At last, the Greens are learning to market themselves

The Greens have long enjoyed the advantage of having a clearly-defined brand. They have long had the policies to give that brand real substance.

For too long, however, the Greens assumed that the logic and assumed correctness of what they were saying was so persuasive they did not need to do a proper sales job.

At long last, the party has worked out that this take-it-or-leave-it attitude is a significant reason why the party has not attracted more support.

The Greens have realised purity of policy principle can sit comfortably with a pragmatic strategy that gets voters on board and those policies ultimately implemented.

In short, the Greens are getting more serious and more professional about how they market themselves.

This week, there was just such an example of this strategic thinking on the part of Parliament's third-largest party.

Somehow, the Greens managed the impossible. They left the impression they might be willing to work with National after November's general election. They then effectively ruled out any likelihood of that happening.

The two positions would seem to be contradictory. But voters are capable of taking the message they want to take and happily ignore any inconsistency.

The net result is the party has taken a crucial first step in expanding its voter catchment beyond its traditional home on Labour's left. It is now encroaching on the far more vote-rich political centre.

The key is not to overly frighten those supporters who cannot abide dealing with National, yet hint at such a possibility to attract the interest of voters who do not want Labour back in power.

The mechanism for doing this has been a draft proposal on how the party should handle post-election negotiations.

The Greens made a real hash of that at the last election. They finally expressed a reluctant preference for Labour less than three weeks before polling day.

The announcement followed an in-depth analysis of the compatibility of other parties' policies with the stances taken by the Greens. It was an anti-climax. The analysis was always going to find National's policies were fundamentally at odds with the Greens' objectives.

The Greens consequently formally ruled out any deal with National. In the process, they removed themselves as players post-election, and fell back under Labour's shadow for the remainder of the campaign.

The Greens are not going to make the same mistake this year. The draft proposal, which follows extensive consultation with party members last year, will go before the party's annual meeting in June for ratification.

In its current form, the proposal says the Greens "have a preference" to consider supporting a Labour-led government "in the right circumstances".

It then says the Greens "could" work with a National-led government to progress Green policies. Based on current National Party policy positions, however, it was "extremely unlikely" the Greens could give National their backing on confidence and supply.

So what has changed since 2008? National's flagging of a second-term agenda that would include drastic welfare-reform measures and part-privatisation of state companies would seem even more alien to the Greens' dogma.

The critical wording is "highly unlikely". Although this would seem to rule out any arrangement with National, the media almost universally took the view that the Greens had not slammed the door shut to a deal with National.

The unstated corollary was that this was the first step towards the Greens ultimately taking a pre-election stance that the party could work equally well with both Labour or National.

That may be a misconception, yet one that the Greens' leadership might well be happy to see take hold, even if it raises the hackles of some members.

In that respect, the leadership has gone about as far as it can in hinting at the possibilities of working more closely with National. The draft proposal also makes much of the Greens' current memorandum of understanding with National, which has seen both parties co-operate on matters of common interest, such as cycleways and home insulation.

The draft proposal makes it very clear that this limited engagement with National, which includes regular meetings between Russel Norman and Metiria Turei, the Greens' co-leaders, and John Key and other senior National Party figures, should continue regardless post-election.

It is highly debatable, however, whether the leadership can ever realistically take things much further unless the party dumps its social justice agenda and positions itself solely on environmental values.

The constraints on a deeper relationship with National underline the need for the Greens to market themselves more vigorously.

With all of the party's original MPs having departed or about to do so in November, the party has a problem. The refusal of the likes of Jeanette Fitzsimons, Sue Kedgley, Sue Bradford and Keith Locke to buckle on their principles did not always make them popular, but it raised their profiles and won the Greens huge respect.

The departure of those MPs has left a vacuum that is not being filled by their replacements.

With election campaigns being about leaders, priority is being given to bolstering voter empathy and rapport with Turei and Norman.

At the same time, the party is coming out of its ivory tower, particularly with regard to economic policy.

The average voter has little appreciation of what the Greens would do to the economy bar introducing a capital gains tax. While it is unlikely the party would ever be in a position to dictate economic policy, it is accepted the lack of understanding about how the party links economic policy to environmental policy is a major block to voters backing the party.

To solve that, the party is currently distributing an explanatory flyer to about 300,000 households.

In that vein, Norman's push for a temporary levy on those with incomes above $48,000 to meet the cost of the Christchurch earthquake is designed to demonstrate the Greens are as capable of partaking in mainstream economic debates as any other political party.

No other party stands to gain more than the Greens from voter disillusionment with the current turmoil in Labour.

All eyes will be on Sunday's One News-Colmar Brunton poll to see whether the Greens are benefiting accordingly.

John Armstrong is the The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.



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