Peter Dunne assesses the prospects for new political party Sustainable New Zealand

Peter Dunne assesses the prospects for new political party Sustainable New Zealand

By Peter Dunne*

The newly launched Sustainable New Zealand Party’s first and biggest challenge is to prove that it is in fact sustainable, and not just another flash in the new party pan.

Already, it faces a couple of obstacles that have proved insurmountable for other new parties formed previously. And there are no immediate signs that it will be any different and able to overcome these to make it into Parliament.

It starts, however, from a clear premise – that the current Green Party has, for one reason or another, alienated a number of environmentally friendly potential and actual supporters because of its activism in so many other fields, and that it is time to get back to basics by focusing on achieving sound environmental outcomes within a modern, open economy. In so doing, Sustainable New Zealand echoes the mantra of the Progressive Greens, which appeared just before the 1996 election, as a blue-green alternative to the current Greens, who were still within Jim Anderton’s Alliance at that point. The Progressive Greens were formed by some of the leading environmentalists of the day – Sir Rob Fenwick, Gary Taylor, Stephen Rainbow, and Guy Salmon – yet polled only about 0.3% of the party vote at that year’s election, and disbanded shortly afterwards.

The argument about the desirability of a blue-green party or grouping has, however, remained a wisp, or strand within political debate since then, with National occasionally showing signs of adopting it (even going so far as to have a recognised blue-green group within the Party) but never quite taking the full step. The incarnation of Sustainable New Zealand, which National says it has not inspired but is clearly far from unhappy about, seeks to fill the perceived void. However, so far, it is not clear whether there is the same sort of environmental heft within Sustainable New Zealand, as there was within the Progressive Greens, for example. Without it, the Party’s prospects look that much bleaker.

With the exception of the ACT Party, every new party to have made it into Parliament in the last 30 years has been built around an established sitting Member of Parliament. Even in ACT’s case, its founders Sir Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble had so recently been MPs, that it was very easy for that new party to slot into Parliamentary mode very quickly, treated as a quasi-Parliamentary party even before it was first elected. Having an already sitting MP involved, not only gives a new Party a measure of credibility, it more importantly provides that new Party an almost daily platform in Parliament to promote what it stands for, as well as giving it much more immediate access to the media through the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Such a Party is also able to access various Parliamentary resources and funding, the most significant perhaps being access to the Parliamentary Library for assistance on research for policy development.

One way these systemic advantages can be overcome is for a sitting MP to defect to the new party. However, Parliament’s passage of the so-called “waka jumping” legislation earlier this term has now closed off this option, a further blow to fledgling parties like Sustainable New Zealand.

Idealists may say this is all fair enough and that political parties today – however big or small – should stand or fall in the political marketplace on the strength of their ideas. This overlooks the reality that political parties rely on the news media to promote their message, and, to be blunt, if those parties are not in the space where the media are – the Parliamentary environment – their messages and comments are unlikely to be picked up and transmitted sufficiently regularly to the public to have an impact. In that regard, Sustainable New Zealand risks being quickly reduced to just one more of the twenty or so registered or unregistered political parties not in Parliament, currently saying they intend to contest next year’s general election. This will be particularly relevant when the time comes for the Electoral Commission to allocate election broadcast funding for parties. Sustainable New Zealand is unlikely to receive a significant amount, let alone more than any of the other twenty non-Parliamentary parties. In turn, that means that, like those other minnows, its chances of being included in television election debates are close to zero, unless it defies electoral gravity in the meantime and consistently polls strongly.

That raises the interesting wider issue of the difficulty any new party faces in gaining political traction. It is a classic Catch:22 situation – a new party needs publicity to gain traction, yet it does not start to gain traction until it gets publicity. And it does not stop there. Even once parties are in Parliament the media still tends to allocate coverage on the basis of the party’s numerical strength in the House, rather than the credibility of its policies or contribution.

At another level, single issue parties rarely do well in New Zealand, no matter what issue they are promoting. While there is no doubting the enthusiasm and commitment of those involved, and sometimes the wider legitimacy of the issue they are promoting, the reality is that most voters are more focused on their own circumstances, and how what the respective parties are proposing might affect them, rather than just a single issue. The Greens recognised that early on, which is why they broadened their policy base beyond just the environment, important as it is.

That does offer a small, but difficult opportunity for Sustainable New Zealand. It might just be able to paint the Greens as having lost the environmental plot because they have become more broadly-based. And, potentially, in a time where climate change issues have put the focus on environmental policy as never before, Sustainable New Zealand might be able to claim the mantle of now being the only true environmental party. But it will likely face the same challenges in time as the Greens did when they first entered Parliament in their own right after leaving the Alliance. They were immediately expected to have views and stances on all the issues before the House – environmental or not – and to be able to vote intelligently on them. Then they became held to account for those positions as much as they were for their environmental stances, giving rise to the claim now by Sustainable New Zealand that they are no longer a true environmental party.

The problem for Sustainable New Zealand is that exactly the same thing will happen to it, should it be successful. Suggestions this week that to maintain its environmental purity the new party might abstain from voting on non-environmental issues defy credibility. New Zealand voters expect the parties they elect to Parliament to have a position on all the issues coming before the House, not just those that suit them.

