James Shaw's advice for the Green Party

From 30 with Guyon Espiner, 3:00 pm on 8 May 2024

James Shaw has bowed out of politics after nearly 10 years as co-leader of the Green Party. He took the Greens into cabinet for the first time and wrestled with the future of the planet as climate change minister.  

Last year the Greens gained 15 MPs - their biggest caucus ever. But James Shaw leaves Parliament with his party reeling from a series of resignations and scandals, and questions about whether it's become too close to Labour and strayed too far from its mission.  

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The state of New Zealand right now

"I think we're going through a rough patch, as a country and as a planet, and so I think that's a vibe check on how people are feeling right now, rather than a statement of what's factually so. You know, I have a bit of a dark view of where things are at right now as well." 

"It's going to be a bit of a cliché, but I scan the news, and I see what the current government is up to, and I’ve been sitting 10 metres across the aisle from them whilst they've been doing it over the course of the last six months, and a lot of it appals me.

But I'm also really conscious that these things are temporary. Inflation is temporary; the state of Global Affairs waxes and wanes over time. We go through periods of high unemployment, low unemployment, and so on. So, if you try to take a long arc of history view, some of those things become, in some ways, less significant, because they are always there in one form or another."

"I think that there are things that we have not been paying attention to for some decades - infrastructure, increasing inequality in terms of socio-economic stratification, and so on. But I also think that we're a more progressive, much more multicultural, more tolerant, more inclusive society than we were 40 years ago."  

Are you optimistic about our country's future? 

Yeah, I am.  

The health of the Green Party

"The most recent polls have had us on about 14%, which is a historic high watermark. And yes, I know it's been an incredibly rough year. You've talked about resignations and scandals, but actually, the death of Efeso Collins was really the greatest blow, and has been very, very hard for our caucus and for our staff.  

But I also think generally, the public look at these things and kind of recognise that every political party goes through moments like this." 

You've had an extraordinary period, with Elizabeth Kerikeri resigning as an MP amid bullying allegations, Golriz Gharaman resigning after shoplifting, Darlene Tana suspended after these complaints of migrant exploitation into her husband's company. What does that say about the culture of the Green Party? 

"I don't think that you can say that there's a pattern there. I mean, if I was to look at Golriz for example, to me - I mean, look, the first thing I need to say is, shoplifting is wrong, and it’s illegal. But also, that was so obviously, to me, a case of compulsive, self-destructive behaviour brought on by, essentially, a mental health crisis. And so, I wouldn't say that that says something about our recruitment processes or anything like that. It does say something about the culture of Parliament and of peoples’ treatment of politicians right now."

Did you see that coming? 

"No, I did not. No, I did not. I also have to say, I wasn't wholly surprised when I first heard about it. Because we knew that Golriz attracted a level of abuse that was far in excess of what we see on average. And on average, that has been increasing. You would have seen research in the last couple of weeks that came out that said that the rate of increase [in abuse towards] MPs, particularly female MPs, has been increasing significantly over the last eight years." 

So, you weren't surprised that she reacted to that situation by stealing those goods? 

"I was surprised that that's the way it manifested. But ultimately, you know, I've seen a number of cases in Parliament and with friends outside of Parliament, and former colleagues, who have gone through mental health crises and have responded in a number of different ways. And one former colleague from many, many, many years ago, had been a compulsive shoplifter when she was going through that period. So, it's not something that I was unfamiliar with, as a kind of neuroses, if you like."

How's she doing? 

"Well, look, it's rough, you know. She was a practising lawyer, she worked in The Hague on war crimes tribunals. She was a high-profile Member of Parliament and a lead campaigner on a number of issues. And, you know, like I said, it's a completely irrational, self-destructive kind of behaviour, for someone with her sort of background." 

When you look at those things though, like shoplifting, bullying, migrant exploitation allegations, some will look at that and say, what a bunch of hypocrites. You take very strong positions on all of these issues – on justice, workplace relations, and bullying, and here are MPs falling foul of exactly those standards.

"Well, the reason why Elizabeth resigned is because we're upholding those standards. The reason Darlene was suspended pending an investigation is because we were concerned that some standards have been breached. I think it's incumbent upon us to always make sure that we are upholding our standards as much as we would apply them to anybody else. 

