The greening of politics

It is 40 years since the Values Party, one of the first political parties in the world which had at its core an environmental focus, was launched in this country.

At its first election in 1975, it won 5.2% of the vote. Today, under the MMP system, that would have brought it into Parliament with a handful of seats and perhaps allowed it the standing, influence and political experience to evolve.

As it was, by a couple of election cycles later, it had effectively disintegrated.

Its philosophical successor, the Green Party, shows every sign of fulfilling that early promise.

If it can avoid the compromising embrace of power in the shadow of a larger party, it could become a permanent political force.

This is partly a result of some careful rebranding of the party itself, partly a result of the national political milieu, and partly a reflection of a broad mix of other sociological, economic and demographic factors.

Today's Green Party - which convened last weekend in the Hutt Valley - under the leadership of Dr Russel Norman and Metiria Turei has shrugged off the sandals-tofu-and-dope image which provided its opponents with a convenient stereotype in the past.

Gone are the dreadlocks of Nandor Tanczos, the rabble-rousing of Sue Bradford and the vandalism of the Wild Greens.

Russel Norman is a doctor of philosophy in political science.

Metiria Turei is a former corporate lawyer. They are smart, well-dressed and articulate.

While their core policies will continue to be anathema to many, their general presentation and force of argument demand a hearing.

With polls indicating a following that fluctuates anywhere between the 12% party vote they won at the last election and up to 17%, growing numbers of people are evidently listening.

Such numbers, were they confirmed in an election tomorrow, would cement the Greens firmly in the mainstream.

With such status comes a requirement for a party to position itself on major issues of the day.

Dr Norman and Ms Turei have both been forceful in doing so, whether proactive or reactive.

Thus, Ms Turei has led the charge against the Government's welfare and education policies, accusing Social Development Minister Paula Bennett and Prime Minister John Key of presiding over the loss of essential infrastructure which, she argues, gave them the start in life that helped put them where they are today.

Dr Norman has been assiduously cultivating for the party a "responsible" economic platform, criticising the Government for its $14 billion tax cuts on coming into office, promoting its own vision of a green economy while at the same time softening on mantras heard in the past.

He appears to accept, for instance, that some mining is inevitable. In such repositioning, it is possible to see a party readying itself for the realities and compromises of government.

Its rise has in large part been at the Labour Party's expense, and since last year's November election it has continued to make ground; reinforcing, reshaping and presenting its political brand.

In contrast, Labour - in search of a new brand of its own and as yet unable to identify or articulate one - has languished.

The Greens' elevation coincides with a growing acceptance on the part of a significant proportion of particularly younger voters that the world's resources - food, water, land, energy - are finite and must be managed with greater care than has hitherto been the case.

Renewable energy (wind turbines for instance) was considered marginal just a generation or so ago. The concept of peak oil has impinged on the public consciousness.

The degradation of the country's waterways and rivers as a result of the dairying boom is hitting home.

In a globalised, connected world, the reality of global food shortages is more readily understood by tomorrow's voters.

These are powerful, emotional triggers for many people.

It is possible to overestimate their influence, but political parties of today ignore "green" politics at their peril.

And a party with such values at its core, while at the same time articulating credible economic and social positions, may come to look even more attractive than it has done to date.


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