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.’’