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May 1, 2017 | by  | in Interview |
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Interview with James Shaw

James Shaw is a co-leader of the Green party. Salient sat down with him for nearly an hour to chat about policies, The Opportunities Party, and pie. You can listen to the full interview on Salient FM.


The Labour Party and the Green Party have agreed to Budget Responsibility Rules which will provide the foundation for fiscal management after the election. For someone not familiar with the terminology and the way government expenditure is approved currently, could you run us through what these rules would practically mean?

There are five rules, which focus on debt, expenditure, revenue, taxation, and investment. The idea is that you devise a set of principles for the government when it comes to writing the budget, which sets expectations for ministers in government. We did it in advance of the election because we wanted voters to know what they were getting with the shape of a Labour/Green government. It distinguishes us from the National government because it gives us a bit more “fiscal headroom” — some more money to play with. […]

A lot of people really like the Greens. They like our vision and our values, and to the extent that they understand them they like our policies. But they might be thinking, well how fast are you going to move? If there’s going to be an adjustment, will the pain be fairly distributed? Can you run the economy? This was a signal to people to say, yes, we do plan to make these kinds of investments in a recognisable framework.


How would you respond to comments from Sue Bradford, an ex-Green MP, who slammed this policy as the Green Party renouncing their left-wing base and attempting to appeal to voters in the centre and to the right of the spectrum, and in doing so “completely abandoning the huge number of people who are in desperate need in areas of housing, welfare, jobs, and education.”

I disagree with and reject her analysis, on a couple of grounds. One of the things that we did when developing this was to road-test our policies from the 2014 campaign, and said “if we were to promise those things again this year, under this set of rules, would we still be able to?” And not only were we able to, we had even more room to move. So this is consistent with what we’ve said in the past.

Because we’ve been living in a neoliberal paradigm over the last 30 years, people have collapsed economics with neoliberalism, and cannot distinguish between the two. I think this document is more Keynesian, because it’s about counter-cyclical spending — the idea that you invest in a downturn and put money away when times are good. […]

Fiscal conservatism and fiscal responsibility are not the same thing. Fiscal conservatives think you should cut expenditure when times are good and when they are bad. I would argue that during the 2008–2010 Global Financial Crisis, if the government had invested in housing, it would have injected money into the economy, created jobs, and added to the housing stock which would have helped to avoid the current housing crisis. That would have been the responsible thing to do, but it wasn’t the conservative thing to do.

We were careful when creating these budget responsibility rules and we are absolutely confident that there is room to undergo a massive house building programme, invest in education, restore funding to DOC and health, as well as some of the new initiatives we are looking at.


The Green Party formed out of the Values Party which was started at VUW and became the Green Party for the election of 1990, and later joined the left-wing Alliance for the 1993 and 1996 election. It cohered to certain tenants of the Green Movement — environmentalism, nonviolence, social justice, and grassroots democracy. How do you feel the present iteration of the Green Party fits with this kaupapa?

All of those things still apply. The circumstances we are facing both as a country and as a planet are more grim now than they were when we were formed. If you track back to the ‘70s, a Green vote was a protest vote, in the sense that it was a First Past the Post system and it was impossible for those values to win seats. But it got something like 15% of the vote and was very, very popular. And that political philosophy was a new philosophy which arose from an appreciation that had grown about the limits to growth; so had quite a different worldview to capitalism and socialism and social democracy, although there are recognisable elements of all of those things in Green Party philosophy.

So we’ve gone from that, to being a parliamentary party, which was a big adjustment to make, and led to a real increase in professionalisation over the last twenty years. Now we are on the verge of going into government, and that will be another change again, with its own tensions and responsibilities.


It seems important, given the nature of MMP, that there is this ideological separation so that voters who support the Green Party can expect them to stand for certain things that Labour can not. What do you see as the fundamental differences between the Green Party and Labour given the Memorandum of Understanding?

The fundamental differences between the parties are that National says you have to grow the pie; Labour says you have to divide the pie equally; and the Greens say, ultimately, the size of the pie is determined by the size of the oven… and while you’re making pie, you should keep the oven clean otherwise you will all get food poisoning.


How would these different pie making philosophies be ironed out in the co-governance agreement?

Every coalition government has fundamental differences. It’s interesting; if you look at the RMA reforms Nick Smith is currently making a dog’s breakfast of, all three of their coalition partners have had pretty fundamental disagreements — both with the National party’s prescription and with each other. The Māori party are proposing one set of amendments and a model, and ACT and United Future are proposing the precise opposite. National essentially had to make a decision about what set of problems it would like to have.

