Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On some possible options for the Greens

November 8th, 2011

Is it written in the Green Party’s DNA that they will eventually become the nation’s sole centrist party? Events seem to be conspiring to push the Greens in that direction, with all the hellish choices it will entail. Let’s assume for instance, that once the election dust settles Prime Minister John Key will offer – in the name of broad church, representative politics and a desire to split the centre left vote in order to ensure his third term – a couple of ministerial posts outside Cabinet to the Greens.

No strings attached. Something ministerial for Russel Norman say, in the Conservation/Environment era, and an associate Health post for his colleague Metiria Turei, where she could work alongside Tariana Turia. What would the Greens do if such an offer is made? What should they do?

Before trying to answer that, the fate of centrist parties under MMP bears consideration, especially as it is being played out in this election. Comparisons to the 2002 election have become a cliché of this year’s election coverage. A lot less time has been spent on the main difference, which concerns the collapse of the small centrist parties in New Zealand. Yes, John Key may be in reach of an absolute majority on November 26th, but Phil Goff’s failings are only part of the story. The vanishing act by Peter Dunne, Winston Peters and Jim Anderton is also an important part of the picture.

Centrism had always seemed unlikely to prosper under the current voting system. It fared fairly poorly in the 1996 and 1999 elections. MMP was said to be a system designed for niche politics, supposedly because the voting system would finally enable small parties with a strong raison d’etre to gain a parliamentary presence. Meanwhile, those parties that stuck to the centre of the road would supposedly get flattened by the traffic. It didn’t quite work out that way, at least not in 2002 and 2005. Helen Clark pumped artificial life back into centrism, largely to avoid her having to partner up with the Greens.

The fact is, the 5% threshold had been set too high for niche parties, and on a couple of occasions, even the Greens came close to electoral oblivion as a result. More to the point, the centrist parties that have played a major role since the advent of MMP – such as Peter Dunne’s United Future, Winston Peters’ New Zealand First and to a lesser extent, Jim Anderton’s Progressives – all had one obvious thing in common. Each was the personal vehicle of an FPP era Bigfoot politician. As Auckland University political scientist Raymond Miller has also pointed out, the careers of Dunne Peters and Anderton have all been been defined in relation to Rogernomics. Anderton’s mild socialism, Peters’ economic nationalism…even Dunne’s centrist claims to keep big government in check harked back to The Evil That Had Gone Before.

Though they’re no centrists, I’d also include the Act Party in this list, given that it has been the vehicle of a serial roster of FPP-era Bigfoots, from Roger Douglas to Richard Prebble to the current John Banks/Don Brash duo. This year will probably be the last hurrah for all the old school centrists, except for Act – which may survive November 26th, but only because it has decided to allowed its intergenerational dependence on National (shame on you, Stephen Whittington!) to become a lifestyle choice. The Maori Party is the “centrist’ option in the Maori electorates and it will survive as well, but with its sails trimmed.

Centrism is therefore in eclipse, for this election at least. In 2002, the difference was that National’s opposition vote collapsed inwards, to the centrist parties. At this election, Labour’s opposition vote is collapsing outwards to parties further to the left, such as the Greens and (possibly) the Mana Party. That’s where the Greens’ moment of truth may arise. The only (potentially) centrist party that will be growing its vote this year looks like being the Greens. Why wouldn’t Key reach out to them with a basket of greenly gifts, and an enhanced memo of understanding that – might, just might – seal the Greens off from all the terrible things likely to be happening with asset sales and welfare reform? La la la, at least the rivers might be cleaner.
The Upside of Getting Into Bed (or at least Going To Second Base) With National. The Greens have been out of real power for 12 years. Helen Clark spurned the Greens after the 2005 election, and chose to go with Peters instead. As a junior player on the centre left, the Greens traditional role is to wait in the parlour until Labour brings home the election bacon. Yet Labour can only govern when Labour is in the ascendancy on the centre left, which usually means the Greens will have been reduced to hovering just above the 5% threshold. Perversely, in years (such as 2011) when the centre left vote goes to the Greens in large numbers, it is in a context where the Greens can’t be in government, not in any significant way.

