Illustration: Toby Morris

When the wheels came off: James Shaw on Election 2017

The Green co-leader on fearing he might be the party’s last leader, why Jacinda Ardern was a boost to their electability, and the nine-dimensional chess of coalition negotiations


This is the fourth in a series of extracts from the new VUP collection Stardust and Substance. Read Jacinda Ardern’s review of ‘the most extraordinary year of my life’ here. Winston Peters’ explanation of why NZ First chose to coalesce with Labour is here. Bill English’s take on the joys of the campaign is here.


My worst moment of the 2017 election came the day parliament rose to kick off the formal part of the campaign, about six weeks before election day.

Roughly 10 minutes before I had to give the Adjournment Debate speech on behalf of the Green Party, I received that evening’s Colmar Brunton poll results. We were on 4%, the first time during the campaign that we had dipped below the threshold which would see us return to parliament. And because, in many ways, the adjournment speech kicked off the formal election campaign period, it wasn’t a great way to start.

I finished the speech and my colleague Gareth Hughes came and sat down in the seat next to me. He looked at me and said, “Way to go, giving that speech, knowing what you know.” It was a really tough moment, because at that point it seemed probable that I was about to become the last leader of the Green Party and that I had just given the last speech in parliament by a Green Party MP.

I was reflecting on that moment, 12 weeks later, as I was waiting to meet Pope Francis in my new capacity as New Zealand’s Minister for Climate Change.

The thought occurred to me that life comes at you pretty fast, sometimes.

In this review of the election I am able to provide my personal reflections only. The experience that we went through – topsy-turvy is the most gentle of phrases that you could possibly use for the Green Party’s election campaign – was such that I cannot provide any sense of a shared experience on behalf of the Green Party, because I don’t think that my team had a truly shared experience. We were all going through very different experiences, even though we were experiencing the same events.

After every election campaign the Green Party runs a formal internal review process. As I write, that process is still ongoing and there will certainly be lessons that will come out of that. But these reflections – written in December 2017 – provided the first formal opportunity to reflect on what has been an extraordinary year.

The groundwork

We started Election 2017 in 2014. I know that when you’re standing on this side of an election – when it’s all over – you’re usually reflecting on the six- or seven-week formal period of the campaign between when the house adjourns and election day. But actually it takes a whole lot longer than that to get ready for those six or seven weeks.

The Green Party started sooner in the electoral cycle than it has ever started an election campaign before, with the formal review of the 2014 campaign. The review came out with an enormous list of recommendations for things that we would do differently next time. We went through that list fairly forensically, ticking each item off – to the extent that we had the resources to be able to do so.

We hired our campaign manager at the very start of 2016, so that we had a campaign manager in place for almost two years by the time we actually had the election. Our campaign director – the person who took overall responsibility – was the general manager of the Green Party, Sarah Helm. This was the first time that we unified the organisational structure of the Green Party with the campaign. As part of the 2014 review, we said, “Actually, the purpose of a political party is to campaign. Why then do we have an organisational operational management structure that sits in parallel with that of the campaign?” Unifying our permanent organisation with the campaign, simplifying our structure, and eliminating duplication and coordination friction, eventually unlocked what became a very powerful ground campaign.

One of the other lessons that we learned from the 2014 campaign was that our relationship with Labour had to improve in order for the electorate to trust either of us to govern. That was behind my motivation – and, I believe, then Labour leader Andrew Little’s motivation – in pulling together the “Memorandum of Understanding” between our parties which, of course, is now history, but was, at the time, a pretty significant move. It said to the public and our own supporters that it was time to down weapons when it came to each other, and to focus on what we were there to do – defeat the National Party and get into government. That was a critical moment. At the time there was some criticism for a lack of detail in the Memorandum, but it was the intention behind it which was really critical.

Personally, I put an enormous focus on recruiting new talent. I had an instinct – an instinct backed up with about 50 years’ worth of political science research – that you can have all the policy in the world, but actually elections are about people. People vote for people; they tend not to vote for abstract constructs like policies, even though they’ll swear to you that it’s policy that decides their vote. Actually they want to make a connection with someone.

So in the second half of 2016 I put a huge amount of effort into recruiting a newer, broader base of highly talented, competent candidates who better reflected modern New Zealand, geographically, ethnically and professionally.

