|Imagine being a Green Party activist at the moment. You joined the party because climate change is an existential threat and truly radical change needs to be undertaken immediately. You’re deeply upset by inequality. You think that conventional politicians are part of the problem.
However, you begin to realise that your own party is part of that problem. Your team has finally got hold of power, and has the ministerial responsibility for climate change and homelessness. Yet these, and other, problems are getting worse under your watch.
In fact, you start to suspect that your own politicians are as guilty of “greenwashing” as any government – pretending to be doing something about those big problems, but really just altering the status quo a little. As a Green Party activist you might suspect that by trying to get your own party elected you are now part of the status quo.
It’s no wonder divisions are opening up in the Green Party, and there are reports of dissent reaching such a level that a “no confidence” motion has been prepared against the leadership at this weekend’s Annual General Meeting. Members of the Youth wing of the Greens are said to be so angry with co-leader James Shaw that they want to roll him. Media reports even say that activists “hate” their leader. The knives are out.
Shaw continues to remain outwardly unruffled by internal dissent and manoeuvres against him. He said this week that he’d had that the whole time he’s been in the Greens, humorously stating “there has been a small group of people who have been wanting to see the back of me ever since they saw the front of me”.
What has Shaw done wrong?
James Shaw has long been seen as the more moderate, or even rightwing, faction leader in the Greens. Coming from the corporate world, and much more National-friendly than other Green MPs, he’s viewed suspiciously by some activists who believe he has pushed the party further into the middle of the political spectrum.
As a minister in the last parliamentary term, Shaw disappointed many on the left, culminating in the 2020 scandal over his allocation of government funding for a private school, contravening party policy.
But it’s in his role as Climate Change Minister that Shaw has really disappointed his own side, including leading environmental campaigners. Since taking up the role in 2020, Shaw has proved to be less focused on fulfilling the desires of environmentalists for radical change, and more on creating across-the-board buy-in from more conservative forces.
To him it’s a question of strategy, in which small steps are taken that endure and lay the path for bigger achievements in the future. But for his leftwing and environmental critics, it’s about selling out and compromising on the most crucial issue of our times.
The final straw for many Greens, and what is now causing a growing movement to sack Shaw, is Shaw’s recently announced Emissions Reduction Plan. The announcement was so business and farmer friendly that Matthew Hooton, who is a lobbyist, wrote at the time: “New Zealand farmers are the world’s best but their lobbyists are even better. While it’s not true today’s Green Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Fonterra, it’s understandable some environmental activists are starting to think so.”
This was accurate in the sense that all the industry vested interests came out in support of Shaw’s plans, and all the leading environmentalists came out in outrage. For example, environmental academic Mike Joy proclaimed that Shaw’s plan shows that the Government has been “captured” by big business and agriculture. Former Green MPs also weighed in, horrified by the much-anticipated climate plan.
Will Chloe Swarbrick replace James Shaw?
Although Shaw isn’t likely to be rolled anytime soon, it’s become obvious that he’s on his way out, with speculation about when the co-leader will step down and what role he might then pursue.
Matthew Hooton has recently reported accounts from Green insiders, saying: “The growing pressure on Shaw is understood to be causing him to wonder if it is worth carrying on to the election.”
Furthermore, Hooton says life in the Greens is getting uncomfortable for Shaw: “he spends his days getting told by his party activists and most of its MPs that he is not green enough, too right wing, a sell out, insufficiently woke, the wrong sex, the wrong gender, the wrong colour, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong class… and so on.
With his climate-change work done, and unlikely to achieve anything more, who wouldn’t understand if he decided to throw in the towel”.
Although Hooton’s gossip can be dismissed as the ravings of a rightwing commentator, it’s worth noting that he’s very often been proven correct in his forecasts about Green internal politics. For example, when the Greens recently changed their constitution so that both co-leaders could be female, but there couldn’t be more than one male, it was Hooton who revealed in his Herald column that this was about to occur.
The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan also reports today that it’s not just dissidents who are thinking Shaw’s days are coming to an end: “Even members on the ‘James side’ of the party mused that it might be time for a co-leader who was more obviously onside with members, and more aggressive in challenging Labour’s gravitational centrism.”
So, when Shaw eventually goes, who’s being lined up to replace him?
