Wellington Scoop

A Green credibility problem

As Ian Apperley has rightly noted, the election season is beginning to get into full swing in the city. And for the Greens, Wellington is a bellwether for how they can be expected to perform on the national stage, because the Wellington Central electorate has consistently delivered a higher percentage of the party vote to the Greens than anywhere else in the country.

Influential Green politicians past and present have called the city home – Russel Norman, James Shaw and Sue Kedgley amongst them – and Wellingtonians have backed the Green vision by electing a swathe of local body politicians. But the very success of the Green campaign in Wellington may well be underlining some of the structural problems being faced by the party.

The value proposition for the Greens is easy – they’re the party you vote for if you’re concerned about climate change and environmental degradation, and want to see more economic and social justice in New Zealand. They’re also one of the few parties that explicitly stand official candidates at all levels of government – local councils, regional councils and Parliament – so voting Green is a way of trying to address these issues at every level of society.

And their campaigning has been pretty successful over the last decade. Depending on the moment you pick, there have been multiple Greens around the council table (Iona Pannett, David Lee and Sarah Free), a green mayor (Celia Wade-Brown), Green councillors at the Greater Wellington Regional Council (Sue Kedgley and Paul Bruce) and a collection of Wellington-based Green MPs (James Shaw, Sue Kedgley, Russel Norman). I’ve probably missed some, and roles variously overlap as people have come and gone, but you get the idea – the Greens have done an excellent job making sure they have committed party members at every level of government.

A large part of this electoral success is probably attributable to the formidable Green party machine in Wellington. There seems to be a committed group of activists and enthusiasts who put time, energy and money into all the election campaigns, and they seem to have the internal discipline and focus to make a success of them. Celia Wade-Brown’s campaign to unseat Kerry Prendergast was a good example, but so was James Shaw’s internal campaign to ascend through the ranks of the party to the co-leadership role. There are much more established parties whose efforts pale in comparison to what the Greens have achieved in Wellington.

However, while the results for the Greens have been stellar, the results for the city have been considerably less impressive.

The whole purpose of politics is to make a difference, and achieve through collective effort what we can’t achieve individually – and the track record of achievement from all those Green politicians at all levels of government has been pretty spotty.

To make the obvious point, climate change is a pressing concern for the planet, yet Wellington city’s emissions have failed to decrease (PDF) in the entire time that Green politicians have been sitting around the council table or conversing with their colleagues at the regional council.

In fact, the impending demise of the trolley buses is likely to send emissions higher rather than lower – which is a stunning setback.

And the list goes on. Wellington has failed to lead the country in divisive implementation of cycle lanes imaginable in the southern suburbs, there’s no hint of a bike share scheme despite a famously cycling mayor, the putative light rail system has become a running joke, and the airport company is still talking about extending the runway.

Measured by electoral results, the Greens are a complete success. Measured by emissions and environmental outcomes, the Greens are an almost complete failure.

The challenge lies, of course, with their politicians and the way they work. The Greens can claim with some justification that they’ve never had the majority necessary to implement their policies, and that’s true. But in New Zealand’s pluralistic proportionally represented political system, they’re unlikely to ever achieve an absolute majority – there will always be a range of voices around the table, all of whom have legitimate views and constituents that need to be heeded.

Politics is about the art of the compromise – the politics of the possible. As philosopher and commentator Richard Rorty has noted: “In democratic countries you get things done by compromising your principles in order to form alliances with groups about whom you have grave doubts.” This is a skill that seems to have eluded Wellington’s current crop of Greens, though it’s almost impossible to find a Wellington local body politician who denies climate change is occurring or who thinks emissions and environmental degradation should increase.

Too often, it seems like Wellington’s Green politicians have chosen to behave like activists rather than participants in the power structure. Looking at pronouncements by Sue Kedgley or Paul Bruce or Iona Pannett is particularly illustrative – there are exhortations to the general public and (we presume) their colleagues that sound like people outside the room, shouting to be heard; they don’t sound like people inside the room, seeking to convince and build alliances and find common ground.

And therein lies the problem.

Insisting on your position through a megaphone can be a very effective way of making yourself prominent and thereby being given a seat at the table. But once you’ve been granted that seat and listened to, the rules and the tactics need to be different. The megaphones need to be put away, and the messy and difficult business of finding common cause and building some rough working consensus on the basis of minimally overlapping interests needs to begin. This is intensely hard and frustrating work – but that’s what politicians sign up for when they toss their name into the electoral hat. Standing on your principles is all very well, but at the point where your principles impede any progress to save the planet, they’ve become obstacles rather than advantages.

And based on the evidence of emissions and environment in the capital, the Greens look like they are falling down on the job.

As the Greens themselves point out, elections are both a referendum on the performance of the current administration as well as the opportunity to make some changes. Yet measured by these standards, perhaps Wellington voters should be wary about putting too much more support behind the Greens, until they can demonstrate they can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. If the track record of the Wellington local body politicians is anything to go by, having more Greens in Parliament may not necessarily result in better environmental outcomes for the country.