That’s the Greens dilemma, in a nutshell. It may say that it is centrist – and it has been saying so for some time – but relatively few voters see it as such. And thus it remains in its current bind – strong when there is little chance of it governing, and able to join a centre left government only when it is in a position of relative weakness vis-a-vis Labour. And regrettably, Labour tends to treat the Greens like an abused spouse in those circumstances.

That’s the basic argument for making a dramatic break away from the centre left and heading into unknown territory. Arguably, it is only by reaching some meaningful form of co-existence with National (beyond home insulation) that the Greens can break the mould, and put itself in a position where it could hope to poach votes from National in large numbers ( and not just from despondent Labour voters) to add to its core support. That’s the case for becoming a fellow traveller with the Key government, and the Greens know the argument well – because much the same position was articulated by Nandor Tanczos in a celebrated think piece a few years before he left Parliament.
The Downside Risk If the Greens did try to break out of their current ghetto would that pose a substantial risk to the brand? Absolutely. Political virginity is a valuable commodity, and one reason for the Greens’ longevity is that it has stayed away – or has been kept away – from the boiler room of executive power. The party strategists have also noticed the fate of others before them. Notably, the Maori Party has tried to make gains for a far more defined constituency than the one served by the Greens. If it is that hard for the Maori Party, how hard could it be for the Greens? Very hard indeed.

The risk to the brand is particularly acute for a values-based party such as the Greens. Being seen to be above the grubbier forms of political horse trading is part of its unique appeal, especially to the young. The calamitous fate of the Democrats in Australia is a warning on how fast and how far such a party can fall, once its image gets sullied. Also, if National invited the Greens on board in any substantive capacity, there would be no guarantee that the Greens could play a Trojan Horse role, pillage the National vote and usher in a centre left joint venture with Labour again in 2014. Even if it wanted to. Any attempt along those lines would be more likely to turn Russel Norman into a green version of Peter Dunne, and I don’t think that’s his ambition.

Therefore, once the Greens ever seriously started playing footsy with National, it would have to be for keeps – no matter how conditional the Greens might like to think they could make that relationship. By pursuing a closer relationship with National, it would be splitting the centre left vote, and substantially helping to bring about a third term National government. There would have to be a lot of (unlikely) gains on the social justice side of the ledger to stop that tension from causing a major split in the party that would make the Alliance implosion look civil by comparison. It may come to that.

So… even as Labour flounders and the Greens pick up the flotsam and jetsam from the good ship SS Goff, a lot of hard decisions lie in wait further down the track. The Greens’ current place on the political spectrum simply doesn’t allow them to harvest a big enough vote on the centre left to enable an escape from their current dependency on Labour which – on past performance – will treat them like deckhands once Labour is back on the quarterdeck again. Whatever the risks, it strikes me as unlikely that Russel Norman will be willing to tolerate subservience, in perpetuity.


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    1. 16 Responses to “On some possible options for the Greens”

    2. By Peter on Nov 8, 2011 | Reply

      Interesting article and thoughts – I actually see the Greens as two parties – a left component – and their problem there is that the compete directly with Labour and so depending on labours position either rise or fall as you suggested. The other component – is to my opinion not so much centrist but ideological – people who focus on a specific issues to the exclusion of others – like saving the trees or saving the whales – I am not saying these ideals are wrong but there is a type of person who seems to be always found in these areas (they are neither left nor right or they might be either but despite their left-ness or right-ness they focus on ideological issues). From this group they may get a party vote but not a constituency vote from both National and Labour people who care more for these sorts of things. But neither group would give them enough votes to govern – they have to earn that right – to govern you need to compromise as you have to represent the whole community even though only half the community may vote you in. We have yet to see that the Greens understand compromise. John Key in particular understands this which is why he works with several parties: left, right, centre and ideological.

    3. By Margaret on Nov 8, 2011 | Reply

      Well I was considering voting Greens but if a vote for Greens will get National well and truly back in for years I think I will just have to forget about the Greens.

