Is the Green Party of the Left or is it a Party for Sustainability?

GREEN-logo-icon-colThe Greens can be described as ‘left’, just as the colour of a puriri tree can be described as ‘dark’, but not adequately so. The Greens have an uncompromising commitment to fairness and equality. They also have a commitment to individual rights and to limitations on the power of the State, but I wouldn’t describe them as ‘right wing’ either. What I would say is that by rejecting the left/right dichotomy as inadequate to describe Green politics, the Greens become free to adopt what is valuable from either end of the spectrum and evolve it in accordance with their own philosophies. Some people on the left would say that there is nothing valuable to be found on the right, and vice versa. That kind of locked-in thinking is exactly the problem.

– Nandor Tanczos, 2011

I believe the Green Party is at a crossroads. After a lower-than-expected party vote in the 2014 General Election, it has become clear that the party is stranded to the left of Labour while at the same time stating that it is unwilling to consider working in coalition with any other party. This is unnecessary and unwise when the party is not truly a left-wing party anyway, it is a party of sustainability in the 21st century which is meant to transcend the left-right politics of the 19th and 20th centuries. I contend that it is time for the Green Party to start defining itself properly as a party of neither the left nor the right but one of sustainability, able to work with both.

The 2014 General Election

The Greens set an aspirational target of 15% of the party vote for the 2014 election and polling results appeared to be consistent with that goal. Although the Greens have tended to have difficulty translating high pre-election polling to a comparable result on election day, the trend seemed to have been reversed in 2011. Polling was so consistently high that I estimated the likely party vote at 12-13%.

It was a serious disappointment to poll 10.7%. The party failed to grow at a time when it seems to be capturing the zeitgeist, has led the opposition for the last term, and when Labour is historically weak; it has only just kept its 14th MP.

The election has been a complex one with many factors at play but the lack of growth in the Green vote is most likely because of the party’s positioning of itself as a party of the Left and one of the Far Left at that.

Consider the words of Claire Browning in Beyond Today: a values story (2012, p. 83):

The reason the Greens were established, that underpins all policy, requires the party to reach out across politics. Green politics needs to be diverse and inclusive, not polarised, to give effect to its vision, and to be true to its own values.

Put another way, the Greens are ostensibly “neither left, nor right, but out in front.” Yet it seems that the Greens’ political positioning for 2011 and 2014 has been motivated more by a loathing for National, to the extent that a coalition may not even be contemplated, than any coherent attempt to place the Party in a position where it can exercise influence as a third force that can decide which of the two traditional parties can form a government and hence substantially influence their policy.

This is not to say that I am necessarily in favour of a coalition with the National government as it has been constituted since 2008 – or, indeed, any prior leadership – but by openly discounting the possibility in a highly public fashion there is only one place to go: to the left of Labour. But there are not many votes to be found there, as The Alliance learned in the 2000s.

The language of the Co-Leaders became increasingly hectoring and aggressive towards National and Prime Minister John Key during the 2011-2014 term. In a speech to the 2013 AGM, Russel Norman compared Key to one of New Zealand’s worst Prime Ministers, Robert Muldoon. Although, in my view, Keith Holyoake is a far more accurate comparison.

The Party has not changed its political positioning since it was a 6.72% minor party prior to the 2011 election. But even saying that National was a ‘highly unlikely’ coalition partner (modified from the proposed remit wording of ‘extremely unlikely’) was hugely controversial within the Party, sparking an hours-long debate that ran late into the night at the 2011 AGM. This cautiously-worded statement was preposterously reported in the media as a ‘swing to the right’. There was much hand-wringing among members about this portrayal (and a near-hysterical reaction in some quarters to the ‘For a Richer New Zealand’ campaign slogan) but the Greens captured a record 11.06% of the party vote in the 2011 election, gaining 14 seats in Parliament.

In 2014, the party adopted a nearly identical political positioning statement. But the political stage had changed.  In the preceding 3 years the Greens could legitimately claim to be leading the opposition as Labour came from a 27.4% party vote in 2011 (its lowest since 1928), was mired in bitter leadership struggles for a significant part of its term, and its leader, David Cunliffe, was not polling well in the lead up to the election. The Greens’ attachment to Labour, despite their very public rejection of overtures from the Greens to campaign together, has to be seen as a failure to capitalise on its position as the clear third party in New Zealand politics. With New Zealand First only 1% behind, the next term will be a duel between the two parties to claim the mantle of leading the opposition as Labour recovers.

