James Shaw may not suit the cliché of what it is to be Green, but his approach, he says, is rooted in his party's values. By Michele Hewitson
It is no use asking James Shaw, the co-leader of the Green Party and the Minister of Climate Change, what he thinks his public profile is. Interviewing him is an attempt to find out, but there is no use asking me, either. I liked him at the time. He seemed a decent geezer.
He wants, when "this place is done with me", to be forgotten, which is an interesting, if not unique, ambition for a politician. He is, he says, seldom recognised. The answer to the question about his profile: "It's a good question. Yeah, I don't think most politicians and most ministers outside the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance and, right now, Chris Hipkins, because of the work he's done on MIQ – most people don't recognise us necessarily and won't remember us when we're gone. Which is a great relief to me!"
That might be his epitaph. "Yeah, it is. But I think for the people who do know who I am – well, it depends whether you're a farmer or a Green, ha, ha – we're sort of known in different communities and our profile probably varies quite dramatically based on who those communities are."
See what he does there? He slides a question about his own profile into a more general answer about the profile of his party. Which is to say that he is not much interested in talking about himself. I don't know whether he is particularly, or at all, self-reflective, but to take a stab at an answer, I'd say not. At least not publicly.
It is not that he is interesting as an enigma. It is not that he is secretive. It is more that he is single-minded.
He is not as buttoned-down as he sometimes appears. He sometimes has a drink. He likes wine, single malt whisky and Garage Project beer, which ought to be a bit hipster, but he is about as far from being a hipster as it is possible to be. If he has a drink he gets "talkative, mostly". Let me guess what he gets talkative about: climate change? "Mostly." Remind me, I say, never to get drunk with him. "Yeah, I know, right? I imagine that I am an extremely boring person to be around. Because the thing I largely talk about these days is stuff that's involved in my work. I don't really know a lot about what's popular."
He is, he says, cheerfully, "just getting organised for the onslaught that is going to be 2022. Just in terms of the climate change portfolio, there's a whole series of quite significant projects that have been worked on for some time that are all going to crystallise this year."
He likes hard work. "Yes, I do. My wife calls me a workaholic." And is he? "Well, um, yeah possibly. I mean, I sort of struggle with the definition because I get a lot of energy from the work that I do. It is hard and it's very frustrating most of the time, but it's also incredibly rewarding. I don't drag myself to work."
There is, I say, an idea about him that he's fed up with being Mr Nice Guy, which is how some people seem to see him – depending on who you ask. Where, he asks, did I get this from? I said, as a joke, that I probably got it from some anonymous person who, in an RNZ online piece, described his leadership style as "autocratic". He said: "Ha! No … That's just gossip."
As for having been a nice guy, and now not being such a nice guy, he says the approach he takes to politics "is again deeply rooted in my understanding of Green Party values, which is about building consensus. One of our founding principles is non-violence, and that's not just the absence of physical violence. The kind of non-violence that helps change things over the long term [is] drawn from the tradition of Parihaka and Gandhi and Martin Luther King … You have to recognise that you're not going to change the world and make things better if you simply go to war with people who disagree with you."
He was perfectly nice during our interview, except for one glitch where he got tetchy about one of my questions – which was, admittedly, more gossip. This question, fairly innocuous, I'd have thought – and I was laughing as I asked it, which ought to have signalled the absurdity of the query – was "a very inappropriate question".
He would say later that "I don't tell a lot of jokes". This was in response to me, entirely unfairly, putting him on the spot by requesting a good greenie joke. He said: "Well, I know a greenie joke. I don't know whether it's good. So, Labour thinks we should divide the pie and National thinks we should grow the pie, and the Green Party says that, ultimately, the size of the pie depends on the size of the oven, and while you're cooking your pie you should keep your oven clean, otherwise you're going to give yourself food poisoning." That's a terrible joke! "Yeah. Totally."
Was his response to my question about profile a good answer? It's a very Green answer. The Greens are not about ego and individualism, they are about legacy – but not the legacy of leaders.
When he first became co-leader, in 2015, he did a bit of personal publicity. In an interview in a woman's mag, he was photographed with his wife Annabel, a lawyer. He is wearing what appears to be a leather jacket. "Of course, nobody had any idea who I was at that point, and because I was taking over the leadership of a political party it was very important to do that kind of 'getting to know you' stuff. And I haven't really done any of that for a very long time."
I have to say that he doesn't look particularly comfortable in that photograph. "No, I wasn't. Ha, ha." It was his own jacket and no, he no longer has it. I said I was glad to hear this, because it didn't seem quite him. "No, and also, it wasn't real leather."
Here's Bryce Edwards writing about Shaw in the NZ Herald: "[He] represented the more environmentally focused, non-Left side of the party – what might be called the New Greens faction – people who are more at home in the business world wearing corporate attire than amongst the far left." Which is another way of saying that the Greens have come a long way, in terms of optics, since the days of the dreadlocked, dope-smoking Nándor Tánczos and the eco-socialist Sue Bradford.
