Steve Abel is one of a very small number of people who has gone through the induction for new Members of Parliament without ever serving as an MP.

At the 2020 election, he was ranked 11th on the Green Party’s list. On election night, the party won enough votes to bring 10 MPs to Parliament, but Abel was invited along for the induction events which started the next week because the left tends to pick up a few seats on the special votes.

“I think I basically got the whole induction with all the new MPs,” he tells Newsroom in an interview after a recent campaign trip to Nelson. “Funnily, I remember sitting and having lunch with Christopher Luxon, who was being inducted at the same time. We talked about environmental things.”

Unfortunately for Abel, though the Greens grew its share of the vote it wasn’t enough to send him to Wellington full-time. However, at ninth on the list this year and with the Greens reliably polling above their 2020 result, the long-time environmental activist is a pretty sure thing this time around.

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That means plenty more opportunities to continue those conversations with Luxon, who told Abel at the time that National and the Greens had a lot in common.

“I sort of pushed back on the willingness of the National Party to do the bidding of vested interests over actually protecting the environment,” he recalls.

Not that he’s taking a second chance at Parliament for granted – Abel is a bit cautious about the “Sure Things” label for this Newsroom series.

“I’ve certainly learned not to count any chickens before they hatch,” he says, reflecting on his almost-election last time. “People were adamant I was gonna win on the night. And then when I didn’t, they were like, ‘Oh you’ll get in on the specials’. But I didn’t. They said, ‘Oh, well, someone will leave during the term and you’ll get in’. And that didn’t happen.”

Abel is no stranger to patience, coming to politics from activism. While working with Greenpeace, he participated in the 2011 flotilla against Petrobas’ deep sea oil drilling plans on the East Coast, which spent 42 days at sea.

“I was raised in the heady days of the ’80s when there was amazing social change all around and great successes with organised political action that led to actual political outcomes,” he says. “The obvious one is stopping all nuclear ships. There’s a very strong memory for me, how the nuclear-free movement was so present.”

He was 11 when the Springboks came to New Zealand in 1981. His parents brought him to the protests, but he was sent home because he was too young.

The Native Forest Action campaign against logging indigenous tress on the West Coast was his first taste of activism as an adult. After three years of pressure, the group succeeded in stopping the logging and seeing 137,000 hectares gazetted as conservation land.

“It was an extraordinary experience of realising, ‘Oh wow, we do have agency and we can affect political outcomes through organised campaigning’.”

Steve Abel scaled a native tree in Auckland in 2020 as part of a protest against them being cut down. Photo: Raven Wesgrave

While he ran for Parliament on the Green ticket twice during that period, in 1999 and 2002, the massive School Strike for Climate in September 2019 prompted him to reconsider the value of politics. About 175,000 people took to the streets on September 27, 2019 – more than one in every 30 Kiwis.

“I thought, the lack of courage or will is not at the movement level, it’s at the Parliamentary level. That’s where we need people with a commitment to transformational change that’s necessary if we’re going to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. And so I put my hand up for 2020,” he says.

Climate and environment issues are, therefore, some of Abel’s top priorities. He says people are disappointed by the pace of progress on climate over the past six years, despite high hopes for what Jacinda Ardern – who called it her generation’s nuclear-free moment – would do with an outright Parliamentary majority.

His other message out on the campaign trail is about what he sees as the danger of a National/Act government.

“We’re still facing this potential of one of the most reactionary governments we will have had in 40 years, if Act and National get across the line. Act has radically anti-environmental and anti-climate policies. It seems fascinating to me that we’ve got this possibility of one of the most progressive governments we’ve ever had, a Labour/Green/Te Pāti Māori government or a very backward reactionary government,” he says.

“I think [the right] are using racial fear and division for their political purposes. Stoking that sort of racial division is, to my mind, despicable. But Act and New Zealand First seem content to go there.”

These are the messages Abel is disseminating as he knocks on doors around the country and gives talks from West Auckland down to Nelson. Though he’s on the ballot in the New Lynn electorate, he’s really running a party vote campaign.

Compared with 2020, he says he’s noticed a big swing towards the Greens in his conversations with prospective voters. That’s borne out by the polls, with Newsroom’s polling average showing the party currently on 11.87 percent – half again its 2020 result.

One unique experience voters will have been exposed to at Abel’s recent talks at the top of the South Island was a musical performance. Despite Abel’s criticisms of Act, he seems to be on okay personal terms with the party’s environment spokesperson, Simon Court, who tipped Newsroom off to Abel’s musical career.

“I’m a musician, I’ve been a musician for a long time,” Abel says. “I actually have three released albums and a couple of unreleased albums.”

Faced with an extra baggage allowance ahead of his talks, the candidate brought his guitar with him and played a song at each of them.

What’s the genre?

“That’s a good question. It’s been given various names but I suppose it’s sort of alternative folk rock. I hate that name, I probably need to get a better name for it.”

Will he keep playing music after the campaign ends, as an MP?

“I will always be a musician, even if it’s just in my private life. It’s my salve, really, it’s, if you like, a mental health thing. I remember Don McGlashan saying many years ago that there’s a lot of people who, if they couldn’t play music, they become very sick,” he says with a chuckle.

“I think I’m one of those people.”

It’s given him a bit of a reputation among his fellow activists. During his work with the School Strike for Climate, he says, it became a running joke.

“Whenever I showed up to anything, it was like, ‘It’s Steve from Spotify!’”

With Labour’s rock-musician-turned-MP Jamie Strange on his way out, Steve Abel might end up being the only active MP with an album on Spotify come October 14.

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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