On some possible options for the Greens

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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