Next Monday is the Queen's official birthday here: a time
to mark her 60 years on the job. On Friday, a gathering near
Upper Hutt will mark the 40th anniversary of the birth of the
world's first national green party - one measure of the many
deep changes in the Queen's Commonwealth.
The Values party formed in May 1972, two months after the
world's first green political party, the United Tasmania
Both arose out of anti-electricity generation campaigns, the
Tasmanians having tried to stop the flooding of Lake Pedder
and Values following the successful, very broad-based 1970
campaign to "save Lake Manapouri" from prostitution to an
Values got 2% in Labour's 1972 election landslide then 5.2%
in Labour's outgoing landslide in 1975.
It was then subjected to an attempted Marxist takeover and
biodegraded to 0.1% in 1987 before re-forming as the Green
Party in 1990, when it won 6.8% as Labour crashed out again.
Thus a pattern was set in which the Greens have done best in
Labour's bad years, as they did again last year.
(In 1993 and 1996 when Labour was in deep doldrums, the
Greens were submerged in the left-of-Labour Alliance.) If the
pattern holds, the Green vote will in 2014 slip off its 2011
11.1% high. Some percentage points of that were voters who
voted for Labour electorate candidates and who are thus on
"loan" to the Greens.
The issue for the Greens at their conference this weekend is
how to convert that short-term loan into long-term capital.
In behind that is a bigger question: how to be a full-on
coalition partner with Labour.
The Greens' public image this year has been less one of
co-operation with Labour than of competition, a competition
in which the Green Party has looked the winner.
That is for three reasons.
One is that David Shearer has taken - still is taking - time
to find his political feet as Labour's leader.
At a post-Budget stand-up on Thursday he lacked leader-like
fluency, deferring readily - and necessarily - to finance
shadow minister David Parker who had his lines off pat.
This factor should diminish over time as Mr Shearer settles -
though don't expect him to become the sort of glib
performance artist John Key has become. Mr Shearer is too
earnest and too aware of complexity.
But, if he can get round to meet enough people, his
transparent decency should become a plus.
Russel Norman, by contrast, is now polished and fluent
and delivers his certainties with wit and thrust. A number of
other Green MPs have developed cogency and competence.
They sound much less woolly than Greens once did.
As a consequence, too often for Labour's comfort, Greens have
led the opposition case, not least on asset sell-downs and on
the (so-far) non-fiscal-neutrality of the 2010 tax switch.
That Green coming-of-age in political cut-and-thrust is the
The third is freshness. Greens may have been around in one
party-political form or another for 40 years but Labour has
been around just short of 100. Labour does have some bright
young talent and Mr Shearer, though a baby-boomer, is
open-minded enough to give them space to redevelop policy.
But the Greens, though mostly long-ish in the tooth in human
chronology, are teenage-ish in political chronology.
At a time when the old certainties of social democracy and
market liberalism are in question, the Greens can enticingly
suggest they offer genuine alternatives, not fine-tuning of a
system under strain.
These days, to invert Kermit the Frog's lament on the Muppet
Show, "it's now so easy being green".
There is a fourth factor, allied to the third: the Greens
don't have to win the centre. They can look more
oppositionist than Labour because they can occupy (to coin a
word) a spot nearer the periphery. This frustrates Labour,
which must win votes from National to win the Treasury
benches and must sound reasonable while competing with Greens
This frustration and the Greens' uppitiness complicate the
formation of a "coalition-government-in-waiting" of the sort
Labour and the Alliance made in 1998-99. As does the Greens'
awareness that their support all but evaporated while they
were in the Alliance and that they have seen up close the
awful fate of every small party that has gone into government
For its part Labour doesn't want to risk being labelled as
beholden to the Greens because that could cost centrist
votes. It needs the Greens' poll numbers to drop. So it
competes with the Greens as much as vice-versa.
But any Labour-led government without the Greens would be a
rickety affair. Labour knows - and, deep down, Greens know,
too - that for a durable government they have to work out how
to work together and stick together.
They do talk and there is co-operation in places at grass
roots. But don't expect an outburst of comradely love for
Labour this weekend. After all, Kermit's lament changed tone
at the end, noting that "spring is green" and: "Green is what
I want to be."
- Colin James is a leading social and political