James Shaw's Green School debacle is both the opposite and the same as Metiria Turei's benefit-fraud scandal that nearly sank the Greens three years ago.
Like all parties, the Greens' activists are out of touch with their voters — but the gap is almost certainly wider than in Labour, National, NZ First or Act.
Green activists tend to be true to their party's heritage of anti-capitalism, anti-technology and agrarian socialism. They believe capitalism, consumerism and uncontrolled modern technology are the root causes of society's and the planet's problems. That is, today's immediate issues of climate change, wealth inequality or even Covid-19 are only outward symptoms. Treating those symptoms without defeating the underlying disease can only be palliative care, for society and the planet.
The problem is that Green voters tend to have done very well out of capitalism. The party's strongest electorate is Wellington Central, New Zealand's third wealthiest constituency, where it won 21 per cent of the party vote in 2017. The Greens did extremely well in Mt Albert and Rongotai, the 6th and 7th wealthiest electorates respectively, and well above average in Epsom, the country's wealthiest.
In contrast, the Greens won just 601 party votes, or just 2.2 per cent, in New Zealand's poorest electorate, Manukau East — their worst showing anywhere in the country.
The Green Party is an unstable coalition of the true believers who have sustained the movement for nearly 50 years and the coveters of $150,000 Audi quattro e-trons who vote for it.
Seen in this context, both Turei's and Shaw's initiatives make sense, albeit from opposite ends of the spectrum.
In admitting in 2017 to having committed benefit fraud in the 1990s, Turei was speaking to the party's activist base. More importantly, she was reaching out to potential Green voters whose financial circumstances mean they are unlikely to know $150,000 electric SUVs even exist.
Her strategy worked, at least initially. The Greens surged 4 points to 15 per cent in the next 1News-Colmar Brunton poll. It was only when voters learned Turei had also registered a false residential address and massively exaggerated the difficulty of her circumstances that new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern threw her under a bus, prompting her resignation.
If Turei connected with one wing of the Green Party, Shaw's aggressive lobbying of his sceptical Labour colleagues to provide $12 million to the start-up Green School reflected his relationship with the even more important e-tron crowd.
For him, being Green is not so much about overthrowing capitalism but things like global carbon trading, renewable energy, trendy new start-ups and instilling higher environmental and social consciousness in the next generation. At a stretch, you could even imagine Shaw accepting nuclear and gene technology to cure climate change.
Within this outlook, the Green School fits nicely. Its $43,000 annual fees for international students are quite competitive with King's College and St Cuthbert's, where the sons and daughters of Remuera doctors and their green-voting wives might otherwise go. The alarm bells about private schools that immediately rang for Shaw's Labour colleagues Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins were not present in the former PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant.
It cannot be doing the Greens much good for its activist base to be reminded the party is backed by the parents of private-school children, and its Audi wing to be reminded their party is against them.
More worrying is that the Green School scandal is following the same pattern as the welfare-fraud one.
Turei had already confessed to lying to Work and Income, so it was perhaps less surprising her initial story of hardship was unable to be reconciled with the facts that emerged.
But Shaw's brand has integrity at its core. That is now being eroded by his changing accounts of how and why the $12 million grant was made.
In his Cunliffe-esque apology press conference on Tuesday, we were to believe Shaw had merely made a mistake ticking off the Green School proposal among a list of many others. So casual was his oversight, according to his account, it raised questions of whether he should continue to be an overseer of the taxpayer's wallet as Associate Minister of Finance.
Like Turei's story three years ago, Shaw's initial account has quickly become inoperative — and Labour is again responsible for it crumbling.
Desperate to distance Labour from the Green School grant, Hipkins described it as one of the Green Party's "wins", saying he would not have prioritised it.
If this risked the shovel-ready programme looking like the "slush fund" alleged by National's Paul Goldsmith, that was a small price to pay to avoid Labour falling out with the teacher unions or being associated with crystal planting and DNA activation ceremonies, whatever they are.
To that end, Labour is suspected of leaking Shaw's threat to block at least 44 shovel-ready projects worth $1.3 billion if Robertson did not fall into line over the Green School — although NZ First's Shane Jones also received Shaw's ultimatum.
The Greens appear not to understand that the Labour Party is not their friend. Labour is a 100-year-old institution founded in the coal mines of Blackball. While it is now much more woke than its founders would recognise, and its current and previous prime minister are largely steady-as-she-goes centrists rather than the radical reformers of the 1930s, 1970s and 1980s, it still exists to serve its own interests and those of its supporters.
Labour is no more interested in sharing power with the Greens than with NZ First. If it can get both out of Parliament and govern alone, so much the better. Ardern is no unhappier about Shaw's problems than Turei's three years ago.
Green supporters are now confronted with the awful possibility their party will leave Parliament next month and unravel.
They may lament that Shaw only learned to flex his muscle against Labour to fund the Green School rather than to end capitalism, help the poor and save the planet.
And they will be praying no financial or personal link emerges between the school and the party.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant, whose clients have included the National and Act parties. These views are his own.