The Green Party of Aotearoa was on top of the world.
It was July 2017 and they were polling at 15 per cent. Some commentators were optimistic; a hop, skip and a polling jump and the Greens might even overtake Labour, lagging under Andrew Little, as the largest party on the left. No more marginalisation; the Greens could set the agenda.
That dream was shattered. Metiria Turei, then the Greens' co-leader, had previously revealed she committed benefit fraud as a young mother, which rocketed the Greens skyward. But revelations about electoral fraud leaked, two MPs resigned and Jacinda Ardern became Labour's leader. Marginalised again, the Greens scraped back to become supporting actors in the Ardern government.
Now polling at 6 per cent, the Greens are trying to avoid the fate of other minor parties who were cannibalised upon entering government. As they do so, it would be surprising if they don't have a jealous eye on Germany, the home of MMP, where the situation is very different.
Over the past year, the German Greens have seen their polling skyrocket into the mid-20s
(almost triple the 8.9 per cent they won in the 2017 German elections). They are twice as popular as the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the traditional centre-left party in Germany. They match and occasionally exceed the polling of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the traditional centre-right party. Interestingly, their new support came from both the SDP and the CDU - positioning the Greens' vision as a genuine third option against the progressivism and conservatism of old.
It makes one wonder: was the Greens' shattered dream of dominance unrealistic?
Germany and New Zealand are both developed, service-based economies with centrist political cultures. Germany is heavily reliant on manufacturing and electricity generated from fossil fuels, a key environmental weakness similar to New Zealand's methane emissions. If a Green surge can take place there, it could occur here. So what is driving Germany's Green revolution?
New Zealand's Greens have been wrestling between pursuing transformational change and chasing moderate appeal. But if Germany is anything to go by, that's a false choice.
In Belgium, two drug dealers called the police. They had accidentally locked themselves inside a metal shipping container while negotiating an illicit cocaine trade. What's worse, they had done it on one of the hottest days ever recorded in Belgium, with temperatures exceeding 40C. It was call the police or cook.
Recent European heatwaves have demolished records, with highs of up to 46C. Electric fans sold out and governments handed out free water. It's the latest demonstration that climate change is serious enough to threaten the inhabitants of first-world European countries.
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As Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University, explained to the Los Angeles Times, "The Greens are having such a moment right now because climate is their campaign cause and after a drought in Germany last summer and unusually hot weather, people are listening."
Now that voters feel their interests being threatened, they are changing their political
behaviour; a source of grim amusement for the Green politicians who have warned about these consequences for decades.
Global warming has also mobilised tens of thousands of young environmental activists. The #FridaysForFuture movement in particular, sparked and led by Swedish activist Greta
Thunberg, has energised Green supporters across Europe and brought the climate crisis to the forefront of the political agenda, leaving Green parties perfectly placed to seize the moment.
Just as crucially, the Germans feeling this threat no longer see the Greens as lunatics. In the words of Anna Lehmann, editor of the daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung, "the Greens have now conquered the progressive middle class and captured the zeitgeist. Green issues such as environmental protection, climate emergency and clean energy are mainstream. Vegetarianism and organic food are popular lifestyle choices."
Importantly, that cultural alignment hasn't come at the cost of progressive policies. The Greens have made policies such as carbon taxes and major emissions cuts non-negotiable for their support in regional governments. Green members have advocated radical fiscal reform - such as eliminating Germany's sacred "debt brake", which severely limits government deficits.
New Zealand's Greens have been wrestling between pursuing transformational change and chasing moderate appeal. But if Germany is anything to go by, that's a false choice. In Germany, it is the middle class which has aligned with the Greens. In other words, the German Greens had a sympathetic audience, an energised army and an activating event.
New Zealand has two of the three. Our Greens (with some exceptions) are increasingly aligned with the urban middle class, especially under the moderate James Shaw's co-leadership. There is a vibrant environmental movement nationally, spurred by the #SchoolStrikeForClimate movement led by young leaders like Kapiti's Sophie Handford.
And on the third, while New Zealand hasn't yet suffered an extraordinary drought or heatwave like Europe's, we almost certainly will.
But other parts of the German success story are less promising for New Zealand's Greens. Mainstream German politics is stagnating. Although the SDP dominated the German left throughout the latter half of the 20th century, it alienated its progressive supporters by forming "grand coalitions" with the centre-right CDU in 2005 and 2013.
Conversely, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has governed Germany for 14 years, announced in 2018 that she would not seek re-election as leader of the CDU. Merkel is a singular political figure whose East German youth, climate change-affirming scientific background, social moderation and fiscal pragmatism appealed to Germans of all political stripes. Her absence and her successor's struggles have caused the CDU's support to drop drastically.
In the midst of this mainstream collapse, the Greens positioned themselves as a new home for both disillusioned moderates and progressives.
Their appeal was bolstered by the far-right, race-baiting Alternative for Germany (AfD). Only founded in 2013, AfD leaped to prominence during the 2015 refugee crisis, when Merkel welcomed 1.5 million refugees and migrants to the country. It polarised the nation and elicited a deeply racist response from much of German society. AfD leaders pledged to "hunt down" Merkel, marched in the streets alongside far-right extremists, and won a staggering 12.6 per cent of the vote in the 2017 German elections.
The Greens saw an opportunity. Their MPs condemned the AfD's racism and led rallies against extremism. In the process, they created a political dichotomy between far-right radicalism and Green cosmopolitanism. Germans are overwhelmingly picking the latter.
New Zealand's Greens are in a very different position. Ardern, our version of the singularly unifying Merkel, is still in power and likely to remain there for the foreseeable future. There is no party as successful nor extremist as the AfD to demonise. Moreover, the Greens' position in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition makes it practically impossible for the Greens to position themselves as an alternative to the status quo.
It may just be that New Zealand is lagging a few decades behind. The German Greens were junior partners in a coalition with the SPD from 1998 to 2005. Much of their credibility stems from that governing experience. Back then, the AfD didn't exist, mainstream political parties were still vibrant, a centre-left government was in power and the climate crisis hadn't had a painful impact. It sounds a lot like modern New Zealand.
If that's accurate, the good news for our Greens is that their dream of political power is not unattainable. The bad news is that could still be decades away.
• Pete McKenzie is a writer focused on politics, foreign affairs, social movements and youth