they’re going to get into government, they’ll need to be more popular. So how to achieve that, given this is exactly what they’ve been trying to do for 20 years?
It won’t be by pushing policies, however worthy, that keep them pigeonholed as loopy, such as this from their defence policy: “Investigate the development of civilian-based defence where some citizens are trained to resist aggression or usurpation by withholding co-operation and by active non-co-operation rather than military force.”
And it certainly won’t be by talking in dislocating bureaucratese, as in this explanation of their bill for greater emphasis on the environment: “It does this by providing a framework for parliamentary scrutiny of sustainable development indicators of New Zealand as a context for guidance for decisions on the Government’s expenditure proposals and the Government’s management of its assets and liabilities; and specifies the principles of sustainable development for New Zealand as a context for the conduct of fiscal policy.”
Massey University’s Claire Robinson says the Greens’ deliberate efforts to appear responsible and non-extreme may mean they get less media attention in the campaign. One thing she’s suggested to James Shaw is pushing hard on their cannabis legalisation policy.
“If they did that, they’d probably get about every young person in New Zealand voting for them. But I just can’t see it, because they’ve become so cautious.”
Shamubeel Eaqub suggests they concentrate on a couple of core Green issues: water and transport. “And make them the issues they would absolutely deliver on; they’d be the conditions for them being in government. I think that’s a much better fit than broadening their message to social and other issues, which has kind of confused what they’re about. That’s not to say those things aren’t important, but if you’re going to be a Green party and you’re going to be a minority player, then you need to be very focused on one or two issues that will play into your hands in an MMP environment.”
And given the realities of MMP, that raises an issue that’s dogged the Greens since their political infancy: whether to open themselves to a coalition with National.
Both sides have effectively ruled it out for this election, but Matthew Hooton suggests the Greens’ refusal to be pragmatic and consider siding with National has potentially kept it out of government for many years. He stresses MMP delivers proportional representation in Parliament – not proportional power. “So a Green Party that gets seven per cent of the vote and holds the balance of power can deliver more Green policy than a Green Party that gets 15 per cent of the vote and doesn’t hold the balance of power. Winston Peters is evidence of that.”
Hooton admits doing a deal with National would harm the Greens in the polls – the question is, how much? “If it takes you below five per cent, then you don’t even consider it. But if it takes you to eight, then that’s better than being an 11 tied to Labour. It’s just a matter of raw power politics.”
He questions whether the Greens really know where their votes come from – in crude terms, “the mad radical or the Remuera housewife or the Grey Lynn liberal with the $3 million villa or the West Coast hippie or the stoner – there are different groups. But which is most important? Where do they get the most votes from?” Until they understand that, they won’t know how an alliance with National will affect them, Hooton says.
“You don’t have to be happy about forming a government with people you don’t like. But if you wish to have power, if you’re genuinely idealistic about your policies and believe it’s important to have them implemented – whether that’s climate change for the Greens or more baubles for old people if you’re Winston Peters – then you have to go after power.
“I think a lot of National voters would feel there were some potential gains of having a National-Green arrangement rather than a National-New Zealand First one. And I think a National-Green government would be better for New Zealand than a National-New Zealand First one, personally.”
But James Shaw insists the public wants to know whether a party supports more of the status quo, or wants to change the government.
“Look, if I was sitting on the cross-benches on the 24th of September, and I’ve got the choice of supporting a fourth-term National government or a new Labour-led government, and I’ve got more policy alignment with Labour, why would I choose to support National? I can’t see them offering more of our policy agenda than a Labour-led government – I just cannot see it.”
So whither or wither the Greens at this year’s election? Will they yet again be consigned to impotent opposition, a malcontented rump, Parliament’s moral conscience? Or will they finally become part of government, with cabinet posts and passing legislation that’s dear to their ideals and members?
Ironically, some feel the party’s strategy of looking moderate and looking to the middle ground for votes, has backfired. Sue Bradford was one of the original Green MPs, arriving with the class of ’99 and staying in Parliament for 10 years. When she left, after losing to Turei in the party co-leader contest, she said not becoming a Cabinet minister was one of her biggest regrets.
But there were others – primarily what Bradford perceived was the party’s clear shift to the political right, a move that’s continued under its current leadership, she says. “I fought it as long as I could and standing for the co-leadership was my last attempt to stem the tide. But, of course, I totally failed.”
Bradford let her Green membership lapse after leaving Parliament. After a fling with the Mana Party before the last election, she says there’s no political party she could support right now.
“I don’t know if I’ll vote at all in this election. I didn’t vote last time – which was really sad. I never thought I’d ever not vote in my life. I nearly voted for the Greens, but in the last couple of weeks Russel Norman came out with really strong pro-business policies and statements. They’re trying to catch both the left and the right votes, and they think it’s really clever and they’re outwitting everybody by doing that. But oh, no, I’m not going to be fooled again.”
Bradford insists there are enough votes on the left to sustain the Greens, without having to hunt in the centre. She points to the 730,000 enrolled voters who didn’t vote last time. Many of them, she believes, were waiting for a party that’s more left, more radical than Labour or the Greens – or more like the Greens were when Rod Donald was co-leader and there were clear ideological bottom lines.
“Don’t pussyfoot around. Don’t always go for the compromise. Look at what could make real change and don’t be afraid of advocating for that, rather than trying to please the middle ground or the blue-green voters all the time.”
Of course, one easy rejoinder to Bradford is that the Greens nearly doubled their vote in the election following her departure, so any move to the centre has arguably been effective. Metiria Turei says they actually increased their support by 10,000 votes at the last election (though their proportion of the overall vote slipped) – party support is still effectively growing.
And Turei bridles at people invoking Rod Donald, or asking what he might have thought of the party in 2017.
“I actually find it really objectionable that a number of people have in the last little while raised what Rod might think. Because he’s dead and he’s gone, and we don’t know what he would think. I don’t believe in waving the hand of a dead man.”
However, it was in fact Turei’s predecessor, Jeanette Fitzsimons, who raised Donald’s legacy when interviewed by North & South, musing it was a shame we couldn’t speak to Donald as part of this story, to get his views.
“He’d probably be saying, ‘Push the boundaries a bit more.’ I mean, he did.”
Fitzsimons says it’s convenient for other parties to have the Greens as some kind of bogeyman on the left they can attack. “But we have to be careful not to take too seriously the few voices who are trying to rubbish us, trying to paint us in stereotypes, who are trying to paint us as scary dopeheads and all the rest of it. They’re doing it for a reason. The important thing is to talk about what we will do, rather than keep denying what we won’t do.”
Fitzsimons, 72, is still involved with the party and was at the recent candidate selection conference, an event that left her convinced the party’s future was in good hands. But she also believes the party can afford to be more controversial in some of its actions and policies this year.
“We have to stand out from the crowd,” she says. “The Greens aren’t going to get anywhere by being safe. And if some people regard us as scary, the answer isn’t to become safe, the answer is to explain our policies better and make them connect better with the everyday needs of the voters.
“The middle ground is crowded. Too many people are there already. And it’s not about being right or left, it’s about being forward-looking and progressive.
“My view is, nobody won an election by being safe and non-controversial.”