Thomas O'Brien


In October 2017, the formation of a Labour-led coalition in New Zealand ended nine years of National Party government. The swing of the pendulum back to the left provides an opportunity to reflect on the impact of party orientation on a specific issue area. There is a perception that left parties are more environmentally friendly than those on the right, which Carter argues is derived from the tendency of centre-right parties to downplay the significance of environmental issues more than those on the left. This raises questions about reactions by the public to the governing party’s orientation to the environment. In a recent paper I examine patterns of environmental protest in New Zealand under Labour Party (1999-2008) and NationalParty (2008-2017) governments. This research drew on protest event analysis to identify the number of events, protest issues and level the protests targeted, to assess the impact of the shift from left to right oriented government on environmental protesting.

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, New Zealand saw substantial campaigns over issues such as hydropower developmentnative forest logging and nuclear testing. More recently there have been sustained campaigns targeting genetically engineering (GE), mining and offshore oil exploration. These large-scale campaigns have captured the attention of the media and, in some cases, led to shifts in government policy, but built on a reservoir of concern and small-scale, localised protest actions. An important factor in whether these issues flare up into nationwide campaigns, or fade away after a time, is how the government of the day chooses to deal with them. The Labour government faced a sustained campaign against its plan to lift a moratoriumon GE crop trials in 2003 and the National government faced a similar level of opposition to continued efforts to expand mining from 2010, especially when their plans appeared to threaten the national park conservation estate. In both cases the government maintained its course, with only minor concessions.

Placing  these campaigns in context allows consideration of the extent to which they represented broader waves of collective action, as opposed to narrowly focused issue-driven mobilisations. The figure below indicates that, at an aggregate level, environmentally focused protest was higher under the National government (2009-2016 - 205 events) than during the Labour administration (2000-2007 - 155 events). It also shows that the level of protest was consistently higher under National and increased in the second half of its administration, when National governed without the need for coalition partners.

The divergence between levels of protest under the two administrations also pointed to variation in the forms the respective campaigns took. Labour saw a wide range of issues motivating environmental protest and, with the exception of the GE protests, these tended to represent the local level. The diversity resulted in lower linkage between campaigns, as district councils were more frequent targets than the national government. Issues of conservation, development, and pollution emerged as the main concerns during this period, making the targeting of local actors more effective, as these issues fell within their area of responsibility. The growing influence of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand during the 2000-2007 period also played a role, providing an alternative channel for expression of environmental concerns at the national level.

Under the National government, the focus shifted to economic concerns at the expense of the environment. A core issue motivating protest during this period was the drive for natural resource exploitation. Plans to mine in national parks generated widespread outcry, leading the government to abandon proposals, although this hardened the state’s position on mining more generally. Issues that had animated protest under Labour were still present but were overshadowed, as the drive to increase mining outside of national parks and press offshore oil exploration provided the base for a more sustained campaign. The exclusion of allies such as the Green Party from positions of influence led to a redoubling of focus on environmental protest. Most importantly, the dominance of mining and oil/gas encouraged the formation of networks that were able to operate at both the national and local level. Where opposition to national level plans failed, activists were able to turn to direct action and community mobilisation to hinder and challenge implementation.

Political opportunities and threats determine the ability of social movements to advance their claims. The shift from a left-wing Labour to a right-wing National government in New Zealand reflects a closure of opportunities, as the state prioritised economic development and allies such as the Green Party were weakened in the electoral arena. The perception of collaboration between the National-led government and industry in exploiting natural resources provided a focus for opposition. There result was an intensification of public protest activity and attempts to develop a more joined-up form of opposition and campaigns targeting issues at the national level. These developments demonstrate the significance of the political orientation of the party in power in shaping levels and forms of environmental protest. As opportunities in the formal representative space are restricted, excluded actors can turn to informal and protest activities to ensure their claims are advanced and recognised.


Thomas O’Brien is a Lecturer in the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. @TomOB_NZ