Bryce Edwards: The Civil war in the Greens

Bryce Edwards: The Civil war in the Greens

The Green Party should be very high in the opinion polls right now. Historically, when Labour is low in the polls the Greens tend to be the recipients of progressive voters looking for an alternative. A huge proportion of the 50 per cent vote Labour got in 2020 are now disillusioned with the Labour Government and casting around for another party to place their trust in at the election.

The current policy environment is also highly favourable to the Greens. Voters say that they are especially concerned with issues which the Greens have the ability to campaign strongly on: climate change, housing, inequality, tax reform, and the cost of living.

2023 should therefore be The Year of the Greens. Yet it’s not. Instead, the Greens are struggling in the polls – averaging only about nine percent, well below where they’ve polled in the past. And instead of ploughing ahead, making great strides in government with their ministerial portfolios of climate change and homelessness, they are infighting – mostly over culture war and personality issues.

Environmental dirty politics and internecine war

The internal conflict in the Greens has been building in recent years, and reached a whole new level, first with the temporarily successful plot last year to steal the co-leadership off James Shaw, and then on Friday with the departure from the party of Shaw’s nemesis MP Elizabeth Kerekere.

The plot against Shaw was mainly driven by the Green Left Network, which is essentially the social justice (or “woke”) faction of the party. This is the part of the caucus and activist base that want the party to focus on progressing decolonisation, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and rainbow issues.

Activists within the Green Left Network, together with the Rainbow Greens, were keen to undermine and replace Shaw, seeing him as too conservative and the wrong demographic. And this year they’ve managed to force him to step aside from his long-held candidacy in the Wellington Central electorate, in favour of city councillor Tamatha Paul.

In this faction fight, MP Elizabeth Kerekere has been strongly associated with the social justice grouping – along with other Green MPs like Teanau Tuiono, Ricardo Menéndez March, and Golriz Ghahraman. Meanwhile, Shaw represents the environmental faction of the Greens. They have had less time for the social justice agendas of Kerekere’s faction, and long suspected that Kerekere herself has been working against Shaw. It was therefore unsurprising that Shaw and his supporters have pushed back strongly against Kerekere.

Of course, Kerekere handed them the weapons to use against her when she mistakenly sent her “crybaby” messages about Chloe Swarbrick to the rest of the Green MPs on 5 April. Shaw’s environmental faction appears to have leaked the damning messages to the media to settle the score and reduce Kerekere’s influence.

The leadership were also able to use Kerekere’s crybaby messages to initiate an internal inquiry against the rebel MP, knowing there were plenty of others in the party, the parliamentary offices, and the Green caucus, who were very unhappy with Kerekere’s behaviour.

Of course, the Shaw faction’s campaign against Kerekere came too late to stop the rebel woke MP being awarded the interim ranking of number four on the party list for 2023. Her opponents then sought to get her demoted in the subsequent membership vote on the party list. A number of party staffers spoke to journalists, and reiterated that there had been problems with Kerekere’s behaviour in the Greens, including making allegations of bullying.

It seems that the gloves were then off. Kerekere’s social justice faction fought back, telling journalists that these allegations were a case of “dirty politics” being played out against her. A “whispering campaign” and a “kangaroo court” were then cited as pushing her to resign from the party.

The Greens are now heading into an election campaign in which MPs and activists in both the environmental and social justice sides of the party are making accusations that their opponents are lying and plotting against each other. This is hardly a unified and healthy base for campaigning. What’s more, both sides have been leaking damaging material about each other, and this is not necessarily about to end with Kerekere’s departure.

The Growth of the Greens’ woke faction

Historically the Green Party has always contained a mix of three ideological threads – environmental, social justice, and socialist politics. In reality, the socialist element of the party has long gone, especially with the departure of MPs like Keith Locke and Sue Bradford. The environmental element has also been seriously in decline – especially with the loss of co-leaders like Jeanette Fitzsimmons and Russel Norman.

Rising up to supersede the socialist and environmental factions is the social justice milieu – which accounts for most of the caucus and the activist base. As long-time Green Party commentator Gordon Campbell wrote on Monday, “This social justice strand now predominates.”

Campbell argues that although everyone in the Greens has some interest in environmentalism, there are few MPs and candidates in the party who focus primarily on this: “Within the 2023 provisional list, only two candidates – James Shaw and Lam Pham – would be seen as having a clear and primary focus on the environment.” The rest, Campbell suggests are more from the woke side of the Greens: “their backgrounds and route into politics have mainly been via the social justice side of the policy ledger.”

This means that the Greens are now less focused on environmentalism or even traditional leftwing politics. According to Campbell this urgently needs correction. He believes that in terms of rhetoric, “Water quality, intensive dairying and renewable energy” get attention, but not much action. He therefore argues that “the Greens need more advocates in Parliament for whom environment degradation (local and planetary) is their main, driving concern.”

The Greens capture by cultural issues was also discussed this week by leftwing political commentator Steven Cowan: “Seemingly marooned within its own middle-class ghetto, it is of little surprise that identity politics has taken precedence within the Green Party. While it is economic issues that are pressing hard on the lives of working class New Zealanders, its MPs are largely focused on issues surrounding race and gender.”