That effort got a lot of media attention. For those for whom the last phase of the 2017 campaign completely blitzed their memory of everything that happened prior, it’s worth remembering that in early 2017 we had a lot of positive coverage of this kind of emerging new talent, including an Annie Leibovitz-style cover for North & South magazine that startled everyone (especially those of us who were in it – “golly, I can look like that!”). This was phase one of the campaign and we were off to a roaring start. The theme at that point was “Great Greens” and it was “relentlessly positive” … to coin a phrase.

The numbers

Over 6,000 volunteers gave their time and enthusiasm to the Green Party’s 2017 election campaign. We knocked on 63,500 doors. We delivered 1.1 million leaflets. We put up 7,282 billboards – twice. We attended hundreds of community events.

Our stats for telephone calls to voters paint a picture of how much the Greens’ ground campaign has developed over time. In 2011 we made 3,000 phone calls during the campaign. In 2014 we made 35,000 calls. And in 2017 we made 104,000 calls. So in the course of the three elections that I fought as the candidate for Wellington Central, our nationwide calling effort improved by a factor of nearly 35. Our ground campaign has changed enormously in a very short period of time.

And not just our ground campaign. In 2011 around 6,000 people donated money to the Green Party campaign. In 2014 there were 8,829 individual donors; in 2017 there were 14,838 – nearly double the number of people donating to our campaign this time over the previous campaign. The average donation was $79.92. We were signing up an average of 651 financial donors a month for most of the campaign, more than 20 per day. All of this added up to $2,741,971 dollars, which is $730,000 more than we raised in the 2014 campaign.

A lot of our spending was incredibly effective. We spent half a million on social media. Despite the fact that they spent $5 million, 10 times as much money as we did, we beat National every single month of the campaign on social media. In total, face-to-face, on the phone or on social media, we had about 160,000 conversations with New Zealanders – about us, about the campaign and about what was important to Kiwis.

So, yes, it will be remembered as the most tumultuous of campaigns. But on many of the normal indicators it was absolutely off the charts, wildly successful. More successful, in fact, than any campaign that we’ve ever had before. Particularly, of course, because it ended up with us in government, the true mark of success of any campaign.

But the statistics, by themselves, don’t tell anything, really, about why it all went the way it did, because the stats are devoid of the stories. So I can share a few – largely incoherent – memories of the campaign.

The wheels come off

One evening – a Thursday evening – I was driving up to Otaki to a public event and I received a phone call from one of our media people. Newshub were going to be running a story that there were allegations of electoral fraud against Metiria Turei, compounding the allegations of benefit fraud. It was a complete nonsense of a story, but that didn’t matter at this point. Perception was far more powerful than fact.

That, to me, was the moment that I knew that that game was up; that we’d lost control of the narrative. Up to that point, as far as I was concerned, everything we were doing was high risk, but we had control of the message. We had made a deliberate choice to take that risk – to say, “This is a story that needs to be told, this is something that New Zealand hasn’t been talking about and that most other political parties are too scared to talk about.”

Initially, it worked. Our polls went to their highest levels ever. Then the allegation of electoral fraud came out and I thought, “OK, I can see where this is going now.” And then it went that way. It took a few more weeks to play out, but that was the point that I knew that phase of the campaign was over and we would be entering uncharted territory. The following Monday evening, Dr Kennedy Graham and David Clendon announced they could no longer continue under Metiria’s leadership and would be leaving. Two days later, on 9 August, Metiria resigned as Green Party co-leader.

Steadying the ship

The next Sunday, after three days of frenetic activity, we relaunched the campaign and tried to steady the ship. This included a recycling of the slogan from our 2014 campaign: “Love New Zealand”. The slogan we had been using, “Great Together”, was no longer appropriate – of late, we had been neither particularly “Great”, nor particularly “Together”.

I still had a sense that, actually, the fundamentals were still strong enough to get us through. And we did notice that the ground campaign actually got stronger, because the weekend of the relaunch, merely days after Metiria’s resignation, we knocked on 10,000 doors around the country. Our volunteer numbers went up and people started working harder – and they’d already been working pretty hard. My remaining caucus colleagues threw everything into the campaign, most of them in the certain knowledge that they were unlikely to be re-elected to parliament. It was nothing short of heroic. I thought, “I think that we can pull this off.”

Although our polling was yet to hit its lowest point, which came a week later at the time of the Adjournment Debate, our campaign was in overdrive. But two weeks after that, on 31 August, there was a Colmar Brunton poll that had Labour on 42% and the Green Party on 5%.

