An interview with the Greens new co-leader, James Shaw
by Gordon Campbell
James Shaw photos by Rose O’Connor
For a decade or more, the Greens have been ahead of the policy curve on climate change, income inequality and child poverty. Prophetically, they’ve pushed the case for renewable energy, a genuine capital gains tax, better public transport and the health benefits of home insulation – and put on the table a fiscally neutral carbon tax, offset by cuts to income tax and business tax. While the major parties have been quietly co-opting many of the same positions, the ‘crazy’ and ‘unrealistic’ stereotypes about the Greens still persist, regardless. (Politics tends to reward piracy, not innovation.)
For James Shaw, the Greens new co-leader, these ‘credibility’ and ‘competence’ issues are central to the political destination he has in mind. Namely, to ensure the Greens are part of the next centre-left government in numbers large enough to shape its policy content, and direction. Currently, this is something of a Catch 22 situation. If and when the Greens ever did poll high enough to dominate policy, Labour would in all likelihood be doing so badly that a centre-left government would remain out of reach.
To get out of that trap, the centre-left needs to grow its vote. That was what Shaw was elected to do, as co-leader ie, to avoid the Greens being locked into zero sum battles with Labour for a static centre-left vote. To that end, his background could hardly be more at odds with the old Green Party stereotypes mentioned above. Shaw, 42, worked for several years in senior management in London for Pricewaterhousecoopers and went on to co-run a successful Third World aid and development agency. In his aid and development work, finding workable compromises between economic reality and environmental regulation was a daily necessity.
Temperamentally, Shaw also seems to be more solutions-focussed than many of his older, boomer colleagues. As a result, he’s already been depicted as a ‘blue green’ kind of guy, and a Green with whom National can do business. In practice, ‘can do business’ is code for a ‘credibility’ measured solely on the terms of engagement set by National. (These terms assume that credible chaps will always finally see sense and capitulate to the current economic settings.) With Shaw, that’s never going to happen. As Shaw told me last November, he uses market language primarily for tactical reasons, in order 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….”
How much would Shaw be willing to compromise in the name of constructive engagement? That’s still impossible to tell. His opening bid in Parliament to Prime Minister John Key – to co-operate on climate change – was firmly rebuffed, as everyone involved had probably expected it to be. Significantly though, the NZ Herald editorial the next day chided Key for being intransigent. Back in November, I’d asked Shaw about the genuineness of this ‘lets work together’ approach :
Is Shaw doing anything 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.”
Perhaps. For now, Shaw’s ‘ lets talk’ stance also looks like a creative version of asymmetric warfare. Recently, Werewolf editor Gordon Campbell interviewed James Shaw about his new job.
Campbell : Being the co-leader entails being a team manager as well as fronting for the party as a whole. That’s why you were telling me only last November that you could maybe achieve more say, as finance spokesperson than you could as co-leader. Once Russel Norman resigned, was it your ambition – or your party’s hour of need – that changed your mind?
Shaw : I don’t like the ‘hour of need’ language because I think that between the other three candidates any one of us could have stepped into that role. I think if you asked Russel about when he stood in, he would have looked around and said ‘Crikey, I need to do this’. Because we were in need. My sense is that this time, each of us had different strengths and weaknesses – and it became a matter of well, what set of strengths and weaknesses do you want at this moment in time? When Russel announced [ his resignation] my initial inclination was not to stand. I’d only been in Parliament for five months. So I hummed and hawed about it. But then I had a lot of people get in touch with me saying they wanted me to stand, and when they laid out the arguments, I could see it.
What was the core of those arguments- and what convinced you that you really were the first among equals?
Essentially, that I had a better chance of expanding the vote, a bit more than the other candidates.
Expand it generationally, or across the political spectrum ?
[Laughs] The people who talked to me about that weren’t specific. I think they were talking numbers, rather than where the numbers were coming from. Yeah, that’s an interesting one. I think we can actually have both. We have the ability to expand the vote across the spectrum and take votes from a number of different places, but also generationally as well.
In your opinion, did the centre-left lose the last election by being too left wing?
I think the centre left lost the last election by not providing a coherent, credible alternative government that people could vote for.