      Sorry guys, I like Green policy but I do not wish to be responsibility for helping the Greens to becoming Nationals lackys.

    4. By Leon Henderson on Nov 8, 2011 | Reply

      Margaret, Gordon was not meaning that the NZ Green Party WILL get into bed with National; the article is simply speculating about what political options they have due to the way they are not natural allies of the Labour Party (the Green Party will never go into coalition with Labour, and who could blame them!!!) but Labour are the nearest thing in Parliament that previously they have been able get to an ally – although they have the Mana Party now, who ARE their natural allies. The New Zealand Green Party are a lot more than environmentalists, and they have a fully developed and comprehensive range of policies, such as a “Hone Heke” tax; total reconstruction of the electricity industry so that Working-Class people receive cheap electricity, just as was the case all the way up until the disastrous National Party “electricity reforms” of the late 1990’s; immediate implementation of $15.00 per hour Minimum Wage; massive nationwide State-House building programme, which the NZ Green Party see’s as desperately urgent.

      Margaret, here is the Link to the NZ Green Party Policy Website Page; everything from taxation to education to Social Welfare to defence policies you can can see here:

    5. By Joe Blow on Nov 8, 2011 | Reply

      I’ve been saying for a long time that the Greens need to get more realistic with their economic policy and it appears that they have finally made steps towards doing this. I still think they should get greenies that have worked in the business world of tourism or even organic farmers as their party representatives instead of mainly academics, but there has been real progress. Still I can’t see the Greens ever throwing it in with National, particularly in a coalition where they would take on ministerial roles and be part of cabinet. The closest they’d likely get to this would be support on certain policies or, heaven forbid, support on confidence and supply. You’re right the cost would be too high to even do that…

      I think that the centrist parties are in eclipse, as you put it, because National is successfully filling that central space now that it has shed the image of neo-liberal fanaticism embodied in Don Brash.

      And Clark was forced to peer up with United Future and NZFirst in 2005 because both of those parties refused to work with the Greens. Their change in image could have a lot to do with hoping to be able to join a coalition with Labour and another coalition partner one day, rather than being viewed as a pariah by other potential coalition partners.

      The point is that they have demanded a bigger say in government, if they one day enter into a coalition again with Labour. That’s about as centre as the Greens can afford to get before they lose their core constituency. But if saying otherwise will garner them more votes from National, I agree with you all the way Gordon! They’ve sold out!

    6. By Leon Henderson on Nov 9, 2011 | Reply

      Hullo Joe Blow! The NZ Green Party adamantly refused to even contemplate going into coalition with Labour (they know only all too well what Labour did to The Alliance!!!) and there is absolutely no way therefore that coalition with National is ever gonna happen; Gordon thinks it might, at a pinch, be possible for them should the Election outcome in November get the rotten National Party back onto the Treasury Benches (God help us all – repeat, God help us all: the New Zealand public had better wake up and fast, otherwise the next three years are going to be like Dante’s Inferno) for the NZ Green Party to make some kind of “Long-Arms-Reach” deal with National, where the Green Party basically sit on the Cross-Benches but get concessions (bloody meagre ones!!!) from the vicious National Party in return for Confidence-And-Supply. I do not think the Green Party are liable to fall for the bait of token cabinet posts, although having said that, the venal National Party, who have absolutely no interest in conservation at all (their “Conservation Face” is Nick Smith for God’s sake!!! Smith claims to be a “Blue Green” whatever the hell that is: no doubt along the lines of vaguely clean(ish) privatised water and things like that!!!) will be very liable to dangle a Conservation portfolio in front of the Green Party, but the NZ Green Party are very intelligent, and they have been in Parliament and top-level politics for long enough to be able to see how disastrous swallowing that kind of bait is: they saw what happened to the Maori Party!!!