  1. JC, 25. July 2017, 18:58

    Best article I’ve read on Scoop. Well done PCGM.

  2. Anabel, 26. July 2017, 7:54

    Just like all the other political parties that want a career seat at the table, the Greens are also full of hot air. In politics, the politicians’ “PC” words oppose their (in)actions.

  3. CPH, 26. July 2017, 8:34

    This is so right. In my experience the Green council politicians will never negotiate with anyone because they are too busy occupying the high moral ground!

  4. Tony Jansen, 26. July 2017, 10:46

    Very true. The Greens’ latest attempt at building alliances (lol) with NZ First is a classic example. The benefit fraud confession can also be seen as a shout out to core constituency rather than the general electorate, although they could argue they have tried to become more palatable to the general public by aligning themselves to Labour. Personally I think all this has achieved is an ill thought out alignment with a political party that is a lame duck. The Greens should be working out how to replace Labour as the go to party of the left, not prop them up.

  5. TrevorH, 26. July 2017, 11:14

    The so-called Greens have deserted their followers and seem to be pushing some kind of anarchist anti-establishment dogma. It’s no wonder they have achieved little in recent times of practical value.

  6. Michael Gibson, 26. July 2017, 16:06

    When Tony Jansen says: “The Greens should be working out how to replace Labour as the go to party of the left, not prop them up” that is exactly what the recent targetting of beneficiaries is all about. Why else would anybody ‘fess up?

  7. Mike, 27. July 2017, 9:55

    Guess we haven’t evolved to the the “working together” or cooperating style of govt and still support an outdated “energy wasting, bureaucratic, self opposing and self serving govt” .

  8. Anabel, 27. July 2017, 12:38

    @ Mike, yes it’s outdated as it is the Bank of England’s Crown NZ corporate entity. Fact is we the people of NZ didn’t chose the type and style of English Bankster Crown govt.

  9. Troy H, 27. July 2017, 17:15

    What difference do all the the political parties make? Do they just hold up the illusion of “choice” of govt?
    Parties such as the greens are different in press released ideology only, they all just want a seat at the table. History shows National privatizes and sells key and needed public assets (sells low) and Labour makes the taxpayers buy them back. (high) .

  10. Sekhmet Bast Ra, 29. July 2017, 14:01

    When we look at some of the things the Green faction amongst both the elected representatives and salaried staff at WCC are getting up to, for example planting vegetables on traffic islands, we do have to wonder if they’ve been smoking that weird green stuff. As the WCC horticulture team leader appears to be hands on with this task, one thing we can be certain of is it’s costing ratepayers money. On first look we were not clear on what they are trying to achieve with these acts of vegetating the city with cosmic vegetarian edibles. Promote the vegan lifestyle perhaps? Reduce Co2 in the CBD perchance? Who knows? Appears to be all harmless fun on the surface. Then once we took a closer look and considered this from a political perspective it’s quite clear what this is about. Yet another act of Green socialist propaganda, and you the ratepayer are financing it. Surely WCC have more important matters to attend to?

  11. Mike, 30. July 2017, 8:52

    SBR, you are not concerned with the dangers (valid safety issues) of Greens growing food in the middle of the road (“food for show only”)? Much like all the politicians’ words and actions it’s ” for show only” .

  12. Paul, 31. July 2017, 12:29

    @ Sekhmet Bast Ra, planting veges on the median strips costs no more than the flowers they used to plant.

  13. Mike, 31. July 2017, 14:57

    Paul it’s not about the costs of food that is put into making roads look green, or rather it is that lives have a cost. It is unsafe and unintelligent practice at a time when so many people can’t afford veges and so may venture onto the busy roads and then get into trouble with the tyrants at the WCC for wanting to eat the ill placed food.

  14. Mary M, 31. July 2017, 15:02

    Mixing roads and ornamental wasted green food is the least of the Greens’ credibility problems.

  15. Andrew, 31. July 2017, 17:07

    1. It is ornamental silverbeet. If it were brussel sprouts then there might be a problem, although it will still be covered in bird droppings.

    2. The plantings began more than a decade ago. Green propaganda from the mid 2000s that has only been noticed now? A sleeper cell?

  16. Caspar Harmer, 1. August 2017, 7:11

    There is literally nothing more important than looking after our fragile environment. I mean nothing. Human rights, Welfare, Economic Policy – it’s all superstructure. Our environment is the foundation that we build it on. And it’s in trouble. If you have young children, think very hard about the world that they are going to be living (or dying?) in.
    Given all this, it doesn’t matter about benefit fraud issues or past performance – there is really only one party that is serious about not sawing through the branch that we are sitting on. It’s the greens and if you can’t see that then I feel sad for all of us. Because shortly, if we don’t get serious, it’s not going matter who you voted for.

  17. Kim M, 1. August 2017, 8:50

    If the Greens were serious they wouldn’t have been all talk while the govt drops 1080, tortures animals and poisons the environment .

  18. Cackle McFee, 21. August 2017, 8:30

    It appears the media has selected Labour/Ardern (who is now running on the once Green political memes of ” climate”). Neigh, no one in media and politics even noticed the “policy theft”.