Because a lot of people have said it was too left wing, or was offering too bland a version of the status quo. Or somehow, both at once.
Or something else. The thing that the left often does is that we assume people vote on the basis of policy, first and foremost. The evidence is that policy is one of the things that people vote for, but its about third or fourth down the rank. And the single most important thing – before values – is competence. Can these guys run the country ?
Right, can they be trusted to mind the store…
And if you don’t have that, it doesn’t matter that I connect with your values or your policies. If I don’t think you’re competent, I’m not going to vote for you.
So last year’s loss was more down to bad management than bad policy ?
Yeah. I think very little of last year was about policy. Can you remember talking about policy much last year?
Yeah a lot of us were trying to. But we couldn’t get past the basic…oh, you know.
In the last week of the campaign do you think the Greens were hurt by the perception that it was willing to collude with National and keep it in power?
And one of the main sources of that perception was Labour’s claim that “Only a vote for Labour can change the government.’ Wasn’t that a fundamentally dishonest piece of messaging ?
Yep, that also. I mean, I don’t want to spend a lot of time re-treading last year, but it was chaos. Right across the whole centre-left thing.
My point being – given that Labour seems to be far better at fighting its allies than it is at taking votes from National…what does the centre left need to do in 2017 to ensure all its boats get lifted next time, rather than sunk in the crossfire?
I’d argue we need to do this before 2016. I have a gut instinct that the narrative of the election is primarily written about 18 months beforehand. What I said as I was running for co-leader was that I think we need to go into the next election with a clear alternative government that people will have confidence in, that they have the competence and ability to run the country.
But people have to be out shopping for an alternative – right ? – before they’re inclined to make that purchase. Looking ahead, is it imperative for the Greens to be part of the next centre left government?
Yes. Yes, absolutely. That was the basis of why I ran. To get us into government.
But you know the [counter] argument. Junior partners – be it New Zealand First, the Alliance, United Future, the Maori Party – have all taken a major hit from being the junior partners in coalition arrangements. It happened to the Liberals too, in Britain. The attrition rate is –
One hundred per cent. (laughs)
Yeah. So wouldn’t the Greens conceivably achieve more, at less cost to their core values, by supporting a centre-left government rather than by joining it ?
It is one of the options. Which is of course, the option we had between 1999 and 2008 where we supported a Labour led government but were not part of it. And we achieved some big policy wins during that time. But they were few and far between. And we’re pretty ambitious in the agenda that we’ve got, which is to fundamentally re-organise the economy so that we can solve climate change and inequality and all that kind of stuff. We would argue we have to be in government to make that happen.
But again the track record isn’t all that great of junior partners driving policy. What they do is get a few policy gains at the margins and then get hung in government with the albatross of their senior partner’s policies.
There are a few things that need to happen for us to survive the experience. One is that we have to be a large partner. We’ve got to have more MPs, such that we can be an influential part of the government. An actual partner, rather than just being responsible for initiating one or two bits and pieces. The other thing we need to do – we need to be able to publicly disagree, right ? We have to be able to walk out of the Cabinet meeting and say hey look, we fought against that. We voted against it. We lost because we didn’t have the numbers. And if you don’t want those things happening again in future, you need to vote for us next time.
Really ? In terms of credibility, won’t that sound like the Greek government trying to rationalise a bailout package to their constituents.? Who may not wear that after a while, after they see you riding around in a ministerial limousine, still wringing your hands.
Well, what’s the alternative ? Don’t go in?.
That’s the alternative.
In that case, why be a political party ? Should we just shut up shop, and let everyone join Greenpeace ?
There’s a sense in which all of this is moot. Labour will have to do a lot more heavy lifting if a centre left government is ever to be put in place. Currently, it doesn’t seem all that capable of taking votes from National, but is really good at taking votes from the Greens.
I don’t think they are.
They did in the last week of the last election. Generally speaking, if Labour’s up in the polls the Greens are down and vice versa.
Labour had the worst poll in 90 years.