You'll notice that when other political parties have gone through similar situations with members of their own parties, we have generally stayed out of those and said, well, that is a matter for those parties to deal with, because we're aware that political institutions and political parties aren't perfect."  

James Shaw in studio with Guyon Espiner

James Shaw in studio with Guyon Espiner Photo: RNZ

The Green Party changed its rules in 2022, removing the requirement for a male co-leader. Did you support that change?  

"Yeah, I did. The new rule is, of the two co-leaders, at least one has to be female, and at least one has to be Māori. We’ve had sort of a written rule in our Constitution, saying that we uphold Te Tiriti, since the early to mid 2000s. And yet, I wasn't comfortable that we'd actually structurally embraced that. So I did support the constitutional change." 

Why doesn't one leader have to be male though? 

"Well, because mathematically, if you're saying that at least one has to be female, and at least one has to be Māori, then if you then also say that one has to be male, then you start to run into trouble." 

But what is the signal that sends to men, especially young men? 

"I don't think that men have ever had a particular problem in politics. And even whilst we've had that role, I've been the co-leader, right, so I would say that it [doesn’t preclude men from a leadership role in the Greens]"

But it wouldn't allow for a Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons pairing today. 

"No, it wouldn't. Let me put it this way. Today, our caucus has more Māori MPs than the total number of Māori MPs that we have had in the entire 24 years that we have been in Parliament."   

But Parliament doesn't have a problem with Māori representation, does it? 28% compared with overall 17% of the population. So, I suppose your critics would say, look, we don't need this anymore, because the representation is there.  

"Well, first of all, they're not going to vote for the Green Party in the first place, right? But second of all, we have only gotten to those levels of representation by working hard at it. And if you look at the Labour Party and the Green Party, and obviously Te Pati Māori, that is something that we have worked on." 

"If you look across the aisle at the National Party, they have very few Māori MPs as a proportion of the total number that they've got. And they don't have processes that advance Māori within their recruitment processes in the way that we do." 

"So, there is a reason why there are Māori represented in Parliament, and that's because for the last 20 or 30 years, little by little we have chipped away [at addressing the issue.]" 

Was changing the leadership rules partly an effort to get you out of the role?  


Because they did try, didn't they? In 2022? There was a very brief attempted coup.  

"I don't think those things were connected. The constitutional change was something that had been a long time coming. There were a number of us who felt that we hadn't really embodied our commitment to Te Tiriti in our constitution. And it had been a very long time since we'd revisited that constitution."  

How did you feel about the membership kicking you out of the leadership position? Did you feel betrayed on that?  

"Well, I was obviously gutted [when] it happened. But I also recognised it was a pretty unusual circumstance, in which a minority of particularly motivated delegates used the system [to their advantage.] We have this rule, where every year you have to run for the position [of leader] again, but you have to get [the vote of] 75% of the delegates. Which means you only need 25% plus one vote to upend it. That Annual General Meeting [where the vote took place], had a week before been moved online because of COVID. It was supposed to be in Otutahi Christchurch. So, it was sort of one of those things where people just weren't really paying a great deal of attention." 

You were always suspected by some, though, of being a bit of an impostor in your position weren't you? 

"It's been true since I got there in the first place."  

"Well, I think I've had the obvious kind of critics in the in the media, former MPs, particular factions within the Green Party, who don't like the fact that I seem different from them."  

What do you mean by that? 

"Well, I mean, there would be people who would say that a middle-class white guy in a suit with a corporate background isn't the kind of profile that they identify with." 

They actually say that to you? 

"Some people have said versions of that to me, but ultimately -  

Green Party members? 

"Yeah, yeah. But ultimately, I mean, so what? It's politics, right? I mean, people vote for parties largely on the basis of their identity. We all think that we vote on the basis of [analysing] the policies, and then looking at who to vote for. We don't think like that. The vast majority of people have an almost tribal affinity based on their own, sort of, sense of personal identity, and then they vote for parties that more closely represent that."

Is that healthy?  

"No, I don't think so."  

That exists even within the Greens?  

"It exists in politics."  

They looked at you and thought, what? 

"That I don't look like them. There was this kind of suspicion that I was [something like] a Tree Tory. It means, essentially, a right-wing environmentalist."  

