Greens in Local Government

CV001-logotype4fThe Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand has followed an unusual progression when compared to other Green parties around the world. Generally, Green parties have built strength at the local and state levels before ‘matriculating’ to central government. In Aotearoa New Zealand, this process has been inverted as the party entered parliament in the first Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) elections in 1996 (as part of The Alliance and as an independent party since 1999) and has been there ever since, continuously remaining above the 5% threshold for a list-only party. Meanwhile, the party’s representation at the local government level has, until recently, been sporadic and often Green party affiliation is not overtly stated by candidates.

There has been a great deal of enthusiasm within the Party at various times  for Green-branded candidates to stand in local body elections, particularly since the party’s very successful 2011 general election in which its parliamentary representation roughly doubled. But this is not always a wise approach. It all comes down to the electoral system in the local body area.

New Zealand does not have a uniform voting system for its local body elections. Seven councils in New Zealand use a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system while all the others have a First Past the Post (FPP) system. STV is used for all District Health Board elections. It is important to develop a strategy that suits the voting system.

First Past the Post

In a MMP election, 11% is a solid result. It gains a party 14 seats in the House. In a FPP election, it means that 89% of people won’t vote for your candidates and nobody wins a seat. The problems with FPP are summarised well in this simple video. The main organisational feat in FPP elections not dominated by traditional parties is the formation of tactical voting blocs to avoid ‘vote splitting’: in the event that the candidates do not form into a bloc on one side or the other they split progressive votes among themselves and although they may get some of their candidates over the line, they are more likely to take votes away from other candidates with whom they are more closely aligned while not threatening the votes of those with whom they more strongly disagree.

This is precisely what happened in Auckland local government politics for most of the twentieth century. The conservative side had a cohesive organisation in Citizens and Ratepayers (C&R, recently re-branded as Communities & Residents), an essentially National Party organisation, that dominated Auckland City Council from the 1920s until the 2010 amalgamation into a unitary Auckland Council. The progressive side of politics had no such coherence, although Labour has successfully run candidates under its own banner in Auckland’s south. For many elections, the Left and progressive candidates would run more candidates than there were positions and because of FPP’s mathematics this meant that they split the progressive vote among themselves. Although they may have won more votes than C&R collectively, those votes were spread across too many candidates to get them across the line and even with less votes as a whole, C&R would generally come though the middle and win.

It wasn’t until the formation of City Vision – a coalition of Labour, Alliance, Greens, and progressive community independents – in 1998 that a progressive bloc could be said to have formed to compete against C&R. With a single umbrella organisation for progressive candidates, two of the great challenges of winning election in local government are dealt with. First: name recognition. Local government does not get anything like the mainstream media coverage of central government politics, although most Aucklanders could name the mayor and perhaps the deputy mayor and some of the councillors, they are much less likely to know the local board members for their area; the names of the numerous local tickets that emerge each election are unlikely to have any brand recognition and it is often unclear from a 150-word voting pamphlet statement what independent candidates stand for. Second: with a clear brand and a public understanding of values, City Vision co-ordinates candidates on the progressive side of politics to form local teams and select the best candidates to stand for the number of positions available without splitting the vote. A similar alliance called ‘Future West’ in Auckland’s west won all of the seats on the Waitakere Ranges Local Board in the 2013 election.

It is clear on all of City Vision’s materials that Greens are part of the coalition, the logo is prominently displayed, but being part of a City Vision team positions those candidates as part of a larger progressive bloc and significantly increases their chances of being elected in a FPP race.

Single Transferable Vote

As at 2013, Dunedin City Council, Greater Wellington Council, Wellington City Council, Kapiti Coast District Council, Marlborough District Council, Palmerston North City Council and Porirua City Council use the STV system of voting. For a little more detail on this method, it is worth looking at Graeme Edgeler’s very good Q&A on STV.

A STV system allows for a different strategy. Without having to form blocs, as is necessary with FPP, candidates can stand with a clear branding as Greens.

In 2013, the Greens successfully ran Green-branded candidates in STV campaigns in Dunedin and Wellington. In Dunedin, Aaron Hawkins stood as a Green-branded mayoral candidate and won election as a councillor. In Wellington, the Greens made impressive inroads into the regional and city councils. Former Green MP, Sue Kedgley, and Paul Bruce were elected as regional councillors and Iona Pannett, Sarah Free and David Lee were elected as city councillors.

Horses for courses

Although it may at first seem best to always run candidates under a Green banner in local government elections, it is essential to tailor the strategy to the voting system. Running candidates for local government is not simply a flag waving exercise for the parliamentary wing of the party, nor is it even a useful branding exercise unless the candidates are likely to win election. Local government is an end in itself. It is the level of government at which New Zealand’s environmental law is implemented and, given the Green Charter value of Appropriate Decision Making, it is core to the Green kaupapa of localised decision making to effect ecological wisdom and social responsibility.

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About Vernon Tava

Business broker, elected member of Auckland Council. Focused on sustainability. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
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