Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards – Earlier this year Greens’ co-leader James Shaw declared that if the capital gains tax wasn’t implemented then this Government didn’t deserve to be re-elected. With many other complaints at the moment about the lack of progress on important issues from the Government, and also the Greens role in government, the question might be asked whether the Greens themselves have done enough to be re-elected. There are certainly some signs that they will struggle to stay above the five per cent MMP threshold.
The Greens’ annual conference in the weekend was supposed to promote the achievements of the party in Government, and convince supporters and activists that it will achieve more. Unfortunately for the leadership, the weekend raised more questions about the direction the party was going in, and whether the party is in trouble. And much of the discontent was coming from within the party.
The conference was deemed a failure by Herald political journalist Jason Walls, who writes today: The Greens had two jobs at their annual conference. They accomplished neither (paywalled). He says the party didn’t even come close to achieving their goals of soothing the concerns of their membership and giving the public an idea of where the Greens are going.
Walls says: “Instead of progressive policies and fresh ideas, the [leadership] pair rolled out an attack on the Opposition and a promise to negotiate a policy already in its supply and confidence agreement with the Government.”
In fact, the main focus became the discontent of activists in the party. Most notably, a senior Green Party officeholder resigned his position and declared he wouldn’t stand again next year for the party due to his disillusionment. He blamed the leadership, saying “I am concerned about the centrist drift of the party particularly under James Shaw’s leadership” – see Benedict Collins’ 1News report: Green Party candidate resigns over dissatisfaction with party co-leader James Shaw.According to this report, “Former Green Party candidate Jack McDonald says he is fed up with what he says is James Shaw’s inept leadership”, and as an example of this he points to the negotiations that Shaw carried out in producing the watered-down Carbon Zero Bill currently going through Parliament: “He conceded publicly that he gave concessions to the National Party without even securing support for the bill and to me that’s just a failure of political negotiation”.
For more on McDonald’s protest, see RNZ’s High ranking Greens member pulls pin before election. According to this report, “He would also not be seeking re-election as the Greens’ policy co-convenor.”
McDonald believes Shaw and the party aren’t taking climate change seriously enough, saying “When the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says we have 12 years to save the world from climate catastrophe, we simply don’t have time for centrism, moderation or fiscal austerity.”
In a Herald report, Jason Walls states “the party’s base is getting restless and the Herald understands members are becoming increasingly frustrated with the party’s direction. They are upset with the Greens consistently having to play second fiddle to New Zealand First – Labour’s coalition partner” – see: Green co-leader Marama Davidson is urging members to ‘stay loud’ ahead of the annual conference (paywalled).
Jack McDonald’s complaints about his party’s “continued drift towards the centrist politics and away from the party’s roots” is canvassed in this, too. And he also criticises the party’s more conservative economic approach. The article explains: “He is critical of the Budget Responsibility Rules (BBRs), which limit the Government’s ability to borrow and spend money. Shaw helped write these rules and signed up for them with Finance Minister Grant Robertson.” And McDonald says that these rules are “something that, to this day, have been deeply unpopular in the party”.
The article says co-leader Marama Davidson is aware of membership complaints that the MPs aren’t achieving enough, saying “We all agree – especially us in here on the Parliamentary side, we want to go stronger and faster.” And the article concludes: “In the meantime, Davidson is calling on the party’s members to keep its MPs, and ministers, accountable”, and then for election year she wants them to “Stay green; stay loud”.
It’s the disgruntlement of the party base that is a likely reason that this year’s conference was closed down to the media according to RNZ’s Jane Patterson – see: Transparency falters at Greens’ annual conference.
According to Patterson, the weekend’s event amounted to “the most closed-down annual conference in recent memory – for any political party.” She reports that even when journalists were allowed into the conference to witness one event involving the membership, “reporters have been told this is an ‘off-the-record’ event with no cameras or photos, and any members [have] to give explicit permission before being interviewed.”
Shaw explains in this report that the clampdown on the media’s reporting of the conference was “due to ‘a bit of a caricature’ of the party and some media looking for ‘hooks and angles to reinforce that stereotype’ and so the reaction was to allow media into big set piece events but keep “private” conversations, private.”