In fairness to the caucus and the developers of the political positioning statement, the required agreement of the entire party by consensus tends to result in conservative outcomes and limits their ability to adjust to changing circumstances. Nonetheless, by placing itself on the left flank of the Labour Party, the Greens were simply unable to present as part of a viable government. Where the potential Green vote really appears to have gone is to New Zealand First who were not bound by any such prior declarations of loyalty. Although New Zealand First are seen as a broadly left-wing party, they avoid an easy categorisation and tend to social conservatism, being centrist and populist in most policy areas. In fact, I think the most coherent way to think of NZ First is as an ‘economic nationalist’ party comprised of both Old Labour and Old National constituencies. It was entirely plausible for the media to cast Winston Peters as the kingmaker given his ability to work with either of the two larger parties without being perceived as diluting his political brand.

Internet-Mana-Dotcom’s portentously-named ‘Moment of Truth‘ must also be attributed with damaging the opposition as a whole and quite probably shoring up an extra 3-4% support for John Key’s National Party, as middle-New Zealand voters were appalled at what looked for all the world like a personal score-settling attack on a popular Prime Minister, bringing him very close to leading the first majority government in the history of MMP in this country (indeed this appeared to be the case until the special votes were declared).

A Green Party Beyond Left and Right

So, what lessons can the Greens learn from this election? They are numerous but many involve the party’s internal organisation and are therefore not for public consumption. The national campaign team, headquartered in Auckland, worked very hard, stayed focused and managed a record number of volunteers. The party’s workers and electorate volunteers also acquitted themselves well but the problem was not one of organisation, it was one of positioning.

This is not a new problem for the party. In 2006, then-MP and later aspirant to Co-Leader, Nandor Tanczos, wrote:

[W]e have undermined one of our greatest strengths – our ability to cut across the outdated and one dimensional left/right continuum. … There are too many people who are naturally sympathetic to Green principles and policies, including socially and economically progressive ones, who are not left identified. Part of the reason is that the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ have become progressively less meaningful to people. Our role is to build a specifically Green constituency …

These words have never been more relevant than in the wake of the 2014 election.

There have been calls for a Blue-Green party after this election and while this rationally comes from the realisation that the Greens have been trapped on the left, it is still a line of thought that has not moved beyond the left-right divide. Support for a centre Green party is closer to the mark and has come from some surprising quarters, such as former National Party ministers. That support is often qualified by the observation that a Green party that allowed voters to protect the environment and address inequality but that is not simply re-iterated socialism would easily get to over 15% of the vote on its first run under this reconfiguration. It may be hard to imagine that any green party could work with a party such as National that are in favour of mining, deep sea oil drilling and extractive economy (although that doesn’t stop the Greens from expressing a preference for Labour who have said they’d do the same things) but who else will change their position unless they are holding the balance of power?

There are those who assert that this would be a narrowing of focus which plays into the hands of political opponents but I strongly disagree with this. By consistently describing and messaging the Greens as a sustainability party and grounding policy in the environmental, social, cultural and economic aspects of sustainability the centre can be moved. There will be a predictable adverse media reaction but that will only allow for more detailed media comment from elected members, allowing them to re-frame the narrative. This is a view with a strong pedigree among the more reflective Green commentators. See, for example, Nandor Tanczos again here and here and Claire Browning here and here.

There is also a meme that the term sustainability is no longer meaningful because it has been ‘co-opted’ by the corporate world and government. This would seem to be exactly the time to re-assert a claim to the meaning of the word! It is the Greens’ to define and it is reactionary to say the least to abandon a well-known and understood concept when it has achieved widespread recognition and acceptance.

None of this requires sacrificing any of the party’s policy or becoming purely environmental in focus. It is as much a matter of framing and emphasis as it is of substantive policy change. Anyone who is familiar with the party’s highly-democratic internal processes will know that policy change happens at a glacial pace in the Greens and sudden lurches in any direction – left, right, or otherwise – are all but impossible.

If you’re still unconvinced that the Green Party is not a left-wing party but a sustainability party, let’s have a look at the origins and core kaupapa of the party.