But perhaps the biggest risk is that the contest between Sustainable New Zealand and the Greens becomes so intense that they knock each other out of Parliament next year, leaving no-one to stand up for the environment. 

*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.

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Yes. Our local version of madness.
Bad ideas.
And the righting of perceived wrongs

Narrow sets of interests are not sustainable!
For the rest of us.

...the biggest risk is that the contest between Sustainable New Zealand and the Greens becomes so intense that they knock each other out of Parliament next year...

Feature, not bug or 'risk'....order yer popcorn....

National need to grow up and accept that the environment is a genuine real concern for voters - and not something to counter with an add on party. This stuff is now main stream. Wakey wakey....

Probably why they get less votes than any other party.

Will they get 5%? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. The only chance then is National gifting them a seat as in Epsom, or as per Mr Dunne himself in the past. Labour can’t do that because they have not ever done that for the Greens. Desperate times can cause desperate means, National might well find themselves clutching any straw on offer in order to regain power.

..but the strategy is quite possibly to drag votes form the greens...putting them under the 5%. That's my guess.

I can imagine labour saying 'me too' and gifting one and one only seat to the Greens. It impossible for the current Greens to ever support National.

It is all rather ironic. MMP came largely because the electorate was sick and tired of the carry on by the two main parties. The FPP system was more or less seen as having been corrupted. Now it is quite possible the two main parties will end up corrupting MMP by resorting to selling off elected seats to selected coalition partners, which in effect end up as de facto seats for them anyway. That means virtually, MMP will have been morphed into FPP.

We should have had STV not MMP. Act would be a lot better represented in Parliament if we had.

Sustainable technology is a huge source of potential growth. From an engineering perspective using less materials and energy saves costs (one way of increasing profits). In chemical and process engineering waste products are considered lost productivity. Waste outputs get converted into other products. National's stance on the environment is essentially anti-technology and anti-business.

If solar panel installs on houses were slightly scaled up it would result in more useful technical jobs as well as making the power network more resilient. Although solar panel installs are going to scale up naturally as the cost of the panels is going to drop a lot over the next 5 years. This would also support the introduction of a larger proportion of electric vehicles.

Focusing on environmental technology would help NZ be more technologically progressive.

Can we make the assumption that you are NOT talking about ANYthing Microsoft!

I'm not sure why you're even bringing up Microsoft.

Unsure, but honestly? that word 'Microsoft' is also the first one pop up in my head. A bit on hard technicality in early days of IE browser then pushing into PDA technology when later on we know now who's technology that being adapted, in different platform & overall philosophical trend of it. A bit like B/Gates when recently toying to the ideas of current smart phone coming from his PDA ideas. It's laughable. Like you said, certain things from Nats Co. is just too rigid, very binary view of the world, the SNZ initiatives, also on the early populist gathering/stealing vote from say younger green since the way it is, Nationals are collections of alike.. black & white (will utterly rejected when both spinning will produce gray).. started to lost it's relevance on the youth, worldly facts about sustainability means.. too hard.. to understand, err.. might as well create a SNZ branch.

What some of my friends have raised as issues is that National are completely out of touch. Essentially the source of the problems is that they relate well to boomers and those with limit education. So they are chasing a dying demographic. What is even more strange is the angle of becoming a Christian conservative party. That is also a dying demographic as people have turned away from organised religion.

The reason why the Microsoft comparison did not make any sense to me is that Microsoft saw real opportunities and seized those opportunities. They had both the technical capability, creativity, leadership and vision to succeed. Those are qualities that the National Party do not possess.

For SNZ to gain any traction they need a capable and knowledgeable leader with the sophistication to speak to an educated population. They would also need to be politically adept to the point where they could consume all of the National Party's votes too.

National psyche is pretty much binary, appealing to audiences/voters which is not for the good of the long run result. Difficult to undo those years of mood, solution is a fresh newbie creation to trap those voters.. later on it will be confidence number pour it to blue bucket.

A vote for the greens is a vote for free but mandatory transgender education in schools, easy and free access to abortions, unlimited immigration, legalizing drugs and of course the only answer to the climate crisis. I don't think we need a second green party.

Yes but on the immigration front, who do you vote for to reduce immigration? National, Labour and now NZ First all support it.

We do need a green party. We need ONE, we don't have ONE yet.

NZ First do not support it. I have been hounding them and they do give me the courtesy of a reply (unlike lees galloway). Basically they haven't got the MP firepower to force it - well that's what they tell me.

I'd suggest for those that give a toss, spend as much time posting to your MP's as you do on here. I remind labour constantly that immigration is a major reason they got my vote. Vulnerable list and marginal seat mp's need to be targeted.

We have a Green party - it might have policies and people you don't like but it does exist and puts a case for the environment (however badly). What we don't have is a Labour party - we have governing party of that name that is keen on very large scale low wage immigration and that hurts the working class (both wages and accommodation). The nearest comparison would be the Greens promoting the shooting of native birds.

Agree and the Sustainable New Zealand party has no mention of immigration/population. Ecology 101: Ongoing population growth in a finite space is unsustainable...end of story.