About a month after Metiria’s resignation, we held a high-profile climate change policy launch in Auckland. About 500 people were in attendance and I thought, “I reckon we can turn this around”, because the level of enthusiasm that I saw was extraordinary.

The comeback

By then our polling had been holding steady at 5% or so for a couple of weeks. That was the first time that I thought, “OK, if we can just make sure we get a few more of these polls that have us back on that survival level, then I think people will start to see that a vote for the Greens isn’t going to be a ‘wasted vote’ and that it’s worth voting for us.”

But I also noticed that, as we were going out door knocking and on the phone, we were up against something that I hadn’t seen before, which was a lack of understanding about how MMP operates.

I understand that the Electoral Commission did some research, a little old now, which found that at the 2014 election understanding of MMP and how it functions was lower than when MMP was introduced in 1996. This is because, in the mid-1990s, there was a huge public education campaign to explain how MMP worked. Once MMP had been introduced the campaign stopped, except in a low-key way as part of the usual conduct of elections. An entire generation of people has been born, gone to school, and started voting since the introduction of MMP and the public education campaign that accompanied it. What we were up against, at this point in the campaign, was voters – including many core Green Party voters – saying to us, “Of course, I would vote Green, but I really want Labour to win, so I’m going to vote Labour.”

Our response was to – very rapidly – put together a video, using red and green apples as a visual metaphor for how the Green vote added to the Labour vote. Conversely, if the Green vote were to disappear, it would ensure Labour didn’t have the numbers to govern. That became one of our most shared videos of the campaign. The response was strongly positive and immediate – lots of volunteers reported people on the doorsteps and on the phones saying to us words to the effect of, “Oh yeah, I saw your video – I’m going to vote Green; I want Jacinda Ardern to be the next prime minister.” That was pretty significant to me. We had managed to turn one of the most dangerous narratives of the campaign into a strength.

Another significant moment for me was the finance spokespersons’ debate in Queenstown. It was the only time during the course of the election campaign when all of the political parties, including the two large parties, were sharing the stage. I was there representing the Greens, alongside Steven Joyce from National, Grant Robertson from Labour, Winston Peters from New Zealand First and David Seymour from ACT.

I had a good night and a number of commentators said that, improbably, I had won the debate. This was important to me because, although the direct audience, live or broadcast over the internet, wasn’t all that large, it felt like a bit of a shift in perceptions of political commentators about the state of the Green Party and the role we were playing in the campaign.

Not the Green Party’s last leader

We had now passed through the Valley of Death and the final two weeks of the campaign were, remarkably, a lot of fun. I had a ball. A lot of people didn’t think that I would – didn’t think that I was a natural campaigner – but I had such a good time. We were out doing media events and stunts and talking to people, and the response that we were getting was incredibly strong in the closing weeks of the campaign.

It was also in those last two weeks that the polling numbers started to fairly consistently have us on anywhere from 6% to 8%: uncomfortable but survivable. One of the reasons I started having fun was that I was no longer as worried about being the last leader of the Green Party.

On election night 2014, the Green Party didn’t do nearly as well as we thought we were going to. We had 14 MPs going into the 2014 election and we thought we’d win as many as 20 MPs. In the end we finished up with only as many as we had started with. And National was still the government. It was a hugely disappointing evening. (For everyone except me. I had just been elected to parliament for the first time, so my experience of the evening was different from just about everyone else’s!)

Three years later, on election night 2017, everyone was cheering and yelling, “Yeah! We got eight MPs!’ (well, seven, probably eight, once the special votes were counted). Unlike the dashed expectations of 2014, we were so relieved and happy to have returned to parliament, we barely noticed that our numbers had shrunk by nearly half. And we had two terrific new MPs elected, Chlöe Swarbrick and Golriz Ghahraman, so there was a sense of renewal in the air.

I also knew that night that we were going to be able to form a government.

Everyone was asking, “Well, which way is Winston going to go?” And of course I didn’t know. But when someone puts up billboards saying “Have you had enough?” they’re not exactly appealing to the status quo. That is, in fact, a direct challenge to the status quo. It’s conceivably even more of a challenge to the status quo than our campaign billboards (“Love NZ”, anyone?). So I couldn’t predict which way Winston was going to go, but I knew that the people who had voted for New Zealand First had voted for change. To me, it was simply a matter of stitching them together with everybody else who voted for change either in the form of a vote for the Greens or a vote for Labour.

