Election 2020

Greens plan ambitious sprint to election

With their party hovering on the 5 percent threshold in the polls, Greens co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson speak to Newsroom about their accomplishments in Government and the party's ambitious pitch to the electorate

James Shaw may have made the last ever speech by a Green Party MP in Parliament last week.

The Greens co-leader said as much in his adjournment remarks.

"The reality is that there is a non-zero probability that this speech could also be our last - speaking statistically," he said.

In the same speech, however, Shaw noted that at this point in the 2017 election, the Greens were polling at 3.5 percent. Hovering on the 5 percent mark, given that precedent, isn't so bad.

"The whole time that I was delivering that [2017 adjournment] speech, the thought weighed on my mind that it might well be the very last speech by a Green Party member of Parliament ever. Well, 10 weeks later we were in Government, and four weeks after that I met the Pope. So I'm just saying, a lot of things can happen in the final six weeks of an election campaign."

Over the next six weeks, the Greens will continue to unveil an ambitious pitch to the electorate about how the world can and should change in the context of Covid-19 and the related economic downturn, Shaw and fellow co-leader Marama Davidson tell Newsroom.

That begins, however, with reassuring die-hard supporters that they've done enough in Government and reassuring on-the-fence voters that the Greens can govern responsibly without a New Zealand First handbrake.

Tick, tick

When he ran for the Green Party male co-leader slot in 2015, just eight months after becoming a first-term MP, Shaw had a pitch that differed from the usual.

While competitors Kevin Hague and Gareth Hughes pledged to pull out of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, Shaw was the only candidate to come close to answering a surprise question during the 2015 co-leader debate on economic measures. He was able to identify the unemployment rate, while his opponents didn't know quarterly growth, the official cash rate or the inflation rate.

That was indicative of Shaw's promises: That he would turn the Greens into a party that the electorate could trust with the reins of power and a party that would then govern responsibly.

So, has he done that? When asked, Shaw had a simple answer: "Tick, tick.

"I'm really proud of not just the track record of what we've done in this Government, but of the shift in public perception. For 20 years, we've just had this millstone where people were like, 'Don't let the Greens into government, they'll destroy the country, they'll bring down the government, they're unstable, wacky,'" he says.

"I think what we've shown is that actually, we're extremely effective in Government. We get stuff done. We're a responsible partner in Government. Our ministers are good at their jobs in the executive. Our non-executive MPs have been really effective at creating change from that position. And we've done all of that with only eight MPs."

Radical enough?

At the same time as Shaw and Davidson go into the 2020 election with the aim of convincing the bulk of the electorate that they can be trusted for a second term - possibly without Winston Peters moderating or shredding all of their policies at the exit from Cabinet - they have to appease a membership that may not be satisfied with the rate of progress thus far.

Perhaps the most stinging defeats are Jacinda Ardern's promise never to institute a capital gains tax, the lack of movement on welfare reform - which Davidson described as a violation of the party's confidence-and-supply agreement - and the fact that emissions are still trending up, and are likely to do so through 2025.

While Shaw spent much of lockdown calling for a green recovery from Covid-19 and insisted on Budget Day in May that this would be funded out of the remaining $20 billion, the Government has put $14 billion in unspent stimulus aside without any major climate policies.

"There's always more work to be done," Davidson says on the green recovery.

"But I'm pleased that, for example, with the Greens we were able to get an acknowledgement of the importance of jobs for nature. Things like the $1.3 billion [conservation] package."

Photo: Lynn Grieveson

"I would say [the stimulus thus far] points in the direction," Shaw says.

"As Marama said, there's the jobs for nature package, which is colossal. There is quite a lot going into upgrading waste management processing. There's a whole bunch of renewable energy projects, investments in hydrogen, electrifying transport, some new generation projects.

"So in terms of the stuff we were doing with the stimulus spend, actually a lot of that is going in the right direction. We just haven't framed it as a Green New Deal or anything like that."

Shaw says the remaining money needs to be held aside in the event of a second outbreak, a second lockdown and the need for wage subsidies. But, outside of that, it could be dug up again in a future Labour-Greens government, he suggested.

Davidson acknowledged that the Greens hadn't got everything they wanted on welfare reform, which was why the party's first announced policy ahead of this election was a promise to overhaul the welfare and tax system.

However, she stands by the Government's progress on benefits as something that wouldn't have happened without the Greens, highlighting the indexing of benefits to wages, the removal of sanctions for mothers who won't name the father of their child, and the $25 a week increase that came in response to Covid-19 in March.

