With an election fast approaching, the Green Party has told its co-leader to reapply for his job. What’s going on, asks Toby Manhire.
At the end of the sleepiest political week of the winter parliamentary recess, just as the party-political pieces had begun moving into a coherent pre-election shape, lands a big surprise, out of the green. At the annual general meeting of the Green Party yesterday, 32 of 107 delegates voted to reopen nominations for James Shaw’s co-leader position. He hadn’t been challenged by anyone at all, but more than 25% of delegates said, in effect, that they do not have confidence in his co-leadership – or at least that they need to be persuaded why they should. The party rule book accordingly dictated that he vacate the role, leaving Marama Davidson with the oxymoronic job title that Shaw held for eight months from August 2017: solo co-leader.
When Davidson and Shaw removed their masks at a hastily arranged press conference early yesterday evening there was obvious surprise on their faces. Like a man with a ghost dancing on his eyelid, Shaw said he was “still processing” what had happened. “It’s not great,” he said. Shaw is almost certain to put his name forward and seek a fresh mandate, but he wants first to take soundings from members. Davidson’s response? “Shocked.” “Saddened.” She could not be so candid about the vote ahead, she said, because she needed to respect the party process, but the clues were clear enough. He’d “slogged his guts out behind the scenes”. And she reminded reporters of the wholehearted endorsements she’d given her friend in the lead-up to the AGM, issued in an effort to forestall the mutterings of discontent among parts of the membership.
At the very least, Shaw and other senior party figures have failed to take those mutterings sufficiently seriously. When members of the Greens’ youth wing were reported by Salient magazine to be agitating for a nomination-reopening vote, and saying things like “it’s about time we organise and kōrero to change our co-leadership”, they were brushed off by party spokespeople, with Shaw saying it was no different to any other year. The Greens are blessed and cursed by a ravenously democratic constitution. (Gareth Hughes relates in his recent biography of Jeanette Fitzsimons how a member once proposed that the party should have as many as 1,200 co-leaders.) That Shaw and Davidson were so blindsided suggests they need to do better at keeping their ears to the ground.
If the vote sends a message, however, it’s hardly a roar. Seventy per cent backed Shaw to remain co-leader. And the turnout among delegates was low, presumably because of the relatively late decision to shift the AGM from an in-person gathering in Christchurch to online. In 2021, 140 of the total 150 delegates voted; this year it was just 107. And while the result last year was initially announced as 116 votes for Shaw with four to his challenger, in fact there were 20 delegates who sought the reopening of nominations. If, say, 30 delegates who didn’t take part yesterday do so in the vote in the next four weeks, and if they don’t tick “reopen”, then Shaw (assuming he gets the most votes) is back in the job.
So much for the back of the envelope. How did it get to the point where more than 25% of voting Green delegates – who are tasked, remember, with representing electorates across the country – became so disenchanted with the guy? In part, it’s a perception that Shaw is insufficiently radical. His time, for example, working at consultant behemoth PWC for some marks him out as our version of a teal independent, or New Zealand’s answer to David Cameron hugging a husky. That overlooks, however, the fact that he is no Johnny-come-lately, having first stood for the Greens in local elections three decades ago, while his parliamentary speeches evince a commitment to social justice issues formed from his early years.
It is certainly true that Shaw’s overwhelming preoccupation in politics is climate change. Fair enough, say his critics, but why does he settle for such meagre progress? His answer: we can only achieve as much as our influence in parliament, measured in seats and governments’ dependence on us. For some he is seen as embodying the compromise that saw the Greens sign a “cooperation agreement” in 2020 rather than choosing full-throated opposition. (A deal that delegates backed, by the way, by 114 to 17.)
Former Green MP Catherine Delahunty was one who opposed that 2020 agreement, and last night she gave voice to the dissatisfaction with Shaw on social media. “I reckon that Shaw makes the white middle class who don’t want system change feel safe,” she said. “He does not like radical challenge politics, he is dedicated to incremental tiny climate steps. We need more from Greens.”
Whether a different climate change minister or a differently led Green Party could achieve more is impossible to say. It may well be that Shaw would win over more Green members if he was less diplomatic in some of his criticisms of the status quo. But as detailed in Andrea Vance’s book Blue Blood, his efforts to make the Zero Carbon Act happen at all were punishing. This is, I’m guessing, the “slogging his guts out behind the scenes” that Marama Davidson describes.
Will Shaw face a challenge? The most, probably only plausible threat would be Chlöe Swarbrick, who became the Greens’ sole constituency MP in 2020 after achieving a dazzling, historic upset victory in Auckland Central. A change in party rules earlier this year removed the requirement for a male leader and introduced a new requirement that at least one co-leader be Māori. Swarbrick has dismissed suggestions that she was as a result keen on leading in tandem with Davidson, but, as with the rest of the Green caucus, had not as of last night made any comment about the forthcoming process.
Shaw’s greatest vulnerability may be not so much a challenge, but a repeat of what happened yesterday. “Reopen nominations” will be an option on the voting form again when it is presented to delegates, whoever else may or may not be there. Were more than 25% to seek a reopening of nominations for a second time, Shaw’s position would be untenable. The options would be (a) resign, or (b) be condemned to a Sisyphean hell of nominations reopening within reopened nominations within – and so on.
Were Shaw to stand down in such circumstances, someone like Swarbrick could conceivably emerge asserting reluctance, dragged to the task, cometh the hour, cometh the co-leader. That in itself could invite its own trickles of, in the idiom of the moment, green blood. Another thing: it’s not guaranteed that Swarbrick would satisfy the left of the party. A couple of years ago, the Green Left Network produced an alternative list that would have relegated her, alongside Shaw and Eugenie Sage, outside the top 12.
Protest runs deep and proud in the Greens, and yesterday that was directed at Shaw. Whether the sentiment is proportionately shared by the wider party membership is difficult to say. But a record of pushing through historic climate change legislation, and collecting cross-party support that substantially boosts its chances of survival under future governments, is remarkable.
Equally remarkable is the Green Party’s polling, which under Davidson and Shaw has never come close to dipping under the 5% threshold. For a small party in its second term of participation in a New Zealand MMP government, that is extraordinary. Though it is wishful thinking for Shaw to call what happened yesterday a “temporary blip”, he will very likely be re-elected as co-leader. It might suck to do politics imperfectly from within the tent while half your limbs dangle furiously out in the rain. But the alternative brings a different sort of risk. “Sometimes not being in power or even parliament makes a party brave and they regroup positively,” said Delahunty last night. Whether that is how members on the whole see it is another matter. And draw a heavy circle around the word sometimes.