The new Greens co-leader has the job of winning roses from thousands of sceptical New Zealand voters. Can he come across as credible enough? And is his 'no Nats' gamble the right move?
James Shaw walked out of his first ever interview as Green Party co-leader on Saturday and asked me straight off, "how did that go? From a TV point of view?"
It's hardly for me as a current affairs producer to advise the "talent", but it's a rule of thumb that we cut newcomers of all political stripes a little slack as the public get to know them and always nice when guests ask questions after an interview, rather than giving lectures.
So I pointed out that he been a little stiff and had paused and, for a second, looked a little lost once or twice. Some would consider that charming and authentic, some would feel it showed he was out of his depth. Either way, he'd need to get a bit quicker and relax a bit. But really, that was telling him nothing he didn't already know. It's clear this man is one of his own toughest critics.
Privately, I was thinking that I was pleased we had asked him what he made of being called "the John Key of the Greens". It had caused one of those stunned pauses; he clearly didn't know how to take it.
But this green room question made the point for us. Quite apart from the similarities of two men who had been success stories overseas before coming home to serve the country as leaders of their respective parties, Key was famous in his early years for being a voracious learner, eager to rapidly ready himself for high office. (As a side note, David Cunliffe was another who was keen to learn in the green room and studio, but still wound up hitting the rocks of politics. It'll be interesting to see if Shaw can apply the lessons he picks up more successfully).
Shaw seems to be taking the same, smart approach.
Having seen Cunliffe and then David Shearer fall at the first hurdle of leadership, I offered Shaw one other piece of advice: "It's a trusim, but you really only get one chance at a first impression, and they stick. Don't f#&* it up".
If that sounds like relationship counselling, well, it's fitting. Before the co-leader vote on Saturday, Metiria Turei had described herself as "the Bachelorette" being wooed by four political "Adonises" (Adonisi?). When Shaw won he joked that all he needed was a rose to give her.
But in truth, it wasn't about him and Turei; the rose had been given to Shaw by his fellow party members in the hope that he will win the roses of others.
Because the former business consultant is the beneficiary of a fascinating gamble by a party not often given credit for taking chances. The Green movement can be a rather conservative beast at times, choosing purity ahead of political gain. But in Shaw they are going on something of a blind date.
He is a first-term MP who, unlike Russel Norman before him, can't draw on years of work in parliament upon taking the co-leaders role. So he is Green and green. He is also a creature from the corporate world, which means he comes to the role from a very different place from any of the four co-leaders who have preceded him.
Shaw represents an extension and a pivot for his party. An extension of its desire to show swing voters it can be taken seriously on economic matters. A pivot because it seems to be an attempt at compromise with the real politik world, where look and narrative and orthodoxy matters.
If you look at research on why more people didn't vote Green at the last election, it seems to come down to a stubborn perception amongst many that the Greens just aren't to be trusted with the purse strings. They are worth a look (almost a third of voters considered voting Green, according to research), they are decent and they are right to argue that the environment does matter... Good fun and all, but not the marrying kind.
A nice to have, not a necessity, as Bill English might say. Or in other words, when it comes down to it, there's a sense that New Zealand just can't afford them.
The Greens' response to this seems to be to double down on their message and reboot the messenger. Both Metiria Turei and Shaw told The Nation this weekend that they didn't need to dump policies as Labour seems to be doing. They'll stick to their promises, just change the way the promise is presented.
The risk in that is that it suggests to voters that the problem is them, not the Greens. "It's not me, it's you," they seem to be saying, while Labour is saying "I know I messed up. I can change, just give me a chance and I'll show you". The flipside of those is that the Greens potentially look stronger, more consistent and true. Labour looks a bit desperate.
It'll be interesting to see which approach pays the most political dividends.
What struck me most is that Shaw has completely ruled out a coalition with National. He wants to work more closely with the blues from the Opposition benches, but at the same time wants to revive the Memorandum of Understanding with National and work more closely with them issue-by-issue.
Which is likely to draw another of Key's infamous "pfffts". Basically, what's in it for National? All it would mean is political oxygen and cred for a party hell-bound on removing it from office. An MoU was all very well in 2008, but new governments can be generous in a way that third term ones can't.
I can only presume the Greens know this, but want to be seen to be both mature in their efforts at conciliation and direct in their opposition. Or in other words, if you're trying to win a rose from the electorate, you want to find ways to make yourself look more attractive and your competition more ugly at the same time.
But why rule out National? In his primary race Shaw had to convince members he wasn't going to drag the party to the right, as some feared, so it made sense for him to be even tougher on National than his fellow MPs.
The party position is that it's "highly unlikely" that the Greens would form a coalition with National, so ruling them out completely made him look tough and committed to the cause. I suspect it also genuinely fits his political calculations.
National has no desire to deal with the Greens; there's little love lost and National prefers more junior partners it can give only the scraps. It wouldn't want to negotiate away real power, which is something it would have to do if it relied on a party of more than ten percent. Fact is, the only time John Key would turn to the Greens is if he was desperate and utterly depended on them for a fourth term.
If it's true that Labour will always prefer a deal with New Zealand First in the centre, how much more true is that of National? So the only time the Greens might even get a glimpse of the policy gains they'd want from a turn in government is if they had the balance of power (or something close). And if that were the case, why wouldn't they just go with Labour?
At least that's the Shaw formula. Yet I'm not sure there isn't another scenario – even if it's somewhat unlikely – where the Greens might want to play more hard to get with Labour. Where it might want to burnish its reputation by hinting at the possibility of some genuine affection towards National. Where it might be able to get more out of National than it thinks likely, while Labour is clearly not ready to lead.
At the moment Shaw says the party's "highly unlikely" position remains the same, but behind the scenes there's a recognition that with a new leader, comes a new approach. If Shaw's personal view is to rule out a coalition with National, the party needs to revisit its position in light of that.
In the end, the success or otherwise of this blind date will depend on Shaw's ability, with the increasingly effective and likeable Turei, to reach out to another five percent of voters and convince them to give the Greens their rose. And if the party wants a fit and healthy partner in Labour, they're going to have to take a chunk of those votes off National.
More than ever, it's going to be about credibility. And how quickly Shaw can learn without f$%*&ing it up.