Are you a Tree Tory?  

"No, no. I'm a Green. This is the thing that I've always been frustrated about in this country, and in politics in general. We're locked into this left / right binary. And I think it's really unhealthy. If we're going to solve the great challenges of our time, we have to get above that sort of petty partisanship and work out what the long-term challenges are that we need to fix. Frankly, I don't care what your identity is, what I care about is whether or not we're actually resolving these challenges together. "

So if you don't care what your identity is, why do you have to have one leader who's a woman and one leader who's Māori?  

"What I'm talking about is my own personal sense of it. I do think that as long as politics is the way that it is, that it is important for political parties to ensure that we are being inclusive and that we are representing."

Do you think hyper-partisanship and political tribalism is getting worse in New Zealand?  

"I do. I am [concerned about it]. Look, this is going to sound clichéd, but I think a lot of it is driven by global social media giants. And the way they operate is by taking something that has always existed in our society and exacerbating it, supercharging it with technology. I don't think it's a particularly uniquely New Zealand phenomenon, in fact, I think we're probably a little behind other democracies. 

I think party politics, and the kind of increasing sophistication that we have around that, the technology that we're using that triggers that sense of personal identification with a tribal, political kind of niche, I think that’s not a healthy phenomenon."  

What about the Green’s role in saying, I only work with the left? Isn't that tribalism? Is that something that could, or should, change for the Greens next? 

"There's two views to that. I think the Greens are pretty comfortably identifiable as a left-wing political party. On that binary spectrum, broadly speaking, we sit to the left of the Labour Party. So the people who vote for the Greens are voting on that basis. They don't want a right-wing government led by the National Party, they want a left-wing government." 

"And my point is, if [the Greens chose to work with National,] you might be able to stop National from doing even worse things, particularly if you're able to block ACT and New Zealand First. But you would probably be punished at the next election existentially. So then the question is, how enduring would that change be?"  

"The other view, is that if you look at the current government, by way of example, and you say, well, actually, we do care about our planet, and we do care about our people, then actually, your own survival as a political party should be a secondary consideration to trying to stop those bad things from happening, if you can have some good things happen."  

Is that the view that you subscribe to? 

"Yes, it is."  

Are you saying that the Greens should in the future be open to working with National?  

"Well, if the National Party had called us after the last election, I think we would have entertained a conversation with them to find out what might be possible. But it is really a matter for the members. I would be very comfortable taking a proposal to the members for them to decide, because ultimately, they have to be comfortable with it.  

It was a difficult one getting us over the line even in 2017. But we got there. It was overwhelmingly in favour. And then when we started facing some of the headwinds and some of the challenges, we could go back to the members and say, well, you voted for us to be in government. This is your decision." 

It’s interesting to hear you say getting gains on climate change should be more important than the status of the Green Party, in that we might lose some votes and some members if we go with National. 

"I think it's more important than the fate of any political party. I don't care about the survival of any of our political parties if the survival of our planet is up for grabs."  

And so that's your message to the Greens, ongoing? 

"That is my message to every political party, in fact to every individual member of parliament, that if you want to resolve some of the really existential threats that face us, then you’ve got to lift your head above the three-year electoral cycle, lift your head above party policy, partisanship, and the idea that it's all about just winning for the sake of winning, and work together. You can do that by working in government or you can do it when you're in opposition." 

Could you have worked with Christopher Luxon? 

"Yes, I could work with Christopher Luxon. And, you know, whilst there are a lot of things about the National party and a number of people in the National party, I am more worried about ... You don't have to be a genius to work out that it's Winston and David Seymour who are really steering the direction of travel in this government."

Should you have been involved in the 2023 Government? 

"Well, the voters had something to say about that. If you look at the numbers, once the specials were counted, if you added National plus the Greens, it would still have needed either ACT or New Zealand First. And I don't think that that would have been a functional government at all. I mean, the current arrangement is hardly functional." 

James Shaw in studio with Guyon Espiner

James Shaw in studio with Guyon Espiner Photo: RNZ

Climate change

Firstly, the world is at 1.2 degrees warmer than preindustrial levels. The aim is to keep it to 1.5. But we're on a trajectory to hit somewhere between 2.1 and 2.9 before the end of the century. Are we preserving a planet worth living on? 