      You are right, Joe Blow, about the New Zealand Green Party having a highly advanced and sophisticated Policy Platform. They used to be perceived as being “weak” on “economics” but that always was just corporate mass-media/big business spite, because the NZ Green Party have always rejected Jewish-American capitalist economics (just look at what an abysmal global social/societal failure Jewish-American capitalism is: it is nothing other than a murderous looting, pillaging, and plundering vehicle for for the obscenely wealthy to mercilessly exploit the Working-Class people’s of the world and use them like beasts of burden for their own greedy benefit) and want a genuine Social Democratic Economic System like Norway has got.

    7. By Joe Blow on Nov 9, 2011 | Reply

      You always have to go on about the Jews, don’t you Leon? Last I heard the Greens were pretty keen on instituting the ETS. Tell me was the ETS invented by a Jew Leon? Why are the Greens so keen on capitalism being the answer these days Leon?

      Go mighty capitalism! Go the Mighty Greens!

    8. By Elyse on Nov 12, 2011 | Reply

      While it might be smart politics for the Green Party not to rule out working with the Nats, they must have noticed the collapse of support for the Lib Dems in the UK since they joined the Tory coalition.
      In Auckland Central, where so many Labour voters deserted the party to vote Green because of Judith Tizard, there’s tacit agreement between the Greens and Labour, indications of the future I suspect.

    9. By Tom on Nov 13, 2011 | Reply

      We seem to be missing the elephant in the room – the Green Party’s economics is not based on continuous GDP growth (which both National and Labour, and indeed the other parties, are dedicated to) but Strong Sustainability.

    10. By Drakula on Nov 13, 2011 | Reply

      Peter: Key only works with the centrist and left for his own ends. And Margaret: Where did you get the idea that the Greens are going in with National? From the above article or the Greens themselves?

      If the Greens should get the chance to form a coalition with National they should refuse!!!

      If they went in with National they would have to make unpalatable compromises. Then they would risk going the same way as the Sth Irish Greens.

      Sometimes it’s best to stay out of cabinet/government in order to build a solid foundation for the future.

    11. By Leon Henderson on Nov 14, 2011 | Reply

      Joe Blow, are you an operative for the Is-ra-eli embassy? Why this question is asked, is because you seem like one!!! Always trying to defend the Jews and Jewish-American capitalism. You are wanting this evil, ruinous paradigm to continue.

      Let us have a look at the ancient Jews Joe Blow as per Moses. He ordained the death penalty for anyone caught committing Usery (lending money for interest) and this is why Usery is utterly forbidden in the Islamic world. But not in the Jewish “world”, eh Joe Blow???

    12. By Leon Henderson on Nov 14, 2011 | Reply

      Elyse: your statement that, to paraphrase it, “People Fled To The NZ Green Party In Torrential Multitudes When Labour “Offered” Them Judith Tizard!!!” is exquisitely Bang-On. Elyse, the Labour Party have so colossally self-betrayed and compromised themselves that they are like a headless monster in a B-Grade horror movie. Goff The Zombie burbles yet again!!!

    13. By Leon Henderson on Nov 14, 2011 | Reply

      Joe Blow, somewhere on Werewolf you claimed that you are a “NZ Green Party Member”.

      No yer aint!!!

    14. By Leon Henderson on Nov 14, 2011 | Reply

      Joe Blow, we are called, actually, the “Mighty, Mighty New Zealand/Aoteoroa Green Party”, and we are NOT Jewish-American capitalists.

    15. By Miriam on Nov 14, 2011 | Reply

      But Tom, Obama is hard selling the amazing green jobs industry, (how could this old think tank be wrong, they brought you the war to fix the economy).
      Lets not even think of switching to a new economy a universal income (w social credit) , and radically change the way we think and live.

    16. By Ronnie Collinson on Sep 23, 2012 | Reply

      The piece that has been missed so far is that ultimatley the Greens are membership driven, and the membership is overwhelmingly against a coaltion with National.

      The only way (in the next couple of elections) that the Greens will be in goverment, is with a choice between Labour and Greens and a minority National goverment (the later could work for the Greens thou).

      Both Labour and the Greens have to work not from stealing the vote from each other, but working at the swing voters from National, too much fighting between the two, and National will steal a march again

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