Will the Greens’ identity fight hurt the party in the election?

The resignation of Elizabeth Kerekere, and the party’s ongoing fights over their identity and focus could be a vote loser for the Greens in 2023. For example, political journalist Richard Harman wrote on Monday that “History suggests that the Greens will take a hit in the polls as a consequence of Kerekere’s move”.

He points to the 2017 election-year saga when the Green vote collapsed after co-leader Metiria Turei’s welfare benefit story unravelled, causing her to resign. The Green vote halved as a result, ending up at only 6.5 per cent. Likewise, in 2020 when Shaw caused a scandal by breaking party policy in giving government money to a private school, the party support plummeted, recovering just in time to prevent the party being turfed out of power at the election.

Much will depend on whether the faction-fighting is now exhausted by Kerekere’s departure. Although Kerekere appears to have burnt off any support she once had within the caucus, her social justice supporters amongst activists have clearly not accepted defeat or decided to unite behind the leadership. The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan reports this week that many in the party are “deeply committed to Kerekere. They were not convinced by the allegations and believed it was a stitch-up.”

Reports of further resignations in the party are now coming out. Coughlan reports that members he spoke to are currently considering cancelling their party memberships in disgust at the way Shaw and Davidson have handled Kerekere. He quoted one activist saying, “I think there are a lot of questions still to answer about this process and the culture inside our caucus”.

There is also talk about whether such activists, Green voters, or even other Green MPs might now switch loyalties to Te Pāti Māori. Kerekere’s closest ally in the Green caucus, Teanau Tuiono, has apparently been sought after by Te Pāti Māori.

There is certainly a sense that Te Pāti Māori is now a more appealing option for Green activists and voters with a social justice orientation. In this regard, Thomas Coughlan wrote this week: “Te Pāti Māori has reemerged with a kaupapa achingly close to the Greens’ own. For the first time in a very long time, Green voters have a credible option to the left of Labour with whom to cast their vote if they feel unhappy with what the current leadership is delivering.”

The Greens are distracted from the things that matter

Probably the most damaging criticism that the Greens will hear in the run-up to the election – especially from their own target voters – is that their MPs and Ministers simply haven’t been focusing on the things that matter. And voters might well ask whether the Greens have achieved much while in government this term.

Tough questions will be asked about whether James Shaw has done enough in his climate change ministerial role – or whether the Greens are guilty, as Greenpeace has argued, of “greenwashing” for the Labour Government.

On the question of the housing affordability crisis, the Greens will have to answer whether Marama Davidson has really made a difference in her role as Minister responsible for homelessness. Just last week, it was reported that, although Labour allocated $75m to homelessness in the last budget, Davidson has failed to even spend one million dollars of that allocation. Her critics will point out that instead, Davidson’s most notable actions in the past year have not been about homelessness at all, but about calling out “cis white men” for being responsible for violence, and for promoting te reo branded chocolate.

Increasingly it looks like the Greens have focused inwardly on themselves instead of making progress on their core business. Even their own supporters could suspect that they have fallen back into the worst type of self-absorbed student activism.

As one example of how the culture wars have disabled the Greens, some activists talk about how for the last few years the biggest and most ferocious debate in the party has been about transgender issues. Of course, this is a highly important issue to the two sides within the Greens, but the party became somewhat immobilised by internal debates on this issue at the expense of the Greens being able to focus on issues like the environment, climate, and inequality. This seems to sum up the current problems of the Greens.

Leftwing blogger and Green voter Martyn Bradbury put it like this: “We urgently need a Green Party focused on serving the people and not feeding their own ambitions.” He makes the following plea: “If the Green Party are finished starting culture wars with white cis males and politically self mutilating themselves, could we get back to climate change and the looming economic recession?”

However, things could be worse. So far, the Greens have managed to avoid splitting their party over climate change politics. Environmentalists in the wider green movement are currently divided about whether the climate cause requires disruptive and radical direct action. At the moment this is playing out with the Restore Passenger Rail protests blocking roads in Wellington.

The Green-backed mayor of Wellington, Tory Whanau, has now come out strongly against the highly-disruptive climate change protestors, upsetting many Greens who see this as selling out. So far, the Green Party as a whole haven’t been challenged by the media to take a side over the protests. So far they’ve got away without being forced to choose to condemn or support the road-closing stunts. This could be the ultimate schism amongst Green MPs.

The Consequences of Green Schisms

In the end, much of the current pettiness in the Greens could be highly consequential – it could affect the outcome of who governs the country after the general election.

Some commentators believe that the Greens are just too strong to let civil wars sink the party below the five per cent threshold or cause Chloe Swarbrick to lose Auckland Central. For example, Thomas Coughlan argues that the “Green party vote is fine – for now” and that this “rusted-on base of 5-6 per cent has a high tolerance for party shenanigans”.

However, in a scenario in which the Green civil war continued, or if the party became too associated with culture wars in the run-up to the election, then the party’s guarantee of getting five percent or winning Auckland Central might not be so certain. And if the Greens were out of Parliament then the chances of Labour being able to form a new government would be almost zero.


Dr Bryce Edwards is the 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.