Russell Norman: Green Post Election Wrap-Up
Speech to the Victoria University of Wellington
Post Election Conference
Date Speech given - December 2 2005
The Greens have the dubious honour of losing the lowest proportion of our vote amongst the pre-existing small parties in the 2005 election. In the most general terms, this was because we stuck to our issues, made no serious mistakes, and responded reasonably well to the challenges and opportunities that were presented to us.
This was the Greens third election since we left the Alliance in 1997. While we were better prepared organisationally than we were for the 1999 and 2002 election campaigns, the political environment in 2005 was the most challenging of the three campaigns.
In this talk I will run through five major challenges that faced us in the campaign and how we attempted to pre-empt or respond to them. Given the time available I will have little to say on the organisational aspects of the campaign but rather will focus on the strategic challenges and our responses.
The first and most significant challenge from the political environment was the emergence of a radically rightwing and electorally competitive National Party.
National’s policy of massive tax cuts combined with its Maori and Treaty bashing made National far more right wing than at either of the two previous elections. And it was an electoral winner. When Don Brash used coded racism in his Orewa speech, in a way that Bill English had too much common decency to do, people responded. When Brash invited voters to exercise a wilful ignorance as to the inevitable results of massive tax cuts in terms of cuts to social investment and public services, it appealed to many people’s sense of short term self interest. National climbed in the polls to threaten Labour.
This had two outcomes which impacted directly on the Greens.
Firstly, progressive-minded voters were genuinely worried that Labour might be dislodged by a radical right wing National-led government. This in turn led many people who actually supported the Greens to vote Labour to shore up their vote. This single factor did the Greens more damage than any other. The statements by United Future and NZ First, that they would support the major party that received the most votes, further underlined this tendency (without doing them much good either it should be pointed out).
A second outcome of the emergence of a competitive National Party was that the media focus was no longer on the potential coalition partners to the inevitably victorious Labour Party, as it had been in 2002. The media, which tends to highlight the political game rather than policy issues, focussed on Labour versus National rather than on who would be Labour’s coalition partner, as they did in 2002. This meant that we got a lot less media coverage and what we got we had to fight for.
The second major challenge to the Greens from the political environment was the emergence of a viable Maori Party with critical mass. The Greens did very well amongst Maori voters in 2002, polling on average 10.7% of the party vote in the Maori electorates. We had often been the sole voice in Parliament standing up for Maori interests and this had received some recognition in the Maori electorate. But the emergence of the Maori Party threatened to strip away that support.
Both the emergence of a radically right wing, electorally competitive National Party and the emergence of a viable Maori Party occurred well before the campaign and the effects were relatively predictable.
However, the third major challenge to the Greens, and one we did not anticipate, was Labour’s decision to finally bend on the issue of student loans after fighting us on the issue for the last six years of government. The announcement of Labour’s policy of removing the interest on the student loans of New Zealand residents caught us by surprise and was a major headache.
The fourth major challenge to the Greens from the political environment was the distribution of millions of pamphlets attacking the Greens funded by the Exclusive Brethren. These pamphlets, which Brash admitted he had been told were on their way in his numerous meetings with the Brethren, told various lies about Green Party policy and generally presented us as scary. What I could never understand was that if our election was likely to bring on the Apocalypse then surely they should be encouraging us, but sadly not.
The fifth major challenge to the Green campaign was not from the political environment but rather was, in part, one of our own making. This was the need to re-create the Green electoral brand post-GE, in the absence of a single pre-existing large Green issue.
In the 2002 campaign, genetic engineering, an issue closely connected to the Green Party, was the central issue of the election campaign. Its salience was both the issue itself and that it was linked to the vital question of who Labour’s coalition partner could be, after we made it a bottom line for providing support. We were attacked from all sides for taking a strong stand on GE but we took a principled position and the voters responded to it. The only hiccup came when Seeds of Distrust was released and it looked like a Green Party setup, even though it wasn’t. We hadn’t gone into the 2002 campaign with GE as the single issue but most of the coverage we received was on GE and hence that’s how voters remembered us.
This time GE was not at the centre of public attention as the moratorium had been lifted but no large scale commercial release was on the agenda, yet. But there was no similar Green issue to replace it. This meant not only that we lacked a big issue that put us at the centre of the campaign, but that we had to virtually reconstruct the Green election brand around a new issue or set of issues.
Our response to these five challenges fundamentally shaped the Green election campaign.
Our response to the first of the challenges facing us, the rise of a radically rightwing and electorally competitive National Party, with the associated fear of Brash and the run back to Labour, was twofold. Firstly we made it crystal clear that we would support Labour to keep out Brash, and secondly we did our best to educate voters about how MMP really works.
We were substantially aided in the first endeavour by Labour’s recognition that one of its key advantages over National was potential coalition allies and, hence, they were willing to cooperate in demonstrating that the Greens and Labour had a constructive relationship. This helped to reassure progressive minded voters that a vote for the Greens was a vote for a green/left government and a vote to keep out the barbarians at the gates.
In terms of the reduced media coverage for the Greens, because the issue of who would be Labour’s coalition partner was not central to the campaign like it was in 2002, we did the usual run of policy launches, stunts, media releases etc. We were aided in our attempts to get media by the Brethren of course. It was not exactly the media we wanted but at least we didn’t have talk about candidate’s testicles, but more of that later.
