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The many James Shaws (Image: Tina Tiller)
The many James Shaws (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsMay 1, 2024

The highs and lows of James Shaw’s 10 years in parliament

The many James Shaws (Image: Tina Tiller)
The many James Shaws (Image: Tina Tiller)

From bills to beards, a walk through the former Green co-leader’s time in politics.

After close to a decade in politics, James Shaw is preparing to bid farewell to parliament. Tonight will see the former minister deliver his valedictory address, certain to be a speech filled with Shaw’s trademark wit and likely some emotion. 

Shaw announced in January that he’d be stepping down from politics. It came after his party brought in a record number of new MPs at last year’s election, but was simultaneously shunted into opposition. He stayed in parliament a few months longer to support the Bill of Rights (Right to a Sustainable Environment) Amendment Bill. It was voted down by the government earlier this month and Shaw confirmed he’d be leaving parliament at the end of April.

And so ahead of his valedictory, we reflect on some of the highs, lows and in-betweens of Shaw’s 10 years in parliament.

An outsider rises to the top

It was just seven months after entering parliament in September 2014 that James Shaw became co-leader of the Green Party alongside Metiria Turei. His rapid ascension, prompted by the resignation of Russel Norman, saw him shift from 12th on the list to number one. He was seen as a “riskier” and more outside choice for the party, with his main contender for the position being third-term MP Kevin Hague. According to a Herald report from the time, one colleague likened Shaw to Bill Clinton and he had to work to dispel concerns from members that he was a National MP in disguise or purely “an ex-PWC management consultant in a suit”.

But Shaw said that if the party wanted to grow its vote, the status quo wasn’t necessarily the biggest step. “What I’m saying to people is that if we keep doing the same thing we’ve always done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve always got.”

Early on in his leadership, Shaw called for “consensus” on climate change and made a plea for cross-party cooperation with National, who were in government at the time. 

The ‘New Greens’ cover shoot

One term into his tenure at the top of the party, a 2017 photoshoot for North and South pitched the Greens as modern, attempting to change the image of Green MPs as “loony, lefty” and “wacky, smoking dope, hugging trees and eating lentils”. At the time, it mostly worked – with fresh-faced hopefuls like Chlöe Swarbrick and Golriz Ghahraman pictured alongside Shaw (a management consultant) and Turei (a lawyer). Only Swarbrick will be left in parliament from this wave of “New Greens” by tomorrow.

But when he resigned, Shaw told Stuff he believed the party’s image has changed over the last decade. “The commentary or the background assumption was like, ‘oh, the Greens are crazy, you don’t want to let them anywhere near the levers of government, they’ll bring the place down, destroy the economy, the government won’t last six months’,” he said. “Nobody says that about us now.”

Losing his co-leader and feeling ‘underwater’

Under pressure over her admission of benefit fraud, Turei resigned in early August 2017 – less than two months out from the general election. It left Shaw as the sole leader of a party that had traditionally had two faces out on the campaign trail. At the same time, Labour was also grappling with a sudden change of leader from Andrew Little to Jacinda Ardern.

Co-leaders James Shaw and Metiria Turei during a Green Party conference. (Photo: Simon Wilson)

Ahead of the campaign, the Greens were facing political oblivion. A new TV poll had put them below the 5% threshold needed to return to parliament. Shaw told RNZ’s Jo Moir this week he remembers feeling as though the speech he delivered before heading out on the campaign could have been his final address to parliament. “We were underwater, so I had to give that speech knowing there was a realistic possibility it was going to be the last speech by a Green Party member of parliament,” he said. “That was one of the lowest points of that particularly rough campaign.”

The career-defining Zero Carbon Act 

Ultimately, that speech of Shaw’s was nowhere near his last. Labour experienced a last minute surge under Ardern, and along with New Zealand First, the Greens helped push them into government. Shaw got what he wanted: minister for climate change (along with statistics and associate finance). 

During his tenure, he made some big steps. Most notably, the Zero Carbon Bill was introduced to parliament in early 2019 and passed before the end of the year. Many see the legislation, which provides a framework for New Zealand to meet its global obligations to the Paris Agreement, as Shaw’s defining legacy. Despite the change of government last year, it has survived intact. “The Zero Carbon Act is a victory for compromise,” wrote Jack Tame for Newstalk ZB last week when looking back on Shaw’s career. “A victory for putting aside differences and uniting around common goals.”