From his Wikipedia page: "Shaw has said that in the 2011 Greens selection process, party members … disregarded him as 'an ex-PwC management consultant in a suit'," – a reference to his time in London working for one of the world's Big Four accounting firms.
He regards that "kind of left/right labelling [as] both unsophisticated and lazy".
What is a real Green? I ask him a series of unsophisticated and lazy questions. Rapid-fire question time, then. Yes, he has a compost bin. No, he doesn't have a worm farm or a compostable toilet. He does eat meat. He tries to eat organic food when possible. He used to do yoga but now doesn't have the time. He drives an electric car.
Are any of those questions relevant? "Well, yes, to an extent. I've got a number of different answers to that. One is that, ideally, all of us would be making individual choices that are consistent with our values to the maximum extent that we can. But we're all part of a system that makes it extremely hard to be consistent about these things. I'm not interested in judging people or being holier than thou."
The man who doesn't mind an onslaught has recently faced one of another sort: public grumblings about the direction of the Greens and of Shaw's leadership from former MPs, including Bradford, and party members. The gist of the grumblings is about whether the party should be part of this Government. The argument against it is that they have no influence, and have watered down various Green policies because of that. "Labour's little helpers" is a snide dig. "That's all it is. So I don't really pay attention to it. It's just politics, right?"
There was also what he deems "all the brouhaha about my travel arrangements regarding COP26" – the UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow last November. "It was hypocritical," he says, because the Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, and the Trade Minister, Damien O'Connor, both went on overseas trips last year and didn't cop the same sort of criticism. Perhaps, despite dismissing all of this as "just noise", he feels a bit picked upon. Still, he is supposed to be a greenie. "I've still got a job to do."
What all of this boils down to is that there is, in certain quarters – almost certainly linked to those corporate suits and corporate background – an idea that he isn't a real Green. There was no need to raise this. He got in first. He prefaced his answers to my "are you a real Green" test questions with a good natured, "Ha, ha. Can I just say that I first joined the Green Party in my last year of high school, in 1990. I've never voted for another party. Some of the people attacking me weren't born in 1990."
'My family were farmers'
He has also copped flak, most scathingly from former co-leader Russel Norman, over what Norman regards as Labour, and by association the Greens, pandering to agri-business.
Tell that to the farmers. Almost all of my neighbours are farmers. When you talk to them, generally speaking, there are two things you would be mad to mention: climate change ("rubbish") and the Green Party ("wankers").
If, then, farmers hate the Greens, do the Greens hate the farmers? "No."
Shouldn't they? "Why should we? My family were farmers."
For about a century his family farmed in Ōpōtiki, in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. They farmed various things – beef, dairy, crops – over the generations. He didn't grow up on the farm, but his grandfather and mother did. This is what I have come to regard as a fairly typical Shaw response to a question about anything that doesn't involve climate change and/or policy: he's not terribly interested in the past, although he says he is interested in history. How did his family farm? What was the farm like? What does he feel about coming from an historically conservative farming family?
Shaw does, by the way, count Jacinda Ardern as a friend. They met in the UK when they were both acting as "kind of flag-waving candidates" for their respective party allegiances during a get-out-and-vote campaign.
A more unlikely close friend is Todd Muller, the National MP and short-lived leader. They had "huge barneys" when they were working on the Zero Carbon Act, he says, but have come to like and respect each other. They agree to disagree. They sometimes have a beer.
The personal stuff
When he was, with reluctance, doing that "getting to know you" stuff, he did an interview with his mums. He has two mums, both teachers, both of whom he loves. He had one mum until he was about 12 and mum No 1 fell in love with mum No 2, and they all lived very happily ever after.
It is a nice story of a close and loving family. So, of course, I asked about it. And he answered seemingly happily enough. Later, I was informed that he was upset by my questions, as he felt they were too personal.
I also asked about his British father, whom he didn't meet or have any contact with until he was in his early 20s. That meeting came about through a series of odd coincidences: the flatmate of one of his best friends discovered that she was his cousin. Her father was his father's brother, and he was coming back to New Zealand from Australia for the first time in almost two decades for a wedding. A meeting was arranged.
"I was curious and I didn't harbour any particular ill-will, but I just didn't know him." I say that he must be a very forgiving person: his father had abandoned him and his mother before he was born. "Well, I never knew him, right? So I never had any sense of abandonment because I had never known him in the first place, and the upbringing that I had was a very happy one so I never had any sense that anything was missing." They haven't stayed in touch. "No, he's not someone I've ever had a relationship with."
At the time, these exchanges appeared unremarkable. He seemed incurious, I suppose, but not in any way defensive. When I listened back to the interview, I didn't get the impression he regarded my questions as intrusive. He would undoubtedly have preferred to be allowed to go on about climate change and policy for an hour, but that wasn't the purpose of our interview.
Afterwards, however, I had an extremely ill-tempered phone exchange with the Greens' director of communications. He, or Shaw, or both of them, had decided they weren't happy with the interview, and either wanted to redo it, or have it pulled from the Listener. I repeated, over and over, that I needed to talk to my editor, but because the message didn't seem to be getting through, I eventually hung up. I did it in the spirit of non-violence. Gandhi would have done it.