3 Sep 2020

The naughty prefect and the 'single source of truth'

From Caucus, 2:00 pm on 3 September 2020

It’s a rule of the playground, probably even at a Green School. Naughty kids can get away with things good kids can't because, well, people don’t expect anything else. They can smoke behind the bike-sheds and just get a glare and a warning. But if the school prefect is caught doing the same thing, there’s hell to pay. Expectations and reputations matter, at school and in politics. As James Shaw is being reminded this week.

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Green Party leader James Shaw apologises for his "error of judgement" of the Green School in Taranaki. Wellington. September 1, 2020.

Green Party leader James Shaw apologises for his "error of judgement" of the Green School in Taranaki. Wellington. September 1, 2020. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

In this scenario, laid out by Guyon Espiner on today’s Caucus election podcast, the ever-suited Shaw is the prefect. The good kid who never makes a fuss and sets an example. That’s long been key to the Green Party brand – that they don’t get down and dirty like those other kids. Kids like, well, Winston Peters, for example.

Shaw has made Peters a focus of his criticism this year, arguing that the New Zealand First leader has played fast and loose with the government agenda, been an agent of “chaos” in cabinet and seemed to support policies only to u-turn after months of work. Peters, says Shaw, is the school bully and wants rid of him next term.

But that casting was turned on its head this week with news Shaw had not only backed $11.7m of government funding for the Green School, a private school in Taranaki, but told his coalition partners wouldn’t sign off on $600m in other infrastructure funding unless the Green School was on the list.

As Espiner says, it’s not entirely fair on Shaw. He’s usually the halo pupil, but the one time he goes off for that metaphorical smoke behind the bike-shed, he gets caught and hauled over the coals. He gets damned as a pork-barreler for insisting on $11.7m for a private school, while Peters commits $72.5m to the racing industry with far less criticism, ‘because that’s just Winston’.

Winston Peters checks in on the construction of the Cambridge all-weather race track.

Winston Peters checks in on the construction of the Cambridge all-weather race track. Photo: Getty Images

Indeed, this week Peters has broken with collective cabinet responsibility to damn his own government’s response to Covid-19. Having claimed credit for New Zealand’s initial success, yesterday Peters said Labour was responsible for the government’s recent failings, despite the fact he sat around the cabinet table, took part in the decision-making and has been no less than Deputy Prime Minister throughout. As Espiner and Scott Campbell point out, past ministers have resigned before criticising cabinet decisions. Yet Peters hasn’t been called out. So when exactly is a government minister, not a government minister?

One of the key differences with the Greens, of course, is that funding private schools directly contradicts party policy. And the attacks on Shaw have been strongest from within his own party; a party that has mixed feelings about him. The division between moderates and radicals in the Greens is as old as the party itself, and while his “error of judgment” is by no means a resignation issue from a ministerial point of view, there are those in the party long wary of Shaw’s corporate Green agenda who would love to see him gone. They are exasperated that Shaw has spent three years saying he couldn’t put his foot down over issues such as welfare reform, water-bottling plants or getting agriculture into the ETS – that mean old Winston was bullying him – but found the strength to fight back… on behalf of a private school.

Green School New Zealand.

Green School New Zealand. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The tension, in part, lies between what the Green Party is and how it sees itself. Many in the party see it as the voice of the down-trodden. In truth, most of its votes come from the comfortable middle-class. For that reason the Caucus crew don’t think this controversy is a fatal blow to its election prospects. The angriest voices come from within the party and, once the crystal dust has settled and the bio-energy cleaned, few are likely to switch their vote away from the Green’s policy agenda, even if they are losing patience with Shaw as leader. A determinedly centrist Labour Party and a John Tamihere co-led Maori Party are hardly magnetic alternatives. A leadership spill at this stage surely would be fatal; the Greens only have to look back three years to see how a leadership scandal can half your vote in a matter of days.

What’s more worrying from a governance point of view is that the support of this school build raises questions as to whether the government’s $3b covid-inspired infrastructure spend has been handled in a sloppy manner with insufficient due diligence. Were other projects more carefully vetted or is the government throwing crisis money at other dubious projects for the sake of “jobs, jobs, jobs”? Shaw seems to have been ticking boxes (environmentally friendly building? Tick. Regions? Tick Lots of jobs promised? Tick) rather than looking hard at the project’s merits.

A Facebook post by Judith Collins' husband, David Wong-Tung, directed at prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

Photo: Screenshot / Facebook

The impact of social media this campaign season is the other key topic of conversation in the podcast – from the Ministry of Health’s mistaken order for all south and west Aucklanders to get covid-tested through David Wong-Tung’s meme attacks on Jacinda Ardern to outright lies by Advance New Zealand. How do we demand facts and accuracy from those in power and those seeking it? And have errors on social media and at the podium seen the government undermine its claim to be “the single source of truth” on Covid-19? With the south and west Auckland call-out, government leaders and officials cried wolf, meaning New Zealanders may start to doubt the very people best placed to counter the lies and half-truths on social media.

As the campaign kicks off in earnest for a second time today, there are serious questions whether authorities will be able to handle the barrage of social media coming our way, especially the downright dishonest bits.

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