There's certainly a space in the market for a party with a population policy.

Agreed even a policy of 'lets increase it fast' would be a policy that would allow planning of training teachers, nurses, etc and building infrastructure.

New Zealand voters expect the parties they elect to Parliament to have a position on all the issues coming before the House, not just those that suit them.

I'm not sure that's true actually. Otherwise a good article, thanks.

I think it would be more true than not.

We vote to elect a representative to act on our behalf. Out of all the constituents that voted for a person/party.

You would have to imagine that at least some of these voters would find any given issue important. So therefore the MP should be taking a position and voting in the best interests of their constituents.

"Even once parties are in Parliament the media still tends to allocate coverage on the basis of the party’s numerical strength in the House, rather than the credibility of its policies or contribution."

Which United Future benefited from, because if it was based on credibility or contribution, they'd have gotten even less coverage than they did.

Just look at the Wikipedia page for United Future's contribution to NZ Parliament, remembering that at their peak they had 8(!) MPs.

Easy mistake "a new party needs publicity to gain traction, yet it does not start to gain traction until it gets publicity." should I think, read "a new party needs publicity to gain traction, yet it does not start to get publicity until it gets traction."

I think a big part of the problem for the Greens, and ultimately the opportunity for SNZ, is that too many of the core Greens sound as though, given the opportunity, they would disinvent the wheel, and too often seriously opposed options that offered good sustainable outcomes. Compromise and developing a pathway to sustainability were rarely if ever discussed and significant policies such as immigration, electricity, or infrastructure rarely or never discussed sustainability - economically or ecologically. The Greens never seemed to offer any constructive discussion or perspectives on this but rather as has been pointed out before, were so often seen as being so far left of left they were virtually off the page. And unfortunately, being proven right has not done them any favours.

Its a good idea , the so called Greens are a bunch of left-wing rabble rousers with all their focus on welfare and handouts ....... not even subtly disguised behind a screen of caring about the environment .

James Shaw is the only credible person I have ever come across in the Green Party ........... the rest are a bunch of crazies

The article lacks credibility. It is founded on the construction of a straw man: That SNZP is a blue-green (single issue) environmental party and builds its critique from there. The idea, it scoffs, was tested back in 1996 and apparently, not having worked then it's pointless to try it now.
While it suits its opponents to cast it as a right-wing invention SNZP is a centrist party and can work with both major parties. If it’s any shade of green it’s a ‘Bright Green’ which is at the forefront of the modern environmental movement. [B]right green environmentalism is less about the problems and limitations we need to overcome than the "tools, models, and ideas" that already exist for overcoming them. It forgoes the bleakness of protest and dissent for the energizing confidence of constructive solutions. Furthermore, it does not require anyone to have a particular belief system or political persuasion. Its vision unites and provides benefit regardless. We are at a fortunate juncture in time where cleantech is driving the next wave of economic activity by eliminating wasteful and harmful by-products and delivering more with less.
In addition ‘Sustainability’ is not a single issue, it focuses on the health of the environment but from a perspective that recognises and supports the role of business, science and social equity.

It’s vision:
A Clean Green Prosperous New Zealand - leading the world in cleantech innovation

From there he proceeds to explain the difficulties of forming a party unless you are or have been a sitting MP: for credibility, source funding, exposure (including a place in television election debates) as well as access to the ‘Parliamentary Library’ to assist with research. Peter Dunne must have missed the memo on the Internet for both research and communicating with your audience. Social media is arguably becoming the most powerful tool politicians have available to them. Just a couple of the many things that have changed along with a complete transformation of attitudes since 1996. In addition, Vernon Tava is no slouch when it comes to getting the ear of the media and media exposure.
PD then goes on to add that Single issue parties don’t appeal to most voters who are more concerned with ‘how what the respective parties are proposing might affect them, rather than just a single issue.’ A single issue focus means it won’t be able to vote intelligently on a broader range of issues and taking a position on other issues it won’t be seen as a pure environmental party. SEE ABOVE Sustainability is not a single issue….

Last but not least ‘the biggest risk… knock each other out of Parliament next year, leaving no-one to stand up for the environment. ’ Seriously! So now PD is proposing that the Greens deserve a special concession from the competition. Why? because they have the environment as one of the issues embedded amongst the plethora of fringe issues they are looking to foist on us. The Green party has had 20 years + to establish its position. Even if it can’t protect its position after a term in government to prove itself it is not terminal. Unless of course, it doesn’t have the ability to reflect and consider where it went wrong.

Spot on Bright Green!

Some nice points Bright Green. Like SNZP's proposed approach and the comment that the Greens need some competition. Peter Dunne is a pragmatist though, and the voice of experience, so his concerns sound valid. Maybe the stars will align for SNZP, who knows? It would be a pleasant surprise, unlike most recent developments in NZ politics.

The Green party is clearly not a party that understands sustainability. If that were so, then the party would not have a co-leader with six tamariki. I would be strongly in favor of a party that supports sustainability in ecology (and economics, but that is another issue!). IMO there is a clear void that SNZ may end up filling.