Mobilising the Green Army

Green Party HQ is a hive of activity as the party pushes hard towards the election. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

As part of Newsroom’s Election 2017 coverage, Shane Cowlishaw spoke to the Greens’ campaign team about how the disastrous past month has galvanised volunteers.

Gather round, you Greens, and tell us why you’re here.

There’s little reluctance, as the group of 20-odd volunteers manning computers at the party’s Central Wellington nerve centre break away from afternoon tea and form a ring.

It’s a moment that has likely been orchestrated for the benefit of Newsroom, with eyes turned to the journalist as each person answers.

Initially, it’s hard not to think of the cliches. Will we be asked to hold hands as we form a kumbaya circle, one of those stereotypes that used to be levelled at the Greens on a regular basis?

That image, however, of a party filled with “tree-huggers” and extremists has faded, as the party has modernised and edged towards the centre-left of politics.

The reasons for those giving up their own time to help the party soon become clear.

Overwhelmingly, it’s climate change (although others quip it’s for the gluten-free cake or because their parents composted).

Echoing the words of Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, it’s the challenge of their generation. But the Greens, they believe, are the only party committed to really making change.

There is a definite buzz around the team, who are organised, motivated, and tech-savvy.

Slack messenger alerts ping relentlessly as the number of “conversations” – door knocks and phone calls – edges towards a record 100,000.

Cries and applause soon rise up as the target is hit (amidst hurried reassurances that the moment is not another put-on for a reporter).

Lou Sherrell, the ground campaign manager, is in charge of organising boots on the ground. There are a lot.

Total volunteer sign-ups for the year are about 7000 while in the past month, perhaps the most difficult in the party’s history, 2600 people had turned up for events.

That 100k number, Sherrell says, is more than double the interactions managed during the 2014 campaign where she worked as the Auckland campaign manager.

This is partly because the data collection system is far better than what it was then, but also because of a huge effort to focus on talking to voters face-to-face.

Each volunteer receives a pack with walk maps created by a system similar to Labour’s Connect data tool that pulls information from places such as electoral rolls and the Census to build a list of potential Green voters.

Initially volunteers were told to target those houses but hated missing doors so tried them too. Now they are concentrating on going back to those people who are on the fence.

While face-to-face is the focus (this weekend a final big push will see 10,000 front doors rapped), phone calls still play a big part.

Volunteers are often at headquarters in the evening calling people, but a new system that allows people to log in from their mobile or computer and make calls at no cost has been revolutionary, Sherrell says.

“I was talking to someone the other day who was living out in Westport and she’s like ‘Look I really want to help but there’s not a big local group here’ and I was like ‘Cool, you can get online and start making calls’.”

A rough month

The Greens may have a devoted base, but the past few weeks have been testing.

In the space of a few days they went from a poll high of 15 percent to under 5 percent, which would unthinkably kick them out of Parliament. Along the way, they also lost their co-leader.

The resignation of Metiria Turei following the backfire of a decision to go public with details of benefit fraud shook the party to its core, leaving James Shaw to lead the Greens into the election on his own.

In charge of the campaign during this rocky period has been Sarah Helm.

A long-term Green Party member having joined the same year former co-leader Rod Donald died, this will be the third election she has been involved in.

She says the events of the past month had been gutting, but the resolve of the team and how they pulled together and carried on was impressive.

“It’s almost unbelievable but in a way it didn’t change anything for us, I don’t know if that makes sense but this office just continued to hum with activity.

“We went out on the back of that bad poll result and knocked on 10,000 doors that weekend. We’re so driven by the stuff we know that needs to change in this country around climate and poverty and the environment, we turn up every day with that in mind.”

The turmoil has meant some ridiculously long hours for the team.

For Helm, 16-hour days are not uncommon and within 10 days of Turei resigning, new billboards and flyers were being distributed across the country.

For Sherrell, what she witnessed from the volunteers after the party’s meltdown was a galvanisation of the team and an influx of people getting in touch to help and support the Greens.

“It’s not about politics for anyone here, we’re all here for the things we care about and we think the Green Party is the best way to support the things we care about.”

Doing more with less

The Greens may have a large volunteer base considering their size, but they need to run like a well-oiled machine given their lack of resources.

Helm’s responsibilities are almost too numerous to list. In a normal day she will work on the party’s presentation to the media, how the ground campaign is running, the social media campaign, marketing, plans for their top candidates and Shaw, plus the finances.

“After I talk to you the lease (on the building) needs sorting. That’s what I’m doing next.”

It takes a lot of effort to attract people away from the big parties towards a smaller one.

The Greens have about 30 paid staff, but simply can’t compete with the resources of their red and blue competitors. It means they have to be smart.

“It’s really easy for people to vote for National or Labour, it’s a habit. For us we’re asking people to break a habit, it’s not hard to do but it’s a change of behaviour and we also have this added thing that the media and the electoral commission rules are all weighted towards the main parties so we continue to be a little bit of an underdog a bit.

“We can’t rely on big money like National does, we can’t rely on the unions to do it all for us to an extent like Labour, we actually have to do it all ourselves so we had to work out quite sophisticated ways of doing that and trust our volunteers.”

The Greens have long been savvy with their use of technology. They are social media pros, and this election they are pushing hard into video.

Naturally attracting people from the arts, they have roped in talent such as director Taika Waititi and comedian Guy Williamson (his partner is candidate Golriz Ghahraman) for the campaign.

At a meeting to approve the new batch of videos, Helm and the team run through where and when they will go live.

One is about polluted waterways (“Is it OK to use the word ‘poo’?), while another is their first Māori-electorate focused piece to run on Māori TV and social media.

They are slick and feature familiar musical scores.

It’s unsurprising, with Paul Dodge of the band Minuit taking care of video for the party while Warren Maxwell of Trinity Roots fame has agreed to provide some tunes.

Helm is pleased with the marketing for this election. She says they got it wrong in 2014, going with a theme that didn’t even resonate with party members.

“You might remember the really ugly hoardings, our base hated them. There was a picture of an open-cast mine, ughhhh, not very inspiring.

“While it was something we might care about it wasn’t how we wanted to present ourself and the base hated putting them up. A measure of every campaign - does a volunteer want to nail the thing up?.”

There’s no problem with the new videos and once approved, another meeting convenes, this time at an electorate level with Teall Crossen who is standing in Rongotai.

A lawyer who is taking a sabbatical from the Department of Conservation while she campaigns, Crossen, at 40, sits just under the average age of the party’s top 20 (it’s 42.9, despite the young blood they have introduced).

Having worked as a co-convenor on Shaw’s Central Wellington campaign in 2014, it was a natural fit for the party to run their two electorates as a joint campaign.

Crossen needs the Greens to receive 12.6 percent of the party vote to make it into Parliament.

Teall and her team are working hard to make sure this happens. They will mobilise volunteers to stop people near advance voting booths once they open on September 11, reminding them they can vote before election day.

It’s through these volunteers, and their organisation and passion, that the Greens hope to claw back their lost ground.

The system worked wonders for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders who mobilised and empowered an army of supporters, much to the amusement of Sherrell.

“I laughed when I saw that, I was so excited but we’ve been doing that distributed campaigning for ages because we’ve never had the resources that the big parties have had. That sort of campaigning is what we’ve always done.”

The Greens will be hoping that on September 23, they don’t come up agonisingly short like their American counterpart.