The smart money is clearly on Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick who is already significantly more popular than either Green co-leader. Some have speculated that the recent change of the party’s co-leadership identity rules was designed so that she could replace Shaw while keeping Marama Davidson in place.
Some believe Swarbrick is the pick of Shaw himself. In this regard, Hooton wrote recently that his replacement by Swarbrick “is also believed to be Shaw’s preference, either before or after the 2023 election.”
Who else could replace Shaw?
Swarbrick’s ascension is assured. One problem is that she is also viewed by many Green activists as being similarly centrist – although she occasionally uses radical language, at her core she’s more of a moderate than other options. And certainly Shaw’s endorsement of her would cement this impression.
There’s also another moderate option – former parliamentary Chief of Staff, Tory Whanau. Although she’s not currently an MP, there are no rules to stop her being elected as co-leader, just as in 2006 the party elected Russel Norman leader before he was an MP.
Whanau is currently running for the Wellington mayoralty, but this is widely seen as a manoeuvre to increase her national political profile in order to launch a political career rather than a serious bid to become mayor. For Green activists, a bonus of making Whanau the co-leader alongside Davidson is that they would then have a “double wahine Māori leadership” (or DWML). When the party changed their co-leadership rules recently, they also made it compulsory that one of the leaders be Māori. But obviously having two would be seen as even more progressive, as historically the party has been very white.
The more leftwing or radical options for co-leadership are MPs Teanau Tuiono and Elizabeth Kerekere. Electing the latter would also produce the desired DWML. Kerekere is also very well regarded in the party at the moment due to her successful leadership of their campaign to have gay conversion theory banned.
Interestingly, Kerekere has spoken out this week on the party’s internal leadership debates, telling 1News that Shaw was “on the more moderate side of our membership” while herself and Tuiono are “more on the activist side of the membership”.
While Kerekere was amplifying the internal factional divisions and clearly positioning herself in these for public view, co-leader Marama Davidson has been on a media spree in the last week, doing interviews to defend Shaw’s leadership and try to turn around the growing notion that the party hasn’t achieved much in government this term. She says they need to communicate more about how hard they work.
Today’s AGM has suddenly been moved online, due to Covid. But the fact that it was to be held in Christchurch had some suggesting this was a way for the leadership to regain control over activist dissent, and blunt any challenges to Shaw’s leadership.
Shaw has replied that any theories of this sort are “ridiculous”. But he would have been more convincing if the leadership hadn’t also now banned any media from observing the conference. As the Herald’s Audrey Young said yesterday, the party is now “running the least open AGM of any political party”, which is a problem for a party which used to present itself as a champion of political transparency.
Other divisions this weekend
Questions about future leadership aren’t the only issue troubling Green Party activists this weekend. There are a couple of remits that are also apparently causing division.
One relates to decisions over future government coalition agreements. In the past, the membership has had to very quickly make a call on whether to accept post-election coalition agreements, with a sense that they were expected to just rubberstamp what the leadership had agreed with the Labour Party. Supposedly in 2020 the membership only had fifteen minutes to read the coalition proposal before voting on it.
The party’s Green Left faction has put forward a remit that would insist on a ten-day period for the membership to consider a coalition arrangement. But James Shaw is leading the charge against this, apparently circulating a paper to the AGM explaining how difficult this would make coalition negotiations. He argues it would weaken the power of the Greens.
Thomas Coughlan reports today that a second contentious remit to be considered this weekend is over internal power in the party. The proposal would “adjust the way that party delegates, powerful members with voting rights on things like governing agreements, are allocated to party branches. This will tilt the delegate balance in favour of cities (the Wellington Central branch’s delegate count will double), which is where members are concentrated.”
In general, there might be broader discussions this weekend about the ideological direction of the party. In an interview today with the Herald’s Michael Neilson, Marama Davidson has spoken about her vision of making the Greens more about “social issues”, which she believes would make the party more popular.
The party is unlikely to make any significant headline-making decisions in their online meeting this weekend – certainly James Shaw isn’t about to be rolled – but some of these decisions and divisions about the party’s future could be extremely consequential. If the party shifts in the “wrong direction”, there’s always the chance that they will slip below the 5% threshold, and that would significantly reduce the chances of a Labour-led government being returned in 2023.