Exclusive: For a strong green future – an interview with James Shaw.
James Shaw is the Green Party spokesperson for Economic Development, Commerce, Trade and Investment, Tourism, Small Business, State Owned Enterprises, Open Government and Electoral Reform. He entered Parliament for the Green Party after the 2014 General Election, and in his maiden speech raised eyebrows when he quoted Margaret Thatcher as being one of the first world leaders to recognize the threat of climate change, exciting pundits such as John Armstrong and Matthew Hooten, who both touted him as a future leader who National could deal with – though they might have been slightly disappointed when later James told The Nation that he’d quoted Thatcher in an attempt to impress upon National MPs that climate change wasn’t in fact a partisan issue, not out of any great love (and they may yet be further disappointed – see James’ answer regarding the Greens chances of getting into government come 2017). Their predictions of him as a future leader may be more on point though, as James is running to replace Dr. Russel Norman as male co-leader of the Green Party. Dr Norman will be leaving bit shoes to fill though, as he is widely considered to have been the man who gave the Greens their economic credibility. With this in mind, shortly after James had announced his bid, I contacted him requesting an interview over Skype. After a speedy reply and a few hectic weeks, we finally had a date for the interview: Thursday, April the ninth. So on the day of the interview, armed with my not-so-trusty laptop, and a cup of tea I never managed to start on, I sat down for the not-so-long (though eagerly) awaited interview.
A few Skype stutters later, onto the screen popped James. We looked at each other for a few seconds. What’s the first thing he says? “Wow. Look at your hair”. Seeing as my hair is something I’m particularly proud of, I was pleased, and responded, “Yes, it’s a very green hairstyle, isn’t it?”
After a few seconds of greetings and this kind of banter, we got down to business. Below is a transcript of our hour-long interview.
Tell me a little about your life, and yourself as a person.
I’m a Wellingtonian. I went to school here, and Victoria University. I went over to Europe in the mid 1990’s and worked there for just over 15 years. I came back to Wellington in 2010 and stood in Wellington Central in the 2011 election, winning 28% of the vote. I first joined the Greens in 1990, aged sixteen, which was my last year of high school. I was very involved for three or four years, and then I started to become busy at Victoria University and in Europe. I worked on sustainable development at Price-WaterhouseCoopers for a few years. After that I was involved in a variety of startups, such as Future Considerations, which I was involved in up to last year. FC focused on global leadership development and sustainability.
Do you see your business background as an advantage or a disadvantage for your candidacy?
I think every MP’s background and experience brings something unique. I think my background has an advantage for a few reasons, such as experience in what it takes to create change inside large organizations, which is useful if you want to reform parliament, and leadership. My skillset would transfer easily to being co-leader.
Why have you decided to run?
The main reason is that I believe that I can bring more new voters to the Green Party. That really is the single most important role of the co-leaders, to act as the leading public faces of the party. I felt that I could make more of a difference to Green politics by acting in the role of co-leader.
Why the Green Party? What appeals to you about them? What is their best quality?
One of the things that first attracted me to the Green Party was the idea that we could transform the stuck political discourse into real change, and that we would change the system from within, rather than try from outside it. That’s the kind of thing I’ve been working on with Price-waterhouseCoopers and Future Considerations. By standing I’m going to put that kind of transformative change front and center.
My father is a long-time Green supporter. He was a long-time friend of Rod Donald, and one of the people who persuaded Rod to leave the Alliance during the 1990s. He thinks that the Greens have recently lost their way. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t think that we’ve lost our way. I hear different versions of that from different people, everyone has different views of what the party is and should be, and when it changes from that path they take the view that we’ve lost our way. Strategy has to change with the times; the strategy that has worked might not be the one we need in the future. We need to be conscious of the changing times, but some people see change as us losing our way. If your dad means by “lost its way” we lack a strong overarching vision, well we have talked about the lack of an over-arching goal. As we work with the modern media we have broken stuff down into bite-sized chunks, and this can cause the vision to be lost in the numbers and little pieces. I want to restore the transformative change vision we once had.
How can you sharpen the Green message to fit in with today’s very image-driven media?
The fact that we’ve had the two most successful elections ever in a row shows that we are breaking down stereotypes. I believe choosing me, as co-leader would be another step along that road. Part of my success in Wellington Central was our image as credible, professional, responsible people who could govern. We connected with the people of the electorate and showed that we shared the values of our electorate.
What would the Greens look like under your leadership? Will there be a change in policy focus, such as more emphasis on climate change or economics?
It’s not going to be a directional change. One thing I’m really keen to do is put more numbers on our economic policy. For example the carbon tax cut and clean rivers policy were both a good start. But I want to get us to the point where we can present an alternative budget. That is where I would like us to get. That would show that we have credibility. It would force us to think about priorities, rather than just individually costing policies as we have been up till now, we’d be providing a framework of complementary policies.
The Greens draw a lot of their support from students and young people. Why should young people support you for the party leadership?
In Wellington Central we had a massive boost in our vote from the youth demographic. While I’m not in my twenties, I have the appeal to that demographic. When I joined, the idea that the Green Party was there to change the system really appealed to me. Podemos, Syriza, Obama in 2008, the youth turnout was motivated by the idea of transformative change. If I’m leading and we put that out there it’ll give us appeal among young people.
Do you think that the co-leaders debate on The Nation threw your campaign off track slightly? If so, have you managed to get it back on track?
No, I don’t. It was very early in the campaign and I think you have to remember that of the four I was the only one who got the economics question right. I think the hysteria was so mad that most people didn’t pay much attention to it. We were told that we would be asked some economics questions, so I was busy reading up on our policies, rather than a load of numbers and stats.
