When Green party leader, James Shaw, apologised for backing the use of public funds for a private school last week, he ventured down a well-trodden path of the political mea culpa to save his own skin before October’s election. While he’s not the first person to row back a policy in New Zealand politics, or during this Covid pandemic, whether he survives may have as much to do with how he manages the public’s perception of him as a leader, as it does with the nature of his mistake.
Of the current party leaders in the New Zealand parliament, James Shaw is probably the least comfortable public communicator. Over his parliamentary career he has never shown much understanding of the art of political leadership which is as much a matter of public perception as it is practice.
Firing out media releases, getting on the 6pm news, posting selfies to Instagram; these are not communication tactics he has a natural affinity for. An academic role would probably suit him better, in which he can be paid to analyse, propose solutions and write about the problems of the world.
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Nevertheless, this week he has been unable to avoid the spotlight thanks to what is effectively an own goal. As he happily signed off a rare (for him) recent media release on 26 August, announcing that the Taranaki Green School New Zealand would be supported with $11.7m from the $3bn set aside by the government for infrastructure in the Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund, he would have had no idea of the media storm and public backlash it was precipitating.
On the face of it, it was a benign decision that supported the creation of 200 construction jobs on a “shovel ready”, environmentally friendly school expansion project in a region that hasn’t felt particularly well supported after the Ardern-led government in 2018 banned new permits for oil and gas exploration, the lifeblood of the Taranaki economy.
On its website the Green School says its “living” curriculum educates for sustainability through “community-integrated, entrepreneurial learning, in a natural environment”. These are all elements in alignment with the Greens’ kaupapa.
But Shaw’s political opponents quickly worked out that this meant the Greens were effectively providing public money to support a private school, which was contra to the Greens’ education policy to phase out public funding for private schools.
It also attracted the ire of state schools and teacher unions, upset at the prioritisation of a school for children from well-off families over a public education system desperate for more funding.
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Even dyed-in-the wool Green supporters and former Green MPs couldn’t fathom how Shaw could possibly have thought that supporting an already privileged school was a good idea, when for years the party had battled for the needs of low-income communities. What was widely considered to be a poor call by Shaw was followed up with news of a leaked email of 7 August that suggested that Shaw had refused to sign off funding for other infrastructure projects “until the Green School in Taranaki is incorporated”.
James Shaw has mea culpa’d, apologising to parents, teachers, unions and Green party members for what he has called an “error of judgment” in deciding to support the project.
Ever since former minister of health, David Clark, refused to take responsibility for early failures at the border, the New Zealand public has been spoilt with a goody-bag of public admissions of Covid-related contrition from government ministers. When it was found that border workers weren’t being tested as regularly as the public had been promised, replacement health minister, Chris Hipkins, said he took full responsibility.
When the Ministry of Health sent out a social media post asking for all residents of South Auckland to get Covid tested, Jacinda Ardern acknowledged the mistake and apologised for any anxiety it might have caused.
Even in normal times hypocrisy is not well tolerated in New Zealand political culture. In the worst of times, and desperate for some action in the vacuum of energy created after Ardern announced she was delaying the general election by a month, James Shaw’s apparent hypocrisy has been seized upon by his political opponents as a sackable offence.
We have a habit in New Zealand of demanding resignations for every political error, big or small.
Almost three years ago to the day, Shaw’s former Green party co-leader Metiria Turei fell on her sword for a different public embarrassment. Stepping up to apologise before these resignation calls become too loud to ignore is the only sensible option for politicians who want to live to fight another election, as James Shaw appears to. The abrupt termination of David Clark’s political career earlier this year is a good example of the consequences of not doing so.
In the Greens’ favour is that elections are not won or lost on single errors this far out from election day. If the election was still 19 September it might have been curtains for the party. But there are still 30 days until advance voting starts on 3 September and 45 days until election day on 17 October. This gives Shaw plenty of time to publicly make it up to his supporters whose faith in his green credentials will have been sorely tested by this incident.
Claire Robinson is Professor of Communication Design at Massey University, Wellington.