Going into any post-election coalition negotiations, the Greens would also be a bit more careful about what they write into their agreement with Labour. Some things - like welfare reform - could be spelled out in more detail than the 2017 document had. There's also a sense that the agreement doesn't have to be the be-all, end-all - the Greens can continue to push for policies that aren't in the coalition texts, as happened with this term's ban on oil and gas exploration.

Political caricatures

On everything, Shaw and Davidson say there is more to do. But they aren't bothered by the impressions from some far-left factions in the party that they've done nothing. Shaw points to the Zero Carbon Act and strengthened Emissions Trading Scheme on climate while Davidson cites the Warmer Kiwi Homes programme and standards for drier, safer rental properties.

"The funny thing is every political party has factions," Shaw says. "It doesn't actually occupy a great deal of my time at all."

The bulk of the party is supportive, Shaw says. When a fringe group attempted to turf him off the list, he ignored it while the rest of the party voted by an overwhelming majority in favour of preserving the leadership's preferred list.

The two also brush off questions over whether they appeal to different segments of the party.

"Every politician is a caricature of themselves and I think the co-leader model possibly exacerbates that effect. [Former co-leader] Metiria [Turei] was cast as the right-wing candidate when she ran against Sue Bradford. But that was a caricature that didn't last long because then Russel [Norman] came along and he was a tall white man who wore a suit," Shaw says.

Metiria Turei, Marama Davidson and James Shaw. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The same differences could be cast between Shaw, a white man who wears suits, and Davidson, a Māori woman who doesn't. But those associations are out of the pair's hands, Davidson says.

"Regardless of the personalities who you've got in those positions there is always going to be a strength of the [co-leader] model: We are going to represent a broader range of communities and certainly personal experiences. And just optically, looking at James and I right now, you know for a fact that we're going to come from different experiences," Davidson says.

"We also know that no matter what we do, we are going to be associated with different areas of expertise when, in actual fact, we both care about everything we've got."

That impression that she isn't up to some tasks does rankle, but Davidson says she doesn't let it get to her.

"I'm used to that on a daily basis. There's a level of racism, sexism, classism in politics that a Māori woman leader is never going to shake. I'm frankly bored of it and I just don't spend any time on it, because I've just got stuff to do."

Ambitious promises

Looking to the election, the Green Party co-leaders say they're trying out a new strategy: ambition.

In the context of Covid-19, it's time for a sea change, Shaw says.

"We've got a responsibility to deal with the long-term challenges [New Zealand is facing] via the stimulus, because if you don't, you've got to pay twice. We know that the policy proposals that we're putting up are very big, but we're actually trying to fix the problem," he says.

"I think in previous elections, we've tended to bite off small chunks. You're a modest-sized party, you want to ask for modest-sized things. But if you actually want to fix these problems, you've got to have a solution that's at the scale of the challenge."

Davidson, for her part, says the Greens will campaign on the core pillars they are known for, a refrain she repeated throughout the interview with Newsroom: "Climate change, environment and social equality".

"We are also seeing that the majority of voters, in an MMP environment, want more than just one political party to hold the full balance of power. So that is where I think people are really needing the Green Party to be able to give the most progressive form of government possible," she says.

"And I think that's why it's even more important for us to be very clear that we are not any other party - we are not Labour - we are our own party that will make the government stronger on taking these actions."

That's the message Davidson and Shaw want to put out there: If you want to see a progressive, constructive partner to Labour, then vote Green. Without that support, even if Labour gets the numbers to govern alone, the Greens could find themselves out of Parliament.

Davidson also noted that outgoing Labour MPs Iain Lees-Galloway and Ruth Dyson seemed to endorse the Greens policies on ACC and welfare reform.

Lees-Galloway, a former ACC Minister, said in his valedictory speech that ACC should be universalised. That's a policy the Greens announced in June. Dyson discussed issues in the welfare system where beneficiaries who get married lose benefits. Individualising those is another Greens policy.

Then, in his own adjournment speech, Labour Cabinet minister Chris Hipkins said the Greens this term had been, "to some extent, the conscience of the Labour Party".

"I'm really pleased that the Greens have been the ones pushing at the forefront," Davidson says.

"If people only voted on a single issue [of climate change or welfare reform] and they voted on policy, then we'd get 30 percent," Shaw says. 

"But they don't, that's just not how voters think."

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