Meet James Shaw, Wellington Central Green candidate

In the Wellington Central electorate, Green candidate James Shaw is challenging Green stereotypes. “Give up your old prejudices,” he says, because it takes all kinds to save a world, including kinds like him

James Shaw is, for better or worse, part of a new Green generation— if the party will let him be. He challenges stereotype and, in a way, the Greens themselves, because he does want to change some things about them.

Not the substantive things, so much. Not the Green “kaupapa”. More the state of mind and way of being, just a little bit. The hotly debated point is whether this is good or bad; whether it marks a change in substance for the Green party, or just style. One recent commenter here on Pundit, a party member, remained unconvinced about whether Shaw himself had any substance, versus quite a lot of style. He didn’t know much about him, he said, and was reserving judgment.

It was an echo of residual suspicion and doubt, about Shaw’s political soundness. He doesn’t look or sound like a humble homespun grassroots Green. He’s lived off the fruit of the poisoned tree, if you like— taking money from environmentally-damaging companies, and, allegedly, helping them with 'greenwashing'. He’s less interested in judging who or what is good and bad, than in simply working hard to make them better— meaning, more green.

Shaw is not all that new to the Greens, or to Wellington Central. He grew up there, and stood on a Green ticket for the city council in 1992. Overseas, he formed the London branch of the party, and in 2008 campaigned for the important expat vote, that helped gain an extra seat for the Greens, bringing Kennedy Graham into Parliament. He now campaigns in Wellington for the party eight to nine months of the year.

He was, in other words, an early adopter of the Greens, and a young entrant to politics. The ‘Rainbow Warrior’ politicised him, he says. He was twelve, in 1985, when the French DGSE sank it. David Lange was his hero. “I became incredibly proud to be from a country that declared itself a nuclear free zone.” Then, at the end of a 1990 election-year debate, in his last year at Wellington High, he approached the Greens’ candidate, and asked how he could help. “The election was only weeks away at that point, so there wasn’t a lot I could do. But I joined the Party, went to meetings, edited a newsletter and volunteered at the office when I could,” and met some of today’s Green faces, among them Sue Kedgley and Celia Wade-Brown.

He’s missing that badge of honour— worn by Metiria Turei, Russel Norman, Phil Goff, John Key— a bootstraps story. Is his like that? “No. I come from a middle class background.” Raised by a teacher, a solo mother, without he believes state or other parental support, “her kind of values rubbed off on me. I grew up with a strong sense of social justice, from listening to her and her friends”.

Now, he divides his time between jobs in two quite different, some say irreconcilable, worlds. He jets off, from time to time, to fund the months he spends campaigning for the Greens. He is a consultant “focused on helping business leaders formulate and implement sustainable development strategies in their organisations”. More simply: “My international work is centered on assisting a large global bank to become more sustainable (or perhaps, less unsustainable)”. He has New Zealand clients, too.

That frees him up to campaign for the party for the remainder of the year. I spend a while wondering how this (self-evidently) lucrative employment fits with the Green ‘politics of enough’, and then realise that it could be an example of it: “stop when you have enough, so that others may have enough too”. He makes the money last by living cheaply, he says; he “buys pretty much nothing” except the basics.

With this question, as with all the others, he answers it directly, and in full detail. He clearly regards any and all requests to explain himself as perfectly reasonable; he might as well, he says at one point, lay it all out there on the table, for people to take or leave. The Greens’ candidate selection process requires him to put his case to party members, who all vote on list rankings. Some have said that they won't or can't support him.

One comment I found online grumbled about him having Bayer and the Royal Bank of Scotland on his CV. The CV says RBS, in trouble last year for being “the UK’s biggest lender to companies operating the filthy tar sands extraction projects in Canada” was a client pre-2005. Of Bayer, he wasn’t aware, he says, of the parent company’s GE activities and anyway, the involvement was slight: “We worked with a subsidiary called Bayer Crop Science, the primary product of which is chemical-based pesticides, fungicides ... The centre-piece of our engagement with them was to facilitate a 3-day workshop ... Our engagement with them wound down after the initial workshop as we couldn’t see a way forward.”