We have a commitment to a stable, responsible government which will go the distance. And I kind of see this like a marriage. When you’re married, you’ve got a legal document, you’ve had a big party, you’ve told your friends and family that they can kick your arse if you screw it up, and you might own property together. So when things get tough, it’s quite hard to walk away from that relationship — you’re heavily invested and if things get a bit shit, you’ve committed to working things out.

If you’re in a relationship and none of those other conditions are present — you don’t have the legal document, your friends and family haven’t been involved, you don’t co-own property — it’s a lot easier to say, “look, this isn’t working out, I’ll catch you later.” That kind of bond isn’t about when times are good; it’s about when times are hard.

Ultimately, it’s a numbers gave. If we fundamentally disagreed with Labour on something, we would have the ability to vote against it, and Labour would need to try and assemble a parliamentary majority to get it through. And if there was something we fundamentally disagreed with, chances are it would be something Labour would more agree with the National party on, and they could go to other side of the house and get National to vote with them on the issue. Which is a normal kind of practice on non-partisan issues.


Ideologically, how would you delineate the Green Party from The Opportunities Party?

Their policy prescriptions are very close to ours, and in some cases are ours. I have known Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons for years. Their thinking — especially the stuff around taxing wealth rather than income, working towards a universal basic income, and climate policies — was quite influential on me. My sense is that Gareth is not aiming for the people who have been voting Green. He’s trying to pitch to the blue/green vote. The people really concerned about inequality and the environment, but who prefer National to manage the economy.


The Budget Responsibility Rules seem to be catering to a more centre, or blue/green, voter base. But do you think TOP are going a bit further?

Gareth, after the 2014 election, argued that the Green Party should be prepared to go with either side. I just don’t think he likes the Labour party much! When we didn’t do that, I think he felt a bit frustrated, and thought that […] he’d like another ‘Green’ party in parliament that can, and will, co-govern with National and hold them to account in the same was that the Green Party see ourselves interacting with Labour. We know there are a lot of strong environmentalists and people with a social conscience who are frustrated with the lack of progress in National. […] I think ultimately it’s a question of political strategy. Gareth wants a Green Party who will go with National and we have said that we won’t do that — so he’s pursuing one himself. And that’s an entirely valid thing to do.

[…] The problem of course is that the 5% threshold is a huge deterrent. If you’re a Green Party supporter and you think, “Gareth’s pretty interesting, he’s a bit newer and fresher than the Green Party,” it’s still a big disincentive to take your vote away from a party consistently polling at around 13%, and give it to one that’s polling at less than 1%. And the same is true for people who are voting for National, but are committed environmentalists — do they continue to support the National Party and hope that the blue/green faction wins out in the end? Or switch their vote to a new start up party? It’s a tough call.


Do you support increasing the threshold?

Yes, I support the recommendations of the review of MMP that took place after last election and were shelved by Judith Collins — because she thought they would disadvantage the National Party despite every other party in parliament supporting them. But also, personally (and I submitted on this to the review), I think you should have preferential voting, rather than a straight ‘tick’ system. If you have preferential voting on the constituent side, it would remove all of the nonsense with strategic voting.

For example, imagine I’m a Green party supporter in Ōhāriu. I could give my first preference to the local Green Party candidate, and my second preference to the local Labour Party candidate, safe in the knowledge that my vote will still count. That increases the chances that one of those two will win out, instead of Peter Dunne. And that will work in reverse as well. If I’m a National Party supporter, I could give my first preference to Brett Hudson, failing that it will go to Peter Dunne. It just removes the nonsense of electorate deals and cups of tea.

The same works in a party sense, too. If my first preference is for TOP, and I vote for them and they don’t make the threshold, I can have the Green Party as my second preference. So I know my vote still counts. A preferential system […] would encourage more dynamism and make it more likely for new entrants to get in.


The Green Party’s immigration policy differentiates between refugees and their families, immigration due to climate change, and voluntary migrants. In regard to voluntary migrants, the policy states that it is “the Government’s duty to ensure that voluntary immigration is managed in the national interest” which is defined as accepting “people who will bring skills, capital, or other desirable attributes with them.” You also said last year that the Green Party would put a cap on overall net migration at one percent of the population, including returning New Zealanders. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

There are two basic principles at play here. First, it’s got to be humanitarian-led. The fundamental principle is a humanitarian-oriented immigration policy — we’ve got to do our part for refugees and climate migrants. And then, when it comes to voluntary migration, we want to make sure they have a place to live and aren’t being exploited for cheap labour — which is happening now, especially with many of the people coming over as students, being sold the idea that this is a pathway to residency. A lot of them are taking part, without their knowledge, in low-value cowboy operations. […] You also have the government using immigration as a means to economic growth, because the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) number, compared to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) number, is looking pretty good at about 3%, but GDP per capita is incredibly low compared to the OECD, because we are just adding people. More people added, means more activity, but activity per person is low. Immigrants are being brought in as cheap labour.

