David Farrar
The week in politics with centre-right blogger David Farrar

David Farrar: Will this be the year of the Greens?

Metiria Turei and Russel Norman. Photo / Herald on Sunday
Metiria Turei and Russel Norman. Photo / Herald on Sunday

The Greens got their best ever result in 2011, breaking the 10% glass ceiling and ending up with 14 of the 121 MPs in Parliament.

They have come a long way since they entered Parliament in 1996 as part of Jim Anderton's Alliance. MMP and the Alliance got them into Parliament, yet they made the bold decision to go it alone in 1999, leaving the Alliance to stand under their own name.

The big gamble almost didn't pay off. In 1999 they scraped in with 5.16% of the vote, barely making the 5% threshold. They did gain life insurance by Jeanette Fitzsimons winning Coromandel also, but she lost that to National's Sandra Goudie in 2002.

They almost got tipped out of Parliament in 2005 also, gaining just 5.30% of the vote. If 6,500 of their supporters had not voted or voted Labour instead, the Greens would have been out of Parliament.

They now have well behind them, fear of not making the 5% threshold, unless they do something spectacularly stupid.

Having gained 14 MPs, they now have the potential to go from being seen as a minor party to at least a medium sized party if they can capitalise on the advantages they now have.

Their first advantage is extra parliamentary funding. Their funding has gone from $1.25m to $1.88m. That extra $630,000 can buy them more press secretaries, more researchers, a bigger advertising budget etc.

Their second advantage is select committees. Previously the Greens were only on some of the select committees, so were missing in action on some issues. Their numbers have gained them membership of all 14 select committees.

Their third advantage is each MP no longer has to cover half a dozen portfolios each, which inevitably meant that they concentrate on just one or two of their portfolios. This will allow them to do better stakeholder engagement and policy research in each area, and in terms of the media be more likely to be asked for comment, giving them the much necessary oxygen of publicity.

So the Greens go into 2011, on a stronger base than they have ever had before. Also unlike some other opposition parties, there are no questions about the leadership. Russel Norman and Metiria Turei are both in their 40s only. Even in the Greens, that isn't old. There is no doubt they will remain co-leaders into the 2014 election.

They've also rejuvenated nicely, with three MPs in their 20s or 30s. Gareth Hughes, Julie-Anne Genter and Holly Walker help make the Greens appear the Generation Y party.

So expectations are high for the Greens to have a good year. But they will have some challenges.

Some in Labour still regard the Greens as having stolen "their" voters off Labour, and they want them back. As the Greens grow in size, Labour may see them more as a rival than an ally. The Greens do not aspire to be permanent junior allies to Labour. They want to become the major party of the left. If they look like succeeding, then Labour may set loose Trevor Mallard and Shane Jones on the Greens.

Another challenge is the environment. Almost all New Zealanders have a fondness for our natural environment, and will when asked rate environmental issues strongly. However our history of the last few years is that when the economic outlook is murky, New Zealanders focus on the basics of jobs, incomes, health care and schools.

Environmental issues, unless it is a Rena type situation, become a nice to have. We may all want to have cleaner rivers in New Zealand, but if you have been out of work for three months and are struggling to pay your bills, then your main focus will be economic issues.

The Greens in 2011 rose to the challenge and were talking on issues like the economy, not just the environment. They will need to keep up that discipline - especially if more scrutiny is applied to their claims of 100,000 Green jobs their policies will create.

A final challenge is their relationship with National. It is a fine balancing act to be seen to be able to work constructively with the Government to achieve positive changes, but to still be a vigorous critic of it. The public don't much like parties that do nothing but whine. However there are not a lot of headlines in working constructively behind the scenes. If they get seen as too close to National, Labour will go after their support base.

However if they are seen as an unrelenting ideological foe of National, then some of those who voted for them in 2011, may shift away. The Greens managed to gain votes off both National and Labour last year - keeping both sets of supporters will indeed be a tough challenge.

*David Farrar is a centre-right blogger and affiliated with the National Party. A disclosure statement on his political views can be found here.

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