James Shaw’s resignation yesterday as co-leader of the Greens marks the end of an era in New Zealand politics.
Former Green MP Gareth Hughes told POLITIK yesterday that in a way Shaw’s approach to politics traced right back to the idealism of the Values Party.
And he always seemed closer in outlook to the party’s first MPs, Jeannette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald, both of whom abhorred the partisan conflict that dominates so much of present-day politics.
Shaw leaves behind him a landmark piece of legislation, the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Act, which forms the basis of New Zealand’s climate change policies.
He got that through Parliament in a rare demonstration of bipartisanship with support from across the House.
Shaw now joins the other architect of that Zero Carbon legislation, the former National leader, Todd Muller, in retirement.
Inevitably, that both have now left or are leaving Parliament there will be questions as to how secure the consensus on the legislation is.
Former Green MP Gareth Hughes thinks that is a concern.
“I think there is a fear and a possibility when you have the key players who negotiated it outside of Parliament. It is easy for day-to-day politics to dominate and reverse it,” he told POLITIK.
“We are an increasingly polarised political environment in New Zealand, as in many other countries.
“So while we haven’t seen any signals of that, that is a very real risk.”
There are certainly voices in National and, more particularly, in ACT and NZ First who exhibit, at best, only lukewarm support for environmental legislation.
New Waitaki MP Miles Anderson complained in his maiden speech yesterday that to see farmers “unfairly targeted by decision makers and NGOs is disgraceful. “
“The simple fact is it’s hard to be green if you are in the red!” he said.
However, Shaw himself yesterday was optimistic that the legislation would survive.
“If it was ever about one person, then it was never going to survive,” he said.
“I think the fact that Christopher Luxon made it a bottom line in his negotiations with New Zealand First not to mess with it gives me a great deal of hope that it will endure into the future.
“And the fact that it’s essentially survived its first test; I’m very pleased about that.”
In Parliament yesterday afternoon, Shaw acknowledged former National Party Leader and Climate Change spokesperson Todd Muller, who worked with him on the Zero Carbon legislation.
The two formed a close relationship, so much so that at the time, Shaw actually apologised to Muller in the House after he had to be excluded from some of the final negotiations on the Zero Carbon Bill at the request of NZ First.
Muller was also optimistic yesterday that the legislation would survive.
“The Prime Minister has been very clear on that in terms of his comments around climate change and the Climate Commission, pre-election,” he said.
“And the credit for the establishment of the climate change legislation really sits with James.
“I know, of course, Jacinda (Ardern) and Simon (Bridges) deserve acknowledgement as well because, as political leaders, ultimately, they had to decide whether it was in their collective interests to genuinely create a bipartisan framework.
“But he really drove the process.
“Right from the start, he made it clear that from his perspective, having National commit to the architecture over the long term was critical.
“And we needed to work together to identify a way forward to make that happen.
“His word was his bond in that sense.”
However, during the Address in Reply debate yesterday, Shaw made it clear that Muller had driven a hard bargain.
“It (the legislation) had to endure changes of Government over multiple decades,” he said.
“That is why a number of compromises were made in that piece of legislation, including things I frankly was not happy with and didn’t support but ultimately were necessary in order to ensure that it could endure.”
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon was also confident yesterday that the legislation could survive.
“Very confident,” he said.
“I can tell you, as I’ve said many times before, over the last two years, the National Party is deeply committed to delivering on those commitments. I think that is genuinely something that will stay enshrined and endure, long beyond, long beyond James and all of us.”
But there is another factor that might add to Luxon’s confidence; he and Shaw have had a relationship pre-dating Luxon’s time in politics, which has seen each develop a respect for the other.
“James Shaw is actually one of the opposition MPs I really respect,” he said yesterday.
“I got to know James outside of coming to politics myself, and I’ve become good friends with him over the last three years as well.
“I’ve really respected James and what he’s achieved, and I think he leaves this place having left in place something that’s pretty enduring, the net zero legislation.
“I just have huge respect for James; I like the way that he talks to lots of politicians on all sides.
“I like the way that he actually also engages lots of stakeholders from across the country.”
In a 2016 interview with POLITIK, Shaw cited Air New Zealand as the kind of business the Greens liked.
Then-CEO Christopher Luxon had said he wanted the airline to grow more than 30 per cent in the next five years but for C02 emissions to increase by only 19 per cent.
Shaw said Luxon was typical of a new generation of business executives for whom the environment was an issue.
“There is a new generation of CEOs coming up through the ranks who have grown up in the postmodern world,” he said.
“They understand that there are environmental limits to the way that we do business and conduct our lives.
“It’s interesting talking to Christopher Luxon about his time at Unilever in Canada.
“Unilever are probably one of the world’s most progressive global corporates when it comes to comprehension of the social environmental and economic sustainability construct.
“It’s totally second nature to how they do business.
“He’s been brought up in that world, as have I.”
But when Shaw came to speak in Parliament yesterday, he expressed disappointment at what he saw as the overwhelmingly negative approach of Luxon’s new government.
“There are other areas of governance where we should try and find common ground and try and work together so that we can create some enduring solutions,” he said.
“Because the kind of activity that we’ve seen from this Government over the course of the first four months is going in the opposite direction.”
And even on the pressing question of whether New Zealand can meet the emissions targets set under the Zero Carbon legislation, Shaw remains cautiously optimistic.
“I think we will be able to hit the targets, but we’re getting very bloody late to get started,” he said.