It’s not easy being Green (while running for male co-leader)

by Lord Sutch

Hague vs ShawA while back I asked the four Green Party co-leader aspirants what their favourite musical was.

Of the four – Vernon Tava, Gareth Hughes, Kevin Hague and James Shaw – only two got back to me: James and Kevin.

I had announced that my endorsement hinged on the answering of that question. So when Gareth and Vernon didn’t respond appropriately, that narrowed my choice down to either James or Kevin. It’s like the 50:50 option in Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

So with only two contenders, I thought it would be easier to interview them both so I could get a close-up look at these two bright things who want to step into the ginormous flag-wanting, Australian shoes being left behind by Russel Norman.

First off, neither James or Kevin chose right. Kevin’s favourite musical is the Rocky Horror Picture Show and James’ is Avenue Q. The correct answer is Jesus Christ Superstar.

Anyway, I sat down with both Kevin and James to talk about their leadership aspirations. Kevin bought me a coffee. But I also bought him a coffee. James and I went dutch on lunch. Both dates were lovely.

Both candidates had their beats that they kept returning to. Kevin kept going back to experience, and James to wider electoral appeal. Without it having been said, both candidates treated the co-leader election as a two-horse race. And to be fair to them, it is. Vernon was never a serious candidate and for whatever reason, Gareth never developed into one.

In fact Vernon’s candidacy has caused Kevin some consternation. Because of Vernon’s insistence that the Greens look at working with National in future, Kevin thinks that it has derailed some other issues that should have been covered – also, both Kevin and James ruled out going into coalition with National, but did agree they could work on some issues with them.

Kevin’s other line was that James was more right wing than him – or as he euphemistically put it “James has more sympathy for market-based solutions than I do”.

Except that I didn’t get that James was all that right wing. His background is business – though Kevin was also quick to point out that he had an economics degree – but James strongly believes in the redistribution of wealth. Also, the businesses of his background are all in the business of sustainability. Hardly the bastion of downright evil capitalist industry.

James did say that he didn’t view himself as left-wing, but that’s not because he’s not, rather it’s because he doesn’t believe that the left-wing/right-wing paradigm is a thing any more. Both candidates actually made the point that people aren’t divided neatly into two camps, but instead there are a whole host of factors that make up people’s belief structures.

And as for the “sympathy for market based solutions”, James agrees he does have some. But says that intervening in the market with heavy handed regulation is a market-based solution. He talks about the ETS as an example. Putting a price on carbon is sending a signal to the market – that there is a cost “to treating our atmosphere like an open sewer” – except the way this Government has done it is that they set up the ETS in such a way that our emissions have actually gone up. Then the National Party has said “well it’s not up to us to decide the price of carbon, that’s up to the market.” So you have a theoretical market – the ETS – doing the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do. Which James believes is a trick of National’s – being seen to do something, while making the opposite happen.

It is true that if you plotted Kevin and James on the classical right-wing/left-wing divide, then you would find James further to the right than Kevin. But that’s if you believe in such things. Kevin, for example, does not believe in homo economicus at all, and doesn’t believe that Adam Smith’s economic positioning has any relevance beyond a farmer’s market, when all parties may have all the information required to make an informed decision.

Every time I interview a left wing politician, someone on Twitter asks me to ask them if they’re in favour of a Universal Basic Income. Surprisingly, perhaps, James was more in favour of it than Kevin. Kevin broadly speaking supported it, but James waxed lyrically about the Big Kahuna – an overhaul of New Zealand’s taxation system which includes a UBI. In fact revenue something that James is becoming very passionate about – he’d love to be the Minister of Revenue in a Labour/Greens Government. James thought it was very strange that we taxed labour but not capital.

It all tied into James’ perspective on inequality, which was a drum he beat a lot. He said the current Government’s economic model was to not really change much. It was to tweak a few bits here and there, and to help the poor through tax and welfare but to leave it alone as much as possible. James argued that the current economic model was actually creating those poor people and so why wouldn’t we change it to try and prevent that from happening in the first place? He said that left alone, this Government is creating a class system of self-perpetuating poverty that is disastrous.

Neither candidate has a lot of good things to say about this Government. I asked Kevin who his favourite National Cabinet Minister was, and he said that it would be Chester Borrows if Chester was still a Minister, but beyond that, there was a substantial pause before he said that he had always gotten on well with Nikki Kaye.

I wanted to know what made a good leader. And Kevin waxed lyrically again about experience; and James about appeal. So it was good they had their speaking points in order.

Kevin talked about the mythology of Russel – that he became leader outside of the party, so therefore you didn’t need parliamentary experience to become leader. However, Kevin pointed out, Russel spent quite a long time working in the parliamentary office, and also quite a long time as leader before he had to “perform” in the house – both of these things making him a very different case to James.

