Bryce Edwards: Don’t write off a new centrist green party yet

Bryce Edwards: Don’t write off a new centrist green party yet

Is environmentalism intrinsically leftwing? Has the Green Party got a monopoly on environmental concerns? Do environmentally-concerned voters only vote for the Green Party? The answer to all of those questions is surely “no”, yet a speculative “blue-green” centrist party is seen by most as a non-starter for Parliament in 2020.

It is incredibly difficult for any new party to break into Parliament, regardless of its orientation, given that the barrier to entry is so high. New parties have tried and failed continuously since MMP was introduced in 1996. The only parties to succeed have been those with breakaway MPs from other parties. So far the five per cent MMP threshold is simply proved too large to allow new parties to grow and prosper – and, in fact, that’s why the incumbent parties in Parliament are so keen to retain the threshold.

There are a number of other factors that make a new blue-green party unlikely, and most commentary at the moment makes that point. But that doesn’t mean that some sort of new green party is entirely out of the question.

The original story about the possibility a centrist green party being launched was Lucy Bennett’s Herald on Sunday piece, Blue-Greens movement could be National’s answer to toppling Ardern. In this, the focus is on former Green Party activist Vernon Tava, who has since joined National but is keen to start a new party.

Here’s the most important part of the story: “Talk of a new centrist green political party which could potentially partner with National in a future government coalition is starting to become more than just speculation. It is understood preliminary discussions among interested parties have already been held on creating a party that combines economic and environmental credentials, filling a demand not already taken up by existing political parties.”

On Sunday I commented on the risks for National in this strategy: “It might take votes away from the National Party, yet it may not get to 5 percent” – see Emma Cropper’s Newshub item: New ‘centrist green’ political party could partner with National.

Most critics have been disparaging about the prospects of a new centrist environmental party. Many of these critics are from the political left, often aligned with the current Government. Some simply resent the whole concept of non-leftwing environmentalism or indeed of National being able to work with environmentalists.

For example, the Labour Party’s Bryan Gould has proclaimed that A blue-green party is a nonsense, criticising both Tava and the idea that environmentalism can be separate from leftwing philosophy. In terms of Tava, Gould says: “It turns out to be someone who, at various times, has sought the leadership of the Green Party and has tried to become a National MP – a political chameleon who is apparently more concerned with self-advancement than political principle. The impression given of a political butterfly is borne out by the absence of any real political analysis in the statements he has made”.

Gould also suggests that such a party would be pro-market and therefore couldn’t be pro-environment: “The public is beginning to realise that if you are serious about grappling with environmental challenges… you must be prepared to intervene in the market and make good its deficiencies and its failures.” He therefore paints a picture of such a centrist environmentalist party as simply a puppet party for National.

Similarly, Gordon Campbell rejects the possibility that a centrist environmental party could do better than the current Green Party: “To swallow any of that, you’d have to think you could somehow make more gains for the environment by joining National (the farmers party) than you could from being in a coalition with Labour. That’s a stretch. With good reason, many environmentalists regard the National Party as more part of the problem than part of the solution when it comes to meaningful action on waterways pollution and climate change. Currently, and as part of the new government, Greens are making more gains via Labour than it could ever have hoped to achieve with National” – see: On National’s new, fledgling blue-green partner.

Campbell views efforts behind the new party as being driven by the ulterior motives of National: “the wider goals that National have in mind with this talk of a blue/green party include (a) greenwashing its own hard image and (b) splitting the Greens sufficiently to drive them below the five per cent mark, and out of government entirely.”

Although the nascent project is being labelled as a “blue-green” party, Tava himself rejects this term and prefers “green-green” to indicate that the party would be neither left nor right. Tava explained to 1News: “A party in the centre based on the environment could be very compelling if it had the option to go with either National or Labour” – see: Green Party offshoot could be a ‘very compelling’ option for voters, Simon Bridges says.

A philosophy of environmentalism that is neither left nor right has been explained today by former Green MP Kennedy Graham: “Sustainability can be pursued both from the left and from the right as long as it is genuinely committed to environmentalism. You don’t have to be left or far left as the only solution to sustainability” – see RNZ’s Former Green MP Kennedy Graham backs new centrist party.

Graham elaborates on this, suggesting that there are basically three philosophies of left, right and environmentalism, with the three being entirely separate from each other: “There are three philosophies in politics in the New Zealand Parliament: there’s freedom, there’s equality, and there’s now sustainability – and sustainability has to be seen as separate and unique to itself.”

