Canny Greens have their eye on the long game

By James Penn

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AS 2012 draws to a close, the media, mainstream and bloggers alike, have taken to their usual page-filling activity of handing out end-of-year awards. That's not to say I don't enjoy them, but rather that, at the end of the day, they carry very little meaning when viewed in isolation.

However, it becomes clear that there has been an event or an individual of prominence when they are consistently getting nominated for these awards from a range of media outlets. Think Barack Obama in 2008; think Richie McCaw over the past five years; think Lionel Messi.

And in New Zealand over the past two years of "politician of the year" awards, one figure has been ever present in the nomination ballots. That figure is Dr Russel Norman, co-leader of the New Zealand Green Party.

He has been at least a nominee for politician or MP of the year for The Standard (left-wing blog), David Farrar, Trans Tasman, and Cameron Slater's Whale Oil blog. Such praise is not undue, as it reflects a wider rising trend in the prominence of the Greens in New Zealand politics.

In the 2011 election, the Green Party increased its share of the party vote by 4.34 percentage points. Now firmly established as the third largest political party in New Zealand (with over 11 per cent at the 2011 election), one would be forgiven for assuming that green issues were at the forefront of the political sphere.

However, in reality, issues such as global warming are arguably less prominent now than they were five years or so ago. Indeed, under the watch of this stronger Green Party, New Zealand has reneged on its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, has opened up our waters to more and more deep sea oil prospecting, and has had to defend itself against claims by the World Wildlife Fund that New Zealand has failed to meet any of its commitments made at the Earth Summit in Rio.

Indicators such as the level of pollution in our lakes and rivers, the threat of extinction of certain fish, and carbon emission levels were the subjects of major criticism in particular.

This apathy for environmental issues is reflected around the world too, as successive attempts to reach new binding agreements to take action to save the environment at myriad conferences from Rio to Copenhagen have yielded little to be proud of.

So why is it that there is such a disparity between the level of political support for the Greens and the level of tangible progress being made in green or environmental policy areas?

One answer is that the rise of the Green Party is due to the diversification of their policy interests. Indeed, it can be argued that they have consciously moved away from extreme focus on environmental issues. This is reflected by the fact that it is becoming clear that in a coalition agreement with the leftist parties that may eventuate in 2014, one of the most publicised demands of the Green Party will be the finance portfolio for Dr Norman.

This is not to say that the Green Party has simply abandoned environmental issues, but rather that they have chosen to package their manifesto in a less "green-centric" way. For example, the party was tremendously successful in simplifying their core goals going into last year's election, identifying clean rivers, an end to child poverty, and green jobs as key policy planks.

Two of these are environmental issues. However, the party has sold them in a less environmental way, such as when they state on their website that a healthy rivers are "essential for a healthy economy". There is clear intent to create a more widely relatable message in order to enjoy the greater share of New Zealand's vote, and it is only reasonable to expect that with this will come less of a focus on purely environmental issues, such as maintaining commitments to the Kyoto Protocol.

Similarly, of the 12 press releases made by the Green Party in the past week, just two can be viewed as directly pertaining to the environment or traditionally "green" issues.

It also may simply be the case that the past few years have seen a fall in the public's desire to spend large amounts of resources on addressing problems such as climate change because of the preoccupation of, and constraints created by, the global financial crisis that we have experienced.

Either way, the long-term prospects of the Green Party look positive in New Zealand, particularly with Russel Norman at the helm. Whether it is other more pressing concerns or a need to become more politically palatable for the public that has held back progress in environmental areas recently, Dr Norman and his co-leader, Metiria Turei, have set the Greens on the path to a role in government which will enable a greater influence to be had over environmental policy in the long term.

Gaining such widespread popularity will create real influence, rather than tokenistic policy adjustments, even if it creates such a paradox of popularity and progress in the short term.

James Penn was deputy head boy at Wanganui High School in 2012 and captain of the New Zealand secondary schools debating team.

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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