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Marama Davidson and James Shaw. Image: Tina Tiller
Marama Davidson and James Shaw. Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsSeptember 9, 2023

Nonsense and loathing on the campaign trail: an interview with the Green co-leaders

Marama Davidson and James Shaw. Image: Tina Tiller
Marama Davidson and James Shaw. Image: Tina Tiller

Marama Davidson and James Shaw on cutting through the vitriol, the successes and failures of the last six years, and fronting for Elizabeth Kerekere’s big speech.

“One of the things I have a particular personal loathing of during election campaigns is just the nonsense.” That’s James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party, fired up about the antagonistic back-and-forth about attack ads over the last week, sparked by an expensive CTU campaign targeting Christopher Luxon. “The issues that we’re up against are so great, I think people deserve more than that.” 

The latest examples are lamentable, but needed to be seen in the context of “years and years of attacks”, said Davidson, with women and women of colour very often the target. “It pisses me off, actually,” she said. “It’s poor behaviour that no one in our country deserves. That’s why we are trying to instead put our focus and our energy on inspiring people, rather than putting people off voting at all, which is I think what happens overall, when you just see attack ads from all sides.”

The usually mild-mannered Shaw is “furious”, too, about something else: National’s plan for a “climate dividend” that in practice would feed into a generalised tax cut. But what about the recent decision by the Hipkins government to commandeer $236 million from the climate emergency response fund for general savings, not to mention the range of Green initiatives that were lobbed on the policy bonfire earlier this year – is he fuming about that too? 

“Well, I did have words,” he said, as part of a special election edition of the Spinoff politics podcast, Gone By Lunchtime. “But this just demonstrates why we need more MPs in the next parliament and more Green ministers and why we need to be sitting around the cabinet table.” That’s something the Green Party has not managed in its 33 years – permanent cabinet places in a formal coalition. “For the first time I think in our entire history, we’re going into this election campaign saying: put us in cabinet. Give us a stronger hand to play.”

The Greens did, however, have real leverage after 2017. That was the election campaign when Jacinda Ardern memorably described the climate change challenge as “my generation’s nuclear free moment”. There had been steps taken, most notably in the Carbon Zero Act of 2019, but, to extend the Ardern analogy, had the same level of advancement been witnessed in the nuclear-free movement, would there be nuclear-reactors on Cook Strait ferries?

“I think that the key difference between the actual nuclear-free moment in the 1980s and today is that the nuclear-free decision was a much simpler thing to implement. All that had to happen was the government had to say: We will not allow nuclear armed or powered ships into our ports. End of story. Then we’ve just got to deal with the fallout with Anzus and our traditional allies,” said Shaw.

“But if you’re talking about stopping climate change and building resilience to the storms and floods and so on, you have to have a programme in every part of the government, in all of the different sectors, whether it’s transport, urban design, building and construction, waste, agriculture, forestry, innovation, systems, finance, you name it … Plus you’ve got to redesign your towns and your cities … So on all of those fronts, we have actually started to make some progress, but not at the speed or the scale that is necessary.”

Take another Green priority of 2017 – the determination, as inked in a commitment in the confidence and supply agreement, to undertake an “overhaul of the welfare system”. There were some changes, not least the pegging of benefits to wage growth, but most of the recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group were ignored. 

“No, there hasn’t been an overhaul, there were some steps made. Good. Ka pai … But the Greens have put up the plans this election and last election where we could choose to end whanau poverty and children living in poverty. Those are the political choices that the Greens would make.”

In retrospect, language such as “overhaul” may have been insufficiently specific, they concede. With the experience of 2017 and 2020 post-election negotiations under their belt, the Greens have begun already this time plotting their strategy for hypothetical discussions after October 14. “We are focused on being the strongest [possible] influence in the next government,” said Davidson. “We’re in the throes right now of having a look at the current and past agreement, working out what are the things we need to get over the line in the next whole term of government? What would need to be specific in any governance agreement and arrangement?”

James Shaw and Marama Davidson at parliament (Photo: Toby Manhire)

The Greens have to date run a solid, scandal-free campaign, but the term has not been without its hiccups. In July 2022, Shaw was shocked to find members’ delegates had declined to reappoint him as co-leader. After a national tour re-engaging with the grass roots, he was comfortably elected back to the role, unopposed. 

In April of this year, Elizabeth Kerekere was reported to have inadvertently called fellow Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick a “crybaby”. Kerekere later disputed the claim, but it set in motion an internal inquiry over Kerekere’s relationship with colleagues, and ultimately her decision to quit politics. Shaw and Davidson were very visibly present at Kerekere’s valedictory speech in parliament, as their former colleague got stuck into them, lambasting an “epic failure of leadership”. 

Why did they feel the need to be there, and what was running through their minds as they watched? “We continue to hold our heads up on what happened,” said Davidson. “We’re also not wanting to relitigate details and circumstances. She was always going to say whatever she needed to say. And that’s over to her. We felt it was important to front and be there.”

She continued: “And hearing those things? Well, we’ve been very clear. There is a lot that has been said by Dr Kerekere that we simply do not agree with, that we do not believe is truthful at all. And we’ve made that clear right from the start. Our priority has always been about our responsibilities as co-leaders to collective staffing, MP wellbeing and safety. And that’s what we continue to uphold. And so, yes, we wanted to be in the house, to be there, to be present. And [it was] I think important for our staff and for our caucus to see us being there.”

Another valedictory, from an MP in another party, was affecting in a different way. Todd Muller, the former climate spokesperson for National with whom Shaw had spent many hours on the Climate Zero bill and who underwent a very public breakdown after being suddenly propelled to the leadership, gave a speech urging greater cross-party collegiality, especially on climate change issues.

“Todd’s a friend,” said Shaw. “He and I come from very different walks of life and very different political and cultural traditions. But for me, the work that we did together was actually politics at its finest. It was when we said, for the long term good of the country, we recognise that we need to do something that’s going to be enduring, that will survive changes of government across generations. And, you know, he’s got an integrity to him. And an appreciation of those deep and subtle shifts in our society that are taking place and that need to take place. So I think he’s a loss to parliament. I think he’s a loss to the National Party. And he’s a thoroughly decent human being.”

“He’s a good human,” nodded Davidson. “It was really refreshing to see him lift himself above politics in his valedictory and make really clear references towards aspirational, Tiriti-justice undertones towards saying: look, on climate, we all need to do better … He’s been a different flavour. That’s been quite obvious.”

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