He can’t avoid the broader issue, and doesn’t try. Cadbury Schweppes has been another client; his employer names BP and Shell among theirs. Even HSBC, his main client, which does have a very green-looking profile, was criticised here for supporting illegal rainforest logging. But:

I choose to work with these companies precisely because of the impact that they have on the environment ... these are enormous, global corporations whose reach extends into every facet of our economy. If we are to have any hope at all of creating a sustainable society, over the next few years they must radically alter the way they do business, their products, their supply chains, their capital ownership and employment practices, their marketing techniques, in a word, everything— or cease to operate. My work is about helping them along that path.

It also can’t be ideal, sustainability-wise, earning money by spending carbon, flying— a mini-example of fossil-fueled macro-economics. Beside the other thing, though, this pales into insignificance. At the very least, I hope not to hear something glib about offset-buying or tree-planting, and am not disappointed. It’s roughly the same, as he points out, as a thorny old Green chestnut, rationalising conference-convening against policy wins like home insulation:

Some of the projects that I have worked on have huge implications for example, at the moment, I am helping [my client] with a strategy to become a leader in financing low-carbon businesses and ventures in China and North America, which between them account for half of the world’s carbon emissions. If, because of the work I do with them, they do start making significant inroads into low-carbon financing then I will have offset the direct emissions of my work by some considerable margin.

All the same, “it’s a good question and worth interrogating me on”. And he is, presumably, not fully happy with where he is right now, or he wouldn’t be trying to change it. Not because he can’t justify it (at least to his own satisfaction) to himself and others, but it is not producing the right answer to the questions he says he constantly asks himself: “How do I make the biggest difference? Am I doing the right thing?”

In Parliament, he says, if he ever gets there, he wants to bring “what we know of systemic change in organisations”, and apply it to “transforming our economic system”, because the system is too broken to fix from the bottom up.

Perhaps, what works for systemic change in organisations may not translate that well to Parliament. It’s one thing, when a company has invested in and committed itself to sustainability— and when you can choose to “wind down the engagement” with the ones who don’t— and quite another to confront a forum that is all about the pro forma ideological opposition. I was going to ask him about that, and then I changed my mind.

I changed my mind because, on very slight exposure and little more than intuition (so make of this what you will), I decided he has a talent for deconstructing a system— any system, including the Parliamentary one— and imagining how to make it better. I think he has some other skills that mark a successful and skilful politician: charisma, clarity, a comprehensive grasp of detail, hard work. I think he sees what he wants, and goes after it, decisively. Here’s one account of his work for Pricewaterhouse Coopers, at the age of twenty-four.

Whether or not he gets there will depend on the yet-to-be-determined ranking on the party list. He considers his chances remote. Part of what he’s doing at the moment is proving himself to the party on their terms, especially, he suspects, a “hard core of purists … who are deeply worried about the presence in the Party of people who aren’t career campaigners or unionists and fret that this will weaken us rather than strengthen us”. That’s what he worries about, he says. I get the impression he worries not so much about them as an obstacle to what he wants to do, as the fact that he worries them.

That’s where, arguably, the change part comes in— making more inclusive what can be, in its own endearing quirky way, quite an exclusive, very particular club. If the Greens can’t embrace the likes of James Shaw— if they can’t build a broad enough church to fit everybody inside of it— the movement may well fail, because this is about us all, and it takes all kinds to save a world. His website says (my emphasis):

It is possible for us to work together, to collaborate, to innovate and to develop solutions to the great challenges of our time. We may have to dispense with old ways of doing things and give up some of our old prejudices about each other. Because it’s going to take all of us and it’s going to take everything we’ve got …

He is, surely, talking both about the global challenge, and to his local base.