Bryce Edwards: Can the Greens keep it together in 2023?

Bryce Edwards: Can the Greens keep it together in 2023?

The Green Party has a habit of sabotaging their election-year campaigns, risking electoral oblivion. Could the same thing happen in 2023?

The last two election campaigns were particularly painful for the party. In 2017 then co-leader Metiria Turei had her story about her past as a welfare beneficiary unravel during the campaign, raising questions about her integrity. This led Jacinda Ardern to rule Turei out as a future minister and the party split, plummeting in the polls.

In 2020 James Shaw jeopardised the Greens’ re-election chances when he went against his own party’s policy and dished out government funding to a private school as part of his ministerial role. Once again, the party was divided, sinking below 5 per cent in the polls, before recovering for election day.

Will the Greens have another “phenomenal” year?

In the last two election campaigns, the Greens have started the year with what appeared to be solid and strong electoral support, only to be self-sabotaged by over-confident leaders. Unfortunately, there are already signs of hubris.

In a series of end-of-year interviews, the Green co-leaders essentially marked their own report card for 2022 with an A+. Talking to one journalist, James Shaw said “I think under the circumstances, we’ve done phenomenally well”, and predicted the party will do even better in 2023: “We’re actually pretty confident that we will be expanding our caucus”.

The extreme confidence that the co-leaders feel in their abilities is such that Shaw has batted away questions about past performance, saying: “We’re getting quite good at winning elections”, and that his party “no longer feel precarious or on the verge of being turfed out of Parliament”.

The party’s confidence is such that they have decided they can ditch their previous MMP strategy of only focusing on winning the party vote. For 2023 they will also try to increase their votes for electorate candidates, as the leaders don’t believe that this will endanger party votes. And there’s currently an active discussion in the party about what electorates they should try to win, beyond retaining Chloe Swarbrick’s Auckland Central seat.

However, in contrast to the co-leaders’ satisfaction with the state of their party, most commentators say the Greens have had a very average year. The party has few accomplishments to point to, with their biggest story being the farcical deselection of Shaw as co-leader. Summing up the party’s performance, BusinessDesk’s editor Pattrick Smellie recently said that “the Greens have looked disunified and ineffectual for much of the last term”.

The party has been doing very well in the polls in the last year – their worst result was 6.4 per cent, and mostly they’ve been polling around 10 per cent. Of course, the main reason the Greens are doing so well is because Labour is doing poorly. The Greens always do well when Labour is down in the polls. As Smellie explains, “a good chunk of the centre-left vote is unimpressed by Labour’s recent performance”. And the default for many on the left is to shift to the Greens in hope that they will be a better leftwing option for change.

Tensions inside the party

Famously, the curtain was lifted on divisions in the Greens in July last year when nearly a third of party delegates essentially voted “no confidence” in James Shaw, which caused his deselection as co-leader. The situation was resolved when no other candidate stepped forward to stand to replace Shaw – contenders like Swarbrick and Julie Anne Genter decided the time wasn’t right.

But the significant tensions in the Greens haven’t gone away. The anger amongst those who plotted against Shaw – the Young Greens and the Green Left Network – is still there, with allegations that the party now pushes a “corporate-friendly environmentalism”, or as Greenpeace has stated, are now guilty of “greenwashing”, especially when it comes to climate change.

The backdown on agricultural emissions under Shaw as Climate Change minister, as well as another farcical global COP summit characterised more by virtue signaling than real progress, has led environmentalists to question the direction of the Greens. For those in the grassroots of the party, 2022 did not go “phenomenally well”.

Shaw says that winning the co-leadership position back – albeit by default when there was no challenger – put to bed the issues about his leadership amongst activists. But the rumblings continue in the party. And things probably got worse for his reputation with the rank and file when the Herald published The Mood of the Boardroom survey in which James Shaw was pronounced the corporate sector’s favourite Minister.

The Swarbrick problem

Few commentators are expecting that James Shaw will be rolled again as co-leader in 2023. His position will indeed be up for election early in the year, but the feeling is that without a credible challenger, he will easily prevail.

Much will depend on Chloe Swarbrick – who many on the left of the party think should replace Shaw. She has previously declined to challenge Shaw, but this might change. The party has now changed its rules so that although one of the co-leaders must be female, and one must be Māori, there is no longer a rule that one must be male. Some believe this change has been made to allow Marama Davidson to stay, while allowing Swarbrick to replace Shaw.

Swarbrick is the most popular Green MP – especially after winning Auckland Central in 2020. She now appears in the preferred Prime Minister polls, highlighting the inconvenient fact that the public sees her as a better leader than the party’s actual co-leaders.

Where is the Green Party going in 2023?

The Greens’ current polling of around 10 per cent is impressive, and most commentators believe that they will obtain this level of support, or more, at the election. Partly this has been achieved by the Green Party keeping quiet during 2022. The environment brand is so strong, that the Greens know that “the less the public hear from the party, the more they are willing to support them”.

But the Greens won’t be content to just coast on the power of the branding. They have announced that they will campaign this year on climate change and ending inequality.

Their problem, of course, is that these are two of the issues that some of their potential voters believe that the Greens have failed to make significant progress on in government. As part of the Labour-led Government of the last five years, the Greens will have to defend their own record during a period in which inequality has soared and climate emissions have grown.

There will be a temptation to campaign instead on areas where the Greens have a stronger record – such as Davidson’s ministerial work on programmes to end family violence, or Swarbrick’s leading role on drug reform. But it’s unclear that these issues will resonate very strongly in an election that is likely to be more about economics, ethnicity, and crime.

The Greens will also grapple with its party list selection over the next couple of months. Already, two incumbent MPs have announced their retirements – Jan Logie and Eugenie Sage. There will now be strong competition to win their high list spots.

Meanwhile, there is increased talk about The Opportunities Party (TOP) getting traction as an alternative to the Greens in 2023. Under new leader Raf Manji, TOP is seen as a potential vehicle for the type of “teal environmentalism” that was a central part of last year’s Australian election. A resurgent TOP would threaten the Greens’ monopoly on the environmental vote.

With the increased chance of a National Government in 2023, expect to see the Greens challenged more on the prospect of a “teal deal” – some sort of working arrangement with a National-led government. Although the current co-leaders are inclined to shut down such discussions, they continue to refuse to rule it out. And until the Green leadership can categorically state they wouldn’t work with a National government, then they can expect speculations about a teal deal.

But first and foremost the Greens must perform well in 2023. And there are plenty of signs from the past – especially their 2017 and 2020 election campaigns – that the party’s current complacency and hubris could yet be their undoing.


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.  


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