The performance of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand in the General Election on 20 September 2014 resulted in a disappointing 10.7%, rather than the hoped for 15%. Polling had suggested that the Green Party was on track to pass its historical high of 11.1% gained in the 2011 election. This represented a watershed as the party passed 10% for the first time, established its position as a medium party and putting some distance from the gaggle of minor parties. However, the right of centre National Party dominated the election. The strong performance of the National Party enabled it to achieve an outright majority in its third term, going against expectations generated by the MMP electoral system. Although the Green Party has remained relatively stable in its vote share when compared to the volatility that has characterised the minor parties, the failure to improve its position presents a test.
The political arena in New Zealand has historically been dominated by the National Party and the left of centre Labour Party. The shift to MMP from 1996 opened opportunities for smaller parties to gain representation, but has left the domination of the two main parties largely unchallenged. In this political environment, the Green Party is more closely aligned with Labour, although it worked successfully with the National Party following the 2008 election to gain funding for home insulation. In the face of a political system shaped around the two main parties the Green Party has maintained a tight focus on child poverty and environmentally sustainable growth. Within the theme of sustainable growth the party has pursued a successful campaign against the effects of dairy farming on waterways, directly challenging the country’s dominant industry. The emphasis on core issues in this way has enabled the party to carve out a distinctive and credible niche.
The apparent weakness of the Labour Party, driven by falling support and several leadership changes has presented an opportunity to the Greens to colonise some of the larger party’s voter base. The poor performance of the Labour Party has even led some to argue that it is a declining force; this is represented in rather vivid language by a long-time political commentator:
Its ancient hide is pierced and bleeding… The matador’s sword has penetrated the unfortunate animal’s lungs and heart, but the poor creature still stands there, defiant. Panting noisily, quivering at the legs about to fold beneath its battered body, Labour seems unaware that its wounds are fatal. That it is dying on its feet.
Despite its weakened position and limited likelihood of securing power, Labour had ruled out the possibility of aligning with the Greens in a more formal manner prior to the election. The Greens, on their part, have consistently ruled out the possibility of moving to a more ‘blue-green’ position, given the unwillingness of National governments to give adequate weight to environmental issues, making some form of Labour-Green agreement the most likely option.
Although the Green Party failed to achieve its target, it remained the sole minor party to secure over 10% of the vote. Of the remaining parties, only the populist New Zealand First Party was able to pass the 5% threshold required to secure list seats under the MMP system. The result suggests that failure of the Green Party to increase its vote in the 2014 election should be seen as a sign of the times. The economic downturn brought on by the global financial crisis has shifted attention over the past two election cycles on to economic concerns, which benefited the National Party and limited space for other issues. The political weakness of its most likely partner has also made it difficult to establish a broader base in a relatively hostile political environment. Having achieved a degree of stability and maintained its lead over the minor parties, the question remains whether it can break through and eventually challenge the dominance of the two main parties. This issue has significant implications for Green parties more generally regarding their ability to become core or mainstream parties, rather than being perceived as a less serious option.
Thomas O’Brien, Cranfield University
*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics. The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*