The good ship Green Party, crippled at sea by a boomeranging missile it launched, is about to dock at election day.
The Greens lost one commander and a couple of lieutenants overboard, lost all power, looked adrift and bereft.
As it turned out, it was never rudderless.
A campaign that looked dead in the water, its poll ratings plummeting from around 15 to 4 points in some surveys after co-leader Metiria Turei resigned on August 9, is perhaps the most remarkable story of survival and leadership of the 2017 election.
It is the party that came back from the dead.
In the Wednesday night One News-Colmar Brunton poll, the Greens had recovered to eight percent in the party vote – low by their aspirations in July but miraculous by their apparent chances in the past six weeks. Eight percent would get them nine MPs and that means new blood including Chlöe Swarbrick and Golriz Ghahraman would join existing MPs down to ninth ranked Mojo Mathers and 10th ranked Barry Coates.
Thursday’s Newshub poll had the Greens on 7.1 which also gives up to nine MPs.
At the polling low point of 4.9 percent no one would have made it. At the qualifying 5 percent mark the prominent newbies would have been out of the running.
So how did they do it?
The leader left standing, James Shaw, was a first-term MP and in reality the junior co-leader. The Turei affair, resulting from her confessing to committing benefit fraud to feed her baby many years ago, also cost two MPs already on the list who resigned in protest just before she did.
Shaw, 44, says he and the party adopted an approach he had used in a past life in a change management consultancy in the United Kingdom, imperilled by unpaid bills from financial institutions struck by the Global Financial Crisis.
“To avoid the death spiral, we would meet each day and work out what we had to do to keep the lights on tomorrow. We did it until we came out the other side.
“That is the most analogous experience to what we faced as a party. It actually forces you to prioritise to the single most important thing you can to do to steady the ship and keep going.
“And as long as you are still alive tomorrow, you just keep going.”
“I think that’s what we’ve done,” Shaw said on Thursday while campaigning in the quad at the University of Auckland.
“We have been incredibly disciplined on the three big priority policies – cleaning up our rivers, fighting climate change and ending poverty. We’ve run a really positive campaign. The team on the ground have been amazing.”
More volunteers turned up in the week after the crisis, 10 times as many calls have been made this campaign than last.
“In the weeks when we were going through the Valley of Death experience we were getting feedback that we were in freefall but by the time the polls started to come out the response on the ground had already become a lot warmer.”
– Greens leader James Shaw
Marama Davidson, Eugenie Sage and Julie Anne Genter took leadership on each of the key policy areas. Gareth Hughes worked as caucus leader for the campaign.
Shaw claims never to have thought the freefall in the polls was terminal. “In the weeks when we were going through the Valley of Death experience we were getting feedback that we were in freefall but by the time the polls started to come out the response on the ground had already become a lot warmer.”
Monitoring of social media sentiment reinforced the party’s hope. “It actually started to recover pretty substantially.”
Asked if anything worse could have happened to the party than the Turei saga and resignations, Shaw laughs nervously, pauses for a long time and says had the party’s poll ratings not been as high when the descent began, people might have written the Greens off as a lost cause.
Now, having bled poll percentage points to Labour, the Greens might be taking some back. “It’s hard to say where it’s coming from exactly. Labour’s vote is still very high.”
He claims – quoting “anecdata” – that some likely National voters have switched to the Greens. “It’s the rivers that most of these people report as the issue getting under their skin.”
Politicians on the hustings talk of picking up the vibe of the campaign ahead of opinion polls. Shaw says the Greens’ return to favourability has been noticeable for weeks. “Even just random strangers … the sentiment is pretty positive.”
The Greens have marked out distinct territory from Labour, most recently talking up the need for a capital gains tax. Labour in turn has downplayed the significance of its Memorandum of Understanding with the Greens; leader Jacinda Ardern emphasising in the latest leaders’ debate that it meant she would call, not necessarily deal with, the Greens first.
Shaw seems pretty sanguine about Labour’s need to play its own game. “I think Labour have done a really good job of turning around their campaign. If we want to change the government it is going to require both of us to do better.”
At a big First Union rally at Mt Smart Stadium on Wednesday, Shaw spoke before Ardern and talked her and Labour up. “It’s my particular pleasure,” he told the workers, “to be here as a warm-up act for the next Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – an act I hope to repeat many times through our government that starts on Sunday.”
At another union meeting yesterday he spoke ahead of three Labour candidates and was emphatic: “We stand in support of the Labour Party and we hope to have the numbers to form a government from Saturday night.”
He’s looking at the possibilities rather than the differences. “I’m delighted they have adopted our position on climate change that actually means that if we get to govern together then we will actually do it.”
While Labour favours improving the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and the Greens want to replace it with a fee and dividend system, “that’s a mechanism and we can work that through. We are agreed on Net Zero and a Climate Commission.
“We want to push them on no new coal, no deep sea drilling and no new fracking.”
From having two leaders sharing the campaign headline duties to one, the party has had to change Shaw’s focus. He’s stepped up, performing well in a range of small party and specialist debates.
To a question from a student in the university quad on how the Greens will go on Saturday, Shaw offered: “Really good. I’m really happy with how things are panning out.”
A young woman came by to say thanks. “The new government would not be the same without the Greens,” she said.
On Friday Shaw campaigns in his native Wellington. He and the Greens have come out of the Valley of Death and he plans, after a few more campaign events and a visit to the Greens’ call centre in the evening, to head over the road for a few beers.
“Actually that’s something we have done at the past two elections – to do a pub crawl on the Friday night. I don’t want to waste any moment that I have got that I am legally allowed to campaign for votes.”