Fast Mover: It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of James Shaw’s (above) success. In Parliament for less than 8 months, and already he’s been elected Green Party co-leader on the first ballot. Then, lacking any semblance of an official party mandate, he single-handedly repositions his party: not to the Left; not to the Right; but with the assistance of a truly remarkable keynote address – well out in front.
JAMES SHAW, the Greens’ new co-leader, is a very talented man. That’s been obvious from the moment he delivered his maiden speech to Parliament at the end of last year. It’s even more obvious now. His keynote address to the Green Party AGM on Sunday contained some of the most impressive political rhetoric I have encountered in more than 30 years of writing about New Zealand politics.
Shaw’s address painted a picture of twenty-first century politics as ideologically inert, politically disconnected, and morally bereft.
“I am not a hero of free market capitalism,” Shaw told his audience, “because free market capitalism is dead. It has been dead for seven years ….. The reality of politics in the wake of the global financial crisis is that there is no longer a struggle between capitalism and socialism. What we have now is a hybrid model that takes some of the good but most of the bad elements of both systems.”
For more and more voters – especially young voters – Shaw’s vivid description matches exactly the sort of world they believe themselves to be living in.
“There is no name for this system”, Shaw continued. “Nobody speaks for it. Nobody voted for it. It happens in the spaces between speeches and elections. It happens behind closed doors or over dinner with lobbyists. We have a political economy of friendly deals and whispers. Of overnight polling and focus groups.”
What Shaw’s impressive phrase-making turns so adroitly to the Greens’ advantage is the twenty-first century electorate’s growing impatience with the rigid dichotomies of twentieth century politics. Increasingly, the Left versus Right characterisation of political life is leaving young people cold. Many youngsters would struggle to identify the difference between Left and Right. Many more no longer care.
Shaw gets this. “My opposition to our current, deliberately broken economic system is not ideological. It is moral. I oppose it because it is wrong.”
Wrong? Moral? Who talks like this? Certainly not Andrew Little’s current crop of speechwriters. Not John Key’s, either. (Although, that’s only because the Prime Minister’s political diction seeks, and in large measure receives, an entirely different emotional response.) But the Greens’ new co-leader does, and in language Barack Obama would be proud to call his own. Shaw’s next big test will be to demonstrate that, as well as the telling phrases and rolling cadences of his set-piece speeches, he can also deliver the short, sharp thrusts and verbal parries of Question Time.
But demonstrating his mastery of political rhetoric was not the only show the talented Mr Shaw put on for the Green Party delegates on Sunday morning. From his 7:00am interview with Wallace Chapman on Radio New Zealand, to his 9:00am appearance on TVNZ’s Q+A, Shaw made it crystal clear that the days of the Greens being marooned, impotently, on Labour’s left flank are over.
Putting his policy money where is rhetorical mouth would be in just a few hours more, Shaw announced his intention to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the National Party Government on climate change.
“I have been clear on the campaign trail that while I don’t support a formal coalition with National, I am very open to working with National where there is common cause. Let us build common cause on climate change.”
This is the cleverest sort of politics: not only does it break the Greens out of their “far-left” ghetto; but it also extends the hand of cooperation to the National-led Government. And here, again, Shaw demonstrates his assured grasp of the public’s rising frustration with politics-as-usual: “We should talk to each other rather than past each other, and agree on an ambitious target that New Zealanders can be proud off. New Zealanders want their politicians to work together, and act on common interest. Let’s find common interest on climate change. That is my challenge to John Key today.”
What can the Prime Minister do? If he accepts Shaw’s extended hand on the climate change issue: Shaw wins. If Key declines to accept the Greens’ challenge, then, again: Shaw wins. For National (and for Labour, too) this can only be a lose/lose proposition.
It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of Shaw’s success. In Parliament for less than 8 months, and already he’s been elected Green Party co-leader on the first ballot. Then, lacking any semblance of an official party mandate, he single-handedly repositions his party: not to the Left; not to the Right; but with the assistance of a truly remarkable keynote address – well out in front.
James Shaw has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what he wants to achieve, and how to make it happen. Equally clearly, a majority of the Green Party are right behind him.
National should look to its laurels, and the Labour Party should watch its back.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 June 2015.