The Values Party 1972-1989

The genesis of the Greens was in the Values Party, established in 1972. Values spoke of the politics of enough and were the first political party in New Zealand to countenance the global environmental crisis. They stood candidates in six elections before the Greens picked up from where they left off in 1990. This lineage was proven to the satisfaction of the Electoral Commission as the Greens were given a broadcasting allocation for the 1990 election on the basis of being an established party that had been renamed rather than a new party established six months before the election. For background on the Values Party as the genesis of the Greens, I recommend Claire Browning’s excellent think piece, Beyond Today: a values story (2012). I believe it should be given to all new members of the party but it is a book which all too few Greens have read.

The Green Charter

To grasp the theoretical foundations of Green politics as distinct from left-wing political thought, it is worth reflecting on the Green Party’s core values, found in the Green Charter. The Four Pillars of the Charter were first articulated by Die Grünen, the German Greens, in 1979-1980. These are codified in the NZ Green Party’s constitution along with a commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi:

The charter is the founding document of The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand accepts Te Tiriti o Waitangi as the founding document of Aotearoa New Zealand; recognises Māori as Tangata Whenua in Aotearoa New Zealand; and commits to the following four Principles:

Ecological Wisdom: The basis of ecological wisdom is that human beings are part of the natural world. This world is finite, therefore unlimited material growth is impossible. Ecological sustainability is paramount.

Social Responsibility: Unlimited material growth is impossible. Therefore the key to social responsibility is the just distribution of social and natural resources, both locally and globally.

Appropriate Decision-making: For the implementation of ecological wisdom and social responsibility, decisions will be made directly at the appropriate level by those affected.

Non-Violence: Non-violent conflict resolution is the process by which ecological wisdom, social responsibility and appropriate decision making will be implemented. This principle applies at all levels.

There is a beautiful internal structure to this statement of values. You will see that each proposition flows into and forms part of the definition of the preceding one. There is the fundamental statement that we live in a world of biophysical limits in which ‘unlimited material growth is impossible’. From this realisation comes the social responsibility to distribute these finite resources justly; it is very important to note that social responsibility is not a synonym for social justice, they are quite distinct concepts with different origins. Appropriate decision making, devolution, is the means by which ecological wisdom and social responsibility are implemented. Non-violent conflict resolution is needed to manage all three of the preceding charter values.

Ecological wisdom is not a value that can truly be said to have been internalised in left-wing politics. There is still very much a sense of ‘red before green’ and the all-too-common assertion that environmentalism is a bourgeois, urban concern. This division has been exploited most recently in New Zealand by the unlamented Shane Jones (UPDATE: and more recently by Stuart Nash) but is a common enough refrain globally.

Social responsibility is stated as a principle of distributive justice but that does not mean it is equivalent in meaning to social justice. There is a significant area of intersection between the social democratic conception of social justice and Green social responsibility but they emanate from different wellsprings. Social justice as I have characterised it here stems from class consciousness and, at root, Marxist thought or, alternatively, liberal democratic rights theory. Social responsibility often looks the same but is inspired by what is socially sustainable. These distinctions may seem subtle but they are very important. Claire Browning makes the distinction in Beyond Today (pp. 24-25) which is worth quoting at length:

Social justice is about allocating resources and power more fairly, usually by the state intervening or being radically remade: redistribution of wealth through taxes, and social power through the collective. Social responsibility is about individuals acting to benefit society. Arguing about who has the wealth or the power, and how these are shared around is peripheral to the real challenge of individual self-restraint. It is about taking responsibility personally, for choices and interactions and decisions not to act: personal choices about family size and consumption, interactions with other people, other generations, other species, the natural world. Social responsibility is for the benefit of all, the collective, but it is defined by personal choices, all the time, every day. It means individual freedom to responsibly choose.

[UPDATE: I’ve written a post further developing the distinction between social justice and social responsibility here.]

It is easy to see, then, why the Greens have historically preferred to work with left parties as there is such a substantial overlap in their thinking but it is a mistake to think that they are the same thing.

Appropriate decision making or as it is more colloquially expressed, ‘grassroots’ decision making, recognises the principle of subsidiarity; that decision making should be made as closely as possible to the level where it will have an effect and ideally by the people it will most effect. As an elected member in local government, this is a core belief for me. This can also present interesting challenges in a political party with a national organisational structure and a parliamentary caucus.

