Bryce Edwards: What’s happened to the Greens?

Political scientist Bryce Edwards looks at why the Greens have gone so quiet and who's in line to win Metiria Turei's spot as co-leader alongside James Shaw.

The Greens will be looking to the next opinion poll with trepidation. Internal polling by other parties is rumoured to show both the Greens and New Zealand First have dropped in the aftermath of the election and formation of the new coalition government.

They won’t be anticipating any good poll results for a while, given they’ve largely been missing in action since the new government formed, overshadowed by a popular new prime minister enjoying a honeymoon with voters and the media. Compared to Labour, or even New Zealand First, the Greens have been relatively invisible – with very few announcements or positive headlines. James Shaw has all but disappeared. They would have expected his announcement of New Zealand’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 to have made a bigger splash, but it was largely overshadowed by Jacinda Ardern’s international debut.

So why are the Greens out of the political spotlight? There are a few obvious answers.

First, that’s simply the nature of new coalition governments – the major party in a new government tends to absorb all the attention. And usually that party goes up in the polls (normally by a good 10 percentage points) and the minor coalition partner suffers. It happened in 1996, 1999, 2008, and it is likely to happen this time too.

Jacindamania continues to overshadow all else in New Zealand politics. Her honeymoon rolls on, especially with her role on the world stage. So, like the National Party, the Greens have probably accepted they’re best not to compete too vigorously for attention at the moment, and wait for there to be more public interest in politicians other than the prime minister.

The Greens are also suffering post-election fatigue. Of all the parties in Parliament, they’re the one that came out of the election most battered and bruised by the extraordinary campaign. Losing Metiria Turei, and the related scandal, as well all the questions about the direction the party should be going in, would have been exhausting for Green MPs and activists.

Following their election survival, the Greens have happily found themselves as part of a new government. They are getting to grips with their new roles in government, and new Green MPs are adjusting to Parliament. So there’s an element of regathering their forces, and re-adjustment.

The Greens might be excused for taking some time to adjust – after all, they’ve spent a staggering 20 years in opposition, and find themselves with ministerial roles for the first time ever. To some extent a new mentality is required, and the party will have to get used to the role of governing rather than holding others to account. As part of this they will have to get used to being accountable and being the target of criticism and stringent evaluation. They’ll discover that being in government intrinsically involves plenty of compromise and pragmatism, and it’s yet to be seen how well the Greens will manage this new mode.

Last week the party found itself in the awkward position of having public attention on its dilemma over whether to support the “waka jumping bill”, agreed to by Labour and New Zealand First as part of the coalition agreement. In the eyes of some supporters they are in danger of failing that test, as a leaked strategy paper showed the Greens were looking to give support to the bill they oppose, but only if they can horse trade something from their own agenda as a reward for support. It looked exactly like the sort of ugly opportunistic politics the Greens would have once condemned.

New MP Golriz Ghahraman was at the centre of this particular storm, having authored the accidentally leaked paper, and it hasn’t done her fledgling reputation any good. It came on the day her maiden speech was being celebrated, which was one of the most interesting of all the new MPs. She is clearly looking to shine as one of the stars of the new Parliament. Fellow rookie Green MP, Chloe Swarbrick, is perhaps destined to go further, even if she rises more slowly and steadily.

Neither will be contenders to fill Metiria Turei’s co-leader position in the party, which is set to be decided in April. Marama Davidson is the frontrunner, and has many of the qualities Turei brought to the role. Davidson would also fulfil the desire to retain Maori leadership. Because she’s not a minister, Davidson will campaign on the positives of being a “leader outside of government”.

Julie Anne Genter will be her main competition. Her chances will depend on how well she performs in her first few months in her ministerial roles. If the first few weeks are anything to go by, she’s a real threat to Davidson, having made the running so far on issues such as the gender pay gap and the road toll. She will be working extra hard to make an impact. So expect to see her make up for the lack of visibility of the rest of the party at the moment.

All of the Green MPs are on a steep learning curve in their new positions of power. They’re relatively quiet at the moment, but it won’t be like this for too long – especially once they find their footing, and look to turn those opinion polls around.

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