James Shaw’s current predicament is a reflection of the party’s uneasy relationship with the very concept of leadership, writes Gareth Hughes.
Leadership has always vexed the Greens. From its earliest formation 50 years ago, the party in its various incarnations has spent decades debating the concept and the individuals who hold its office. The party has tried different leadership approaches over that time and the party delegates’ shock decision to not reconfirm James Shaw in the co-leadership role is a continuation of that trend – a party uncomfortable and distrustful of leadership and power.
At this weekend’s AGM, 32 of 107 delegates voted to reopen nominations for Green Party co-leader James Shaw’s position, which under the party rules saw him fail in his bid for re-election. Political coups or spills in parties are normally driven by MPs but this was a grassroots challenge and a first for the Greens.
The party’s history can help explain what is happening right now. After stepping down as a Green MP, I spent a year living on a small conservation island writing the recently published A Gentle Radical – the Life of Jeanette Fitzsimons. I wanted to write the life of Jeanette, a friend and mentor and the party’s longest-serving leader, who passed suddenly in 2020. I was also baffled as to why no one had written a history of the world’s first national-level Green Party, especially given the state of the world, so nearing its 50th anniversary, I thought I may as well do it.
In 1972 the Values Party burst on to the national stage as the world’s first ecologically focused party, which would grow into today’s Green Party. Values was part of a wider social movement exploding onto the social fabric alongside feminism, the Māori renaissance, gay liberation, anti-Vietnam War and anti-apartheid movements that sought to overthrow the old paradigm.
Its founder Tony Brunt stepped down as leader after a white-knuckle six-month ride to the 1972 election and in a sign of idealism, naivety or both, the party decided to forgo leaders except in an election year. It was a radical experiment in decentralised organisation in keeping with the times. Predictably, the lack of central leadership saw the party wither on the vine. In the lead-up to the 1975 election the membership elected their second leader Reg Clough, who also only served a short time before being replaced by Tony Kunowski, who was then successfully challenged by his deputy Margaret Crozier. By the 80s, with its glory days long behind it, the party again experimented, this time with three co-leaders.
In 1990 the remnant of the Values Party and a new generation of politically motivated environmentalists morphed into the modern Green Party, which contested the election as the only party without a leader. This unorthodox approach was received with much head-scratching by pundits and the public. The party preached a new way of doing politics and the membership was distrustful of leaders and power concentrations, instead preferring four “spokespeople” instead. Even when the party joined the Alliance and took on leadership roles within it, prominent Green member Jeanette Fitzsimons lamented that “people were assuming I was the leader of the Greens and I was kind of embarrassed to say, ‘No, I’m the deputy co-leader of the Alliance. I’m not a leader of the Greens at all. We don’t have leaders.’”
Both the public and the press gallery couldn’t fully understand the four spokespeople – were they leaders or not? It took until 1995 for the Greens to finally decide to resolve the issue, and a range of options was placed on the table: a single leader, gender-based co-leaders or one remit that even suggested every single member, all 1,200 of them, should be leaders! It was at this conference the Greens’ pioneering co-leadership system was adopted and Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald became the first leadership pair. The party rules stated they had to be reconfirmed annually at the AGM. This is where James Shaw has come unstuck – even with no challenger standing – as more than a quarter of the delegates voted to reopen nominations, essentially a vote of no-confidence in Shaw that has seen him now temporarily or permanently lose the role he has held since 2014.
In its 50-year existence the party had gone from one leader to no leaders, to three co-leaders to four spokespeople before settling on the co-leader model – which is now only half full.
The practice of annual election by the membership has always kept the co-leaders close to the party and aware of currents flowing within. Jeanette Fitzsimons, when she was first elected, had close connections to the main component strands. For the activists in the party she could point to her work in battling nuclear power and Think Big; for the lifestyle greens she could point to her organic farm and eco-house; for the intellectual wing her academic background was impeccable and for the members focused on policy outcomes she had a strong track record. Throughout her 14-year tenure as leader she kept close to the various strands and stayed actively involved in internal party matters that saw her garner repeated support. It was a slog. It took countless hours of long meetings, insufferable conference calls, multiple weekend-long face-to-face gatherings with members. It took its toll but kept her in touch with the membership and ultimately she remained unrivalled as co-leader.
Disaffection with Shaw’s performance as co-leader and climate minister has reportedly grown over recent years and one wonders if in the face of criticism he pulled away from the membership, or parts of it. Was he close enough to the deep-flowing currents within the party to realise rapids for him were fast approaching?
The Green Party now continues its 50-year running argument about leaders and leadership. For the last two years the party has been focused on an internal debate which recently saw its leadership rules change (again) to allow two co-leaders to be elected, as long as at least one is female and Māori.
For a party established to change the climate of politics and reject the “old” practices of Labour and National by building a participatory, democratic, consensus-seeking organisation, leadership, power and ambition have always been difficult subjects. A sort of bargain was struck in 1995: to fulfil the exigencies of parliamentary politics, leaders were needed – but they would have to earn the members’ trust every year at the AGM. The 25% threshold for reopening nominations was designed as a safety valve to pull back leaders who strayed too far from the membership. For Green Party co-leaders the baubles of office are a ball and chain keeping them connected to the membership.
No one can predict the outcome of who the next Green co-leader will be. But it’s a safe bet if there’s a Green Party in 50 years’ time, they’ll still be debating leaders and leadership.
Gareth Hughes is a former Green MP who now works for the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Aotearoa. He is the author of A Gentle Radical – the life of Jeanette Fitzsimons.