2 Feb 2024

Shaw's message for his successor as he prepares to bow out

From Focus on Politics, 3:00 pm on 2 February 2024
Green Party co-leader James Shaw

James Shaw this week announced he was stepping down after nine years as Green Party co-leader. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"Know why you are here... be really clear about what the difference is that you want to make with your time and the role" - James Shaw

It was one of Parliament's worst kept secrets, and on Tuesday morning it was made official.

After nine years co-captaining the Green ship, James Shaw is stepping down.

His time as co-leader was, at times, tumultuous. Having to lead the party into the 2017 election alone, and then spending some time on the sidelines himself in 2022 when members opted to vacate his position.

But he says now, back in opposition, and with a fresh caucus, is the time for new leadership.

The day after his announcement, he told RNZ he had an enormous sense of relief, as well as excitement for what comes next for himself and for the Greens.

"I've been reading a lot of political obituaries about myself in the last 24 hours. By definition it's a reflective moment. The Greens don't change leaders very often," he said.

Shaw will not be leaving Parliament just yet. Becoming co-leader just a few months after entering Parliament means he has spent very little time on the back-benches, which he is looking forward to.

He intends to stay on to work on a members' bill, which would add the right to a sustainable environment into the Bill of Rights Act.

Opposition member's bills do not have a great history of success, but Shaw argued as a Bill of Rights amendment, it should come down to a conscience vote.

"I think I've built enough of a reputation with people across the house to at least have a conversation about what's possible here. And I think that I understand, from my experience here, enough about what other people need in order for them to be able to support something like the bill, that I've got to at least give it a fighting chance."

Chloe Swarbrick

Chlöe Swarbrick today announced she will run to be the next co-leader of the Green Party. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Shaw's oft-repeated commitment was to get the Greens into government, and safely out the other side.

He says the caucus, with three electorate seats and a record number of MPs, and the party, are in good shape to carry on without him.

"It will evolve. It evolved before I got here. The party that Marama [Davidson] and I have been leading, it's not the party that Rod [Donald] and Jeanette [Fitzsimons] led, or that Russel [Norman] and Metiria [Turei] led. We've gone through generational change, and there's no one in our current caucus who has worked with anyone who worked with anyone in that first caucus.

"The country has changed, and there's a generational shift in this country going on right now. I think our politics sort of reflects that, and you see some evolution inside the Greens."

There is still the nagging feeling there was more that could have been done.

Calls for the government to go further and faster on climate action meant he cut an increasingly frustrated figure in his last twelve months as co-leader.

The Greens' 2023 campaign was around more Green MPs, for seats at the Cabinet table, and for Shaw to complete a nine-year work programme. It succeeded at one of those. Despite a record number of MPs, and three electorate wins, the Greens are back in opposition.

Shaw will not speak much of regrets, though he laments how He Waka Eke Noa, a plan to reduce primary sector emissions, could not stick its landing.

"There were a number of recommendations that I took to Cabinet, which Cabinet chose not to accept. Ultimately, we ended up still without agricultural emissions pricing."

National has, however, committed to agricultural emissions pricing by 2030, which Shaw said at no other point in history had a National Party committed to do.

Green Party co-leaders Marama Davidson and James Shaw

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson and James Shaw have refused to publically endorse a successor. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

For all the perception the Greens were sidelined in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition, Shaw said they still needed the Greens' vote, which gave him access to every paper that went to Cabinet.

"I noticed [a difference] more in the second term, when we had a majority Labour government and our votes were not required. There were many times when I felt it was actually harder to get things done in that term, than it was in the first term," he said.

That first term saw Shaw shepherd through the world-first Zero Carbon Act, which enshrined climate targets into law. A bipartisan commitment has safeguarded it against future changes of government.

Shaw said that was done through a mix of idealism and pragmatism, which he refuses to see as a binary.

"People look at us and go, 'wow, they're pretty radical,' but actually you can have radical values, and then you can go and work with whoever you need to work with in order to get things done."

As expected, Chlöe Swarbrick has thrown her hat in the ring to succeed Shaw.

The self-described "well-researched radical" has a bold goal: a Green led government.

Shaw and Marama Davidson have refused to publicly endorse a successor, but Shaw did have a message for whoever does succeed him.

"The primary one is to know why you are here. To be really clear about what the difference is that you want to make with your time and the role. And don't allow yourself to be distracted by all of the millions of really interesting, fascinating things that you can be here."

He was confident his successor would be able to deal with the increased weight, scrutiny, hours, and abuse that comes with more responsibility, but was worried Parliament spent a lot of time thinking about the symptoms rather than the cause.

As for what is next for him, he has no specific roles in mind, rather a set of criteria.

"I do want to continue to make the most impact on the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis as I can. The reason I came into politics was because I had the assessment the greatest lever for change is in the political domain. It's in our legislation and in the way we manage our economy and our regulations and so forth.

"That's why I was here. I did that, and then the next question is, now the door's closed, what's the next greatest lever for change?"

He believed that was in directing capital away from fossil fuels and towards a green economy.

When it comes to looking back at his time in Parliament, Shaw said legacy questions left him queasy.

"If you were to ask me what people will say ten years from now, twenty years from now, I would anticipate they'll have no idea who I am. But are our greenhouse gas emissions coming down at the rate that they need to be? Are we restoring and replenishing our forests and our wild places, and looking after our rivers and our oceans the way that we need to, for its own sake, and also because we depend on the environment for our very survival?

"That, to me, is what my time here has been all about. And if those things are going in the right direction, then I think I will have some quiet satisfaction that I had something to do with it."

In this week's Focus on Politics, Political Reporter Giles Dexter sits down with Green Party co-leader James Shaw, to talk about his decision to step down, his time in the role, and the message he has for whoever succeeds him.

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