Five years ago, James Shaw had one goal: To change the way that people thought about the Greens.
“Look at media coverage over the previous 20 years. The overriding narrative is: ‘For God’s sake, don’t let these people anywhere near power.
“’They’re crazy. They’ll crash the government, they will destroy the economy. They’ve got no idea what they’re doing. They’re completely unreliable. They smell’.”
To change the story, Shaw had to do two things. The first was to become part of the leadership. The second was to prove the naysayers wrong.
“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.”
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.
Until the contest, he’d been Shaw’s caucus mentor.
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.
“The leadership campaign … was bloody intense. Everyone – including me – assumed that Kevin would win.”
Then came a moment when Shaw realised he had momentum. He’d just delivered a belting speech to a packed conference hall on Wellington’s Queen’s Wharf. Hague changed his stump speech at the last moment, and it fell flat.
“Both of our teams were trying to get numbers. It’s unlike a caucus vote when [you] ring the other MPs and find out. This is: ring every single branch, get a sense of what’s going on.”
Two days before the vote was to be counted and confirmed at the party’s annual general meeting, Hague, who was poorly with pneumonia, rang Shaw to concede.
“He said: ‘we can’t win, you know. You’ve won.’
“We knew that we had a pretty good margin. But with a third of the votes uncounted, it could have gone the other way.”
Shaw was still very much a rookie MP, and about to be thrown into the deep end.
“On the day, the thing I remember most was [when] we hit ‘the huddle’. I’d never experienced anything like that …it was just this wall of journalists – who were all quite used to walking backwards and so forth. But I wasn’t.
“It was quite intense. It’s funny because watching Todd [Muller] at the moment I’m like: ‘I feel you, buddy’.”
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.
“It’s been a pretty amazing five years,” he says. “Met’s resignation, the final seven weeks of that [election] campaign, the negotiations – the single most stressful experience of my entire life.
“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.”
Once a deal was thrashed out, the party had to approve it.
“One of the most extraordinary moments of my entire life was a Zoom call with 300 people…when the general secretary started to do the roll call, branch by branch, and it just came back: yes. I’m actually having an emotional reaction to it right now. It was pretty amazing to go, ‘we did the right thing’.”
The confidence-supply- deal didn’t give the Greens a seat at the Cabinet table, but they did win nine portfolios including climate change and conservation.
There would be climate change legislation with a goal of net zero emissions by 2050, a referendum on personal cannabis use, a significant increase to the Department of Conservation budget and the removal of excessive welfare sanctions.
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.
That more than $5bn of a $12bn infrastructure spend-up will go towards building roads was a slap in the face. A review of the welfare system fell short of promises of an overhaul.
“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.
“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.”
The disappointment is also internal.
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. Ultimately, the faction failed: co-leader Marama Davidson is ranked first, with Shaw second and Swarbrick third.
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.
“But sometimes, one of the things about being a political leader is you have to take on your own crowd and say: ‘hey team, this is not appropriate’.”
He appears cautious, but Shaw says he’s picking the right battles: especially when it comes to unnatural bedfellows NZ First.
“We’ve got a surprisingly functional relationship with NZ First and everybody understands everybody else’s position.
“So, when Shane Jones goes off about the RMA or something, I don’t respond because why would I?
“He’s just saying what he thinks he needs to say to shore up his voter base.”
Shaw gestures to a conference table: “Then, when we get them to this place, we sit down and go: ‘let’s try work out something that’s actually coherent, that we can agree, do together.”
But how does Shaw, or Davidson, hold back when the public statements demand challenging?
“Every time we respond, it gives that more oxygen.
“I’m really mindful of the lesson of Trump. The more people got outraged by the things he was saying … the more they amplify his message to the people he’s trying to appeal to.
“And I do not want that for New Zealand. It is a real, considered judgement.”
There was surprise when the Greens recently voted, under urgency, for warrantless search powers for police contained in new Covid-19 emergency laws.
“There have been a few times when we have made a difference to legislation before it’s got to the House. And this was one of those times.”
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.
“That is the choice you make in being a political party…there was a serious debate at the formation of the party, about whether to be a political party, or whether it should be a social movement.
“In making that choice, you have to live with the system.”
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.
It’s no secret the Greens would prefer to govern alone with Labour. Does Shaw ever feel out-foxed by Winston Peters?
“Not out-foxed, but frustrated. There are times I’ll have someone on my team or someone from MfE [Ministry for Environment] say: ‘take this decision to Government’. I’m just like: ‘that’s not gonna happen.’
“But you also have to be careful about being self-limiting as well. He has an endless capacity to surprise.”
Post coronavirus, opinion polls put the Greens polling somewhere between 5.5 and 7 per cent. 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 are things that we could have done in the last two-and-a-half years that we have been prevented from doing together,” Shaw says. “If I have a frustration with Labour, it’s that they could have spent more political capital than they have.”
Shaw has respect for National’s new leader Todd Muller, who he calls a “tough negotiator” after talks to secure cross party support for zero carbon legislation. But the deposing of Simon Bridges has changed little: any deal with National would have to be agreed by the wider party and there would have to be significant policy concessions.
“We’ve got National’s history to overcome… last night, they voted against the second reading of the emissions trading reform bill. They’re fighting against the resource management reforms.
“So, the fact that [deputy] Nikki [Kaye] and Todd are both members of the Blue-Greens hasn’t changed anything.”
Covid-19 has seen all the parties rip up their campaign plans. Shaw believes the time is now for a conversation about radical social and economic changes.
“People say this is an opportunity to fix some long term crises. It’s not just an opportunity, it’s actually a responsibility.
“Every dollar that we borrow off our children and grandchildren, to pay to get us through this crisis, as adults, they can’t spend on a future crisis. And we know what future crises they face.
“If we don’t use the stimulus money to solve those problems, they get a double whammy. They’ve got to pay increased taxes to pay back what we’ve borrowed and spent to get us through this crisis. And additionally to get them through the climate crisis.”
Conversations about wealth and land taxes, or progressive ideas like a universal basic income are a hot potato in election races. “The circumstances are so absolutely different. You can’t look backwards and say that what worked or didn’t work in previous elections…it’s going to be about competing visions for what the post-Covid recovery and economy look like.
“What we need is not a recovery, but a renewal. Because if we just go back to the status quo, that doesn’t fix anything.
“The lesson of history is that when things are fine … the people who are arguing for transformation are at the margins. Now we’re in a situation where everything is being transformed, whether we like it or not. So the choices are about shaping that transformation in ways that work for people.”
Last March, Shaw was punched in an unprovoked attack. Paul Harris hit him five or six times as he walked to work and was later jailed for the assault. “There was a period of time when I would look at people funny in terms of their behaviour. I remember sitting in a café on Lambton Quay with [Wellington lobbyist] Dave Cormack, catching up for a coffee.
“Over his shoulder, there was a guy who was acting quite erratically. [Dave] asked me a question, and God knows what it was. I couldn’t form a coherent sentence.
“But there’s no lasting impact. It was important to me that there wasn’t. I mean, it really was very random.”
After a brief pause – ordered by Parliament’s security – he’s begun walking to work again from the home he shares with wife Annabel.
Remarkably, it wasn’t the worst moment of his spell in leadership. “That was the day after I got punched, March 15. Remember that the student strikes that occurred in the morning, were actually occurring about an hour before the shooter started up in Christchurch.
“There’d just been this tremendous expression of momentum with these young people who were actually changing Government policy.
“And then, in minutes, all of that evaporated and the world went from an overriding sense of hope to an overriding sense of fear, and just darkness.”
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.”