Politics

James Shaw begins the biggest days of his political life

What would you do if your political allies were about to form a government but your party was in danger of not being part of it? Simon Wilson goes to Sunday’s Green rally, where the sole remaining co-leader launched the battle that will determine the party’s future, and may also define the shape of the next government.

Barring some great mishap, Jacinda Ardern will win the election on September 23. And there’s not much chance of a mishap. She hasn’t done anything to slow the momentum since becoming Labour leader six weeks ago. And National appears already to have fired its biggest gun – the accusation that Labour’s budget has an “$11.7 billion hole” – only to shoot off its own foot.

All the polls have Labour on the rise, and rising still. They also have National on the slide. The big question is no longer whether Labour can win, but whom they will partner up with when they do. The Greens and the Māori Party? Or NZ First?

On Sunday, in a crowded hall in downtown Auckland, Green Party leader James Shaw made the biggest speech of his career. With his party polling at just 5%, it is in danger not only of lacking the strength to become a partner with Labour, but of slipping out of parliament altogether. The party is desperate for a jumpstart and the speech was designed to give it one.

James Shaw at Sunday’s rally. photo: Simon Wilson

The theme was core purpose: climate change. The message was blunt: without the Greens, the next government will be “business as usual”. He didn’t name her, but what he meant was this: Jacinda Ardern needs the Greens or you will not get the change you’re hoping for.

“Anyone who says they want to take real action on climate change,” said Shaw, “but at the same time wants to keep looking for new coal or oil, simply isn’t serious.” And just for those who didn’t realise he was talking about the Labour Party, he added, “It’s like saying you’re nuclear free but don’t mind the occasional visit from a nuclear ship.”

If climate change is going to be, as Ardern put it at her campaign launch, the defining issue of her generation, the same way the anti-nuclear battle was for an earlier one, James Shaw wants you to know there are policy consequences and Labour has not signed up to them. He was explicit about three; leaving fossil fuels in the ground was the first.

Then the second: “The Green Party is the only party that has spoken the truth about this: New Zealand has too many cows.” The Greens want to cut the numbers by 30-35%, over 20 or 30 years, and to do it with “a plan to help farmers move to cleaner farming”. Financial incentives and more.

In an interview after the speech, he talked about the hope that technology will solve the problems of dirty dairy. He said there are six main areas where science is trying to find solutions – variations on the theme of stopping cows farting, although they cover other issues too. “We don’t know what new technologies will emerge. Who knows what they’ll discover? But right now every study says the same thing: even with the best projected outcomes in all those six areas, we’re still going to need to that 30-35% reduction in the herd over time.”

The third critical policy difference with Labour was transport. In the speech he said, “We are the only party promising to prioritise – not just build, but prioritise – trains, buses, and cycling and walking.” It’s true, too. Labour plans to spend more on public transport and less on roads than National, but like National it doesn’t favour any particular mode. “We’re not prioritising one mode or another,” said Labour’s transport spokesperson Michael Wood when he launched some transport policy on August 25 in downtown Auckland.

The point here is that as long as you keep adding to the motorways, you keep inviting more congestion. You disincentivise the other options, and that quickly becomes self-defeating: the Waterview tunnel will fill up fast. This is not an argument about whether everyone should stop driving, but about the best way to relieve congestion on the roads. And it has other dimensions: less emphasis on road building means lower greenhouse gas emissions, better public health and more people who no longer waste their time, sitting alone and often angry in their cars.

Keep fossil fuels in the ground, transition some of the rural sector away from dairy and build the appeal of alternatives to private motor vehicles: key policies for addressing climate change, all supportable by Labour, but not quite supported at this point.

All up, the Greens have an 11-point plan (PDF). It proposes a Zero Carbon Act, to remove climate change from short-term party politicking by committing the country to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Labour’s on for the 2050 target.

Across the country, 1.2 billion trees will be planted: “in the cities, in the towns, in the national parks, in the regions”. Natives and plantation trees: it’s a job creation scheme, a plan to return eroded hillsides to bush and birdlife, a plan to revitalise the forestry industry. In effect, it’s a nationwide rollout of Phil Goff’s plan to plant one million trees in Auckland.

