Comment: The Greens are coming to the election with binders full of policies, committing themselves to the contest of ideas that every election should be, Marc Daalder argues

It’s not easy being Green.

For years, the party has been overshadowed and dismissed as Labour’s younger, smaller cousin. The trend only worsened in government, with commentators asking if the party had become a third wheel to Jacinda Ardern’s Labour and Winston Peters’ New Zealand First. The Covid-19 pandemic – and Ardern’s personal and capable response to it – could have put the nail in the coffin.

How does a party dismissed by much of the country as crunchy radicals stand out when Ardern sucks up all the oxygen in a room? How do they scrape off enough votes from Labour – which has been polling at or above 50 percent since lockdown – to not only ensure their electoral survival but also grab a seat at the post-election bargaining table?

For James Shaw and Marama Davidson, the answer is policy.

The Greens were the first party in Parliament to debut a significant election policy. Their Poverty Action Plan showed a way forward from the Covid-19 economic crash to meet the demands of the moment – a moment which calls on us to rethink the ways our economy and society work.

Their energy plan, likewise, reimagines New Zealand as a society running on 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of the decade and a country where every house has a solar panel on its roof.

Few others have risen to meet the moment with bold policy proposals. The ACT Party has proposed an employment insurance scheme that would reward workers who paid into it when they lose their jobs. Like the Greens’ policies, this is a proposal that takes advantage of the Covid-19 reset to change the way we live our lives.

Covid-19 provides an opportunity, but few seem to realise it. New Zealand First returned to tired old refrains about fewer migrants and more cops. Hardly an inspiring call – yet – to rethink New Zealand.

National has policies too, but so far most of them seem to involve buildings roads and slashing public services. From Labour? Crickets.

Ardern has said she is focused on governing, not campaigning. While staying above the fray might be a smart political move, it also undercuts the democratic conventions that govern elections – campaigns need to be about debate, discussion, disagreement and policy. Without that, people are voting for personalities, not parties.

That might work out for the ever-popular Ardern, but is it fair play?

Perhaps recognising this, the Greens have turned in a different direction. By debuting a 52-page “policy vision document”, they’ve chosen to open themselves to critique and discussion.

The document takes a page out of Simon Bridges’ book. The former Leader of the Opposition spent 2019 launching a wide range of discussion documents, committing National to certain policies and seeking feedback from constituents on other potential planks for the party’s electoral platform. Now, those documents have been overtaken by two leadership changes in as many months, but the idea stuck around long enough for Shaw and Davidson to grab on.

“Think Ahead. Act Now. Our green vision for Aotearoa,” is the document’s official name. And it is quite the vision.

On each page, the party offers up solid commitments (teaching te reo Māori in schools, reviving policies to cut transport emissions, banning greyhound racing) and softer pledges to pursue different outcomes (opposing New Zealand’s membership in the Five Eyes spy network but not withdrawing, supporting green roofs and ‘soft’ infrastructure but not investing in it).

That some of these are firm promises and others a simple indication of support or opposition show the Greens are being realistic about what they can get out of Ardern.

But taken as a whole, the document presents a vision for the future of New Zealand. Whether it is compelling or not is up to you, but the Greens deserve kudos for the fact they’re willing to put themselves, their policies and their beliefs on the line.

If an election is a contest of ideas, then so far the Greens are winning it simply by showing up.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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