It was a euphoric night, even though I almost died in a car accident on the way to the venue. I was waiting at an apartment watching the results come through. At 10.30 pm we said, “OK, it’s time to go and do the speech” and headed across town. Going around a roundabout another car sped out on our left hand side and came within less than a metre of knocking us off the road. The thought occurred to me that that would have been quite an end to the campaign. A car crash – how appropriate!

A white-knuckle ride

After the numbers came through and we got the final votes, bringing Golriz in as our eighth MP, the negotiations began. The negotiations were probably, for me, the most anxiety-ridden phase of the whole year. The campaign had been stressful, of course. But I had been through moments like that before.

I had been a partner in a small consulting firm in London in the middle of the global financial crisis. Most of our clients stopped paying us, including our big institutional clients worth billions of dollars, who could easily have paid a small firm like ours, and we went through a real crisis, which we later called our own Valley of Death.

We had an 8am phone call every morning, called “the daily cash call”. We would work out who we were going to contact that day to try and bring another ten thousand pounds of revenue out so that we could keep the lights on for tomorrow. Assuming the lights were still on tomorrow, we would get up and do it again. We did that every day for months on end, and each day we squeezed out enough cash to keep the lights on, to keep our staff employed, to just keep going until one day people started paying us properly again. These days the business is doing pretty well.

So I’d been through a highly stressful experience like the campaign before, where I just had to get up every day and “keep on trucking”. But I’ve never been through an experience quite like the nine-dimensional chess that is coalition negotiations. It was more stressful than even those really tough moments of the campaign because of the number of variables, because of the need to maintain secrecy even though so many people were involved, and because the stakes were so high. Everything – and everyone – was riding on my performance when most of the conditions I was operating under were beyond my control.

On 19 October, the evening of the formation of the government, the Green Party held an extraordinary, 153-person video conference that went on for about three hours. Finally we conducted a roll call of all of our electorate branches to vote on the Confidence and Supply Agreement we’d negotiated with Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party. It was an emotional moment watching the screen as every single branch, and all but three delegates, said, one after the other, “yes”, “yes”, “yes”.

I went down to the media pack waiting in the lobby of parliament to say that we had the numbers. I did so knowing that it wasn’t just my decision, or my caucus’s decision, or my executive’s decision, but the decision of the entire Green Party. We were committed to being a party of government for the first time, and the whole Green Party, from Kaitaia to Invercargill, had our backs. Knowing that is a pretty special feeling and it reinforced to me the importance of having that support.

And then, three weeks after that, I found myself addressing the United Nations Climate Change conference in Bonn to say that we in New Zealand were committing ourselves to the goal of becoming a net zero emissions economy by the year 2050, putting ourselves into a small club of leading nations in the global fight against climate change.

So, as I said, life comes at you pretty fast sometimes.

Some final reflections

Earlier I noted that the statistics of the campaign don’t tell the whole story. Of course they don’t, but if we hadn’t had that amazing ground campaign and social media presence we wouldn’t have made it back into parliament. It was all of those volunteers, and all of those donors, and the staff and the volunteers who put that campaign together, that allowed us to come through in the end.

I will also say something about “Jacindamania”. Following Metiria’s resignation we did some research, asking previous supporters why they had moved their vote away from the Greens. The result was that 30% had moved their vote away from us because they felt that we were “messy and unstable”, especially given that we had been trying to project ourselves as “responsible and stable”. The other 70% said that they had moved because they wanted to vote for Jacinda Ardern. If you look at the Green Party’s core demographic over the last several decades, you’ll see the single largest group are tertiary-educated women, aged 25 to 35, living in urban centres and probably working in the public service. People, in short, exactly like Jacinda Ardern. She had a game-changing effect on the campaign. She is an extraordinary woman, who made more of an impact on our campaign, in many ways, than we did.

Another thing to learn from all this, I guess – or a reflection on it – is that if you’re going through hell – don’t stop! Get up each day and just do what’s there in front of you to be done. As long as you’re still there tomorrow, get up and do it again. Because if the fundamentals are right, people will back you.

A very dear friend said to me that campaign 2017 had Shakespearean overtones. He was right. As in Hamlet, there were a lot of bodies lying on the ground at the end. But ultimately, at least for us, All’s Well That Ends Well.

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