Shaw may widen Greens’ ap­peal


Even be­fore Welling­ton­based list MP James Shaw, 42, was elected to Par­lia­ment last Septem­ber, he was be­ing talked up as a fu­ture Green Party co- leader, but no- one (in­clud­ing Shaw) ex­pected it to hap­pen quite so soon.

The choice of Shaw to re­place re­tir­ing co-leader Russel Nor­man is in line with the Greens’ in­cli­na­tion to re­ject the safe and easy op­tions.

Ul­ti­mately, Shaw was viewed as the can­di­date best able to broaden the Greens’ vote, and to put some mo­men­tum back into the party af­ter its dis­ap­point­ing elec­tion re­sult last year.

No doubt, Shaw will now be on the re­ceiv­ing end of a ton of ad­vice on what he needs to do (and not do) to be­come more ‘‘cred­i­ble’’ – pre­sum­ably, with­out los­ing any of the 257,000 vot­ers who al­ready have no prob­lem with the Greens on that score.

Still, there is a com­mon per­cep­tion that if Shaw only plays his cards right, the Greens could one day qual­ify as a suit­able hand­maiden for the Na­tional Party in gov­ern­ment.

Un­wit­tingly, Shaw’s suc­cess­ful back­ground in busi­ness – he has worked over­seas as a manager for Price­wa­ter­house­Coop­ers, and co- founded a suc­cess­ful Third World devel­op­ment agency – has cre­ated a per­cep­tion that he is re­ally a closet con­ser­va­tive will­ing to take the Greens in a di­rec­tion that’s more con­ge­nial to cen­treright vot­ers. That’s not (quite) the plan. As Shaw has been at pains to point out, his fa­mil­iar­ity with the rhetoric and prac­tice of mar­ket eco­nomics doesn’t mean the Greens are go­ing to shift to­wards the cen­tre.

In­stead, his el­e­va­tion as coleader is meant to make the cen­tre feel more com­fort­able about shift­ing to­wards the Greens.

Es­sen­tially, it should be harder to stig­ma­tise the Greens as loony left when the guy co-lead­ing them has had a more suc­cess­ful busi­ness ca­reer than half of the Na­tional gov­ern­ment front bench.

The ‘‘ crazy Greens’’ stereo­type will be a hard one to kill, though.

In Bri­tain, the rul­ing Con­ser­va­tives have just demon­strated how tac­ti­cally re­ward­ing it is to de­monise the likely ju­nior part­ner of any fu­ture Labour gov­ern­ment.

The de­pic­tion of the Greens as ‘‘hip­pies and Treaty ac­tivists’’ – to use Me­tiria Turei’s ironic phrase – ig­nores a re­al­ity whereby on cli­mate change, an ef­fec­tive cap­i­tal gains tax, af­ford­able hous­ing and the need to al­le­vi­ate child poverty, the Greens have con­sis­tently staked out po­si­tions that the cen­tre has even­tu­ally come to em­brace.

The chal­lenge fac­ing Shaw is to sim­i­larly shift the de­bate on eco­nomic pol­icy.

No small task, in a coun­try where only the sta­tus quo has been deemed cred­i­ble for the past 30 years, de­spite fail­ing to de­liver ei­ther eco­nomic well­be­ing or job se­cu­rity to much of the elec­torate.

Ul­ti­mately, the Greens have el­e­vated Shaw in the be­lief he can re­as­sure the vot­ers that there is, in fact, lit­tle to lose and much to gain from em­brac­ing an ap­proach to the econ­omy that’s more sus­tain­able: so­cially, eco­nom­i­cally and en­vi­ron­men­tally.

That needn’t in­volve sell­ing out, or drop­ping so­cial jus­tice is­sues from the Greens’ agenda.

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties that claim their core iden­tity is based on val­ues can’t af­ford the luxury of be­ing to­tally ex­pe­di­ent.

As Shaw once told me in an in­ter­view: ‘‘Part of the rea­son why I chose to fo­cus on my cor­po­rate ex­pe­ri­ence is to go: it’s OK, and what we’re ad­vo­cat­ing is not that weird.’’

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