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.
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.
CLARE DE LORE
Shaw and Metiria Turei after she admitted committing benefit fraud.