Ultimately yeah. But think how bad it would have been if they weren’t pulling you guys down from 12 to 10 per cent. One thing that we haven’t yet mentioned in this scenario is that you mightn’t get a choice, because Winston Peters is always sitting there and he may well stop you, again, from joining the government.
A couple of things : our highest poll in the last three years was also Labour’s highest point. And it was when we co-launched the NZ Power initiative. Because that was the one point in that three year cycle when it looked like we could get our act together, and could govern together, So the idea that it’s a zero-sum game between us and Labour is wrong. Our lowest polling point was also their lowest polling point. Unfortunately, that was on election day. So the idea that they go down when we go up, and we go down when they go up doesn’t hold. The other thing : it wasn’t Peters who locked us out [in 2005] It was Helen Clark. She didn’t want us, she wanted Peters. Peters didn’t care.
Are you saying that Peters might not be the anti-Green obstacle that he’s routinely portrayed as being ?
Not necessarily. He’s…. (pause) practical, in a political sense.
In your view, can the Greens win more by wooing the blue green vote than it may lose by making the attempt ?
It depends what you mean. There are a lot of people who are currently voting National who are really holding their noses because they are so appalled at National’s anti-environment agenda. Who look at us, and they think if we were only a little more economically credible they would vote for us, right? That’s part of what I mean by providing that alternative government.
So there could be a net gain ?
I think so.
And from what you’re saying those gains and that “credibility’ may not mean becoming more Nat-compatible ?
No. It means being government-compatible. I read something somewhere once that said broadly speaking, New Zealanders are about 60- % progressive, in a policy prescription sense. But quite a large chunk of those people are currently voting for the National party. And that’s because, as I said, policy is a little bit further down the hierarchy of needs. And among the most important things are – can they run the country ?
Yes. But here’s the thing. Even though people may not like its policy prescriptions, hasn’t the great success of neo-liberalism been in convincing people that this is the only credible way to run a modern economy ?
Yeah that’s true.
How do you shift that perception ?
I think part of it is describing what the alternative is in economic language that people can understand. One of the more successful policies we had last year was the climate tax cut. The idea that you would place a price on something that was bad – the air pollution that causes climate change – and then you’d recycle the money in the form of tax credits.
And by being fiscally neutral it also negated the tax and spend stereotype ?
Yeah, in that sense. But it was also progressive, right? It was a progressive tax cut. It started with people at the bottom end, rather than with people at the top. It captured 97 % of all people. It was an idea the Values Party had talked about in the early 1970s. Instead of taxing something that was good – like income – and not taxing things that are bad, like pollution. It was just describing something that we’d been talking about for four decades..
And arguably, the capital tax gains tax falls within the same ambit – in that if you’re taxing wages, you should also be taxing other sources of wealth. So it too, becomes a fairness argument.
Absolutely. This is one of the projects that’s very dear to my heart, in that we start talking about inequality in terms of wealth rather than just income. There’s a bit of a problem – I think – in that the vast majority of people earn an income and don’t own any wealth. So when they think about inequality and they think about taxes, they’re often talking in terms of income taxes, rather than the broader picture. The problem when you just tax income and don’t tax capital is that you actually make inequality worse. Because you’re taxing the part of the economy where the squeeze is on. You’re not taxing the part where its growing.
And in the past, that situation has been treated as justified because tax-free wealth has tended to be seen – almost – as the incentive and reward for entrepreneurial achievement. Almost as the pin money one deserves, for being a darn good entrepreneur.
Except being a darn good entrepreneur in New Zealand has basically meant buying ten houses. You end up with wealth inequality and a really unproductive economy. Because the money is in property.
So far, what you’ve outlined may be the ideal path. But if Labour should prove itself chronically unable to win elections, might not a closer engagement with this government be the only way to make gains for the environment ?
Well, we’re trying to engage them in that conversation right now. We’ve tried to extend the open hand to them on climate change, around the targets in Paris . Which is to say – this thing is bigger than both of us. And if we don’t come to an agreement, you’re going to see a decade and a half of policy instability. Which will be incredibly bad for farmers and for businesses. Among others, it will be bad for National Party constituents. And it will not be good for the environment. So why don’t we try and get together on this….
