Better Green storytelling not sudden transformation

Parties can persuade voters two ways. People will vote for you if you sell them a compelling, vivid picture of a finer world and persuade them their vote will help make it happen. We can pull voters towards us. But people will also vote for you if you persuade them that not voting for you will wreak havoc. People can push voters away from us.

We need to get better at selling our vision. It’s a compelling vision – and, in truth, the only vision for New Zealand that can take us to a liveable future – but we haven’t sold it well enough, because we haven’t told its story – our story – well enough. Because of this, other parties have been able to caricature us to drive voters away.

This is the third of three blog posts about the Green Party Co-Leadership race. In the first, I directly confronted candidate Vernon Tava’s platform – that we should play our political positioning close to our chest and somehow take the balance of power from under Winston’s feet – and explained why it didn’t persuade me. In the second, I talked about the other conversations and campaigns that using the very public forum of a leadership contest to debate positioning might stifle. In this final piece, I (try to!) lay out how I think we should lead the charge for a sustainable future.

We’ve got a great story, but we aren’t telling it well

In the 2014 election, 62,942 New Zealanders said that they would vote on climate change. Many of those Climate Voters were Green Party voters, but many weren’t. The campaign stayed strictly non-partisan. At the Climate Voter Debate, National’s Tim Groser announced that he could be honest because he knew there’d be no National voters in the crowd. He was wrong. I knew National voters in the audience – and National voters working with the team behind the Climate Voter alliance. Even though climate change touches the very core of our Party’s ecocentric principle of sustainability, we couldn’t persuade them to all vote for us – let alone publicly endorse us!

62,942 New Zealanders said they’d vote on climate.

There are two possible answers to this problem.

One is to find that concern for the climate cuts across the political axis and radically reposition to hold the balance of power. Though there’s some merit in that, I simply do not believe it will work for our Party. As I’ve argued, until New Zealand’s right radically reconsiders its approach to ecological issues, any attempt to take a balance of power between National and Labour will be deeply compromised – at best.

Luckily, there’s another answer: We just need to sell our vision.

Here’s the thing: The Green Party didn’t campaign on climate change in the 2014 election. It’s the biggest, scariest and most immediate facet of our collective ecological crisis, and we buried it deep within the footnotes of our campaign. At the June annual general meeting, Russel announced the Greens’ Climate Protection Plan – including the first promise of a tax cut of the 2014 election cycle. The Party, however, decided that New Zealand’s public weren’t ready for an election campaign on climate change, so we didn’t talk straight about climate change.

We have a big, scary, beautiful vision – but there’s no point if we don’t tell its story. We need to find a new way to tell our story to attract the next 10% of voters – but we don’t need to look too far. There are lots of low-hanging fruit we can improve on from the 2014 campaign, like overly subtle, poorly executed billboards – but the campaign team did a bloody good job overall, so I’m not going to focus on that.

Instead, I suggest three ways that we need to step it up:

  1. We need to tell one story of sustainability, not competing social and environmental stories;
  2. We need to prove that we are fit to govern and earn voters’ trust; and
  3. We need to talk to the next 10% of Green voters in their language without losing the first 10% of Green voters.

We need to tell one story of sustainability

There’s a story going round that the Greens have lost their way by focusing too much on social not environmental issues. This story misses the point of the Green Charter. Social justice is an integral component of ecological justice. It is only through social responsibility – which entails distributive justice – that we can achieve sustainability. Human liberation is one part of Earth liberation.

Communicating the intersectionality of environmental and social issues as not two battles but one unified ecological struggle is the hardest part of the Green story to tell simply. Sustainability is a complex concept – and one that has been bastardised by the word’s popularity in a kind of bureaucratic and corporate doublespeak (in the late 1990s, my father, a resource management consultant, taped an Alliance billboard reading “Sustainability means what?” to his office wall). Many now use it to just mean doing things in a way that you can keep on doing indefinitely. People even talk about “sustainable sleep“. Great organisations like the Sustainable Business Network and Sustainable Coastlines still use the word, but then there’s oxymoronic green-washed nonsense like “sustainable oil drilling” in the face of climate catastrophe or “sustainable steel” in a country where one steel mill, Glenbrook, uses as much electricity as all of Wellington.

Environmental and social issues are inextricably linked.

We need to break that complex, misused word into an emotionally resonant narrative. We need to link justice within (and between) generations to justice with nature. The core of the capital-G Green ethic is that you cannot truly solve ecological problems without solving social problems – and vice versa. Too often, we have articulated social and ecological issues powerfully but failed to explain the intersection between the two.

