Election 2020

Greens try to move past private school saga

The Green Party is hovering on the threshold of electoral oblivion and struggling to put the weeks-long private school saga behind it, Marc Daalder reports

In a whirlwind day of campaign events, Green Party co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson sought to turn their attention back to the campaign trail after days of gruelling discussion and coverage of the Green School saga.

From a morning visit by Shaw to Wellington City Mission to tout the party's plans to overhaul the tax and welfare system, to an appearance by Davidson in a political science class at Victoria University, all culminating in a "Rally for the Future" in a Wellington bar (capped at 100 attendees due to Covid-19 restrictions), the politicians treated the events of recent days with levity and put the focus on policy.

"I am pleased that that story and that funding has thrown [underfunded public education] right onto the front of the political agenda," Davidson told the university students.

"Watch this space to see for some more direction solutions. Not just from the Greens but, I mean, gosh, within days you saw the National Party all of a sudden care for public education."

Marama Davidson speaks to students at Victoria University of Wellington. Photo: Marc Daalder

Shaw was similarly jovial at the evening rally, cracking a number of jokes which were varyingly met with groans or applause. One of the more favoured was a wisecrack at his own experience of the private school saga, indicating that perhaps the party's die-hard supporters were willing to let Shaw wrap up weeks of self-flagellation.

"I want to kick off by talking about the past. Not the most recent past - I'm still trying to get over that," he joked to a burst of chuckles from the audience.

The rest of the party is still trying to get over it as well, as it resuscitates a campaign apparatus after the four-week electioneering break caused by the August coronavirus outbreak and seeks to drag its share of the vote over the five percent threshold. Shaw and Davidson were both candid throughout the day that the party was perilously close to being turfed out of Parliament altogether.

"I'm hella-focused on just trying to survive the election at all right now," Davidson said at the university.

They would do this through differentiating the party from its older sibling in Labour.

"That's going to be of the utmost importance to the Greens. Any smaller political party - around the world - needs to maintain its political independence. That is important to the survival of the party," Davidson said.

The strategy isn't new, but the Greens are going hard on it this election cycle. A new advertisement format released by the party in recent days has highlighted Green policy proposals on an issue in one column and Labour's (generally much skimpier) pledges on the same issue in an adjacent space.

A Green Party ad contrasts its own tax policy with that of Labour. Photo: Supplied.

"Today's, Labour's energy announcement, does not go far enough and certainly does not pick up some of the extra points that our clean energy plan has included," Davidson said at the evening event, in a characteristic dig at Labour.

The party hopes to combine that differentiation with a robust ground game. At the end of the evening rally, Shaw pleaded with those present to sign up to volunteer for Greens phone banking, door knocking and leafleting.

"Just even in the last 10 years that we've been doing this, every election campaign that I have been part of has been bigger and better and stronger and faster and better-looking than the one before because of the people who have stepped forward and made phone calls and knocked on doors and stood on street corners and waved placards and distributed leaflets," he said.

Whether the strategy will pan out remains to be seen. Stuff reports a corporate UMR poll conducted over August and early September has the Greens at just 3.2 percent, but this coincides with the twin blows of a second coronavirus outbreak - putting Jacinda Ardern front and centre before the nation and relegating her coalition partners to the margins - and the private school saga.

On the latter, at least, the Greens have shown a determination to come together and put it behind them. But Davidson also left the door open to another way the party could remain in Parliament - via the coat-tail rule. If they manage to secure an electorate, at least a handful of MPs are likely to retain their seats.

Asked by a student whether Labour's Auckland Central candidate Helen White should step aside so the Greens' Chlöe Swarbrick could serve as the party's lifeline, Davidson indicated she would be open to some sort of deal. While she opposed White stepping aside for Swarbrick, she discussed an ongoing arrangement in her own target electorate of Tāmaki Makaurau.

There, Māori Party candidate John Tamihere has encouraged voters to give him their electorate vote while giving the Greens their party vote. Perhaps a similar - or inverse - deal could be struck in Auckland Central, she seemed to suggest.

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