What is your message to the people who accuse you of being a National Party plant or blue-green because of your business background?
I’ve actually been starting my speeches at the meeting with this joke that we’ve all got stereotypes. Gareth as young and boyish, Kevin steady and calm, Vernon unknown and inexperienced, and then there’s me, the National party sleeper agent. If I’m a sleeper agent I’ve been asleep for 25 years! I know a lot of this image is down to my background in business. I think it’s disingenuous to say that business is purely National Party turf.
According to some scientists, climate change is going to accelerate over the next decade or so. What does New Zealand need to do to minimize damage to our economy, environment and infrastructure?
Firstly we should start reducing emissions. We’re actually already paying the cost for this. The drought a few years ago was 95% attributable to climate change. Right now, a host of extreme weather events are costing us a sh*tload of money. We need to start adapting to climate change. Central government needs to provide stronger support and advice on how to deal with climate change to local communities and councils. They need central government support. We need a proper strategy. We need to find a way to adapt our infrastructure to climate change. Otherwise we’re going to spend money on infrastructure that quickly becomes irrelevant.
What is the one policy area you think is essential for a co-leader of the Greens to have experience in/a knowledge of?
That’s an interesting one. What we’ve said recently is that there are two areas we’re concentrating on, climate and inequality. Each co-leader takes one of these two issues to champion. The co-leaders don’t need to specialize; they need to have some knowledge of everything. They can be called on to talk about any issue at any moment.
Would you take the finance role off Russel Norman if you were elected co-leader?
I think that our economic and finance and business expertise has been hyper-concentrated into Russel. It isn’t the co-leaders decision on who gets which portfolio, however even if it were I wouldn’t give it to myself. I believe we need to create an economics team, rather than continuing with the economics focus all on one person. Some people in this could be Julie-Anne, Gareth, Jan, and myself. I would prefer Julie-Anne to take on the role if it was to be re-assigned, as she’s already the Associate Finance spokesperson, and she’s young and a woman. That would provide stark contrast to National and Labour. Besides, the National and Labour leaders aren’t the Finance spokespeople, it shouldn’t be exclusive to one of our leaders. I’d like to hold on to Economic Development as part of the economics team. I’m the first spokesperson for ED, so it doesn’t really make sense to change that around already.
Do you think the Greens chances of getting into government are less likely since Winston Peters won the Northland by-election?
Well, I know that there’s an increased level of risk, because we don’t know whether he’ll go with Labour or National. I think him winning Northland actually increases chances of him going with National, as it’s a very conservative electorate. So yes, there is a slightly higher chance of the Greens not being in government with that possibility open. The only way the Greens will go into government in 2017 is with Labour. Given what has changed over the last few years, we should work with Labour to present a government in waiting. If I’m co-leader, I’ll be asking the Party to endorse this strategy.
That was the end of my own questioning. Next up we had some crowd-sourced questions.
From Patricia Wallace: What is the Green Party’s stance on the TPPA?
We’ve got a number of concerns about it. ISDS is one. The problem is we don’t know what’s in the TPPA. We’re kind of shadowing-boxing. What we have seen in it causes us to have grave concerns for New Zealand. So long as ISDS is in it, the Greens will oppose it.
From Kris Robinson: What is the Green Party’s stance on medical marijuana? And would it change under your leadership?
I’m comfortable with our policy, which you can find our website (https://home.greens.org.nz/policy/drug-law-reform-policy-towards-harm-reduction-model). It’s not a priority for us, if we get into government it won’t be at the top of our to-do list. We haven’t been actively campaigning on it recently, but our stance hasn’t changed.
From Keith Symonds: How would a Green Party under your co-leadership engage non-voters?
When people don’t vote, it’s not apathy; it’s a conscious choice. They think the political system isn’t offering them anything, so they don’t participate. When you look overseas, the times big participation happens is when someone offers transformative change (see answer to eight).
From Huia Jackson: Do you support or oppose the Christchurch City Council’s partial sell-off of assets to strategic partners?
What you’ll see shortly is the Green party campaigning against that. We think there are other and better ways to deal with the problems Christchurch is facing. Whilst selling assets can bring in a short-term cash injection, our history with these things show that usually the loss of future revenue isn’t always fully priced into the sale prices, so you lose that future revenue. I think Christchurch Council is pretty prudent, and in a tight spot, so I can see where they’re coming from. However I don’t think it’s the right choice and I don’t think the public is fully behind this.
– Transcript ends.
And that was that, an hour-long interview with James Shaw. So what was my impression of him?
On a personal level, he seems relaxed, friendly and easy-going. He has a sense of humour, and obviously has a pretty good brain. It was particularly pleasing that, unlike some other times I’ve talked to politicians, there was no patronizing me because of my age. This shows that he has a respect for all people and what they have to say, no matter their age.
On a political level, he’s definitely forward thinking. Not just for the planet (as most Green MPs, members and supporters are), but also for the Party. His statements about how the Green Party’s economic credibility and focus have been hyper-concentrated into Russel were perfectly true, as most people know. His suggestion of creating an economics team for the party makes sense for the future credibility of the Party, as this would mean the Greens moved beyond their “One-man economics” image. The idea of every year presenting an alternative budget, fitting within the cash limit the government actually has at the time would be another very good step along the road to complete economic credibility and complete party maturity, as is the suggestion of providing a framework of policies costed together, rather than a lot of (while inspiring) individually costed policies which, while they mesh together nicely on the idealistic vision side of things, wouldn’t actually work within the limits of government we have at present.
James Shaw could definitely win the leadership contest. And he could do very well as co-leader.