I believe the best way to do this is by using examples where the links are clear. While Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level present compelling arguments that inequality leads to worse long-term outcomes, the social/ecological link is still hard to explain in the abstract. Let’s make it concrete with examples:

  • We can learn a lot from the Environmental Justice movement – itself a social justice campaign – that points out (among other things) most domestic environmental problems hit the poorest communities first and worst. Poor neighbourhoods are the most polluted. My girlfriend, for example, grew up in Otahuhu, downwind from some of Auckland’s heaviest industries and fairly close to the motorway – and it shows in the form of black dust all over her mother’s house. Much of Manukau has unacceptable air quality. Environmental and health issues, especially, are closely linked. Environmental Justice also points out that access to nature and other environmental assets is divided along economic lines; compare the beach-lined Waitemata Harbour to the industrial Manukau Harbour. The old Auckland Council even postponed plans for an Otahuhu swimming pool to redirect funding to put more sand on St Heliers beach!
  • Pacific communities are already being hit first and worst by climate disaster. Several have already lost their groundwater freshwater supplies to salt water contamination. New Zealand has flown in emergency relief flights of water to Tokelau and Kiribati. When Pacific populations are already disproportionately part of our poorest communities, it’s pretty easy to see climate change as a social justice issue domestically not just internationally. And if we want a picture of the social justice consequences of climate disaster hitting home here, we just need to look at the profoundly problematic responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, which too often provided too little, too late to the poorest communities.
  • On the topic of climate change – let’s not pretend that the Greens’ principle of non-violence stands somehow separately from ecocentric ethics. As New Zealand staggers towards deploying troops in Iraq, a groundbreaking study has demonstrated that climate change fuelled Syria’s collapse into civil war. In going to war in Iraq again, we are entering a new age of climate-fuelled war.
  • Even the recent espionage scandal has a climate link: how have Snowden’s revelations that the Five-Eyes partners spied on other countries’ diplomats during the 2009 Copenhagen conference contributed to the profound trust gap that still divides the talks?

The classic left/right election issues like health, education and jobs are all closely tied to environmental issues. We won’t fix climate change without economic transformation. We need a Marshall Plan for the climate. And, as I’ve learned through years working with P3 Foundation – work for social justice won’t mean anything, long-term, without ecological consideration.

This is what we need to sell. Our leadership candidates are each well qualified to do this, because their experiences cut across social and environmental issues.

We need to prove we’re fit to govern

People won’t vote for people they don’t trust. We need to earn voters’ trust. We’ve already done pretty well on this, because we’ve been very good at playing the ball not the man. However, we still have work to do in proving that they can’t just trust us to be honest, but trust us to govern.

To do this, we first need to dodge petty errors that make for easy mockery. Things like Russel suggesting quantitive easing have cost us credibility, feeding into negative campaigning to drive voters away from us. And while Kevin is an expert on health, Stefan – by all accounts a lovely guy – has made a few too many blunders with homeopathy and other unscientific alternative medicines. We’ve even made a few blunders that the Government and mainstream media have missed, like claiming that Abbott’s climate finance record is better than ours. That one’s personally frustrating for me, because I broke the Abbott Green Climate Fund story in Lima and had proved that it was a hollow announcement of aid just being redirected, not new and additional funding, (so was meaningless) before any of the big international newswires had picked it up.

Mistakes can’t be avoided entirely, but when they happen, we need to own them – as Metiria has this week.

At a bigger picture though, we need to talk about policy. Though our policies have been off limits in the recent debate about political positioning, they shouldn’t be. We need to fix some of them to be fit to govern.