But Patterson says “That nervousness may also be driven by a growing narrative that the Greens are failing to deliver for their base.” She points out that although the party can claim some wins on environmental policy, “On the social justice side…the runs on the board have been few and far between.”
A big challenge for the party is to differentiate themselves more from Labour. Patterson points to the party’s strong stance in favour of the Ihumātao protesters as being the “kind of action [that] will be needed as the election draws nearer.” And she criticises the party for giving away their allocation of parliamentary questions to National, suggesting that the Greens could have used such questions to hold their own government more to account.
Writing before the conference, Collette Devlin looked at how the party leadership intended to use the conference to convince the membership that progress was being made in government – see: Green Party co-leaders set to tell members we want to do more with housing, inequality and climate change.
The key issue of polling comes up: “With the 2020 election creeping closer, the survival of the party will be front of mind for members. They will have gained some confidence in recent polling that sees the Greens remain steady at 6 per cent.” And co-leader Marama Davidson comments that the six per cent is “still too close to the five per cent threshold.”
This danger is a point also made by blogger Martyn Bradbury, who looks at the Greens’ declining vote: “The Greens have gone backwards in terms of Party vote every election since 2011, (11.06% in 2011, 10.7% in 2014 and then 6.3% in 2017), they over poll every election so today’s 6% can easily equate to 4.9% on election day” – see: Can Greens break 5%.
Bradbury suggests in this post that the party “has been captured by the cult of woke identity politics and they can’t see how alienating that has become”, and he provides colourful examples of what this means. He concludes that if the Greens continue down this path, “the narrative becomes ‘might the Greens fall under 5%’, it will become self fulfilling.”
Similarly, see his blog post, The pathetic ‘policy wins’ Green members need to grill the Party over at this weekends Dunedin conference. In this, he says “As a Green Party voter, I fear their hard core middle class identity politics has made them toxic and alienating. Their inability to see outside of Twitter is a strategic blindspot and their 6% suggests they could easily slip beneath 5% as they always over poll and they have gone backwards in the last 3 elections.”
Bradbury asks why the Greens aren’t doing better if the leadership thinks it’s achieving so much in government: “The Greens are in survival mode for this election, if all the amazing policy ‘wins’ were so amazing why haven’t they moved in the polls for 2 years and why are they still polling less than they actually gained on election night 2017?”
Could it be that the current Green MPs are less electorally attractive to voters? Chris Trotter makes this case – see: The Greens used to be so likeable – what’s gone wrong? He argues that the Greens simply reflect the changing nature of the political left, in becoming less libertarian and more authoritarian.
Here’s Trotter’s main point: “Marama Davidson, strobes identity politics in a fashion calculated to make a sizeable majority of the electorate feel decidedly queasy. Neither Shaw, nor Davidson, is likely to hold in place many voters not already completely sold on the Greens’ brand of identity politics. The party is fast taking on the character of a political cult: filled with zealots determined to enforce their policies on what we should be permitted to drive; what we should be encouraged to eat and drink, what it is acceptable for us to think; and what we should be allowed to say.”
The recent debacle over the party’s attack ad lampooning Simon Bridges’ accent could be seen as some sort of marker of how the Greens have become less friendly. But for a different take on this, see my column for RNZ about how the ad showcased that the party leadership has become very middle class, and therefore has a bias and a blindspot when it comes to issues of class – see: Greens’ sneer politics an unfortunate feature of our times.
Ironically, the Greens might also have a problem next year retaining some of its best MPs, because they are women. This is pointed out by David Farrar in his blog post that argues the best performing Green MPs are women, but some of them will have to be given lower list places to accommodate male candidates – see: How the female Green MPs are going to get screwed over by their gender quota rules.
Finally, for the most interesting and unusual answer to the Greens’ survival question, see The Standard’s Can the Greens rise like the liberal democrats? In this blog post, the argument is made that the Greens can have a revival like the British Liberal Democrat party is currently achieving, but to do this the Green Party must turn to rural New Zealand and make environmental issues relating to the weather more central to their policies and campaigning.