And in your view, the re-assurance for them would be that any joint activity with the Greens would be something they could readily sell to their core vote ?
Yeah well, they’d have to. We’re going to be compromising with Labour if we get into government with them. Its MMP politics, right? No-one gets what they want, and everyone walks away a little bit unhappy.
Sure, sure. But what I’m getting at this that they’re still at the point where sitting down with the Greens would seem like Crazy Town, and they’d be foolish to even contemplate it. But from what you’re saying, it would deliver for their constituents and could be sold to them on that basis.
That’s my argument. I think they think that its probably a pointless exercise, because of the whole parliamentary Punch and Judy show. And I would like to short circuit that. Because you never know, until you get in the room with us.
Really? But look at the gains so far [ from engagemernt]. Home insulation. Cycle ways. Riparian planting. They’re genuine, but minor gains. Add-ons. They‘re in line with the blue green agenda in general – where gains for the environment are deemed affordable only if they don’t interfere unduly with business as usual. Is it worth risking the integrity of the Greens brand merely for gains of that magnitude ?
Well, I would argue that a 15 year agreement on climate change is possibly one of the most important things we could ever do.
So potentially, you think there could be some quite big wins on the table – provided the government was prepared to sit down at it ?
To that end, the message is that you’re the softer, kinder blue green guy – someone with whom National could do business.
They haven’t said “Yes” to me yet.
Therefore, is that image entirely a media creation and an attempted kiss of death by your opponents ?
I notice they haven’t mentioned it since I was elected. No-one, not one of the people who came out before the AGM and said – yep, we can work with James – none of them have said that since. And though I’ve said the door is open, thy only thing they’ve said so far is that they’re not interested.
Right. So when would be the last time you met socially with [National MP] Chris Bishop ?
Trying to remember. Not all that long ago. I saw him a few weeks ago at – where were we ? Can’t remember. It would be sometime in the last few months. I chat to him quite a lot in the corridors and so on.
Reason I ask is that to some people, fraternising with the enemy is tantamount to treason. We’ve talked about this before – that maybe Gen X and Y and the millennials aren’t quite so fixated on their ideological positions. Is there a generational difference on that score among the latest intake, across the aisle ?
Sorry. I know when the time was [he last met socially with Bishop.] At the end of the Budget debate. We’d been yelling at each other about them getting rid of the $1,000 Kiwisaver contribution.. Going back to the question about last year’s intake, I wonder if that’s always true. I’ve spoken to some of my other colleagues, and they said they’ve got a reasonable relationship too, with the people that they entered Parliament with…. Some MPs are better at reaching across the aisle than others, and a lot of that is based on the people you know, and the level of personal respect you have between those people, as people.
So is there any truth to the suggestion that there’s a greater generational flexibility – as the ideological Vietnam War generation hands over to a far more fluid and solutions-focussed generation ?
Yes, in the population at large. I wouldn’t say that has been the case in Parliament. Systemically, its just not geared that way.
And I guess David Seymour is hardly an advertisement for the ideological flexibility of the young, either.
No, but David Seymour is one of the MPs who has come to us most frequently. He’s trying to build coalitions for the things he sees as important. Of course he hasn’t much choice but to build coalitions. There’s only one of him. But he does – he reaches out. He’s come to us to pitch a couple of things.
Do you like reaching out? Do you prefer hanging out with the bad boys?
(laughs) Interesting way you phrase that. I think that there’s more to be gained by reaching out and attempting to work together than by not.
That was partly a serious question. Some people do get more of a buzz out of engaging the enemy than by talking to the choir.
I get a buzz out of getting things done.
Everyone noticed when tried to offer an olive branch to Key on your first day as co-leader in Parliament. Is this part of the Shaw game plan – to come across as implacably reasonable ?
If I said it was, that would reveal it as being some sort of game plan. What if I’m just being reasonable ? Its funny but on Saturday, on The Nation, Murray McCully was talking about Israel and Palestine and what we were hoping to do with chairing the UN Security Council. And he said something like : the two parties aren’t that far apart. They just need to get in a room. And I thought : if you can do it with Israel and Palestine buddy, why can’t you do it between the National Party and the Green Party on climate change ?
