Rid­ing a tiger

James Shaw stunned some Green Party mem­bers when he be­came co-leader and the sur­prises didn’t stop. In the first of a se­ries on po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in the count-down to the elec­tion, he ex­plains what’s changed.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Clare de Lore

James Shaw stunned some Green Party mem­bers when he be­came co-leader and the sur­prises have kept on com­ing.

When Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Harold Macmil­lan was asked about the big­gest chal­lenges that faced him in pol­i­tics, he al­legedly re­sponded: “Events, dear boy, events.” Few lead­ers of po­lit­i­cal par­ties have had that re­al­ity rammed home as force­fully as Green Party leader James Shaw. Un­til re­cently, he was co-leader of New Zealand’s third-largest party and look­ing for­ward to pos­si­bly its most suc­cess­ful elec­tion re­sult, with Labour stag­nant in the mid-20s in opinion polls.

Now Shaw, a 44-year-old rel­a­tive new­comer to pol­i­tics let alone lead­er­ship, is sin­gle­hand­edly steer­ing a splin­tered and di­min­ished party and cau­cus. Me­tiria Turei’s spec­tac­u­lar own goal in ad­mit­ting to ben­e­fit and elec­toral fraud not only ef­fec­tively ended her ca­reer but also took down two of her col­leagues, sav­aged a healthy poll rat­ing and led to Labour’s chang­ing of the guard and re­ver­sal of for­tunes.

In an in­ter­view just be­fore Turei’s Au­gust 9 res­ig­na­tion, Shaw told me be­ing co-leader of the Greens was like “rid­ing a tiger” – and the ride has con­tin­ued to be rough de­spite Turei step­ping down.

He told the Lis­tener in 2015 that polls boiled down to one sin­gle im­por­tant ques­tion in the minds of vot­ers. “Can they ac­tu­ally run the show? So it is about lead­er­ship, re­ally.” At that stage, the for­mer busi­ness con­sul­tant had been in Par­lia­ment less than a year and was the newly minted co-leader fol­low­ing Rus­sel Nor­man’s de­par­ture. He was seen as an un­usual choice for the Green Party, com­fort­able in a suit and tie, busi­ness­friendly and an ap­pre­ci­a­tor of Mar­garet Thatcher as one of the first world lead­ers to warn about cli­mate change. Shaw worked for pro­fes­sional ser­vices net­work Price­wa­ter­house­Coop­ers be­fore re­turn­ing to New Zealand af­ter 12 years in London. He mar­ried Annabel in 2015, a year af­ter en­ter­ing Par­lia­ment, and the cou­ple live in Welling­ton’s Aro Val­ley.

De­spite the melt­down over Turei’s ad­mis­sion of de­ceit, Shaw was loyal to her and re­mains so even af­ter her res­ig­na­tion. The show be­came more like a cir­cus, and Shaw says his em­pa­thy with and loy­alty to Turei were in part due to his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence as the only child of a sin­gle mother. A qui­etly spo­ken, even­tem­pered man, Shaw main­tained his com­po­sure through­out the Turei cri­sis, de­spite a lack of sleep and the loss of col­leagues, in­clud­ing Kennedy Gra­ham, one of his po­lit­i­cal heroes.

This must have been a pretty sad 24 hours?

Yes, it is sad. This is my fourth gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign, my first as an ac­tual mem­ber of Par­lia­ment and first as

­coleader [and now leader] of the Green Party. It’s shap­ing up to be a doozy.

“If we have the chance to form a govern­ment, it will be an un­usual one, not just tin­ker­ing around the edges.”

You told the Lis­tener in 2015 polls show it’s all about lead­er­ship, who can run the show. Do you fear peo­ple have lost con­fi­dence you can do that?

I don’t know. Frankly, I am not get­ting per­sonal crit­i­cism my­self. Me­tiria is clearly a weather vane for both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive, and some peo­ple have lost con­fi­dence. But we are also ex­pe­ri­enc­ing

an un­usual out­pour­ing as well. We are go­ing through some­thing of a trans­for­ma­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, and I kind of feel like I am rid­ing a tiger and see­ing where it leads us.

Where do you think you are head­ing?

With the Greens and the change of lead­er­ship within Labour, the po­lit­i­cal land­scape has changed com­pletely in three weeks. That means there is a real chance of chang­ing the Govern­ment, which we have been work­ing to­wards. If we have the chance to form a govern­ment af­ter the elec­tion, it will be an un­usual govern­ment. It will be not just pro­gres­sive but driven by a sense of vi­sion and val­ues and a com­mit­ment to be­ing trans­for­ma­tional, not just tin­ker­ing around the edges. That gives me a lot of hope.

There has been a sense that un­til now the Greens were seen as dif­fer­ent, sit­ting round the camp­fire sign­ing Kum­baya. Have you just been like a nor­mal po­lit­i­cal party all along?