There’ll be (as previously announced) a $100 million fund to attract private investment into clean new industries and infrastructure, and a $210 million fund to help farmers transition to more sustainable agriculture.

The Emissions Trading Scheme will be scrapped. That scheme, introduced by Labour and eviscerated by National, has, said Shaw, “seen hundreds of millions of dollars change hands, our forests get cut down and converted to intensive dairy farms and our emissions increase by over 21%”. Trading carbon credits has been a rort.

Labour wants to fix the ETS: spokesperson David Parker talks about “changing the settings”. But in an interview after the rally Shaw said “the problem with changing the settings is that you can change them back”. The Greens supported the ETS when it was introduced in 2008, on the basis that it was “better than nothing”. Shaw said, “Well, that was wrong. It wasn’t better than nothing.”

The Greens, like Act, favour a carbon tax, which they call the Kiwi Climate Fund. Polluters would pay a tax in line with the greenhouse gases they emit: the 2020 estimate is $40 per tonne of carbon dioxide and $3 per tonne of methane from agriculture. The money would go to forests and other forms of trapping carbon, and every New Zealander would receive an annual dividend ($250 in 2020).

None of this would be difficult for a Labour government to sign up to.

But will they? Labour might not own the climate change debate the way the Greens do but it’s not bad on the issue. Jacinda Ardern clearly meant it when she said she believes it defines politics for her generation. But the prospect of Labour tackling the interrelated issues of climate change and clean rivers without the Greens is not promising. The reason? Winston Peters. He’s been pitching NZ First to the rural community as “the modern farmers’ party”, by which he means NZ First is the party that will defend farmers against the horrible liberals who live in cities and don’t understand.

Lucy Lawless at the party’s Sunday rally. Photo: Simon Wilson

It’s one of the oddities of this election: the idea that there is a war on between town and country, farmers and latte-sipping liberals. Where does it come from? City people don’t hate farmers. And farmers don’t think climate change is irrelevant: farmers’ groups say their members understand the need and are working hard on it.

When Jeanette Fitzsimons spoke at the Greens rally, she quoted Naomi Klein: “To change everything you need everyone.” She meant farmers as well as city folk. That’s why the Greens have that financial-incentives package.

So who’s stirring up the idea that never the twain can meet? It’s National and NZ First, both of which pitch themselves as the true friend of the farmer. Their strategies are to attack the Greens and Labour, but they’re not doing it to win Greens and Labour votes. They’re doing it because they’re in a competition to the death, with each other, over the rural vote.

It would be great if farming leaders could call them out on it, because it’s not helpful. Absent that, it’s pretty obvious that a Labour-NZ First coalition will not find it easy to make tackling climate change the defining issue of anyone’s generation.

Here’s something you might not have noticed about the Green Party. Since Metiria Turei resigned as co-leader on August 9, the party has released 19 new policies. None of them addresses poverty.

Eight have been explicitly environmental (the climate change strategy; plastics; the creation of a marine mammal sanctuary in the South Taranaki Bight). Another four are focused on regional economic development proposals, with an environmental dimension (renewal of wood processing; more rail services). One (bring the troops home from Afghanistan) affects foreign affairs and six are in the social area (country-of-origin food labelling; free public transport for students).

The Green Party hasn’t resiled from anything it proposed while Metiria Turei was leader. But since August 9 it has not released a single new policy focused on social deprivation.

Following the party’s annual conference in July, when Turei confessed she had defrauded the welfare system, many commentators said the Greens should return to their roots, by which they meant the environment and its intersection with the economy. The party has done that, but it’s still polling at only about half the level it was going into the July conference.

Perhaps nothing they do would help. These are the days of miracles and Jacinda. But pushing the enviro message hasn’t been restorative – despite many of the policies being significantly new and different.

The clean waterways policy is the most far-reaching of any party’s, and unusually it focuses on reducing pollution more than cleaning up after it. The plastics policy is also ahead of the pack, as is the plan to introduce light rail to Auckland straight away and to Wellington within 10 years. The proposed new marine mammal sanctuary, to protect a feeding ground of “critically endangered” blue whales, will be the largest in New Zealand.

None of these policies, individually or collectively, has achieved the kind of cut-through the Green Party needs.

