James Shaw: “I think people look at us as the reliable government partner”

The Greens has generally been a low profile support party in the current Government, overshadowed by the high profile of Jacinda Ardern and the bargaining power of NZ First.

With an election coming up they are trying to differentiate themselves from Labour and promote themselves as a successful and worthwhile part of Government.

Their priority must be to make the 5% threshold and survive in Parliament. Co-leader Marama Davidson is standing in the Tāmaki Makaurau and is promoting her chances – Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson will run hard for a Māori seat – but she must be an outside chance there.

If they survive the election their next priority must be to negotiate as a coalition partner with Labour, and they will be hoping without NZ First in the picture, to give them more negotiating power and some say in Cabinet (this term they are outside Cabinet).

Stuff: Portrait of Green leader James Shaw: ‘Labour wasted its political capital’

Shaw was selected as male co-leader in May 2015. He’d been an MP for just eight months, and even in the helter-skelter world of New Zealand politics, the victory was a shock. His main rival was genial senior MP Kevin Hague.

Shaw admitted his corporate background put him at a disadvantage in a party of radicals and nonconformists. With neat suits and a clean-cut style, he seemed an unlikely partner to anarchist-turned-firebrand politician Metiria Turei.

Shaw still seems to have detractors amongst Green supporters.

Within just over two years, Shaw would be the Green’s sole leader. Turei was forced to resign, weeks out from the election, after confessing to benefit and electoral fraud. Their polling slumped dramatically.

Shaw was left to shepherd the party through the rest of the campaign, the bitter internal fall-out over Turei’s disclosure and highly-charged negotiations to join the Labour-led Government.

Support for the Greens is still half what it was before the Turei tumult, almost continuously in the threshold danger zone.

“The second most stressful was the seven weeks leading up to those negotiations: like, you’re the front man while the Greens are in danger of never returning to Parliament.”

The negotiations were “really tough,” he says.“We weren’t prepared for them.”

Nothing could really prepare a party for post-election negotiations, but like Labour the Greens were probably not expecting to be in negotiating positions even a month before the election.

There is an enduring perception the Greens have yielded much to Winston Peters and, despite securing only 24,000 votes fewer than NZ First, have significantly less clout.

“We’re not [achieving everything we wanted],” Shaw conceded. “But neither is anybody else. Right? If you went through the NZ First coalition agreement, or the Labour Party manifesto, or even a speech from the throne, there’s stuff that we all haven’t got done.

There is a justified perception that the Greens are by far the weakest of the parties in Government. They were no match for Winston’s negotiating experience and Labour’s acquiescence to Winston in largely calling the shots after the election.

And as Greens had ruled out negotiating with National they had to pretty take what they were given from Labour and allowed by NZ First.

“The new narrative that irritates me is that we only got 95 percent of what we were asking for, therefore it’s a total failure. It drives me up the wall.”

I haven’t heard that narrative. A common perception is that they got nowhere near 95% of what they asked for – unless they were asking for bugger all.

And many in the party seem to have negative perceptions.

From the outset, Shaw’s centrist, corporate style has rubbed against the party’s more radical members.

When he compromises, they see the white flag of surrender. Some members chafed against budget responsibility rules, which set targets for lowering government debt and spending, and were eventually dumped by members.

Last year, candidate Jack McDonald upstaged Shaw at the annual conference by quitting and complaining about a “centrist drift”. Former high-profile MP Sue Bradford penned a piece lamenting the loss of the party’s radical, anti-establishment streak. Outgoing MP Gareth Hughes said the Government had not been transformational.

In April, a rump of about 100 members tried to oust Shaw, Minister Eugenie Sage and MP Chlöe Swarbrick by placing them far down the party’s list.

At mention of the ‘Green Left’ faction, Shaw slowly rolls his eyes.

“When you’ve spent 16 years in Opposition, you get so used to that. One of the challenges we’ve had is trying to shift to thinking like a party of Government, not a party of Opposition.

“We’ve got a very strong anarchist tradition. There’s still a lot of people around who used to be members of the McGillicuddy Serious Party. I think you have to honour that.

Turei was in the McGillicuddy Serious Party, but that’s quarter of a century ago. Most of the unrest and dissatisfaction seems to be coming from Green supporters that were not born then, or were very young.

