Gordon Campbell on Greens MP James Shaw, and the prospects for ecumenical politics

Every now and then Parliament gets an MP who is regarded kindly by those in the opposing ranks as being a basically good sort who, if only given the proper life chances, could well have ended up on their side of the House. You could have called it the Katherine Rich Syndrome, circa 2005 at least. Theologically speaking, it is what the Catholic Church call the Baptism of Desire, whereby lifelong good intentions can qualify one for de facto membership of the club of the saved: “An heathen, believing, even though in a confused way, in a God whose will should be done and desiring to do that will whatever it may be, probably has Baptism of desire.”

Right now, that worthy heathen – labouring away benightedly within the Green Party ranks – seems to be Wellington-based list MP James Shaw, who enjoys a good deal of respect among his political foes, at least with those of roughly his own generation. (Shaw is 41.) On his Twitter feed, new National MP Chris Bishop praised and re-tweeted Shaw’s maiden speech. In turn, Shaw referred to “friends of mine in the seats opposite” in a maiden speech that quoted Margaret Thatcher approvingly, and expressed Shaw’s enthusiasm for aspects of the market economy.

Shaw’s maiden speech had ended on the same bi-partisan note “…Presently we are stuck. To get unstuck, we will all need to let go of some things and to be more committed to finding the answers than to being right or to others being wrong….If any other member of this House from any political party – or any member of the public listening – hears this challenge and wants to rise to it, my door is open…” Excitedly, the likes of Matthew Hooton have been hailing Shaw in NBR as a Green MP with whom National can do business, and the NZ Herald’s John Armstrong has singled out Shaw as a potential Greens leader-in-waiting who could lead the Greens into the Promised Land of a full-blown working arrangement with the National Party. As in the Bible, the Greens’ current Moses – i.e., Russel Norman – may not live to see that happy day.

Typical, really. “Credibility” is always in the eye of the beholder, and is awarded only on the status quo’s narrow terms. In the light of that tunnel vision, Shaw does have the right business background to make him seem ripe for conversion. For the past 12 years, he’s worked first in a managerial role for Pricewaterhousecoopers, and then with a development agency that he co-founded. In rural India last year, Shaw had the job of striking a workable balance between the conservation regulations on one hand, and the economic needs of poor rural villagers on the other.

The perception that Shaw is a “Blue Green” at least, and recruitable at best, seems utterly mistaken. Shaw is not a closet conservative any more than Rich was a closet socialist. The reference to Thatcher in his maiden speech was deliberate. It was meant to remind a National Party bent on reforming the Resource Management Act, that one of the centre-right’s own ideological icons had in fact, taken the plight of the planet seriously. Similarly, when Shaw had professed in his maiden speech that “I’m a huge fan of the market” (i.e., when it comes to the market’s efficiencies in price setting and resource allocation) it had been in the wider context of stressing that the state routinely needs to intervene in and to regulate the market, in order to save it (and society) from the market’s worst excesses.

In other words, in James Shaw we’re dealing with someone smart enough to fight fire with fire. He plans to use the centre-right’s strategies and arguments against itself, if only because in the current climate, it is essential to do so: “Because over on the right, they don’t give any credibility to left wing arguments. You can’t use left wing arguments to reason with them. You’ve got to go into their territory, to engage with them.”

That doesn’t mean he thinks any gains from the attempt at engagement would be easily won, given the realities of the whipping system. “I think its both desirable and possible, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered saying it. But our institution [Parliament] is constructed in an adversarial way. Its not easy, but I think its possible. It will take some institutional change to make it more feasible. But there has been a generational shift, I think. With Gen X and subsequently Gen Y and the millennials, their approach is a more collaborative style. Culturally, they don’t much believe in the old left/right spectrum of politics. They see a world that’s more complex that has at least multiple axes. And that is right across the spectrum.”

The difference struck him in 2010, when he began getting involved with the Green Party again, after working for more than a decade overseas. (He’s had a brief shot at local body politicking with the Greens in Karori in the early 1990s.) Every political party, he finds, is essentially a coalition between university students and retirees, at a time when those in the middle are generally doing other things with their lives. The gulf [by 2010] within the Greens, he says, was really striking. “Our retirees were the anti-Vietnam war radicals, the ‘don’t trust anyone over the age of 30’ generation. Really radical. Our 20 year olds on the other hand, are more solution focused, and much less ideological.”