Although Graham says he’s not interested in being involved in the new party, he argues strongly that “there’s space for a more centrist party” and that it would make environmentalism stronger through being independent of both Labour and National: “It can work, obviously, with the left and right – and should, and will have to… If you listen to Vernon Tava – and I support this – you have government and you have opposition and if a political party says it’s only going to work with one side of that house, then you’re not going to get a long-term binding genuine consensus.”

There are others taking the prospective party seriously – today’s Press editorial argues that “There is a growing space for politicians who want to save the world without necessarily overhauling the entire economic system” – see: Is a blue-green party a real possibility?

The editorial also argues that “the Greens have generally been a disappointment in Government”, and paints a picture of that party’s future being “surprisingly vulnerable” because it is split between two different wings.

Here’s the detail: “It only just returned to Parliament in 2017 after the disaster of former co-leader Metiria Turei’s welfare confessions, and Turei’s replacement, Marama Davidson, has pushed the party further towards social justice and identity politics activism, which risks alienating middle-class voters. Do voters want to hear about native birds and clean rivers, or Davidson’s nutty campaign to ‘reclaim’ the c-word and Waihopai protests?”

Arguing that there “is a small, fluid group of environmental voters in the centre” of the political spectrum, The Press believes that a new party could prosper where Gareth Morgan’s fledgling party showed promise but couldn’t quite make it: “A blue-green party that is sensible and strategic, without TOP’s communication issues, could promote itself as an environmental handbrake on a centre-Right Government. With the Green Party consistently ruling itself out of a coalition with National, there may finally be a place in New Zealand politics for a party that can figure out how to combine pragmatism and principle.”

But could a centre environmental party actually take votes off the Greens? There’s some potential for this, but not much according to Henry Cooke who looks at the New Zealand Election survey data for 2014 and 2017 – see: ‘Teal’ vote within Green Party minuscule, data suggests. Apparently, in 2014, about one-in-five Green voters actually preferred the Greens to go with National, despite the leadership signaling they could only go with a Labour coalition. In 2017, when Green support nearly halved, only about one-in-ten Green voters preferred a coalition with National.

Commenting on these figures, Victoria University political scientist Jack Vowles is reported as believing “he didn’t think the Greens had much to fear”, and that a new green party would be more likely to cannibalise National voters.

Cooke explains how National might also benefit if a new environmental party did help push the Greens below the five per cent threshold: “if both NZ First and the Greens are voted out of Parliament next election and just Labour and National remain, National wouldn’t need to win over any friendly parties for a coalition – the party would just need to be larger than Labour.”

But aren’t all New Zealand political parties green now? This is the point made by RNZ’s Chris Bramwell who says: “the Green Party has long been the voice for climate change and environmental issues but many of its platforms, which may have been considered fringe issues a decade ago, are now mainstream” – see: Is there room for a centrist green party in Parliament? Her point is that “while the talk is of there being space for a centrist environmental party – there is not really that much of a gap that needs filling.”

Bramwell also points out that National’s environmental credentials have been improving: “National is often slated by the left as being some kind of environmental destroyer, but it was under a National-led Government that Kahurangi National Park was created, it set up 11 marine reserves, protected the Ross Sea, set up an extensive national network of cycleways, set up Predator Free 2050 and banned shark finning.”

Furthermore, she reports former Green MP Sue Bradford’s observation that “under James Shaw the party is more centrist than it had ever been’. She also reports that “the Greens ‘action on climate change’ message has become somewhat diluted as the party is now part of government and as a minister, Mr Shaw considers that he has to toe the line.”

Blogger Martyn Bradbury makes a similar point today, saying: We already have a centrist Green Party – it’s called the Green Party. In this, he argues that the Greens are now very pro-market. Furthermore, “Have you ever been to a Green Party conference? It’s a whiter shade of beige. These days it’s wall to wall with ‘ethical entrepreneurs’ that ugly middle class blue-green colour”.

Finally, if a new environmental party is to get off the ground and appeal to enough voters, it’s likely that it would have to focus strongly on the issue of water quality, and therefore it’s useful to see what Vernon Tava says about how to fix the degradation of streams and rivers – see Dan Satherley’s Waterways might not need tougher pollution rules – potential ‘blue-green’ party leader Vernon Tava.