Go back to the issue of credibility you raised before. The stereotype of the Greens as flaky is so ingrained that all it takes is one flaky comment by the likes of a Steffan Browning to undermine years of work in building credibility. What does that tell you about the durability of the stereotype ?
Well, stereotypes die hard. So there is that. Its funny the number of people I speak to who say things like : I really like you guys, I would have voted for you last election, but I didn’t like your economic policy. Your economic policies were a bit crazy. And when you ask : which one ? They then don’t know, and couldn’t name an economic policy. But John Key – who has massive discursive power – talks about how crazy our economic policies are. All the time, every week. And so it becomes a truth. Part of what we’re battling is actually just the regular politics of Key painting us, and fanning up the stereotype.
There was a lot of talk last year about targeting people who don’t vote. Relatively speaking, is that a waste of time ?
Not entirely. If you look at some of the most successful campaigns of recent years it was Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, the Syriza campaign in Greece and Podemos in Spain. All of them had something in common in that they massively grew the voter base, and turned a lot of non-voters intro voters. Not a majority. But just a few per cent added to the pool can produce a pretty decisive outcome. If you look at our roughly 25-30 per cent non-voter base, a portion of that are available to vote. But they need a good reason to do so. All three of those campaigns I mentioned offered the hope that you could change the system. That it wasn’t about business as usual, or about being a little bit to the left, or right….. The tension is in doing that, without scaring off everyone else who will vote.
That’s an interesting tension isn’t it – because Podemos, Syriza and Obama all had an aura of being outsiders, whereas you guys are talking about the need to win credibility on the inside. Its pretty hard to be an outsider and an insider at the same time, isn’t it?
And that’s part of what we’ve got to get our heads around. But if you look at where we came from – right ? – we started as very much of an anti-Establishment party. Our values were pretty anti-Establishment. And we’ve chosen to work inside the Establishment, as a political party. It was always one of the tensions. Its always been a live conversation, as to whether should we even be in Parliament. Should we be in government.
Can you sup with the devil without losing your soul?
Exactly. But I think its even great we have that conversation, if that maintains our integrity. Otherwise. we could become institutionalised, very quickly.
Okay. So how important is it to you, that the budget be in surplus ?
Across a business cycle, important. In any given year, not important.
Because its become a licence to govern, hasn’t it – if you’re willing to promote austerity to achieve a surplus, only then are you deemed to be a bona fide candidate for governance.
Well, its interesting..I don’t think you can argue that the current National government is an austerity government. They’ve borrowed massively to maintain spending – unlike the United Kingdom, which has had massive swingeing cuts. This is a true conservative government. They haven’t done much at all, really. They’ve maintained the settings but just squeezed them, and squeezed them a little bit at a time. That’s quite a bit different to Cameron’s government, which went through them with a scvthe.
And I assume you’d agree, there is a good argument that when money has never been cheaper, borrowing for investment is not necessarily an evil.
In fact, it is probably a good idea. I mean, I broadly subscribe to that Keynesian approach that when you’re in an expansionary cycle instead of massively growing things, that’s when you probably want to stick a whole lot of money in the bank. Such that when you go into a downturn you’ve got something available to you. One of the risks at the moment is that if there was another recession, we don’t have a lot in hand to spare. So you could see us go into an austerity mode. I mean, if you look at it, Cullen did a pretty good job of this, certainly in the first two terms – running those big surpluses, building up the Super Fund, those sort of things. He did increase spending in the third term –
But that felt like it had been only at gunpoint, by Clark and the rest of the crew.
And by the Herald. With its – [Tax] Cuts At Last ! – headline.
Finally, let’s talk about the climate change stuff. Would the Greens be more or less able to co-operate with National, if the Greens positioned themselves as being purely an environmental party ? Would there be any future in that kind of re-branding ?
No, there isn’t.
And is that solely because most of your conflicts with National are over the kind of economic growth that comes at the expense of the environment ?