Non-violent conflict resolution is not simply the avoidance of conflict. In fact that can foster the most insidious violence of all, passive-aggression. Exercised with a sense of discipline in order to move discussions forward, non-violence is essential to a reasoned and respectful discourse and practice. As the ecological crisis becomes more serious and the consequences more dire, it is imperative that we have a core value to guard against militancy or even eco-fascism.

Can the current Green Party move the centre?

Only time will tell. I can say from personal experience that the contention that the party is not of the left, as I have maintained since first becoming active in the Party in 2011, is met with hostility from some members but support from many others. Anecdotally, a non-left aligned Green Party resonates especially with non-member voters and potential voters. There is certainly a strong left identity among many members but this is by no means universal. Nor is this a ‘fault line’ or division in the party; the organisation is, on the whole, a tolerant one. I see no other extant political party that meaningfully embodies sustainability and on a more practical level, the next term is going to be an awful theatre of political trench warfare unless the Greens find a way to rise above New Zealand First’s claims to lead the opposition.

UPDATES: I’m really pleased to see that this post has generated some discussion on twitter and some great blog posts in response. This one is particularly good.

I’ve written more on the distinction between social justice and social responsibility here.

POSTSCRIPT: I ended up standing as a candidate for the male co-leadership of the Greens in 2015. Not because I was so deluded as to think I could win but because I was strongly encouraged by members and even some MPs to carry this debate into that contest. I asked the question: ‘Is this a left wing party of a party for sustainability?’ and was told that they were one and the same. I left and have started the Sustainable New Zealand Party to contest the 2020 general election.

About Vernon Tava

Barrister. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
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12 Responses to Is the Green Party of the Left or is it a Party for Sustainability?

  1. Thank you for an enlightening piece, Vernon. I am not a GP member, but from outside the tent, I have a a couple of propositions that I would like to understand from your perspective.

    1) That the Greens have already positioned themselves as not especially a left-wing party.

    Consider three examples: a (climate) tax cut policy, a price-oriented and evidence-based transport policy, and a policy to end state subsidies for oil.

    Opponents will argue that these are essentially socialist wealth-redistributing policies cleverly re-framed otherwise — but then, isn’t centrist re-framing desirable, as you said? Furthermore, consider that National pursues the opposite policies in effect (e.g. heavy-handed state intervention for roading), but only gets away with it electorally by framing it as somehow a centre-right approach.

    So do you think these overtures from the Greens are not as substantial as they seem to me, or perhaps not a sufficient shift in framing, or something else?

    2) That social justice fully encompasses social responsibility.

    This would a bold statement for me to make, especially from a platform of ignorance, having not read Browning’s book, so take it as a question. I wonder if it is demonstrable that some ethical directive exists, which is rooted in social responsibility, that cannot be derived from social justice?

    Intuitively, whenever I hear, “the state must intervene to do X”, it always sounds like an abstract statement, which under the blazing sunlight of implementation in the real world, has always meant that someone somewhere must critically take personal responsibility to make it effective — collective action is always a collection of individual actions. (For example, a lower speed limit has no impact unless individual people choose to abide by it.) Doesn’t that mean social responsibility is a proper subset of social justice, and not just an overlap that otherwise offers some unique imperative? Am I missing something here?

    Your comments would be most appreciated. (I’m not seeking to persuade you of anything or to have an extended discussion, so other than clarifications if you need, I’ll let you have the final word.)


  2. Pingback: “Sustainability” and flavours of Green parties

  3. Vernon Tava says:

    Thanks for reading.
    1) It is a matter of messaging and political positioning. I think the party’s policy is sound and generally rooted in the core Charter principles. As you’ve pointed out, it can be spun either way by left or right. My point is that we have to be neither left nor right but able to talk to both to effect real change in the political realm.
    2) I would put it the other way around. Social justice may be cast as a subset of social responsibility (if that has to be done and I don’t think it does) but there is fundamental difference beyond that which I pointed out in the above post: Social Responsibility is ecocentric flowing from a recognition of ecological wisdom. Social Justice is anthropocentric, based in recognition of inalienable human rights. Both are hugely important and they are not mutually exclusive. What I’m really arguing for in this blog post is for some conceptual clarity. There’s been a conflation of concepts that needs to be sorted out. I am in no way minimising or arguing against the importance of social justice but it just isn’t the same thing.

  4. kmccready says:

    Vernon, I agree. And thanks for one of the two best post-election pieces I have seen; the other being which was valuable for the insights into a possibly superior ongoing polling technique than we had. Our focus groups months ago don’t quite cut the mustard compared to constant updates.

