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Green Party co-leader James Shaw October 13, 2017 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Green Party co-leader James Shaw October 13, 2017 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsSeptember 2, 2020

James and the giant shovel

Green Party co-leader James Shaw October 13, 2017 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Green Party co-leader James Shaw October 13, 2017 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The Green School balls-up is another brutal political lesson for a party leader who already knows just how ruthless this coalition government can get, writes Ben Thomas.

Students at the Taranaki Green School are going to have to plant a lot more crystals to absorb all the bad vibes coming off Greens co-leader James Shaw’s ill-fated decision to give the private school $11.7 million from the billion-dollar “shovel-ready” projects fund.

Green Party members were incensed. Local schools were furious. The public wondered why it cost so much to make an eco-building to “activate DNA”. Commentators rejoiced at a fresh supply of Green stereotypes for columns.

And revelations by Tova O’Brien on Newshub last night suggest that far from “not giving it the attention it deserved”, as he claimed during yesterday’s public mea culpa, Shaw seems to have pushed particularly hard for the Green School to receive the cash.

The leak of an email from Shaw’s office to ministers withholding sign-off on a briefing about the programme unless and until the Greens School funding was included creates a particularly negative aura around the Greens.

It’s still too soon to say whether the Green School funding was the result of the shovel-ready process failing.

There is at least a chance that – even worse – the process is working as intended.

The spend-up was announced as part of the government’s early Covid-19 response: money would be doled out to create immediate jobs in the wake of the lockdown.

The Infrastructure Industry Reference Group (IIRG), established in April to receive applications for funding, had lofty goals. It was particularly interested in investments that “modernise the economy” and set it up to “enhance sustainable productivity into the future” rather than projects that “replicate the current economic arrangements”.

The guidelines for applicants referenced the government’s Living Standards Framework (remember the wellbeing budget?), saying that consideration would be given to the social and environmental value that projects brought to a region, as well as economic benefits.

It’s worth casting your mind back to the first lockdown when, for those of a progressive bent, there was hope, as well as fear. The vast fiscal power of the state was unleashed in billion dollar wage subsidies. Predictions  of huge unemployment, while welcomed by none, hinted that the middle classes – faced with economic precarity for the first time in their lives – might throw their political weight behind a more generous welfare state.

In May, finance minister Grant Robertson used the analogy of a burned down house to describe the economy – you wouldn’t, he said, rebuild it exactly as it was before. There was a hesitating sense that the careful and cautious Labour-New Zealand First-Green government might just be about to be – transformative.

Against that backdrop, applications for shovel-ready funding arrived from the private sector, NGOs and iwi. If your house was being rebuilt around you, you would probably want a say in how it was going to look, especially if you had been saying the house wasn’t fit for purpose for years.

At the same time, as Jones and Labour reiterated, the real drive for the funding was “jobs, jobs, jobs”. So the shovel-ready projects, as the name suggested, had to be large scale (over $10 million), well advanced, consented and ready to go.

The organisations most likely to have well advanced, pre-planned and consented projects were councils and the NZTA. That essentially meant roads, and what Jones called “grey” (as opposed to green) infrastructure. In the burned down house scenario, these institutions are the ones standing around the blueprints musing about whether rebuilding the house is an opportunity to change the carpet, or get different curtains.

The Green School also ticked the right boxes, in a different way – it was a major project, it would create jobs, and as an eco-building it had better environmental impacts than similarly sized construction projects.

The only piece missing from the puzzle was – what was it for? Other than crystal planting, and meditation for students whose parents paid $24,000 a year for them to fly internationally to learn about lowering carbon emissions, that is. What was the vision, and could anyone outside a meditation trance at the Green School see it?

Of all the parties in government, the shovel-ready spend up was in theory most aligned with the Greens’ vision for New Zealand. In practice we got $11.7 million for a Green School building.

If there is in fact more to the funding decision than a box ticking exercise gone wrong, however, then it would hardly be a surprise.

The IIRG sorted through almost 2000 applications, narrowing it down to a “shortlist” of around 800, then down to the final recipients, in a period of months. It allocated $2.6 billion. For context Shane Jones, who revels in his role as a pork barrel politician, struggled to spend the same amount from his provincial growth fund over two and a half years.

With ministers holding the pen it is implausible to think that each option was weighed against the rest with the wisdom of Solomon and that unconscious or conscious bias did not creep into the process at any point, with any of the ministers involved.

It would be easy to chalk that up as a metaphor for the Greens’ time in government as a whole: good intentions squeezed through the sausage factory of politics and coming out as a compromise bratwurst.

But the Greens don’t need metaphors to remind them of the brutal reality of politics. It’s roughly three years since Jacinda Ardern, who has talked about a new politics of kindness, ruthlessly ended Shaw’s former co-leader Metiria Turei’s political career by ruling her out as a minister in a Labour government. Ardern, notably, has shown no inclination to pull Shaw out of his current mess.

Ben Thomas is a PR consultant and a former National government press secretary.

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