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james shaw in black and white on a green background with trees and houses and bikes and dollar signs
(Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsJune 13, 2023

James Shaw is showing us the money

james shaw in black and white on a green background with trees and houses and bikes and dollar signs
(Image: Tina Tiller)

With the release of their first election policy – an ‘ambitious but realistic’ income guarantee scheme funded by sweeping tax reforms – the Greens are out to prove they can be taken seriously. Shanti Mathias talks to co-leader James Shaw.

“It’s not about what we think we’ll get away with,” Green Party co-leader and MP James Shaw says firmly. “It’s about what we think will work.” I’m asking him about how the party costed its new income guarantee scheme, announced on Sunday – and how much it might play into negotiations with other parties post-election. 

The policy is a complex one: the corporate tax rate goes up, but the first $10,000 individuals earn is no longer taxed. Everyone gets extra money for children under the age of three, but people earning less than $60,000 and single parents get more. Trusts and assets above $2m are taxed at 2.5% – not a capital gains or land tax even though it targets the people whose wealth comes from capital gains on pieces of land. This will raise, Shaw and his party estimate, $14bn or $15bn, enough money to cover the approximate $10bn of the overhauled benefits system, with some extra left over for other policies. It’s “ambitious but realistic”, Shaw says.

“It’s also a little bit technical,” I venture. Shaw laughs. “A little bit?” He hopes New Zealanders will get it, though. The tax announcement is just the first of the Greens’ policy announcements – the political climate is only just reaching temperatures that could fairly be called “election season” – and there are more to come. By leading with the money side of things, the party seems to be hoping it can insulate itself from accusations that they haven’t figured out how much their idealistic proposals will cost – that theirs is a party of nice-to-haves, not essentials.

james shaw wearing a blue suit and white shirt stands at a lectern decorated with the green logo and lots of microphones around
James Shaw announces the Green Party’s new income policy on June 11 (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Because by Shaw’s telling, responding to poverty is essential for the Greens’ other programmes, like climate action. “It’s really hard to convince people that they need to make a transition to a low-carbon economy, or put additional resources into restoring our native birds and trees, if they’re struggling to pay the bills,” he says. “If you’re worried about the environment, an inclusive society is a necessary precondition to that.”

Other political parties pushed back against the Greens’ position that higher taxes on the wealthy, tax cuts for people earning under $124,000 and a more accessible benefit system would have the intended effect. Nicola Willis, National finance spokesperson, called it “fairytale economics”, while Act’s David Seymour said it would make everyone “equally poor”.

In Shaw’s speech on Sunday, he denounced the type of politics that focuses on te reo words on road signs rather than matters of actual political substance. He’s concerned that the 2023 election will devolve into a series of superficial “dog-whistle, hot-button issues that the opposition seems to be obsessed with” rather than a focus on “what we can do together to face significant challenges in the future”.

This is the delicate balance the Greens have to strike: to talk about worry without fear-mongering – to talk about their plans for a newer, better government while recognising the one they’ve been part of for the last five years. “There’s been some good progress on housing,” he acknowledges. By the government’s accounting, “30,000 children have been lifted out of poverty”. (Analysis by Max Rashbrooke published on The Spinoff fleshes out those numbers, suggesting that by different measures, 29,000 to 77,000 children are no longer living in poverty.) Those are good things; he’s happy to have been part of them. “But we’re not there yet,” he says. 

James Shaw on a beach surrounded by water and microphones
James Shaw announcing the release of New Zealand’s first national adaptation plan in August 2022 (Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver)

The Greens’ income scheme can’t reverse inequality alone. “If you don’t fix housing you’ll be taking one step forward and two steps back all the time,” Shaw says. “Accommodation costs are such a massive part of people’s outgoings.” There’s an announcement coming on housing. Shaw won’t be drawn on details, but he did say the question he has been asking as the policy is built is: “What is the thing or set of things that will make the biggest difference to break the back of that challenge?” 

That question perhaps illustrates the challenge of policy for a minor party. To be part of the next government, the Greens need policy that makes headlines – and then gets votes. They also need to be needed by the next government. It’s a hard task determining just how much minor parties are influencing government action, but the Green Party has claimed a number of environmental and renting spends in the 2023 budget as “Green wins”. Shaw’s party is closely tied to the Labour government; they need to look different, but not too different.

“We recognise that we will be negotiating with other political parties,” Shaw says. “But it’s up to New Zealanders to decide if what we’re putting forward – a country where every child has good food and clothes and a roof over their heads – is the country they want.” 

How do the Greens feel about party negotiations as National, the opposition, drops out of cross-party accords like housing density and agricultural emissions? Shaw sighs. “It worries me that two years out of three National say [they’re] interested in long-term bipartisan solutions, and the moment there’s an election on they walk back from those commitments.” Climate change is particularly urgent. “National have committed themselves to the five-year emissions targets … they’ve said they’ll have policies to achieve those, which I’m looking forward to because they haven’t supported any of the policies we’ve put forward.” Christopher Luxon announced yesterday that a National government would further delay agriculture emissions pricing. 

a green background with a planet on fire, a cow, and some cars
Image: Tina Tiller

Climate change is a long-term issue. Shaw describes the Greens’ climate policy as “about the future, not just the present”. But how do you exercise that long-term thinking in a three-year election cycle? “Well, it’s very difficult to do,” Shaw responds. The party welcomed the draft report of the  Independent Electoral Review released last week, which included recommendations to make the voting age 16 and hold a referendum for a four-year political term. 

A four-year term would make the government more effective, Shaw says, but it isn’t enough alone to embed “intergenerational” thinking in the halls of power. He performs some basic arithmetic aloud: “Four years is only one year longer than three years.” Instead, the government needs to be thinking of multiple decades; climate change proves that. 

He thinks that voters are starting to get it, too. “Right now, thousands of people are still displaced from extreme weather events at the start of the year that were supercharged by climate change,” Shaw says. “People are realising that their lives and livelihoods are at risk from environmental degradation and loss of our remaining wilderness, our biodiversity.” 

It’s the climate crisis, too, that makes Shaw think that lowering the voting age is important. “With our track record and what comes up throughout the campaign, we can demonstrate that we’re focused on the long-term future today’s kids will grow up in,” he says. Guaranteeing a minimum income, expanding public transport and passenger rail, making housing more secure – these are, to Shaw, truly popular, transformational policies. “I don’t think it comes at a political cost to us to talk about things that matter – we know it’s important [to respond to inequality and climate change] and we know it’s time to deal with it.”

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