Should greens care about social justice issues? Lessons from social research

The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand has now contested four elections independently under the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. These elections have delivered votes of 5.2% (1999), 7.0% (2002), 5.3% (2005) and 6.7% (2008). The failure to even come close to the hoped-for 10% poll result at the last two elections has created a certain amount of dismay in the party, and endless commentary beyond the party.

So why can the Greens not raise their share of the poll above the 5-7% it has achieved under MMP thus far? Barry has already provided an excellent answer to that question – of the various broad groupings in New Zealand society, only one or two suggest themselves as intrinsically pro-Green. One of the findings of the New Zealand Values Survey 2005 backs up this view: The survey found that 60% of respondents feel that people are poor because of laziness and lack of will-power. People holding such an attitude could hardly consider voting Green, given the party’s social justice orientation; thus around 60% of the voting population is utterly inaccessible to the Greens.

However, one strand of thought frequently expressed – inside and outside the Green Party – suggests that it is just this left-liberal orientation and concern for left-of-centre social justice issues that undermines the party’s attractiveness. It is suggested that a green party should be an ‘environmental party’, pure and simple, and as such would be able to draw greater support from across the political spectrum.

This proposition has been tested in an interesting analysis of further data obtained from the New Zealand Values Survey 2005.

Conducted by Penelope Carroll and co-workers at the Massey University Centre for Social and Health Outcomes, Research and Evaluation (SHORE) (Te Runanga, Wananga, Hauora me te Paekaka), the opinion survey involved 1274 people aged 18 and over, and was part of a larger worldwide study. As such, the aim was not primarily to study voters’ orientation towards the Green Party, and it seems that the researchers only subsequently saw the opportunity to investigate the issue in the data they possessed. This analysis was published in March 2009 in the journal Environmental Politics.

A statistical factor and correlation analysis of the data looks at the relationship between three areas of questioning:

— opinions on environmental issues,

— opinions on social issues, and

— voting intentions.

Carroll et al find “significant correlations” between a concern for environmental protection and a concern for greater social equity (p.266). This is not only a significant correlation, it’s a significant political lesson for the Greens. The researchers express their interpretation of the findings as follows:

the Greens would not necessarily fare better electorally by confining themselves to environmental issues. Their left-of-centre social policies might in fact be an added attraction for those for whom protection of the environment is a priority. (p.266)

Commentators and bloggers might think that an ‘environmental party’ is a viable green political vehicle that could somehow increase the green vote. However, I cannot comprehend what would mean to be a purely ‘environmental party’. Would it mean that a party would campaign for better protection for Maui’s Dolphin or rimu forests but would not campaign for better conditions and opportunities for those living with physical impairments or for improved working conditions in the service sector? What would be the party’s position on other policy areas such as health, education, taxation? The idea that the Greens should or even could be simply an ‘environmental party’ is an entirely naive suggestion.

Green ideology has always taken strong positions on social justice, peace and participatory democracy alongside the deep concern for environmental issues; each is an integral part of a holistic eco-philosophical standpoint. Furthermore, the Values Survey analysis identifies a segment of the New Zealand population that is more or less tuned in to this set of values.  To maintain and satisfy its support base, therefore, the Green Party must continue to reflect this ideological standpoint: green politics must be as strong on a social justice agenda as it is on an environmental agenda. Drifting away from this kaupapa (philosophy) means drifting away from the party’s core support, as the research reported here shows only too well.


Penelope Carroll, Sally Casswell, John Huakau, Paul Perry and Philippa Howden Chapman (2009) Environmental attitudes, beliefs about social justice and intention to vote Green: Lessons for the New Zealand Green Party. Environmental Politics, 18(2), 257-278.


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Filed under Aotearoa New Zealand, David, green politics, social justice

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