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May 14, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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What It Means To Be Green

The Green Party enjoyed a spectacular result in last year’s election, and now has more MPs in the House than ever before in its 40-year history. But has its bid to establish itself as a major player in Parliament seen it compromise its role as the more-left-than-Labour voice on social justice? Salient chief feature writer Elle Hunt looks at what impact the party of values’ election success has had on its priorities.

Same-sex marriage. Adoption law reform. Decriminalisation of cannabis. In the past, liberal New Zealanders have been able to look to the Green Party to lead from the front on social justice: issues of equity, tolerance, compassion, fairness and mutual participation. In 1972, the Values Party, as it was then known, contested the general election with its ‘Blueprint for New Zealand’, built around radical new policies that promoted reform of laws around abortion, drugs and homosexuality.

Compare this vision for an ‘Alternative New Zealand’ with the three priorities that the Greens campaigned on, and with great success, in last year’s election: “clean rivers, thriving kids, and jobs that are good for the environment and the economy”, each reinforced by a rigorous financial breakdown. Their focused, targeted, media-savvy approach was met with overwhelming support of the voting public: the Greens won 11 per cent of the vote, equating to a record 14 members of Parliament. The party’s decision to campaign on just three issues was affirmed on election night, but has it come at the cost of its ability to act as an advocate for wider change?

Greens co-leader Metiria Turei, who is also responsible for the party’s social justice portfolios, thinks not. Rather, she says, their streamlined approach was a bid to communicate their profile and priorities more clearly. “In the past, we’ve tended to take a scattergun approach, and that hasn’t worked,” she says. “The election campaign was the first time that we’d narrowed our messages down to just three.

“It was hard work doing that, because there’s more we want to say—but the fact is, people appreciate it if you can be clear in your priorities.”

This new clarity of vision reflects the Green Party’s aim to surpass its status as a minor party and become a major player in Parliament. Turei is quick to refute suggestion that the success of the Greens’ election campaign was a direct result of other parties’ failures. “We’re often described as taking votes from Labour or National, but the truth is, people are making an active choice to vote for the Greens,” she says. “We’re building a constituency based on our own profile, our own values and our own policies, quite separate from Labour and National. Those votes are not protest votes.”

It’s hard to say how Turei could substantiate this claim, as the Greens could not have failed to benefit from Labour’s ineffectual election campaign. Certainly, the party has since taken conspicuous advantage of new Labour leader David Shearer’s failure to gain traction with the public. “On some issues, Labour has been very quiet… meaning there’s been a space for us to be very vocal,” acknowledges Turei.

She says the Green Party has, in effect, led the opposition on matters such as amendments to the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 and industrial action at the Ports of Auckland. “That’s partly a feature of our own strength, in that we know what it is that we want to do, and partly because having more MPs in Parliament means we have more resources to do that work,” she says. “It’s also partly a result, I will admit, of Labour being in the process of figuring out what to do next.”

Again, Turei seems to be underestimating or minimising the extent to which Labour’s period of transition has benefited the Greens. To a certain extent, their success in opposition does not reflect the strength of their policies as much as it does a shrewd and effectual communications team. The style, substance and frequency of the Greens’ press releases is imitable (conversely, just last week, Labour’s finance spokesperson David Parker headed a statement on disappointing economic growth “Nek minnit”). Turei seems to acknowledge this when she says the Green’s being “more nimble and sharper in our messaging” gives them an advantage over other opposition parties.

Being “nimble”, and holding a flexible position within Parliament, is important to the Greens, maintains Turei. Though the party has a formalised Memorandum of Understanding with the Government, last month National rejected plans to expand that agreement, stating that it “did not have additional resources available for the policy priorities of the Greens”. Though Turei’s co-leader Dr Russel Norman described the outcome as “disappointing” at the time, Turei argues that it adds to their potential for impact: “That aspect of being able to work both with and against National, as we’ve done with Labour in the past, keeps us in a very independent political space.”

The Greens are now interested in as much collaboration, with either National or Labour, as can be achieved without compromising their independence, which again reflects their long-term goal of becoming the third major player in New Zealand politics. “We are critical of both Labour and National where we see fit, because we want to have relationships that are much more equitable,” says Turei. “If we are to start shifting away from a two-party system to three dominant parties, they need to understand that that relationship has changed.”

Budget constraints aside, that the Government and the Greens could not agree on items of common interest with which to extend their MoU does not bode well for the “collaboration at that decision-making level” that Turei argues is necessary for a “progressive, modern parliamentary system”. And as far as matters of inequality go, green jobs, clean rivers, and lifting children out of poverty are hardly polarising. Since the election, it’s possible to argue that the party has kept a low profile on more emotive, divisive issues. At time of writing, the Greens have no members’ bills on adoption law reform, the decriminalisation of cannabis, or same-sex marriage entered into the ballot. This is despite their having more MPs in Parliament (and thus more resources) than ever before, and the party’s history of success with members’ bills.

But Turei denies that, in prioritising its goals, the Greens have compromised their commitment to progressing social justice: “The party continues to work on these issues; [the absence of related members’ bills in the ballot] just means it’s going on in a different way.” For example, she says Green MP Kevin Hague’s work with other parties on adoption law reform is “likely to be more constructive, and potentially more advantageous, in the medium term” than a member’s bill.

She stresses the importance of judicious timing. “You’re continually having to assess whether it’s the right moment to get traction and progress on that issue, because otherwise, you’re just wasting your time and other people’s,” she says. “You have to catch a wave, but you also have to spend the downtime preparing for it, because otherwise you get caught short.

“Often those political windows for change are just moments long, and you have to be ready at the right time with the right response.”

But, arguably, as one of the leftmost voices in Parliament (a descriptor that Turei agrees with, though she points out that there are other, more relevant spectrums than left and right), the Green Party has a responsibility to foster debate on social justice. Legislation does not determine culture, and leading from the front on such issue, convenient “window for change” or no, can go considerable way in influencing and informing attitudes.

In Exploring Social Justice: A New Zealand Perspective, Dr Myron Friesen found that individuals’ understanding of social justice could be expanded through both debate and education of “previous injustices”, proving that discussion of such issues is crucial to a progressive society—whether the moment is advantageous or not. In this way, parliamentary tools such as members’ bills can create a window for change, rather than simply taking advantage of one.

Turei concedes this, noting that Catherine Delahunty’s bill provided the impetus for Minister for Disability Issues and Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia to establish a Disabilities Commissioner. But Turei points out that issues of social justice are typically “felt very deeply by a lot of people”, and it is unfair to give them “false hope for change”.

“For those individuals, the solutions seem so obvious, and the political inertia is just so frustrating—I think we feel that particularly strongly, because we come from those communities,” she says. “It’s not like we don’t know exactly what it means for people on a daily basis.

“But there’s only so much you can do in any particular political moment, and it’s one of the hazards of the job—that you do disappoint people. There’s not much you can do that that.

“Somebody’s going to be disappointed because you’re not doing something you should be doing.”

In the meantime, the Greens are focused on extending their “political moment” for as long as possible, as the party’s potential for impact in the long-term is dependent on its continuing to build on its constituency. “If we move up towards 15 per cent in the next election, and 20 per cent at the one after that, the face of New Zealand politics has radically changed,” says Turei. “And that’s good, because if you keep doing it the old way, you’re going to keep getting the old stuff.” ▲

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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