Is Shaw doing anything much more than reacting to the general public revulsion against Beltway partisanship for its own sake and against ideological breast beating? Is this just a gambit of openness that is playing to the public’s desire for a more ecumenical approach to the country’s problems?

“Well, no…I think it is genuine. I was being genuine when I said that, and I sense that the other people saying that in their maiden speeches were also genuine.” As to how co-operation would survive the whipping process…”That, I don’t know. I said that in the speech too, that I don’t know how to do it.” He senses that behind the pageantry of Question Time, there is a capacity for cross-party informal co-operation. “People who’ve been around for as while say there’s a lot of that, anyway.”

Behind the scenes and at committee level, there may be opportunities. “The public sees the theatre of Question Time, which does have a role in terms of shining a light on things, with the media picking them up, and the whole accountability component. And a National MP I was talking to about this, said that you guys [the Greens] do this really well. Metiria and Russel lead the attack in Question Time, and then the other MPs work really hard to work together in select committees. If you’re a National MP you might have some residual irritation at Russel and Met for coming at you so hard, but you recognise that’s the construct of the institution. It would be great if the public got to see that other bit, and that it didn‘t have to be that way…”

None of this intention to reach out (if that proves necessary to achieve gains) will detract him, Shaw stresses, from his intention – also stated in his maiden speech – to be a member of the “loyal opposition,” to hold the government to account, and to speak truth to power. Shaw enters the fray though, without any legacy of that ‘residual irritation’ from bruises he has inflicted in Question Time. His skills will be useful as the Greens lick their wounds after an election result that has left them facing a perennial dilemma… of media punditry at least. Namely, should the Greens continue to compete with Labour on social justice issues, or should it (a) redefine itself as mainly an environmental party and (b) engage constructively with National in ways that (c) could well win votes from the ” blue green” voters within National’s ranks.

Any major re-positioning along those lines would be risky for any party, but especially so for the Greens. Any party that bases its public identity on being a different animal to the cynical politics of pragmatism that infects everyone else….risks severe punishment if it tries to tack away from its foundation principles, for some imagined political advantage. In Australia, the Democrats destroyed themselves almost overnight when they compromised over GST in a bid for some transient notion of political ‘credibility’ – and in the UK, the Liberal Democrats are currently going down the chute in much the same way.

Doesn’t a values-centred party always get hammered if it starts messing with its brand, in a belief this will lend them more credibility? “They do,” Shaw replies, “ And some of our people went and joined Mana for precisely that reason. There’s a political risk in anything you do. “ He points to the other current risk. “ If we remain outside of government permanently, I can’t see why anyone would want to continue voting for us. Like, I think it is now getting to that point.”

Where the Greens are only a permanent party of opposition, serving only some vague, self-flattering role as the moral conscience of Parliament? “What I think,” Shaw replies, “ is that there are a bunch of people who have continually voted for us because they want our agenda implemented, and who are maybe getting bored with us being a party who are never in a position to ever do anything about it. I think we will be losing people for that reason, too.”

So the long march is proving too long, for some? “That’s right. And some people may be thinking you know what? I may just vote Labour, because at least they’ve got a chance of doing something, or even in some cases they may vote National because hey, they’re the government and can actually do some stuff, if only along blue/green lines.”

For now, Shaw is sustained by the way the Greens have shifted the debate, and won some policy gains against the odds. “I know, we bang on endlessly about home insulation…” but he points out, the Budget item for that scheme was bigger than that for Whanau Ora. He sees other areas where pressure by the Greens had advanced issues to a point where National’s polling has told the government that it could no longer afford to ignore them. Thus, the $100 million national cycle ways, the riparian planting, some movement even by the likes of Gerry Brownlee on the rail loop… and he has hopes for the Green Investment Bank, which he points out, even David Cameron has embraced in the UK.

Such relatively minor gains, he readily concedes, tend to be merely “add-ons’ that – in line with the Blue/Green agenda in general – are considered to be affordable by the Key government only if they don’t interfere unduly with business as usual. The aim has to be far higher. “I think [Greens Co-leader] Metiria [Turei] is right. Our job is to move the centre towards the Greens. And part of the reason why I chose to focus on Thatcher and my corporate experience is to go… its OK, and that what we’re advocating is not that weird.”

Lesley Gore, already
And just in case Matthew Hooton and Co think they’ve got this guy in the bag, think again. Can’t speak for James, but on karaoke night, this could be a contender with a message for all concerned, friend or foe: