It’s time to have a conversation about Green politics in New Zealand.

Of course, we already have a Green Party. But it seems to have strayed from its intended purpose. So much so that, as an interested voter, I’m not sure what it stands for any more.

The Green Party was first registered with the Electoral Commission in 1995 and was led by Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald. Although their ideas seemed a bit wacky at the time, both were committed environmentalists who, once in Parliament, acted in a manner that was always respectful of their place in our halls of power. In those early days, they supported governments with confidence and supply but were never part of government.

While that respectful behaviour may have eluded the Greens lately, some things don’t change. Since the early days, they’ve had a few policy wins and have worked alongside governments from both the centre-left and the centre-right. But they have never been in Government. And they’re not now.

To observe some of the celebrations of their record share of the vote on election night, one could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that they are now further away from political power than ever. Their record vote appeared to be partly due to Labour’s failures, rather than their own successes.

And that is where their problem begins. The Greens are no longer a Green party. They are a left-wing party, having positioned themselves further left than the more centrist Labour Party. They now sit neatly between centre-left Labour and extreme-left Te Pāti Māori in the political line-up. Their policies resemble more of a socialist party than an environmental party. Sure, they sprinkle words like “environment” and “climate” around most of their policy statements, but their main reason for existing seems to have moved.

Perhaps that’s intentional. Perhaps it’s their way of finding a place they see as relevant. But they also need to see that just over 40 per cent of New Zealanders voted for the three parties on the left, combined. Assuming Labour regains its mojo in the future, the Greens as they currently sit can go only one way.

The Greens were originally known for taking extreme positions, which tended to revolve around environmental and sustainability issues. They protested against oil exploration and pushed for greater consciousness of conservation. They highlighted the need for clean water at a time when we took it for granted and demanded a more planet-friendly approach to electricity generation.

Today, none of those issues seems so extreme any more. And that’s where the Green Party’s policy problems start. Many of their causes, albeit slightly restated, have matured with time and become more mainstream.

As a result, other political parties have developed their own credentials in regard to environmental and sustainability matters. No longer the only party with an environmental policy, the Greens are left scrambling for a point of difference.

They have chosen to pursue new points of difference in areas where they can go back to their “protester roots”. Instead of riding the coat-tails of environmental and climate alarm – much of which they helped to create – into the political mainstream, they have moved themselves out of the spotlight, seemingly preferring the radical or extremist brand position. This has seen them increasingly concerned about poverty, the Treaty, taxing the wealthy and challenging our traditional approach to democracy. As one commentator put it, the Greens have become more Labour than Labour.

As we wait for the centre-right to assemble a new Government, it should surprise everyone that, in a world gripped by climate alarm, the third-highest-polling party, the Greens, are not at the table. It’s even more interesting given that the election results ensured the Greens are the only party with whom National could form a two-party coalition.

The fact that they are not at the table reflects two simple facts. First, long before the election, they said clearly that they were not prepared to work with a National-led Government. And second, their move to the socialist left makes them “too hot to handle” for National and its traditional allies.

“Most of the current Green Party MP’s wouldn’t get a gig in one of the big political parties. For the most part they don’t have a track record. So they go to the Greens. It’s a cheap ticket. Low cost of entry. Low expectations. Minimal outcomes.”

That’s where they missed their opportunity. A true Green party, with a passionate focus on the original Green purpose, should be able to work with both sides of the political establishment to advance their chosen causes. With the public convinced of the dangers of climate change, you could argue that this is their time.

If the NZ Green Party had played their cards differently, we would now have a two-party coalition comprising a centre-right National-led Government and a politically neutral Green Party. The fact that the Greens have ruled out going into government with the centre-right reflects the fact that they are less interested in advancing the Green agenda and instead remain focused on an increasingly heavy socialist agenda.

Thus, they have chosen to sit on the sidelines for the next three or even six years and wait once more on the off-chance that a future Labour election victory results in an invitation to join the government benches. It’s almost as if, having spent the past six years telling us how urgent the environmental crisis is, they’ve now decided it can wait while they take a breather on the Opposition benches.

With this background, some of their more recent antics are more easily understood. They have to stand for something. Their traditional something has become mainstream, a place they are not comfortable with, so they need to rush back to the fringes. A place where they can protest, shout and tell the rest of us we are wrong.

In doing so they’ve picked up on some of the more divisive issues facing us. One of those issues is the status of the Treaty of Waitangi. Last week, co-leader Marama Davidson challenged the new Government to “just try and come for the Treaty”, echoing the outgoing Government’s view that a referendum on the Treaty will result in chaos and violence. This from the same Member of Parliament who this year cried that most violence was caused by “white cis men”.

We’ve also seen the Greens’ long-standing support for the Palestinian people – something they managed to keep out of the spotlight during the election campaign – resurface. This week, that support hit the headlines as their more radical behaviour surfaced once more. It was the Greens of old. Screaming into a microphone. Radical. Loud. Controversial. Playing to the minority of disaffected citizens. It’s where they seem happiest. But the topic was different. Gone was the sustainability argument.

These are not the Green issues or the Green MP’s of old. Most of the current Green Party MP’s wouldn’t get a gig in one of the big political parties. They wouldn’t make the National top forty or even the Labour top thirty. For the most part they don’t have a track record. So they go to the Greens. It’s a cheap ticket. Low cost of entry. Low expectations. Minimal outcomes. And yet with all the perks of political life.

But while they’re neglecting their roots, a world more accommodating of their original purpose moves on.

Accordingly, there is room in New Zealand politics for a true, well-credentialled Green party. One that will work with National or Labour. One that has environmental matters and our relationship with our planet at its centre. A party that remains true to it’s core purpose for the long term, and thus provides stability and political neutrally while sitting alongside future governments’ with a long term, consistent and constructive approach enabling us to make steady progress on all matters environmental.

In my view, the majority of the current Green Party MP’s cannot fill this role. Those people don’t fit the “New Greens” model. The only one that does is probably James Shaw. I must admit that I’m not a fan of anyone in the Green party. But James Shaw is what you might call the “uncle sensible” in the Green family. He dresses sensible. He looks sensible. He seldom fluffs his lines in interviews. In a party which often looks to be full of crazies, screaming threats and chants at their audience, he doesn’t come across as particularly controversial.

And that may be his main problem. You might recall that last year he was ousted from the party’s co-leadership. He was voted out, only to stand again and be reappointed. Perhaps he should jump next time, before he’s pushed.

MMP is designed to have politicians from different persuasions working together, based on the will of the people. New Zealand First has been most able to work with both sides of the political spectrum. You can call it expedient, or responsible. NZ First has been able to tread the line primarily due to the role played by its charismatic leader.

The Green movement needs to find that person. Someone experienced in politics, just as Winston Peters was when he established NZ First. But also someone passionate about the original Green agenda. It might be James Shaw. It might be someone else.

But if it fails to do so, its voice will inevitably be lost.

This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald, Saturday 11th November 2023.