    I have a couple of reservations though:

    1. It’s hard for all of us, and you too as demonstrated above, to avoid the left/right dichotomy. If you make it a rule to say progressive when you might otherwise use left, or ‘selfish conservative’ or ‘selfish extremist’ when you might mean right, perhaps that would help.

    2. Memes define and alter themselves in circulation. It’s laudable that we try to own the meme, and I’ve proposed it too, but doubtful we can control the framing. We can only do what framing we can and hope that it sticks. Thus the power of NationBuilder as a polling tool to give us a good readout, day by day a la Farrar, on how our framing is going and therefore the opportunity to reframe.

    It would be nice if we could persuade other Greens to adopt the approach you suggest, particularly if we could get them at least to understand it without frothing at the mouth in misunderstanding and being accused of being a sell-out. Oops, did I just say that?

    • Vernon Tava says:

      Thanks Kevin for your thoughtful response. Very interesting thoughts about ongoing polling! There is far too much echo-chamber speculation going on at the moment about that happened with the Green vote but little empirical data to back it up. Ongoing polling would give a much better indication of what was significant. One thing that does seem clear is that the Green vote was below projections by about as much as the NZ First vote increased in many electorates. This rather gives the lie to the view of many Greens that a ‘last-minute flirtation with National’ was responsible for the drop in the expected vote. It makes no sense to me at all that voters who wouldn’t vote for the Greens because they were not pure Left enough would go to NZ First instead. In fact it may suggest the opposite, that voters wanted to vote for a party that may hold the balance of power and keep National from indulging its more extreme proclivities. I know there are a couple of assumptions made there but it will be interesting to see more data.

  5. Paul Bailey says:

    Reblogged this on Hawkes Bay Greenie and commented:
    “It may be hard to imagine that any green party could work with a party such as National that are in favour of mining, deep sea oil drilling and extractive economy (although that doesn’t stop the Greens from expressing a preference for Labour who have said they’d do the same things) but who else will change their position unless they are holding the balance of power?”

  6. Paul Bailey says:

    Reblogged on

  7. Pingback: The Difference Between Social Responsibility and Social Justice | Vernon Tava

  8. chrisaknz says:

    Very true – but I have waited in vain 24 years for the Greens to move toward the centre focussing on sustainability and quality of life). It won’t happen – too many in caucus are pushing their own personal left-wing policy to allow centralism or sustainability to prevail. A former member of the Greens Executive, I was on the population policy group, which came to consensus on policy vital to NZ’s sustainability, and it got buried. I couldn’t even bring myself to vote Green last month – NZ First policy made more sense!

  9. Dennis Frank says:

    I happened on this during the holidays & was struck by how unusual it is to discover an excellent essay in online culture! Thought I’d check out the blogosphere after many years of bias against it (the chattering classes have tiny minds doncha know) when I was musing about the election result.

    Yeah, Vernon, you got that right about Russel Norman comparing Key to Muldoon. I rolled my eyes at the time, thinking stuff like “What a clueless thing to say!” “Well, he’s an aussie, of course, whaddaya expect?” “Bet he never even lived here in those days” Ain’t nobody like Muldoon anymore. Civilised thuggery is a style from a bygone era.

    You’re also right about Holyoake, to the extent that he was affable like Key. I used to watch the guy on the evening news on the old black & white tv in the mid-late ’60s, and think of him as a plastic inflatable. The unending stream of pompous platitudes that came out of his mouth was truly impressive, even back then when pompous people could be found all over kiwi society. He’d managed to turn pomposity into an art form. Well, perhaps more like a craft form. Voters loved it because the older generation then actually did think in cliches – believe it or not!

    Like you, I spotted that 3-4% of voters switched from the Greens to NZFirst between the final polls and election day. Strange how none of the political commentators noticed that! But nowadays they don’t even seem to look at swing-voters. The conventional wisdom among political scientists was always that swing-voters, who don’t identify with either left or right, determine the election outcome. I see no reason to discount that view. Seems to me that they are simply not governed by the left/right pendulum in their heads anymore – they’ve moved on from the bipolar behaviour induced by dualism.

    Anyway, my compliments on your clarity of reasoning, which seems just as good on the second read through.

  10. Pingback: Why I Am Standing for Green Party Male Co-Leader | Vernon Tava

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