Will Marama Davidson get Greens back on track?

By Brigitte Morten

Opinion – The Green Party will be hoping that the announcement of its , draws a line under the Metiria Turei affair and puts them back on a path to electoral success.

Marama Davidson addresses the crowd after winning the co-leadership race Photo: RNZ / Sarah Robson

It has been a long six months for the party since Ms Turei sought to frame the Greens‘ position on social justice by admitting to benefit fraud. The revelation, and the decision to showcase the fraud so publicly, led to the swift demise of the Greens‘ female co-leader and exposed factions in the party.

Ms Turei‘s subsequent resignation from the co-leadership meant that remaining co-leader James Shaw solely took the party to one of the biggest disappointments in the party‘s electoral history.

The new co-leader, Ms Davidson, was elected with resounding support in the party – 110 delegate votes to Julie Anne Genter‘s 34. A significant margin such as this is key to ensuring the party can unify and move on. A closer result may have meant that the divisions exposed by Ms Turei‘s admission continued.

The leadership contest was largely conducted without public incident except for a small group of Davidson supporters threatening to quit the party if their contender was not successful. This may be more a result of the media‘s focus on the government and their ministerial fights with various entities such as Claire Curran versus RNZ, and Shane Jones versus Air New Zealand – than a reflection on the conduct of the contest.

The two leadership contenders worked hard to minimize any public distrust in the Green Party by emphasizing how unified they were on key issues. However, within the party they were strongly vocalizing the strategic difference their leadership would make to the 2020 election result.

At the heart of this leadership contest was the very survival of the Greens as a parliamentary party. At the 2017 election, they delivered a disappointingly low result of 6.3 percent and subsequent polling shows they are at risk of not returning in 2020 unless they make significant changes.

In her leadership acceptance speech, Ms Davidson acknowledged that as a small party in a government coalition, history was stacked against them being electorally successful.

Julie-Anne Genter hugs Marama Davidson while James Shaw looks on Photo: RNZ/ Sarah Robson

The Greens not only run the risk of their vote disappearing to their Labour partners if the government does well, but they also risk becoming the scapegoat for the failures of the government. The draft transport plan announcement earlier this week was not well received, and many commentators were already pointing the finger at the Greens for their push for more resources for public transport at the cost of roading infrastructure.

The other coalition partner, New Zealand First, will also not hesitate to put blame on the Greens if they feel there is too much pressure coming from the regions on government decisions.

Across the ditch, the Australian Electoral Study was released earlier this month and shows that over the last two decades there has been a shift in the ideological extremism of voters.

Due to an increasingly fragmented media, and a growing distrust in democracy, more voters are tending towards the left or right of the political spectrum – with a smaller and smaller group of the voting population describing themselves as ‘centrist‘. Therefore, for smaller political parties to stay alive they must seek out and offer an ideological home for these voters. The learnings of this study may also be applied in New Zealand.

The election of Ms Davidson suggests that the Green Party membership knows this. The new co-leader comes from the activist wing of the party and campaigned on the fact that she knows the Greens need to take political risk and pick political fights if they are to survive.

Since the election, the Greens have only made one small attempt at picking a political fight – the decision to hand over their allocation of Question Time slots to the National Party.

Ironically, while this sent a signal to Labour and NZ First that they should not be taken for granted, they in fact took away one of Ms Davidson‘s potential tools for disruption. As Ms Davidson is not in Cabinet, she could have used the questions to seek accountability from the government on important issues for Greens‘ voters.

On paper, the election of the new co-leader provides everything the Green Party needed – a pathway to unifying the party, an end to the Metiria Turei affair and a person that is willing to pick a fight.

It is likely to only be at the 2020 election where we will see if Ms Davidson delivers on the weighty expectations sitting on her shoulders.

*Brigitte Morten was a senior ministerial adviser for John Key‘s National-led government. Prior to that she was an adviser and campaign director for Australia‘s Liberal Party.