The political demise of Metiria Turei has resulted in James Shaw now being the sole leader of the Green Party. While Metiria is a household name in New Zealand, for most of the public, Shaw is an unknown quantity. In this guest blog, John Moore examines the politics of James Shaw, and argues that the Green leader represents a new wave of “radical centralism”, à la Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron.

JAMES SHAW'S radical centrism is symptomatic of a global wave of new liberal-centrist leaders that have put their stamp on post-GFC (global financial crisis) politics. The Green leader’s firm social-liberalism, pro-business credentials, and flexibility with economic policies, align him with the politics of Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau and France’s president Emmanuel Macron.

The Green co-leader has generally presented himself, in rather clichéd terms, as neither left nor right, and as rejecting political extremes. Shaw claims he is neither for free market capitalism or state regulated socialism, but that he is for a mixed economy. Which is pretty much what every mainstream political leader in New Zealand says. However, Shaw’s concept of a mixed economy seems to be based on the preference for, and championing of, market/corporate forces. This championing of market force is shown when Shaw has expressed his support for a market-based economy: “I'm a huge fan of the market. When it comes to setting prices and allocating scarce resources it usually beats the alternatives hands.”

Yet, as well as championing “the market” - that is the profit-centred capitalist system - Shaw does advocate government regulation and intervention where necessary and as a way to support market forces.

In many ways, Shaw’s initial statements as a Green MP espoused classic third way thinking. That is, there is an acceptance of the prevalence of the market, and an acceptance of the dismantling of the old Keynesian/state regulated framework of the past. However, in line with new radical centrists such as Justin Trudeau, Shaw does see a need to introduce government regulations to curtail the “worst excesses of capitalism”.

Shaw’s politics therefore represent a new form of centrism that is open to more left wing state-centred policies. Such openness to a degree of economic un-orthodoxy can partly be explained by a new public demand for radical and bold politics, as well as by the general crisis of neo-classical economics since the global financial crisis.

James Shaw’s politics have certainly been influenced and shaped by his background in the corporate world. And the Green leader himself has been quick to state his business background as evidence that he can present the Greens as having credible economic policies. On the current affairs programme Q+A, Shaw had previously said “I want to use my business background in particular to show that the Greens have got the skill to enter government.”

Blogger and journalist Tim Watkins has previously argued that Shaw’s corporate background does make a difference, in that “he comes to the role from a very different place from any of the four co-leaders who have preceded him.”

Therefore, there can be seen to be a clear link between Shaw’s pro-business and pro-market politics and his years of working at the top levels of the corporate world. Or as Karl Marx once put it, “It is not consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness:" That is, a person’s social position within society, and the economic and political world one finds oneself in, does have an effect on how a person thinks about and understands the world. Consequently, Shaw’s business background, and his former position at the top-levels within corporate hierarchies, is an important factor when discussing his world outlook.

Shaw enamoured himself to key right wing ideologues when he became co-leader of the Greens. Right wing political commentator Matthew Hooton saw the Green MP as someone business can work with: “In his maiden speech, National MPs were startled by him quoting Margaret Thatcher, apparently approvingly although possibly more ironically, and declaring his support for markets in setting prices and allocating resources.”

Shaw also received the endorsement of right wing blogger David Farrar, who saw him as having the ability to mould the Greens into a more explicitly pro-business party: “Shaw has the ability to change the brand of the Greens as extremists and anti-business.”

Media commentators generally saw Shaw as pro-business and as ‘modern and moderate’. Alex Braae of Newstalk ZB has argued that the Greens had ditched their former radical image and now aim to cuddle up to business: “Shaw’s professional and political backstory has been built on the idea that environmentalists must engage with business, and must be inside the tent to effect any real change. It’s a position that is in stark contrast to the Green Party of old, and possibly to some remaining segments of party activists.”

With Shaw’s business background, his explicit pro-capitalist position, and his endorsement of austerity-lite economics, the view that the party would move in a more moderate direction was taken as given. But while this was true up until recently, the party’s lurch to the left indicates a shift with Shaw’s political approach, which can be explained in light of the new radical zeitgeist.

Being moderate, respectable and politically bland doesn’t really cut it anymore in these politically tumultuous times. And James Shaw and the Greens now get this. The party has recently lurched to the left, and is now advocating a number of bold policies that ostensibly aim to “eliminate poverty”. Such a political turn fits in with the new radical zeitgeist, where there is a public demand for radical and anti-Establishment politics.