No, its also because the economic model that is driving inequality is also the same economic model that is driving climate change. Our approach to the environment and towards climate change isn’t to do some Band-Aid stuff. Its actually to shift how we run the economy – and in so doing, that would have an effect on inequality, right. That’s one argument against that notion. The other thing is that voters don’t want just an environment party. They want a comprehensive set of policies. And our popularity as a party has grown when we address a broader range of issues that are of concern to people. If you look at voter concerns the top ones are always : number one is the economy, then health education, security. The environment is usually about number seven..
For those more pressing day-to day reasons…..in this decade at least, is an election ever going to swing on climate change ?
I don’t know. I don’t know. But if you look at the worst drought in seventy years, that went on for nine weeks. … Victoria University did a study on that, which is peer reviewed in a science journal which said that the length and severity of that drought was 95 per cent down to climate change. John Key keeps saying : the Dunedin floods ? Well, you can’t pin that to climate change. The Wanganui floods, you can’t pin those to climate change. That massive drought event ? You can’t pin that to climate change. The worst storm in 60 years ? You can’t pin that down to climate change. And he’s doing that almost on a weekly basis at the moment. Because those one in a hundred year events have been happening almost every week.
So when we say look – this isn’t about polar bears drowning in the Arctic. This is about our economy right now, suffering massive losses – both from loss of exports but also from damages, and insurance, clean-up costs, repairs to our infrastructure…Those kinds of costs. Then yeah, maybe we could get to a point where it becomes a voting issue.
That is part of the media debate and public debate – on climate change – that you have won. But as you’ve pointed out, you’re still not getting any traction on the policies.
No, we’re not. I think we’ve won on the existence of climate change. There are four stages in this debate ; first its not happening, then if it is happening its not humans, its not us. Thirdly, if it is us, its not all that bad. And fourth, if it is that bad, then its too hard to do anything about it. .We’ve won the first two, and the debate at the moment is on – is it bad ?
And a lot of people have leapt straight from ‘its not happening’ to ‘we can’t do anything about it.’ At a policy level though, if the response is to impose costs on ourselves which won’t make any difference to the planetary outcome – why should we do it ?
If we say we’re too small to make a difference, then every population unit of four and a million people can mount the same argument….Actually in order to do something about it, everyone has to play their part. For any solution that has any credibility, rather than lay it all on China and the United States, we all have to do our bit.
In your opinion, what position should the government be taking to the Paris conference ?
We’ve done a lot of work on this last year and we think its not only possible but economically beneficial to go in with a minimum 40 per cent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2030.
The Key government says it aims to be a ‘fast follower’ on climate change. In fact, is it closely following in the footsteps of the positions being taken by governments in western Europe ?
No, not even close. [ Shaw cites a Youtube video that makes the point that New Zealand’s position on climate change now lags behind Rumania, the Catholic Church and Shell.] We need to catch up.
That’s a point about Shell. Big Oil seems to have jumped on the carbon tax bandwagon [see link here]: and its not often that business says to government : please raise the tax on our products. The assumption seems to be that Big Oil is positioning itself in the run-up to the Paris conference on the expectation that a higher price will be put on carbon and it needs to be ready for that. Is there any hope that our government will take that message on board ?
Well, I hope so. If you’ve Shell and Total and Elf and BP all coming out and saying we need a price on carbon. If those guys are saying it, then surely we need to respond.
And they’re talking about a pretty substantial price too, of about $US42 a ton..
That’s right. In order for them – given the massive investments they’ve got in the status quo – to economically get out of that and move into other forms of energy. They’ve [got] 50 or 75 year time horizons. They need to divest from their current operations and become, essentially, entirely new industries. They need some price assurance for that.
So that’s what you see as their motivation. To get a price assurance signal which will allow them to divest in fossil fuels and re-invest elsewhere.
That seems to be what they’re saying.
And one of the other things Big Oil is saying is that this has to be a tax that’s levied on consumers as well. At what level does the price of carbon have to be pitched in order to have the impact on emissions that the Greens would advocate ?
In New Zealand – and this shifts around a lot – the last set of numbers I saw was about $NZ25. That’s this year’s number, but you would expect that to rise over time.
Yes. Now, the Greens talk a lot about a realistic price for carbon and making polluters pay. You talk a lot less about what costs a realistic price for carbon would impose on consumers at these magnitudes – as say, the price moves closer over time to around $US50.