  • Our defence and international policies face justified accusations of naïveté. When the world still grapples with UN Security Council reform, calling on the UN Secretariat to establish a ‘conflict prevention unit, a mediation unit and a peacekeeping unit’ is idealistic. Calling on the UN to recognise the responsibility to protect while forbidding New Zealand intervention in overseas conflicts is simply oxymoronic. Our civilian based defence policy is plain bizarre. Other policies – such as creating a ‘Meeting of Pacific Cultures’ – appear to needlessly replicate existing fora. And, finally, the climate change bit of our international policy appears not to have been updated since 2009 or at least 2011.
  • Though much of our core ecological policy is great, even our generally top-class climate change policy itself suffers real problems. It calls for a ‘fair, ambitious and binding’ climate change deal – using messaging that civil society abandoned for good reason in 2010. We’ll be lucky to get even one of those three in the 2015 deal, and there are good reasons now to not just blithely call for a binding deal. (PS – If something’s a “100% reduction”, you don’t need to say from what reference year. That’s kinda the thing with 100%.) We also promise to support proposals for loss and damage compensation, even though they were largely adopted with the Warsaw Mechanism’s creation in 2013. We also propose further research into carbon sequestration, despite serious international controversy around its ecological integrity. This might seem like nit-picking, but it’s our core business – so we can’t afford silly mistakes. Bigger picture though, the claim that we are “unique” as a “a colonised “southern hemisphere” nation coping with indigenous issues” and therefore able to bridge the rich/poor trust gap in the negotiations straight up misses the existence of other, similar colonised nations (like the US, Canada, and Australia) – and ignores the growing reality that, as a core player in the Umbrella Group, we are one of the States the developing world trusts the least.
  • While our health policy is mostly great – and clearly draws on Environmental Justice principles – we still need to shed some baggage leftover from older policies. Too many in the Party remain anti-vaccination, anti-fluoride (as recently as 2011, we still called for investigation into alternatives to fluoridation and we still call for another independent study into it!) and pro-unscientific alternative medicines.
  • Banning land ownership outright for anyone except citizens and permanent residents looks to many like a reactionary step too far.
  • Bizarrely, our human rights policy does not mention the ICCPR or ICESCR once, yet calls for the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act to be entrenched to bind government, which is either entirely redundant (if it means the executive) or a far reaching change (if it means Parliament) better suited to the Constitutional Reform policy (which calls for the entrenchment of all human rights policy, but doesn’t go so far as to demand that it absolutely bind Parliament). Too many key human rights issues slip beneath the Greens radar, notably including the crucial question of the justiciability (that is, whether our courts have any power to  hear claims about and enforce) economic, social and cultural rights.

With policies like these still sitting in our back pockets, we don’t need to look to big transformations to find a way to earn voters’ trust. I think our policies are great overall, but some need a real scrub up.

The alternative – making a big positioning shift – is a much higher risk strategy than just cleaning our act up. Big changes break trust. I’ve already seen many, many Green members say that an abandonment of the left would trigger their resignations (a similar big move gutted the Māori Party). We’d be accused of flip-flopping – and then, even if we did manage to reposition, be forced to be cagey on basic questions like who our preferred coalition partner is. Sure, Winston does that – but with his unique charm and centrist policies. We can’t expect the Paddy Gowers of the world – who’re already spinning half our leadership candidates as pro-National – to let us get away with silence. Saying nothing would say a lot in the pundits’ minds. Where the current “highly unlikely” line leaves the chance of a deal with National open, but is honest about its possibility, silence would lead to speculation.

We need to talk to the next 10% of Green voters in their language

You build movements by talking to people about what matters to them, not what matters to you. We, as a Party, can’t assume that the next 10% of Green voters cares about exactly what we care about.

Over the last six years, we’ve learned to speak about our policies without compromising them. Doing this is a big part of why the UK Green Party membership is surging, despite no Parliamentary success.

We have great targeting and demographic information. We already have a pretty good idea what demographics the next 10% of Green voters come from. We should learn the lessons of the 2014 campaign and use smart, evidence-based campaigning (starting now!) to reach out to that next 10%: relatively young, predominantly well educated, primarily urban voters.

Talk about the issues that matter to them, without compromising our core of sustainability. Generation Zero provide a great example of how we can do this: draw supporters in through on the ground campaigning about local, winnable issues (like planning and transport) but draw out the connections to the big sustainability fights.

In doing this, however, we need to look after our existing members. And, straight up, we don’t do that well enough yet. Though some of our MPs are incredible at thanking and supporting members, we need to step up our game on an institutional level. When Labour used to have the best campaigning machine in the country, their candidates would send highly personalised thank you letters to every volunteer in their campaign team at the end of the campaign. I’ve volunteered in three Green election campaigns now, and received sincere thanks – especially from Barry Coates – but never a personalised, official thank you email or letter. This is how you build a supportive culture that brings the best out of people.

A year ago, the front tire on my bike popped on a 55km/hr descent. I lost control and hit the ground hard, breaking seven bones. Julie Anne Genter – who I hadn’t even seen in four months – sent me a care parcel. I’m still grateful for that (thanks!), and touched. That’s how you build people’s loyalty. Be nice!

We don’t need a Party full of cut price Malcolm Tuckers.

Hard graft not easy answers

Ultimately, a Green political party is a movement. Movement building is hard and slow. From the outside, successful movements can look like they’re taking on a natural, transformative inertia – but on the inside, that momentum takes hard, hard work. The People’s Climate March last year, on the outside, looked like a sudden popular moment where the climate movement captured the zeitgeist. Like, 400,000 people flooded New York. Thing is, friends and mentors of mine overseas worked on that thing for 18 unseen months beforehand. It didn’t just happen.

People look for easy answers. In campaigning, people look for sudden transformative changes that will magically change public opinion. Transformative shifts in positioning are just one of those easy answers.

The real key, though, is constant iterative improvement. We need to get better at doing what we do.