The Treasury and big Green hopes

The Greens last week celebrated the Treasury’s venture into wider measures of wellbeing. Come November 26, will they be celebrating their own broader support?

“This is one of the best news stories in my living memory,” Green MP Kennedy Graham enthused about the Treasury’s “higher living standards” paper, which sets up a “framework” for a wider assessment of prosperity encompassing social and environmental factors in addition to economic measures.

“Our singular focus on growing gross domestic product (national production) has concealed the related decline in other measures of our prosperity, like the rapidly declining quality of water in our rivers and lakes or the record growth in inequality. If we change the measure, we’re likely to change the outcome,” Graham said. “It is a good start.”

But only a start, in Graham’s eyes. It is too light on environmental indicators — he has promoted 39 in a bill and the Treasury has only four out of its total of 46 — and the non-economic indicators are not mandatory. In fact, departing Treasury Secretary John Whitehead emphasised at the launch last Wednesday that GDP is still the Treasury’s dominant indicator of prosperity. The framework is not an escape route for ministers who fail to close the GDP gap with Australia.

But is Graham on to something? The paper is a landmark in a departure –dating from 1999, the Treasury says — from the one-dimensional neoliberal line that getting GDP up eventually delivers better social and environmental outcomes.

At the political level National has its Bluegreens ginger group which has had some influence on policy. Labour in government claimed to be promoting “sustainability”. Does this tell us the country is going greener or is something else afoot?

Skip to Germany. The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) have been trying to present a greener face.

But in March in Baden-Wurttemberg, run for half a century by the CDU, the Greens won 24.2 per cent of the vote, ahead of the Social Democratic party (SPD), Labour’s German counterpart, with which it will now govern in coalition, and in Rhineland-Palatinate, the Greens climbed from 4.6 per cent to 15.4 per cent. On May 23 in the usually left-dominated city-state of Bremen, where the voting age is now 16, the Greens climbed from 16.5% to 22.5%, past the CDU, and the SPD got its third worst vote ever, even though rising 1 percentage point.

In dig-it-all-up Australia the Greens won 12 per cent in the lower house in last year’s federal election and are still getting around 10 per cent in polls as support wanes for their majority coalition partner, Labor.

Is there a green wave in our sorts of countries?

Not in Britain: the Greens got only 1.0 per cent of the vote and one seat last year. Not in Canada: the Greens got 3.9 per cent on May 2, down from 6.9 per cent in 2008. Not in the United States: the rightwing Tea Party has been the standout.

Not yet in New Zealand. In elections since 1999 the Greens have got 5.2 per cent, 7.0 per cent, 5.3 per cent and 6.7 per cent. Over the past six months or so they have averaged 7-8 per cent in polls, hardly a pointer to a German or even Australian result.

So there will be cause for some sober strategising at the Greens’ annual conference this weekend. Like Labour’s 10 days ago and National’s to come in August, the conference will be largely closed to the media, passing up a chance to parade likely new generation-X MP Jan Logie (No 9 on the list) and up-and-coming younger candidates like Holly Walker (No 12) and James Shaw (No 15). Baby-boomers still dominate its caucus.

The conference will set the party’s “positioning” — whether it can be a support party with National and not just Labour. It is highly likely to say it can’t because National is farther from the Greens’ environmentalist stance than Labour (evidenced in the differences on the emissions trading scheme and on agricultural pollution of waterways), though that doesn’t stop ad hoc deals, as in home insulation.

But to be an influential support party in any government, the Greens need more than 5-7 per cent of the vote. They now have a solid base of support that has stuck through a change of leadership but they have yet to look really capable of a double-figure vote.

Their best hope is that voters despair of Labour and the greener and more leftish Labour types skip to the Greens. That is a real prospect. There is some evidence in polls.

Moreover, in Canada, Germany and Australia the major centre-left parties’ support has been eroding, to the benefit of parties to their left, in Canada’s case the New Democratic Party and in the other two the Greens.

Does that presage a structural change in favour of left or green parties? History says displacements of major parties are rare. Old rules are being challenged globally and here, as the Treasury’s new framework attests and so both big old parties, particularly Labour, have work to do — but so do hopeful small ones like the Greens.