"Well, the second half of that sentence I'll take some issue with. In a sense, no, not on our current trajectory. Ultimately, humans find ways of living in pretty extreme circumstances. There are parts of the planet where people have lived for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and you scratch your head and say, good lord, what on earth are people doing in this unbelievably inhospitable place?"  

"The problem is that we're making more and more of the planet like that. At some speed. So, we're not moving with nearly the speed and the scale that we need to be."

Are you optimistic that we can limit it to 1.5 degrees warming?  

"I'm not. I'm not optimistic. Last year, if I've got my facts right, we actually exceeded 1.5. Now, that could have just been a blip, because the way these things go, it sort of zigzags. So, it could come down a bit and then go up a bit more, and so on, in the future. But we are certainly standing on the precipice of 1.5 degrees of warming right now."  

"That is not to say, though, that I think that we should give up. To me, what that says, is double down. And if you really break it down - or to coin a phrase, to “chunk it down” - back in preindustrial times we had about 160 parts per million of co2 concentration in the atmosphere. Now we're at 420. That's a lot. It's 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and the greenhouse gases that we've emitted. 

The maths are, we have to stop putting co2 into the atmosphere and adding to the problem, and we have to take the lion's share of that 2 billion tonnes of co2 out of the atmosphere. And I think that is possible. If we actually crack on with it, and I think that the chances are increasing over time that we will, then we have some hope of bringing it back down."

How much of a factor is capitalism and technology going to play in this, versus government regulations? 

"I don't think that you can disaggregate the two. I think that they go hand in hand. But there are choices that the government can make.  One of the great ironies of recent times was that we put in place the Clean Car discount that led to a massive explosion in Electric Vehicle sales. The current government came along and got rid of that. That was a market mechanism." 

"Although when you look at things like regulatory impact statements on this, it seemed that there were concerns about equity and fairness because high income New Zealanders were being able to benefit from this as they were purchasing the EVS. I mean, poor folks, even with a discount, couldn't buy an EV. 

Our argument is, that's why you have things like public transport. And we started to set up a programme called a Social Leasing Programme for low-income households, and so on and so forth. That got canned on the so-called “policy bonfire.” So I'm not saying that you should only pull one lever, you need a whole suite of them."  

New Zealand has had emissions fall for the last three years. 

"You're welcome."  

Do you see that as the biggest success of your tenure?  

"Well, I don't want to over-claim, because things like the weather had something to do with that as well. But I think it was a combination of factors. When I was in opposition, one of the things I did say was that the only measure of success that a government should use when it comes to climate change is whether emissions are rising or falling. For three of the six years that I was a minister, they fell." 

Do you think that we're going to see that continue over the next three years? 

"I think that they will fall, but at a slower rate. I think that's the most likely scenario. I think a number of different things can happen."  

Are you glad to leave politics? 

"Yeah. I never thought of myself as a lifer. I kind of wanted to get in and do the job, and then get out again, and get on with, you know, the rest of my life. When I ran for co-leader back in 2015, I made it my mission to take us into government and then safely out the other side."

So is it mission accomplished for James Shaw?  

"Well, according to the success measures I set for myself, yes."  

What are you going to do next? 

"My next mission is to reduce or remove 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from global emissions by 2030. And if that number sounds familiar to you, it's because that is also New Zealand's target under the Paris Agreement, which I was responsible for putting in place. So, I kind of have a sense of responsibility towards it."  

"But I'm also [doing that] because I want to prove to all of the numpties who are going around in circles, wailing about how expensive it's all going to be and what a sunk-cost it is, and how hard it all is, that actually it's easier than they think. And they can do it on a return-on-investment basis."

What's your role going to be? 

"I'm moving into climate finance and investment.  When it comes to big global challenges, you try and pull the biggest lever available to you. That's why I went into politics in the first place. The second biggest lever, now that politics is closed to me as an option, is in redirecting capital flows towards the green economy." 

Any regrets in politics?   

"Oh, thousands."

What's the biggest one? 

"That is a very good question. I don't really dwell on them, so I don't have a list in in my mind. Okay. Here we go. It's that I wasn't able to make as much traction on biodiversity loss and rebuilding our natural heritage, and protecting that."