And some people see it getting to around $120, or $200.
And clearly that would impose significant added costs to consumers ?
That’s going to be a hard sell politically, isn’t it? It will mean the Greens will be coming at you once again with yet another hair shirt of bad news, allegedly for your own good.
That’s why we’ve said it has to be offset with a tax cut. What you’re saying is that some prices – not all prices, but the obvious one is the petrol at the pump – will go up. And because nearly everyone in the country relies on a petrol-driven vehicle to get around, that would really hurt households in particular and especially ones in the bottom end of the income spectrum. So you’ve got to offset that by recycling the revenue, via tax cuts.
And by increasing taxes on wealth ? Because you’ve got to generate revenue from somewhere.
Yes, you do. That’s why we proposed cutting corporate taxes as well. Two things happen : one you take some of the pain out of it, and two, you then start having choice about where to spend your dollar. Very simply, if your petrol pump price goes up by a dollar, and you get a dollar back in tax cuts, you get a choice as to whether you spend it on petrol – or you can go and buy an electric car, put solar panels on your roof and charge your own vehicle. It starts to drive innovation, and people making purchasing choices which are at the lower carbon end…So you start to get a real shift in the economy in terms of the products and services being provided, away from high carbon and towards low carbon.
Right. Assuming the transitions are affordable. But taking it back a step, the government says that there’s currently no way of cutting agricultural emissions so it would be unfair to make farmers pay. What’s your position on that ?
At some point, you’ve got to make some choices about land use. Then main problem is dairying. And you’ve got to remember that 20 years ago, we didn’t have nearly the level of intensive dairying we have now – so, where we are now is the result of choices we’ve made over the last 20-years. Depending on the price [for carbon] and how it is applied, farmers will have other choices that will be just as economic as dairying. Forestry becomes as economic as dairying depending on the price that’s we set, and how it is distributed.
I’m hazy on the details, but isn’t there a forestry Armageddon looming in the 2020s ?
There is. The wall of wood, its called.
And our balance of emissions goes haywire at that point.
It does. Because we start cutting down most of the country’s forestry in one year.
Right. OK and finally, some people would say – look James, this idealism is great. It sounds great. But get real. The environment is totally stuffed. And hey, its an unfair world. So, get used to it.
But what’s the alternative? Hopelessness. That’s no way to live.
Would you care to extrapolate on that?
I could. But I do see signs of things turning. Right ? Those massive oil companies are calling for a long term price on carbon. A few years ago, global energy consumption peeled away from economic growth. That is hugely significant, because energy use has tracked along with GDP growth since the beginning of the 20th century. Last year for the first time, carbon emissions – just a tiny wee bit – started peeling away from GDP growth. So there are some reasons to be cheerful.
Ah huh. But aren’t we going to be embarrassed by what this country does in Paris this year ? Isn’t this going to be another case where we take our puny ETS along there and claim that we’re a world leader?
I think we will. But look at the modus operandi of the Key government. They will come out with something that is more than what anyone were expecting. So far, they’ve been talking about a 5% or 10% target. My bet is that they’ll come out with a 20 % target [on 1990 emissions] by 2030. And they’ll talk about how that is a HUGE stretch but it is very responsible because it will not destroy the story of the economy blah blah blah. And that will confuse people just enough to take all the heat out of the issue, politically.
Footnote : Since this interview, Climate Change Minister Tim Groser has announced New Zealand will be taking an 11% emissions cut on 1990 levels to the Paris conference, up from its current circa 5% position. The new target has been extensively criticised as inadequate, and leaves New Zealand lagging behind even the 15% figure being pursued by long-time foot-draggers such as the United States, let alone behind the far higher targets in many parts of Europe.
For a country that places such store on its ties and responsibilities to the Pacific – which is already suffering the effects of rising sea levels – this is pretty shameful. It does however, leave plenty of room for the Key government to confirm Shaw’s prediction : that at the Paris conference, New Zealand will lift its target to the bare minimum, while claiming – politically, here at home – that it has taken a very significant, yet ‘responsible’ step.