“For a richer New Zealand” – Successes of a green campaign

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In the last election, the New Zealand Greens achieved a record result. For the first time, more than 10% of votes were cast for the Greens, making them the third largest party in the country’s House of Representatives. What were the ingredients of their successful campaign?

First of all, it has to be acknowledged that a green success in a New Zealand election would have hardly been possible without the reform of the electoral system in 1996. Prior to this, the country had an electoral system similar to the UK one, leading to a two-party-system with a centre-left Labour Party and a centre-right National Party. Since 1996, New Zealand has an electoral system based on proportional representation (modelled on the Mixed-Member system used in Germany), leading to a true multi-party system and the emergence of coalition governments.

The Greens were elected to the House of Representatives for the first time in 1999. Between 1999 and 2011 (New Zealand holds elections every three years), the Greens had between 5% and 7% of the votes. In the 2011 elections, this number rose to not less than 11.1%. How did the party manage to achieve such a success?

2011 campaign poster and slogan of the New Zealand Greens

Knowing your voters – and knowing how to reach them

One of the reasons has been the early and effective market research conducted by the Green Party. While doing this research, it became clear that the Greens can win most by targeting urban voters under 55 years of age, and that support is particularly strong with younger voters. This may seem a difficult target group, as younger people in New Zealand tend to vote less than older people. On the other hand, this means that there is also much to win by specifically targeting younger people, and the Greens were willing to take this challenge. In order to reach potential voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s, the New Zealand Greens dived into the many possibilities that the internet and social media have to offer. The party also encouraged their members to remind all people around them to vote – particularly the younger people for whom it may be less obvious to do so.

With this aim in mind, a so-called ‘calling engine’ was established, which is a systematic phone list that was used by volunteers in a variety of locations around the country to call local people.  The list was linked to a software system that includes enrolment information. So far, this engine has been used to remind people to enrol to vote, but the idea is to use it for any type of canvassing in the future (e.g. for collecting signatures and/or donations) and for finding people to support a campaign.

When a person has been contacted, the canvasser can record several things about this call – e.g. say that they were supportive, or that they donated, or that they were hostile, etc. This information is stored for the next time the Green Party is contacting them, and also helps to filter by finding out who is most engaged or generous. The calling engine is particularly useful in the context of New Zealand, as it is a way for more remote members to participate in green campaigns by doing phone work, and as it makes good use of the free local calling system that exists in the country.

The calling engine has helped to establish the Greens’ direct communications database which contains information that has been volunteered by around 40,000 people. These are people with whom the New Zealand Greens have established permanent contacts by asking them to subscribe for green e-communications, e.g. the electronic newsletter “GreenWeek” from the MPs.

Motivating activists to go the extra mile

Another very successful action during the election campaign was the so-called ‘Green Machine’, with which the Greens managed to gather a record number of volunteers. The Green Machine, which was inspired by Obama’s presidential campaign, is an interactive website on which people can log in and earn stars by completing certain missions, e.g. liking the party’s Facebook page, becoming a party member, helping hand out leaflets, work on stalls, and door knocking. This “gamification” (introducing a competitive game element) had a positive reception, especially among younger volunteers, and appeared to have a positive impact on peoples’ motivation and participation.

In order to participate in the Green Machine, people had to create a “my green account” online, which they could log in to through Facebook. Once the account was created, participants in the Green Machine were able to see each other’s name and number of earned stars. Here the competition started. 30 stars would make people a HardCore Green, and the ones who were on top of the leaderboard could become Mayor of Greentown, etc. Although there were no prizes offered, people were seriously trying to get to the top.

Since the end of the campaign, participants can still access and use it, and there are still some new volunteers being attracted through the Green Machine website, but it is not actively used anymore and no new missions have been introduced. This is due to specific local factors rather than any concerns with the concept. The newly appointed campaign committee for the 2014 elections will discuss the role of the Green Machine in the near future.

2011 campaign poster and slogan of the New Zealand Greens

Keeping the message clear and simple

As for the content of the campaign, the party managed to formulate a clear core message.  In doing so hard choices had to be made around the core of what to communicate; it was equally critical to find a clear core slogan, to choose three policy priorities (each with a clear message), and to develop a strong emotive visual treatment. This approach aimed to get an emotional connection with voters, as well as to provide these voters with strong reasons to vote. The approach taken demonstrated that the Green Party had engaged with peoples’ core economic concerns, and formulated concrete answers to the question: “What can I get from a green vote?”

The core of the message was to get clean, green prosperity for every New Zealander. Within the framework of this overall aim, three concrete priorities were set: to make every river clean enough to swim in, to stimulate the creation of green jobs through business incentives and government leadership, and to bring 100,000 children out of poverty. These three priorities, expressed succinctly as “rivers, jobs, kids”, also touch upon three different core issues of the green movement: a clean environment, a sustainable economy, and a fair distribution of welfare.

The overarching slogan of the green campaign was “For a richer New Zealand”. This slogan contained some irony, as the pictures that accompanied it showed that the word “rich” should not merely be understood in economic terms. On the contrary, the clean river and the happy child on the campaign posters highlighted the green priorities once again and showed that there is more than just economic prosperity to care about.


As mentioned, the New Zealand Greens had a highly successful election, becoming the third largest party in the House of Representatives. In spite of this success, it was the centre-right National Party that gained the highest number of votes and was able to form a coalition after the 2011 elections. As a result the Greens are now active in opposition.  While the Greens did not rule out working with National, very large policy differences exist, which make a coalition highly unlikely. The Greens clearly prefer working with the centre-left Labour Party.

Commentators now refer to the Labour-Green bloc, rather than just Labour, as the opposition and as a potential future government. Indeed, recent commentary has identified the Greens as the “real opposition” on many issues. The idea that Green support is above 10% is now well established in the public mind. In the next elections in 2014, the Green Party will strongly campaign again to extend its political influence for a greener and truly richer New Zealand.

Useful links

Writing this article would not have been possible without the valuable input provided by Roland Sapsford, former co-convenor of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand.

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