I think so. Rep­u­ta­tions are built over very long pe­ri­ods, and the rep­u­ta­tion we have hasn’t matched the re­al­ity for a while. A lot of peo­ple were stunned when I be­came co-leader, be­cause I didn’t fit the stereo­type of the Green Party. They kept say­ing, “How did they do it?”, and I had to re­mind them that I was elected by the mem­bers of the Green Party and that if I am a re­flec­tion of that, then clearly the party isn’t what you think it is.

Your mother raised you on her own till you were about 11 – was that a big fac­tor in your de­ci­sion to stick by Me­tiria Turei?

Yes. When peo­ple chal­lenge me and say, “What she did was wrong, can you con­done ben­e­fit fraud?”, I think of my mother, who raised me by her­self for the first 11 years of my life. I think if I was her or a solo par­ent and liv­ing be­low the poverty line and the Govern­ment had changed the ben­e­fit sys­tem so it is cal­cu­lated to be 20% be­low the min­i­mum cost of liv­ing and I was strug­gling to make ends meet, what would I do to en­sure my child was fed and clothed? I find it hard to judge peo­ple in that sit­u­a­tion who bend the rules a bit. I re­ally do.

Have you talked to your mother about how it was for her?

No, I haven’t. I am a ter­ri­ble son, that lack of in­quiry. I ought to. She won’t mind me say­ing we come from an old farm­ing fam­ily where peo­ple didn’t talk much.

Are you close to your mother?

I am very close to my birth mother and my other mother, her part­ner.

What about your father?

My mother and my father were in a ­re­la­tion­ship for a num­ber of years and then they got preg­nant. He didn’t want to be a father and so they split up at that point. He went to Aus­tralia, where he has been ever since. I have met him. I saw him again for the third time ever about three weeks ago when I went on a busi­ness trip to Mel­bourne.

How did that go?

It is the story of two grown men who have met three times – per­fectly af­fa­ble. He mostly wanted to talk about pol­i­tics. He was a pub­lic ser­vant most of his life. He worked for the state of Vic­to­ria’s ­equiv­a­lent of Hous­ing New Zealand and so had lots of opin­ions about the hous­ing cri­sis from the po­si­tion of some­one who knows what he is talk­ing about.

Were you raised with books?

Both of my moth­ers read, one of them vo­ra­ciously, and they have a study in their of­fice with floor-to-ceil­ing, wall-to-wall book­shelves and have hun­dreds and hun­dreds of books. My mother’s sis­ter, my aunt, was a book­seller; she whole­saled for Pen­guin and she made sure I was well stocked with books grow­ing up.

What are you read­ing now apart from news re­ports?

A book called New York 2140, by Kim Stan­ley Robin­son. The Mars Tril­ogy is an ex­tra­or­di­nary se­ries of books about the coloni­sa­tion of Mars over a 200-year pe­riod. That was the se­ries that made Robin­son, and this is his lat­est book. It’s a story about life in New York city in 2140, with the ice caps hav­ing melted. He is just try­ing to imag­ine what life is like with a warmer tem­per­a­ture and also a city that is, in many parts, un­der wa­ter and how that shapes life in hu­man­ity’s great­est me­trop­o­lis. It’s a ter­rific book.

Is it dystopian?

Yes, but the thing I like about Robin­son is that while it might be a dystopian fu­ture, it feels like nor­mal life. Peo­ple go about nor­mal life, they head back to their apart­ments, ei­ther catch a boat to work or walk sky paths and things like that. He il­lus­trates a world in which hu­mans are still hu­mans do­ing what hu­mans do. He has an enor­mous brain.

Any favourite books go­ing way back?

Prob­a­bly my favourite book is The Se­cret His­tory, by Donna Tartt, and I haven’t read it in years. I must go back to it. It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary piece of writ­ing. I read it at univer­sity, a novel about a group of friends who are at univer­sity in the north-east of the United States. I have read Tartt’s The Lit­tle Friend and The Goldfinch as well. The Lit­tle Friend I wasn’t so im­pressed with. The Goldfinch I re­ally en­joyed, but The Se­cret His­tory is her pièce de ré­sis­tance.

How do you un­wind when you are out trav­el­ling and cam­paign­ing?

A bot­tle of wine and Net­flix. The na­ture of the job is you might make it back to the ho­tel rea­son­ably late af­ter an evening event. Usu­ally I don’t have long be­fore I fall asleep, but it’s not a bad time to watch a sin­gle episode of Game of Thrones or some­thing like that and have a glass of wine, pass out and do it all over again the fol­low­ing day.

“I saw my father for the third time ever about three weeks ago.”

Man in a suit: James Shaw at the 2015 Green Party con­fer­ence as a newly ap­pointed co-leader. In­set, in 1976, aged about three.


Shaw and Me­tiria Turei af­ter she ad­mit­ted com­mit­ting ben­e­fit fraud.

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