The Green Party and the environmental movement in New Zealand

A recent editorial in the New Zealand Herald (4 June 2008 ) offers the Green Party some advice on political positioning:

Despite their durability, the Greens should be a stronger party in this country. Environmental values are widely held and can offer a political identity outside the normal social divide. The party in our Parliament, however, has not offered a separate identity, it adheres to a left-wing view of environmentalism, opposed to free trade, preferring public ownership to private property, distracted by issues it calls social justice.

A broader Green Party would build some conservation projects on private property rights and recognise the power of market forces to ensure resources are used sustainably. A party of that stamp would draw support from across the spectrum and could contemplate dealings with any government.

The Green Party needs to move out of left field and become a central player.

It’s not first time I’ve seen this complaint in the Herald (here’s another example). But one might easily be led to suspect the Herald’s motives in freely offering its counsel to the Greens, given the newspaper’s tendency toward unreconstructed neoliberalism (which might just explain the emphasis on private property rights and market forces, and the dismissal of social justice concerns in the above quote).

However, the frequency with which I have heard similar complaints from environmentalists, conservationists and even, at times, some party members suggests that it is not just editorial writers who have failed to grasp something quite fundamental about ecopolitics.

The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand espouses both ecological and social issues in a manner that rather closely reflects the post-industrialist stance described by Brian Doherty and Timothy Doyle (reported here). This stance is characteristic of the green movement around the world, going back to the constitutional convention of the German Greens in 1980. What’s more, this vision of ecopolitics has its roots right here in Aotearoa with the Values Party manifesto of 1975.

Andrew Dobson, in his book Green Political Thought, suggests that “a sustainable and fulfilling existence presupposes radical changes in our relationship with the non-human natural world and in our mode of social and political life [and] fundamental changes in present values or patterns of production and consumption” (p.1).

In a nutshell, then, the Greens in New Zealand are not in thrall to a left-wing cabal; their politics are not some strange error of judgement peculiar to them alone. The concern for ecology and social justice and the desire for radical social change is integral to green politics worldwide.

As the Herald observes, this stance doesn’t necessarily win the Green Party wide support in environmentalist circles. But in order to understand this, let’s consider the environmentalists’ approach to the political sphere.

Many national-level environmental NGOs and local level conservation organisations are keen to stay onside with governments, bureaucrats and funding agencies by maintaining what they believe to be a scrupulously apolitical stance. Radical challenges to capitalist society don’t seem to go down too well with governments and wealthy funding agencies, and are therefore best avoided by those who go cap-in-hand.

But this environmentalist aversion to politics is not merely a tactical decision. It stems from a conception of nature as entirely separate from humanity and human concerns such as politics or poverty. It is therefore not surprising that those who hold this view cannot apprehend any connection between ecology and social justice.

Seeking solutions to environmental problems within the existing framework and institutions of society, as Dobson notes, offers “no sort of a challenge at all” to the present consensus around “the desirability of affluent, technological service societies” (p.9). That might please the Herald’s editorialist very well indeed; but it is hardly surprising that the Greens see no mileage in it, for it is a shallow and meaningless political position.

The story of the relationship between greens and environmentalists does not end here because New Zealand is, of course, a post-colonial society. Maori possess a very strong and distinctive indigenous tradition of environmental management that is embodied in the term kaitiakitanga and is reflective of the “deep kinship between humans and the natural world.”

Since the 1970s, with the New Zealand state’s slowly dawning awareness of its violation of Maori rights and its breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, a reassertion of Maori rights to express kaitiakitanga much more extensively has occurred. These opportunities often arise through the restitution agreements made with iwi and hapu in settlement of past Treaty breaches by the state.

This may be the beginning of a resolution to what Doherty and Doyle describe as the central problem of post-colonial environmentalism: “local people gaining control of their own resources.”

The Green Party’s concern for social justice as well as environmental issues in this post-colonial context has been expressed in an acceptance of “Te Tiriti o Waitangi as the founding document of Aotearoa New Zealand” and the recognition of “Maori as Tangata Whenua in Aotearoa New Zealand.” While this is only a start towards a true realisation of the Treaty partnership, it’s one that many environmental NGOs seem unable yet to make.

Thus, although the Green Party and environmental/conservation organisations might seem to have much in common, there is a significant gulf between them. This gulf stems from the fundamentally different conceptions of the relationship between humanity and nature. As a result, the support only seems to flow one way. Undoubtedly, green people firmly support environmental campaign causes but solid political support for the Green Party is not made available in the public arena by environmental/conservation organisations. Maybe it is time some of these organisations in New Zealand pulled their heads out of the sand and gave some thought to the socio-political dimensions of the ecological problems that, at the moment, they can only very partially confront.

That would really give the Herald something to write about.



Andrew Dobson (1995) Green political thought (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Brian Doherty and Timothy Doyle (2006) Beyond borders: Transnational politics, social movement and modern environmentalisms Environmental Politics, 15(5) 697-712.


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