Our response to the second major challenge we faced, the rise of the Maori Party, was to emphasise the advantages of vote splitting and to make sure we did all the things we would normally do to reach Maori voters but do them better. We invested in Maori TV and iwi radio advertising, translated our leaflets into te reo and used te reo on our hoardings and advertising. We promoted the split vote message – party vote for the Greens and give your electorate vote to whoever you liked. It didn’t really work and our vote in the Maori electorates dropped from 10.7% to 3.3%, with the exception of Te Tai Tonga where Metiria Turei stood and our vote only dropped to 6.4%. 2005 was an historic election for the Maori Party and there wasn’t much we could do about it.
Our response to Labour’s sudden change of heart on student loans, the third major challenge we faced, was to appeal to students on the broader Green issues rather than the student loan issue alone. We couldn’t really beat Labour on the student loan issue because, even though our policy was better for students, Labour was perceived as having greater capacity to deliver their policy which was a lot better than existing government policy. So we moved the focus of our student and youth campaigning onto broader green issues, though still including student loans.
Our response to the Brethren leaflets, the fourth major challenge we faced, was for me one of the highlights of the campaign. Finally the campaign had a scandal and we were at the centre of it!
The great thing of course was that the Brethren didn’t get away with maligning the Greens like United Future did in 2002. Some of you may remember that United Future distributed about 300,000 leaflets across the country in 2002 that said things like “the Greens want to feed your children genetically engineered marijuana”, and other such gems as came out of the fertile imaginations of the fundamentalist Christian right. Now, for whatever reasons, that didn’t become a major media issue in 2002 so it was left out there to have an effect on voters who didn’t know better.
But this time the Brethren didn’t get away so lightly. The Green media team with a lot of help from our national network of green sympathisers tracked down the people who authorised the various attack leaflets and was able to prove that they were all Brethren. This flushed the good Brothers out into the open, like an overloaded septic tank on a hot summers day, and provided a bit of a headache to the National Party and Don Brash in particular whose erratic memory of his dealings with the Brotherhood soon became a national issue.
Of course what we will never know is how damaging the leaflets were. Sure, we got some media coverage, but we still had people telling us that they would’ve voted Green but that we wanted to put a capital gains tax on the family home – one of the lies in the Brethren leaflet. Nonetheless, I’m sure that we only survived the election because we were able to respond quickly, effectively and creatively to the attack by the Brethren. Otherwise, just like the United Future leaflets last time, they would have sat out there and damaged us with their lies.
Our response to the fifth challenge we faced, redefining our electoral identity post the GE issue, proved to be a bit of a trial for a party that has members with a wide range of concerns and passions. Eventually we settled on the four themes of protecting the environment, clean energy, safe healthy food, and a fairer society. We structured all our campaign materials and advertising around these four themes. This meant that our messaging was reasonably focussed and voters had the opportunity to get a clear sense of what the Greens were about beyond GE. By doing this we laid the basis for the discursive future of the party and for the next election campaign. However, we didn’t manage to set the world on fire with any of these themes even when the price of oil went through the roof, and this was a source of frustration.
Sustainability, social justice, democracy and peace
These five challenges and our response to them shaped the Green election campaign. While Act crashed and burned and was forced to rely the desperate measure of the saviour seat, and Winston lost his mojo and had to punch really low in Tauranga, and Dunne faced the sad truth that his 2002 vote was just tactical and they didn’t love him after all, the Greens stuck to our issues, kept our noses clean and hung in there. The cause of environmental sustainability, social justice, peace and democracy lived to fight another day.
Postscript – threats to democratic legitimacy
Before I finish I want to use this opportunity to make a more general comment about the election campaign. In the campaign there was an institutional failure to hold National to account for their misrepresentation of the “surplus” and, had National won the election, we would have faced a new round of public disenchantment with the democratic process as the public became aware that they had been misled. While the media bear primary responsibility for this, I am reluctant to target them because there is a lot of mindless media bashing and, in a real sense, it was a collective failure of the public sphere.
This misrepresentation meant that National was able to convince a significant group of voters that there was $7billion just waiting to be given back to taxpayers, if National got into Government, at no cost to public services and public investment. Of course this was completely false, and was the equivalent of National’s “Decent Society” promise of 1990 and Labour’s “no privatisations” promise of 1987.
The $7billion “surplus”, or operating balance excluding revaluations and accounting charges, is mostly made up of the money set aside for the Super Fund plus capital investment in public infrastructure such as roads, hospitals, electricity transmission etc. Whatever one may think of the wisdom of particular public investments, there is not some “surplus” that can be doled out to taxpayers like lollies from the bottom drawer. It would be not unlike a householder saying that their superannuation savings and mortgage payments are discretionary spending that can be safely forgone to spend on another plasma screen.
Of course Labour and Michael Cullen should have done a better job explaining this slight of hand and National should never have stooped to such a misrepresentation in the first place, but there is also a broader institutional responsibility. We do need to look at the institutions that frame the debates and ask why the media and the academy (and possibly the public service) didn’t do a better job at explaining what was really involved and that there actually wasn’t a $7billion surplus. The “he said / she said” model of “balanced coverage” for media representation is simply inadequate when one of the parties is actually misleading the public on a profound question that shapes the whole government spending/taxing debate. No doubt some sections of the media and the academy did do this but overall National got away with it.
Elections place tremendous responsibility on all of us to act in a way that does not bring the political process into disrepute. They are a time when most people tune into politics in a way that they do not normally. If National had gained the Government benches the voters would have discovered that they had been lied to once again.
We should not be surprised that the new right welcome every opportunity to undermine the legitimacy of the state and democracy, because their political project is to undermine people’s confidence in their ability to act collectively via the state. But for the rest of us who actually believe in democracy and the legitimacy of collective action this was a dangerous election and the institutions that should have revealed that the emperor had no clothes failed to do so.