Also in his first term as a minister, Shaw drove reforms of the Emissions Trading Scheme.

The Green School debacle

It started as a mini scandal, but it was a mini scandal that just didn’t want to go away. Ahead of the 2020 election, Shaw was forced to apologise to members of his own party after approving close to $12 million for a “green” school in New Plymouth. The money came from a cash pool set aside for shovel ready projects. But it upset members of the Green Party, including former MPs like Catherine Delahunty, for going against party policy. “This was never going to fly with the Green Party,” said Delahunty. “Our policies are never to fund private schools.”

Shaw said signing off on the funding wasn’t a resignation-worthy offence, but admitted it could prevent the Greens from making it back into parliament. Ultimately, that didn’t come to fruition, but Labour’s majority meant that it didn’t need the Greens to keep hold of power anyway.

James Shaw and Marama Davidson arrive at the Green Party 2020 election night event. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

Assaulted on the job

A truly shocking moment in New Zealand politics as Shaw revealed he had been assaulted in public while walking to work in early 2019. Shaw suffered a fractured eye socket after the attack, which was described as a “fairly-prolonged assault”. He was punched five or six times after walking away from the assailant who had tried to speak with him.

Reflecting on that moment earlier this year, Shaw said it had more of an impact on his friends and family. But, he told Stuff, it did take a personal toll. “I had some anxiety issues afterwards, you know, I was a bit twitchy in certain crowds or with people behaving a particular way, but that sort of faded in a few months,” he said. “I don’t walk home after dark any more, or anything like that.”

Shaw’s attacker was sentenced to nine months in prison.

The beard

The summer beard is a New Zealand tradition, but few have pulled it off quite as successfully as James Shaw. The Spinoff’s Calum Henderson gave it top spot in a 2018 ranking of celebrity summer beards, writing: “It’s a head-turner, a beard that has made everybody look at the Greens co-leader in a whole new light.” Shaw edged out other well-received beards from broadcaster Simon Dallow and fellow (now former) MPs Andrew Little and Simon Bridges.

Being booted out as co-leader (briefly)

The Greens have a complicated history with leadership bids, as it’s the party delegates that ultimately decide who holds onto the coveted positions. In 2022, Shaw was temporarily shunted out of the co-leadership, leaving Marama Davidson as sole leader until a vote could take place. The ousting was triggered after 30% of delegates voted to reopen nominations for the position. Shaw said the vote against him was “obviously a bit of a surprise”, and he had to “work through a few things”. He was eventually reinstated.

A year earlier, Shaw had faced a leadership challenge from outside contender James Cockle. Again, he comfortably survived, 116 votes to four.

James Shaw (Photo: Getty Images)

Thrown on the Labour policy scrapheap

After Ardern’s resignation as prime minister, Labour’s Chris Hipkins ascended to the ninth floor and quickly set about chucking many of his government’s policy pledges onto the scrapheap. Several of these came at the expense of the Greens.

Shaw told The Spinoff at the time that he was “less than delighted” about some of the “reprioritisations”, which included ditching the so-called “cash for clunkers” scheme, a possible lowering of the voting age, the biofuel mandate and the second phase of alcohol reform. “I’ve been pissed off for a while now,” said Shaw. “It’s just exasperating and disappointing that we keep making short-term decisions at the expense of the future. It drives me nuts.”

A historic victory and the decision to step aside

The Greens secured a historic election result last year, picking up not one, not two, but three electorate seats and boosting the size of its overall caucus from 10 to 13, albeit in opposition. There was speculation that Shaw would decide this was the right time to call it quits. In January 2024, he confirmed he’d be departing politics.

Shaw admitted he would have stayed for one more term if his party was still in government, but didn’t have the energy to carry on in opposition. “Because I think I’d gone through my grieving process for not being in government, by the time I got to election night I had a sense of relief for myself and a sense of real pride and joy that the Greens had had their best night in all of our history,” he told RNZ.

Tonight, he’ll deliver his valedictory address before formally stepping down as an MP. He will be replaced in the Green caucus by Francisco Hernandez.

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