Bryce Edwards: The Greens will be vital to Jacinda Ardern’s re-election

Bryce Edwards: The Greens will be vital to Jacinda Ardern’s re-election

The Green Party of Aotearoa-New Zealand could go from helping Jacinda Ardern run the country, to being turfed out of Parliament altogether in ten weeks. And that could see the end of Labour in government. Without them, Labour would likely have to do what no party has done since the introduction of the current MMP electoral system – gain an outright majority of seats.

With just ten weeks to go until the election, the Greens have been consistently polling precariously close to the 5% threshold needed by parties who don’t hold an electorate seat.

In fact, since the last election which saw the Greens win 6.3% of the vote and become part of the Labour-led Government, their polling has been stuck below that level. They have recorded an average of only 5.7% by the country’s two main polling companies. And since the start of the year, this average has been trending downwards to just 5.4%.

Unfortunately for the Greens, they consistently do worse in elections than their polling predicts. On past performances, the party can reasonably expect to lose a percentage point or two at the election, which would put them out of Parliament altogether.

This election-day dip is probably because of the party’s reliance on a young voter base which, although supportive, is harder to mobilise to polling booths. In contrast, the Greens do disproportionately well from the diaspora vote, although Jacinda Ardern’s international stardom will almost certainly take a significant chunk out of this vote as well.

This is the case here in New Zealand, too – where Ardern’s star power, and handling of crises such as the Christchurch mosque massacre and the coronavirus pandemic have sucked in support from across the spectrum. But the Greens also have themselves to blame for ending up in Labour’s shadow. They won about 11% of the vote in both the 2011 and 2014 elections – but have since been on a trajectory of moderation, attempting to broaden their appeal by becoming more polished and mainstream, and less radical. As Labour’s Mini-Me, they are now suffering.

Former supporters of the party complain it has lost its soul and become part of the Establishment. On climate change and the environment – particularly water quality – the Greens’ efforts have been watered down to the point where many of their core supporters are wondering “is that it?”

Last year, former Green Party co-leader and current Greenpeace NZ executive director, Russel Norman, dismissed Green Party leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw’s claims New Zealand is making the planet safer: “More like keeping polluting businesses safe from those businesses and people who genuinely want to save the planet. Be in no doubt. This is the ugly face of realpolitik from an administration that seems to care more about ending up in opposition than it does about climate catastrophe. They may discover both will come to pass.”

It’s extremely hard for any minor party to survive in a coalition government – their plight is usually becoming tied up in the compromises and machinery of government, rendering the party invisible and irrelevant to voters. The Greens appear to have been unable to escape this fate. Their policy wins have been slight. They have been outplayed by Labour’s other collation partner New Zealand First, which shamelessly panders to its base and flagrantly undermines the Greens at every opportunity.

In order to regain their relevance and ensure they stay above 5%, the Greens need an injection of radicalism. Last week they made a good start, introducing a new tax and welfare policy which, although not particularly radical in its scope, drew on the radical principle (for New Zealand) of wealth taxes. The new policy promises a wealth tax on individuals’ assets worth more than NZ$1m. The proceeds of this, together with the introduction of more progressive income taxation is to introduce a weekly “Guaranteed Minimum Income” payment of NZ$325 for all those not in full-time work.

It has considerable appeal on the left, especially given New Zealand’s lack of a comprehensive capital gains tax and Ardern’s vow to never implement one as long as she is leader of the Labour Party.

While clearly aimed at leftwing voters who have drifted away from the Greens and are disappointed in the Government’s failure to carry out its promised transformative agenda, the wealth levy is only 1-2% on assets, and it affords everyone a $1m exemption. This opens up a large loophole for the rich to exploit in a variety of ways and limits potential revenue. They have also left high GST and taxes on low-income workers, and low corporate tax untouched.

For many on the left who would otherwise vote Labour, a vote for the Greens would not only be a vote for an Ardern-led government, but would also lead to a far more progressive government. That has the potential to net the Greens a lot of votes. The problem is, if the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, then the Greens will struggle to convince those voters that they are capable of delivering on, or even standing up for, their core policy platform.

The bottom line is all major parties need friends. The National Party has the rightwing Act Party – which has averaged over 2% in polls this year. Who would Labour have if the Greens fell below 5%? New Zealand First appear to be on their way out – they have averaged only 2.9% in polls this year.

Unless Ardern can pull off an historic victory, or NZ First an unlikely reprieve, the Greens are Labour’s only option. If they are re-elected, then Ardern will also surely be re-elected. If they fail to survive, she will struggle to stay in power. A lot therefore depends on the Greens recovering their soul in the next ten weeks.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.