Green Party co-leader, James Shaw. Image, Green Party New Zealand.
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Political scientist, Dr Bryce Edwards.

How badly will James Shaw’s private school debacle affect the Greens? Will it push them out of Parliament? This is increasingly the question being asked as the scandal rolls on and on this week.

After all, the two main polling companies have had the party very close to the 5% MMP threshold in their surveys for the last year. So, the Greens only have to lose a small amount of support and they will be tipped out of office.

Greens badly wounded

Most commentators seem to believe that the Green Party has been seriously undermined by the decision to grant nearly $12m to a private eco-school. This is because it suggests the party has lost its way and no longer represents its traditional and more radical vision.

This is best explained today by leftwing commentator Chris Trotter, who argues in the Otago Daily Times that Shaw has successfully transformed the party into a “woke” pro-business party that is just trying to make capitalism more green – see: A Sorry excuse for a Green Party.

According to Trotter, Shaw “offered living proof to the rising generation of ambitious Green Party activists that they could look sharp, rub shoulders with the rich and famous, and still be non-gender-specific siblings in the struggle to save Parent Earth. Just like Bono.” And in the end, Shaw’s approach is partly responsible for driving their vote down, possibly pushing the party out of Parliament.

Trotter elaborates on this in another piece this week about Shaw’s Establishment green politics – see: From safe bet to Shaw loser.

Of course, the Greens have always had both a radical and moderate side, and this tension poses a challenge. In today’s NZ Herald, Matthew Hooton explains “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” – see: James Shaw dives straight into the Metiria Turei trap (paywalled).

Although most Green activists might be to the left of the Green MPs, the party’s voter base is much more middle class and, according to Hooton, Shaw is actually in line with these Green voters: “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.”

Essentially, therefore, the scandal is actually a logical reflection of a contradiction in the party that has always been there: between the left activists and the “Audi wing” of the party, especially in the wealthy electorates it normally does so well in.

Some of these points are also well made today in RNZ’s Caucus election podcast, and Tim Watkin talks about that key Green division: “Many in the party see it as the voice of the down-trodden. In truth, most of its votes come from the comfortable middle-class” – see: The naughty prefect & The ‘single source Of truth’.

According to Watkin, the left of the party feel Shaw has let them down by failing to progress a leftwing, environmental agenda. Instead, he has apparently chosen a private school to die in a ditch over: “there are those in the party long wary of Shaw’s corporate Green agenda who would love to see him gone. They are exasperated that Shaw has spent three years saying he couldn’t put his foot down over issues such as welfare reform, water-bottling plants or getting agriculture into the ETS – that mean old Winston was bullying him – but found the strength to fight back… on behalf of a private school.”

Labour to benefit from the demise of the Greens

The Labour Party might be seen as an ally of the Greens, but it would be a mistake to think that Labour doesn’t want to kill off the Greens or at least take some of their votes off them. This point is made strongly by Hooton today, who says Labour are suspected of leaking some of the details of the scandal to the media, undermining Shaw. He draws parallels with the 2017 Greens scandal in which Labour leader Jacinda Ardern was seen as throwing Metiria Turei under a bus.

Here’s Hooton’s point about the current Labour-Green dynamic: “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.”

Similarly, the Herald’s Claire Trevett emphasises Labour’s refusal to get implicated by the scandal: “if Shaw had hoped for some cover from the other government parties, they all but threw him to the wolves. Education Minister Chris Hipkins bluntly refused to take any blame, pointing the finger straight at Shaw” – see: Will James Shaw’s endless sorry save the Greens? (paywalled).

Trevett believes Labour will benefit from the Greens demise: “there is an alternative safe harbour for any disgruntled supporters. That is Ardern and, judging from her lack of defence of Shaw, she has every intention of welcoming those voters with open arms again.”

Other reports show key Labour politicians have been very keen that Shaw answer for his decisions. For instance, when it emerged that Shaw had held up signing off other Government funding decisions in an apparent “ultimatum” email, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said: “He used those words and he has to be responsible for them” and Robertson “wouldn’t be drawn on whether the email amounted to a threat from Shaw” – see Derek Cheng’s Revealed: 44 projects worth $600m at stake over James Shaw’s ‘ultimatum’ email.

RNZ’s political editor Jane Patterson also believes Labour are well placed to win votes off the Greens over the saga: “The Greens might be a Labour ally but it’s every party for itself as they all gear up to resume campaigning and if there are any votes lost from the Greens, Labour is the most likely beneficiary. Or disillusioned Green supporters just may not vote. This is an incredibly volatile political environment and Labour will be out for every vote it can get. Shaw’s management of this situation has made it worse” – see: James Shaw battles to restore his credibility.