He appears cautious, but Shaw says he’s picking the right battles: especially when it comes to unnatural bedfellows NZ First.

It’s not obvious what battles they have won against NZ First. And they seem to have lost significant battles.

There was surprise when the Greens recently voted, under urgency, for warrantless search powers for police contained in new Covid-19 emergency laws.

Eyebrows were also raised when Shaw defended a controversial memo from the office of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern telling ministers they had “no real need to defend” decisions made during the health crisis.

It looks like hypocrisy from a party who railed against the expansion of surveillance powers in Opposition, and have campaigned for transparency in Government. Shaw is resigned to, if not embracing, the cynical realities of holding power.

He talks of “tempered radicalism”.

“You hold onto your radical values and principles. And you work with the system that you are in, whether you like that system or not, to change it from within.

“Tempered radicalism” risks looking like letting values and principles slip with little gained.

NZ First slowed and ultimately diluted some of the Government’s flagship climate change policies. A capital gains tax – originally a Greens policy – was dropped in part due to Peters’ resistance.

Timidity on welfare reform can also be put down to his reluctance. And the Greens were also reluctantly forced to vote for their waka-jumping legislation, which allowed leaders to expel MPs from Parliament, boxed in by their confidence and supply agreement.

This doesn’t look radical at all – and it seems to annoy the hell out of green radicals.

While NZ First will position themselves as a ‘handbrake’ on radical reform, the Greens election campaign will centre on pushing the Government to go “further and faster”.

There is a long pause before Shaw, 47, answers a question about how he’s changed over the last five years. He rubs his face, deep in thought.

“It’s so hard to answer because this place is so intense and you don’t get a lot of time for personal reflection.

“Finding the path of least resistance. There’s that horrendous phrase about politics being the art of the possible, which can be read two ways.

“You can do things, it’s a really expansive notion. And there are some moments where we have changed things.

“And then there are others where you can only do what is possible. Maybe moving from naivety to experience is being able to live in both those worlds at the same time.”

Will this approach attract more votes? It’s hard to say at this stage.

Co-leader Davidson is the number one ranked Green, and she will likely become more prominent in the election campaign. She may please the more radical side of the Greens, but she may not do well attracting more moderate potential Green voters. It’s going to be a big challenge.

“Even when I was elected as co-leader, that bloody clip of people dancing around the maypole at the 1990-something [conference], that was the intro. That was the thing that I most wanted to change.

“I knew the way to do that wasn’t by public relations. It was by getting into government and just demonstrating that our policies are good for people and actually kind of sensible.

“And I think we have. I think people look at us as the reliable government partner.”

Can Davidson do that?

The most recent polls for the Greens:

  • Newshub/Reid Research: 5.6%, 5.5%
  • 1 News/Colmar Brunton: 5.0%, 4.7%
  • Roy Morgan Research: 7%, 7%
  • UMR Research: 5%, 4%
  • Curia: 7%, 9%

I think that the greens should be able to get back in, but are unlikely to do much if any better than their 6.3% in the 2017 election.

Leave a comment

5 Comments

  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  7th June 2020

    A confused mixture of hardline Lefties and woolly thinkers. Given that most of their policies will evaporate on contact with reality they can be rated as per Douglas Adams: “Mostly Harmless”. That is their principal electoral attraction.

    Reply
  2. 95% ??? More like .95%.

    Reply
  3. Gezza

     /  7th June 2020

    Support for the Greens is still half what it was before the Turei tumult, almost continuously in the threshold danger zone.

    Leftist support for Labour under a succession of hopeless leaders was clearly if reluctantly bleeding away to The Greens.

    The level of polling support The Greens attained immediately prior to the Turei crash & burn event was just reflecting disillusionment & a sense of hopelessness about Labour’s chances of electoral success, imo.

    As soon as Little gave it up & let Ardern have a shot (very late, but a masterstroke) – that disillusioned support went straight back to Labour.

    Reply
  4. Corky

     /  7th June 2020

    I heard Muller explaining to a radio host Shaw’s zero carbon bill. The explanation was so clear and concise, and very understandable. It was in that moment I saw where Muller’s strength resided.

    James Shaw? Who?!

    Reply

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