I tried to get beyond the experience and appeal thing to find out why either person would be a better leader, so to try and draw them out I asked them why they’d win.

Kevin had done 40 branch meetings, made up of a combination of big meetings with the other candidates which the party had organised, plus a whole bunch of others that Kevin had arranged himself. With these self-planned meetings Kevin thinks he’s done twice as many branch meetings as the next best.

James on the other hand thinks that his campaign skills are brilliant. He points to his performance in Wellington Central where he was the candidate in 2011 and 2014. Wellington Central, in 2014, was the Greens most successful party-vote electorate where they actually beat Labour for second place in getting 30%. This has been a massive feature of James’ campaign.

Kevin had some criticism for this. He suggested that James was taking credit for something that was already in place. He said that Sue Kedgeley had done a lot of the hard work to make Wellington Central a successful electorate for the Greens. He also said the urban demographic lent itself to a more Greens-friendly environment, and then James came in. However a check of the website showed that in 2011 James increased both his own, and the Party’s vote by a substantial amount, more than perhaps Kevin is suggesting – and also when there was quite a swing to National.

Kevin talked about his background, his experience and the diversity of his skills. And he is dead right. His CV is very impressive. He was the CEO of a DHB, a champion of the AIDS Foundation, he lived in Auckland for 25 years, he’s been at the forefront of a number of New Zealand activist-based protests – and this is something that James does not have. Kevin also, obviously, as I heard, has more experience as an MP.

I asked James about his lack of experience, and whether he wished he’d gotten in in 2011 when he first stood (he missed out by 0.02% of the party vote). He said that no, his time outside of parliament, working with the grass-roots of the party over the last three years had actually enabled him to become a better MP (and then because I’m a shit interviewer, I didn’t get him to elaborate why)(in fact on the tape, my phone rang at this point so I was distracted).

I wondered if either candidate had the ability to see their party from the outside in – why was the last election result so poor for the left?

Both gave quite good answers. Kevin thought that the Greens hadn’t quite sold their vision properly. He believes that people vote for a vision – they vote for hope – and that the Greens need to present a vision of what they want the country to be like. However he also believes that Labour’s incompetence, and the Kim Dot Com fiasco dragged down the Greens’ vote as they were unable to get sufficient space to sell their message.

James’ answer was very similar, but perhaps slightly more nuanced. He saw the left as failing to provide an alternative Government option, while National has a lock on the idea that they can govern the country and no one else can. James thinks that voters’ number one consideration before policy, or even vague ideas of left and rightness, is can this party run the country? Are they responsible and capable? And National has that brand. And the reason the “left” got kicked was that they did not present a competent, capable credible alternative government in waiting. So there will have been voters who might not agree with National on a bunch of stuff but at they would view them as being able to run the country.

However he also thought that Kim Dot Com and Labour’s incompetence had a lot to do with it.

Both Kevin and James would then point out to me that the Greens and Labour’s highest polling point came when they joint-launched NZ Power. In fact James said that at that point, while Labour was under David Shearer – the Greens were working with Labour on a sort of model where they would present as an alternative Government.

That obviously didn’t happen.

There was also a lot of cross-over about what kind of leader they’d be. Just like everyone puts on their CV “I work great in a team, but also am strong as an individual” both Kevin and James swore they’d be co-leaders who would seek consensus but also know when to be more executive.

And then they also both argued that we currently have our relationship with the economy vs environment and social ass about the face. Both believe that the economy is something that gets fed into our social lives and environment – rather than something that sits above.

I have to be honest, I came away from both these interviews unbelievably impressed. The Greens have in their party, at least two very very capable male MPs. I think that other parties would be jealous to have leadership options like this.

If it came down to it though, if I really really had to choose who to vote for, then I think I’d choose ….hang on…I’m going through a tunnel…


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Dave May 28, 2015 - 10:08 pm

Great interview, well presented. Nice that you looked for and picked up the nuanced points.

I think James has the edge where it counts – voterland.

Dennis Frank June 3, 2015 - 8:40 pm

Yeah, I endorse what Dave wrote. Most blog comment is too banal, eh?

Kevin’s a young feller who never comes across as genuinely green – so perhaps he’s not, like all those refugees from Labour & the NLP trying to red the GP from within since the mid-’90s. James, even younger, always seems authentic. The only question is how adept he is at finessing the tough challenges.

Key point is that post-election research James has been quoting, see here:

Labour got 25% at the election, so if 19% of voters did indeed vote Labour after thinking about voting for the GP then the supposedly bedrock Labour vote is mostly marshmallow. Bet few politicos have got their head around that!!


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