The settings are clearly wrong. They are heavily oriented at low-skill, cheap labour, rather than more high-end skilled labour that a lot of our industries really need. You can move the settings around a lot, but also need to deal with the peaks and troughs. Over the last ten years, we’ve had overall very low net migration — because more New Zealanders and Australians were leaving, rather than coming. That’s reversed out. You also have a significant number of non-New Zealander, and non-Australian, people coming in as well. That’s causing a demand spike on infrastructure and housing, which take at least five years to gear up. So we’ve seen a huge increase in people, especially in Auckland, over a short period of time. You get this hockey-stick curve of migration over a short period of time. What we were saying is, in the years where it’s low, you relax the settings, encourage more people to come in, and then try and manage the demand down at other peak times. That allows for infrastructure and housing planning that can cope with a reasonably steady level of demand.


But continue to prioritise humanitarian immigration and skilled migrants over other migrants?

Absolutely. There’s clearly a breakdown when some of our industries can’t get the people that they need, when in certain areas you’ve got excess. I would argue that, particularly amongst some of those particularly dodgy operations with tertiary education, it’s actually the students themselves who are being exploited.


Pasifika migration within skilled migrant and family categories has dropped by 28% since 2012, despite immigration being at an all time high. If a ‘national interest’ approach to immigration is resulting in systemic discrimination, how would the Green Party’s policy be any different, and how would you seek to bolster or promote Pasifika migration through these channels?

There’s a trade negotiation going on at the moment, the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus the Pacific Island states have been arguing strongly that they want to increase the seasonal worker scheme, because it’s a fantastic way for them to get remittances. So it works for them, and also works really well for the industry, because you’re taking in a group of people at precisely the time you need it. I don’t have a problem with that because it’s good for both countries, largely in the agricultural sector, rather than in urban settings where there are those huge strains on infrastructure and housing. Having said that, a lot of those businesses are having to build worker accommodation on site — but I think that makes sense, I think it is the employer’s responsibility to house and look after these seasonal workers, rather than leaving it up to random chance whether or not they are going to be able to have a place to live.

So does that notion then end up with systemic issues? If those tensions arise […] our primary approach is humanitarian, so you’d say, if you start to detect discrimination built in as a result of the settings, you need to go back to these settings and then fix that.

[…] This is part of what I was saying last year, our system doesn’t seem to be terribly responsive, it’s not well managed and the data gathering isn’t terribly good. If you get much better data, monitor it more closely, you can actually flex it more rapidly than we’ve been able to in the past. Currently we have these huge lag times, and in the meantime anything can bloody happen — we need a much more responsive system.


The Green Party’s tertiary education policies consider introducing a debt write-off scheme that limits the individual burden of debt, and work towards establishing a public ‘fee-free’ tertiary education system by progressively reducing student fees. Could you run us through the tertiary policy, what it means for students and tertiary providers?

I think that the area of greatest need, immediately, is on incomes and allowances. So if you’ve got to make a choice about where you spend the money, rather than reducing fees immediately, which is definitely what we want to do eventually, you need to look at whether students have enough to live on. The accommodation allowance hasn’t increased since 2004. $40 won’t get you a garage, let alone a flat. Students are having to work much longer hours than they have in the past. So you’ve got students under a huge amount of pressure while at university which decreases their productivity as students, increases mental health pressures — whereas at least with fees and loans, you are kicking the problem down the road a bit until you’ve got a more solid income. So that’s really where our attention is focussed, to relieve the immediate pressure.

We want to review the accommodation allowance. We’ve said we want to introduce a student Green Card for free off-peak student transport to cut out that level of cost and to work with the tertiary institutions to try and build more accommodation. […]


And is Labour on board with all of these policies?

Yes, I think Labour have said they are on board with the Green Card. […] Their priority is fees. They want to move in early 2020 towards first three free years of tertiary education, and we’ve said we’d start at the allowances and incomes level. But it’s one of those areas where we’ve got a common intent, even if our policy prescriptions differ.


Could we expect fee free tertiary education within a single term?

No. I think Labour did a responsible job when they announced a long lead in time. They are building up to it over a five year period, gradually, as the financial conditions improve. Given the global cost of it, this approach is needed.

The thing I really liked about the announcement was the orientation towards retraining. It’s not just about high school graduates going onto university, but people who get turfed out of a job as a result of automation and technical change, because that’s a huge challenge we are going to face in the next 15–20 years.


Lastly, what is your favourite colour?

It has actually become green. When I was young, it as blue, brown, red — but these days I think, because I am so engrossed in protecting the natural environment, the colour’s associations are really strong for me.


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