Similarly, Heather du Plessis-Allan says “They’ve lost voters to Labour as it’s out-greened them with moves like the oil and gas ban. The popularity of Jacinda Ardern makes it hard to win those voters back” – see: James Shaw has a bigger problem than the Green School saga.

Du Plessis-Allen says the party is now in trouble: “Up to now, I’d been confident that it didn’t really matter too much where the Greens were polling. On the night, I thought, their supporters would flock back to save them. But now, you’ve got to ask whether those supporters think they deserve saving.”

The Greens can survive the scandal

Not all commentators think it’s all over for the Greens. In Tim Watkin’s item (above) he reports that the RNZ Caucus podcast journalists don’t believe that the Greens are in trouble: “the Caucus crew don’t think this controversy is a fatal blow to its election prospects. The angriest voices come from within the party and, once the crystal dust has settled and the bio-energy cleaned, few are likely to switch their vote away from the Green’s policy agenda, even if they are losing patience with Shaw as leader. A determinedly centrist Labour Party and a John Tamihere co-led Māori Party are hardly magnetic alternatives.”

Writing in the Guardian today, Massey University’s Claire Robinson thinks the Greens have time to turn the scandal around: “In the Greens’ favour is that elections are not won or lost on single errors this far out from election day. If the election was still 19 September it might have been curtains for the party. But there are still 30 days until advance voting starts on 3 September and 45 days until election day on 17 October. This gives Shaw plenty of time to publicly make it up to his supporters whose faith in his green credentials will have been sorely tested by this incident” – see: James Shaw’s mea culpa on Green School funding exposed his lack of political nous.

The NBR’s Brent Edwards thinks that rather than hurting the Greens, the controversy could actually boost them. He believes the discontent is more of a “internal disagreement” and Shaw’s apology has been “extraordinary” – see: Will James Shaw’s contrition earn Green Party support? (paywalled).

Here’s Brent Edwards’ main point: “In the Green Party’s case, though, honesty and contrition might work in its favour, rather than condemn it to electoral defeat as many suggest. Will Green Party voters, upset by the investment in the Green School, give Shaw credit for taking the blame? And the warning that the Greens might risk falling below 5% might galvanise their more lukewarm supporters to swing in behind.”

Also writing in the NBR, Dita De Boni makes a defence of Shaw’s decision, essentially suggesting that although he was “careless”, it was a fairly harmless allocation of funding, and that it is creating an over-reaction – see: Greens once more enter election a divided force.

She worries if voters desert the Greens, then the result might be a NZ First-Labour government, or even a single party “milquetoast” Labour adminstration. She therefore calls on leftwing Green activists to pull back on their divisive criticisms of Shaw.

Similarly, the Herald’s Simon Wilson says there is too much to lose if the Greens dip out of Parliament, as they have already achieved so much, up against a conservative and weak prime minister and Labour Party. Especially for the causes of climate change and inequality, Wilson calls on progressives to support the Greens, despite Shaw’s mishaps – see: James Shaw and the honour of politicians (paywalled).

Shaw’s changing story

The problem for Shaw and the Greens is that the story and scandal won’t die. Every day more is revealed, helping unravel Shaw’s version of what occurred. The Green co-leader has gone to ground, refusing interviews.

One of the turning points this week was news that the green school was mixed up with new age type mysticism – see Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s Couple who called COVID-19 ‘manufactured natural disaster’ held ‘DNA activation’ event at Green School.

Then a video emerged of Shaw telling party members that Education Minister Chris Hipkins gave some sort of approval to the funding of the private green school, an allegation that Hipkins strongly denies – see Jane Patterson’s Green School funding: James Shaw contradicts Chris Hipkins on implicit approval in leaked video.

Shaw also justified his decision on the basis that the local New Plymouth District Council had chosen to be a funder of the project, which also turned out to be entirely untrue – see Catherine Groenestein’s Council rebuts assertion over Green School funding.

Today, further details of what the owners of the school are developing at the site have come out – see Robin Martin’s Green School’s planned ‘eco-village’ development news to James Shaw.

Finally, for more on what Greens activists and supportive commentators are saying about the scandal, see Henry Cooke’s The Green Party picks up the pieces after a damaging week sparked by the Green School ‘mess’.

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