At that conference Turei’s confession accompanied a major social policy announcement. The Greens, she said, would raise benefits by 20%, and would introduce a kind of cultural reset inside the Ministry for Social Development: staff would seek to support and enable, rather than restrict, punish and exclude. The government denies that’s necessary, of course, but tens of thousands of people who have had troubled dealing with welfare services knew exactly what she was talking about.

That announcement was billed as “the biggest change to the welfare system in a generation” and Turei and Shaw both talked about its ability to end child poverty. The policy remains in place, and senior Green MPs like Marama Davidson talk about it often (Davidson and Turei are having a rally to focus on it in Mangere this weekend). It just hasn’t been added to – and, like the more recent environmental policies, it has never gained cut-through.

Call it stardust, call it generational change, call it … I keep meeting people too scared to believe it. Labour voters, Green voters, Maori Party voters, all of them remembering how sure they were in 2014 that the centre-left was going to beat John Key, remembering how devastated they were after that election to realise the country they live in is not the country they thought they lived in.

It’s different now. Labour isn’t fluttering along on a wing and prayer. It’s surfing that seventh wave, riding the break of a lifetime. Will it win enough votes to govern on its own? Unlikely: even Key never managed to do that. But if you think that’s where Labour’s headed this time, and that’s what you want, vote for them.

But if you want a Labour-led government with the Greens and/or the Maori Party as support partners, party vote for one of them. If you would prefer NZ First was the partner, party vote that way. Remember, it’s the party vote that counts, because it’s the party vote that determines how many MPs each party gets.

The Greens need to secure their position above 5%. The merest slip below that and they’re out.

More than that, though, the Greens, like all parties, need to refresh their caucus, and just 5% won’t do it because it won’t put any new MPs into parliament. For the top five new prospects on their list, they need 6% to bring in Chlöe Swarbrick, 7% for Golriz Ghahraman, 9% for Jack McDonald, 10% for John Hart and 11% for Hayley Holt.

Something else to think about. Not once in this campaign, under Jacinda Ardern or Andrew Little before her, has the Labour Party said it looks forward to forming a government with the Greens.

The Greens have consistently said how excited they are about it, but Labour never says a word. Ardern says, “They’ll get the first phone call” and it’s completely meaningless. It doesn’t even suggest the Greens are Labour’s preferred partner.

Make no bones about this: there are many in Labour, including several of their senior MPs, who would prefer to go with NZ First. Forming a moderate government, with NZ First’s stronger ties to provincial New Zealand, is seen as a better prospect than a progressive reforming government with an agenda influenced by Greens and Maori Party policies.

James Shaw leaned on John F Kennedy on Sunday, quoting his space exploration speech from 1962. “We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and our skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

He returned to it at the end of his speech, swapping out the moon landing bit for making New Zealand “a world leader in the global fight against climate change”.

Shaw was not short on rhetoric – you don’t often hear a speech like it in this country. He ran through the litany of New Zealand’s progressive history: “When the people of Parihaka saw the British crown confiscating land, they said, ‘This is wrong.’ The suffragettes who saw that women were disenfranchised from the political system said, ‘This is wrong.’ Michael Joseph Savage and the leaders of the first Labour government saw the inequality and injustice of a broken economy and said, ‘This is wrong.’ When the world stood on the brink of nuclear war New Zealand stood up and said, ‘This is wrong.’”

He might have overreached himself a little on that last point. The world was indeed on the brink of nuclear war in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Shaw was probably thinking about the two navy frigates our government sent to protest French nuclear testing in the Pacific. That was in 1973. Never mind.

“And every time we said those words,” he said, “we took action to show that we meant what we said. Today we need to honour that legacy and live in that tradition. Today we say to those who refuse to take action on climate change, ‘This is wrong,’ and we need to show them that we mean it. That’s what it will mean to have the Green Party in government and it will only happen if we have the Green Party at the heart of the next government.”

The crowd was loving it, obviously.

“We will not give up. We will not give in. We will not give way, because the hour is too late, the threats are multiplying. The storm is rising and the Green Party is the only party that is ready and willing to meet it.”

The storm is rising. The Greens are in a race to election day now, hoping to rise with it.


Read more of the Spinoff’s election 2017 coverage here

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