However, a tension exits within the Greens in terms of an ongoing clash between more ideologically radical members, and political centrists who represent a more explicitly pro-capitalist wing of the party. The political centrists – including rogue MPs Kennedy Graham and Dave Clendon, as well as Green leader James Shaw – are all about working within the system to bring about reform in areas of climate change and social justice. In contrast, more radical MPs – including Catherine Delahunty – see themselves as anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist, and they have an unresolved view on working within the system and to being part of a future government.

Metiria Turei has hovered between both factions, and ideologically represents an unstable synthesis between the more moderate and the more radical wings of the party. She comes from an anarchist past, and likes to see herself as an outsider and a champion of the poor. However, despite her willingness to advocate for radical policies around welfare, and to even condone benefit fraud, Turei had also desperately wanted to be a senior Minister in a future government. She has also sought the respect of the media, the political Establishment and of “middle New Zealand”. This unstable synthesis of insider and outsider politics, or of radicalism and of pro-Establishment politics – eventually led to the demise of Turei, and represents an ongoing problem for the Greens.

Keeping up with where the Greens are currently on the left-right political spectrum can be a tad confusing. In the early 2000s, the Greens seemed to be red-tinged and radical – with their focus on social justice, especially with the inclusion of socialist Sue Bradford in the Green Party caucus. However, with Bradford’s failure to become party co-leader, and the elevation of more ideologically-flexible Metiria Turei to the female co-leader position, the Greens took a swing to the moderate centre.

Russel Norman, alongside Turei, then presented a more moderate and pro-market version of the Greens. Relations with the National Party improved, and Norman even went as far as arguing that the Greens were a party of free market economics. And then with Norman’s retirement from parliamentary politics, and his replacement as co-leader by “blue-green” James Shaw, many expected the party to become even more explicitly pro-business, moderate and modern.

Under Shaw’s co-leadership, the Greens initially positioned themselves as economically centrist, while maintaining their image as New Zealand’s most socially-liberal party. And then the party seemed to take a lurch to the economic right, with the Greens co-signing of a set of economic guidelines with the Labour Party – the Budget Responsibility Rules. The Greens were now giving a clear message that they would operate within orthodox – i.e. austerity-lite economic guidelines should they form a government after the September election.

The Budget Responsibility Rules include: Delivering an operating surplus; Reducing net core Crown debt to 20 percent of GDP within five years of taking office; and Maintaining the current track of core Crown expenditure. These guidelines represent an adherence to a neoclassical economically-liberal framework, where state expenditure is limited under a regime of fiscal discipline. Such an approach is ideologically justified by seeing “the market” as the main producer of wealth and economic progress.

But within months of the Greens moving economically rightwards, and projecting themselves as respectable and moderate, the party suddenly embraced a decisively anti-Establishment and economically leftwing position. The Greens now saw the need to get off the “fiscally responsible” moderate boat. The party then called for a significant increase in welfare expenditure, alongside higher taxes for the rich, and so effectively tore up their memorandum of understanding with the Labour Party.

Being radical is now “where it’s at”. We are going through a seismic change in politics, both here in New Zealand and internationally. A series of radical political turns – including the election of Donald Trump as US president, Brexit, and the rising support for UK Labour’s leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn – all point to a new demand for radical and anti-Establishment politics. The previous dominant discourse of “there is no alternative to liberal capitalism” is now being seriously challenged from radical elements coming from both the political left and political right.

The Greens realised their political cautiousness no longer aligned with the hegemonic shift that has taken place. This led to a left-turn by the party, with the announcement of a relatively bold welfare and tax policy and Metiria Turei’s admittance and defence of benefit fraud when she was a young solo mother. But the Greens’ new radicalism caused an onslaught of criticisms and damnation from the mainstream media and from both Labour and National. Under pressure, the Greens buckled, initially agreeing to Labour’s demand that Turei had no place in a future Labour-led government, and then allowing Turei to resign as party co-leader and from parliamentary politics altogether.

The Greens have now recoiled from their radical positioning and acquisitioned to Labour’s demand to cut off Metiria Turei. The party’s lurch to the left clearly upset the more moderate-pro-capitalist Greens, as seen with the departures of Kennedy Graham and David Clendon. More-than-likely, James Shaw also felt somewhat uncomfortable as co-leader of a party that was now positioning itself decisively to the left of Labour.

The Green Party is now in an astute state of crisis. The party’s swing to the left led to an initial upsurge of support, but now the party is even facing the possibility of being wiped out in the coming election. Whether James Shaw will be able to lead the Greens out of this crisis is still open to question. The Greens implosion is symptomatic of the fluid and chaotic nature of Western politics in this time of the new radical zeitgeist. We certainly live in interesting political times.

This article was first published by Liberation.


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