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Q+A: James Shaw interviewed by Corin Dann

Green Party leader admits move to gift parliamentary questions seems a bit ‘weird’

James Shaw told Corin Dann on TVNZ’s Q+A programme this morning his party would gift its so-called ‘patsy’ questions to opposition parties as a way of holding the government to account.

He denied it was part of a move towards the National party.

He also explained his Zero Carbon Act.

Q + A
Episode 3
Interviewed by Corin Dann

CORIN Good morning to Green Party leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw. Before we get to some news that you’ve got, just a quick comment – how do you think Jacinda Ardern has gone this week? As party leader, who’s a support partner, her messaging with Winston Peters over Russia – are you satisfied and happy with how that’s all gone?

JAMES Yes, I am. I mean, she was really clear about this and the language, in diplomatic terms, that she’s used has been very, very strong.

CORIN So you’re happy with her. What about Winston Peters?

JAMES Well, I think it’s up to the Prime Minister. On the interview that you did this morning, she talked about the language that he’s used and actually his fundamental principle was can we be treated fairly in the same way that the EU and others are in terms of those trade relationships.

CORIN So you’re comfortable with his stance on Russia and this free-trade business and all that stuff?

JAMES I think that where we’ve ended up is a really good place, right? And I think the events that we’ve seen in Russia are unacceptable – or from Russia are unacceptable. And for that reason, those trade negotiations were not reopened.

CORIN So you’re happy they got there in the end?

JAMES Yeah, well, ultimately the Greens have always have concerns about trading relationships with countries that have got a poor human rights record. I think that, as the Prime Minister said, there is no other plausible explanation other than for Russia to have been behind this poisoning attack. That is clearly a violation of human rights. You know, it’s good that it’s not being pursued.

CORIN Sure. Okay. Let’s get on to this issue. So I’m of the understanding that the Green Party is going to announce that you will give your what are called patsy questions in Parliament – so you get, what, one per session, is that right? Primary question – you’re going to give those questions to the Opposition for the rest of the term. Is that correct?

JAMES That’s right. So it’s about 42 questions this year and about 50 next year, based on what we currently know about the calendar. And that is because – and you know this from your time in the gallery, right – that patsy questions are basically a waste of everybody’s time.

CORIN They make the government look good.

JAMES Yeah, that’s right, but I think question time should be about holding the government to account. This is what we said when we were in Opposition. Now that we are in government, we felt that it was important for us to act consistently with what we said in Opposition.

CORIN But if you’re in government, why are you giving the Opposition an extra chance to bash you?

JAMES I know it sounds crazy, but we are crazy about democracy. So I know it seems like a weird move, but I honestly think that the democracy will be better served if question time does what it is supposed to do, which is to hold the government to account, and we are members of the government. I expect us to be held to account, not to use scripted questions to kind of tell some bright, shiny story.

CORIN But why not use a scripted question if you want to promote what you’re doing with climate change and you feel like you’re not getting the exposure you want, one of your MPs stands up in Parliament and says, ‘James Shaw, tell us about climate change.’ You get the floor; you get the exposure in front of a whole bunch of journalists watching.

JAMES But I don’t. When was the last time – you were in the gallery for a long time, Corin – when was the last time you reported a patsy question?

CORIN Uh, it’s a fair point.

JAMES Yeah. So if I want to make an announcement about climate change, I will just go off and do it.

CORIN Oh! Water down.

JAMES I am very excited about democracy.

CORIN That’s all right. We’ll get to climate change and water in a minute.

JAMES If I want to do an announcement, I’ll just go and do an announcement. I think that the purpose of question time is to hold the government to account, and so that is what we’re doing.

CORIN Okay, so let’s just work through this for people who are not familiar with question time, because this is fascinating. So normally the Opposition would get, what, two or three primary questions? There’s 12 questions at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. They go into Parliament; they sit down in the morning; they work out their lines of attack. They get a whole bunch of supplementary questions. They’ll get an extra question from you. So they’ll get another one of their MPs, one of their shadow ministers, will get the opportunity to attack your government. And would you give them supplementary questions?

JAMES We’re going to do that on a week-by-week basis.

CORIN Giving them supplementaries as well?

JAMES Yeah, well, up to a point. So we want to hold those more in reserve. So we’ll kind of see what the emerging questions are. Sometimes there will be things that we want to jump in on. So, for example, when Steven Joyce was having a go at Grant Robertson, I would often use our supplementary questions to point out that Steven Joyce’s $11.7 billion hole was fake news. And so I think that that’s part of the context.

CORIN How does Labour feel about this?

JAMES I think reaction was mixed. I think that it would be fair to say that they thought the idea of handing the Opposition a bigger stick to beat us with wasn’t universally thought of as a great idea. But I don’t think that they… They certainly don’t think believe that we shouldn’t do it.

CORIN And how did National feel about it? Can this be interpreted as – let’s be careful with how we phrase it – an olive branch? A little step towards National?


CORIN That you can be open to working with them.

JAMES No. I know it’s not convenient for us, right, but this is actually a point of principle for us. And it’s bit like when in 2008 we opened up our expenses and said, look, we’re just going to start telling people what we’re spending every month in Parliament. Other political parties thought that that was not a great idea, and now it is standard practice. In fact, it’s part of standing orders. It’s just what we do.

CORIN I’m just trying to get my head around this. I’m sure lots of people at home are as well. Are you trying to differentiate yourself? So there’s the coalition government, Labour-NZ First, we’re a bit off to the side here. We’re on, what, the crossbenches or something? We’re part of government but we’re not quite. What’s going on?

JAMES No, what I’m trying to do is act consistently in government with what we said in Opposition. And in Opposition, we consistently called for reform of parliamentary institutions, including question time. We often said that patsy questions, we didn’t feel, served the purposes of a better democracy. Now that we are in government, I’m just trying to make sure that we’re doing what we said we would do when we were in Opposition.

CORIN As one of my producers who, when they heard this this morning, said, ‘It’s attention-seeking, isn’t it? That’s what it is.’

JAMES Look, I think people are going to read all sorts of things into this, right? They’ll say are we trying to do a deal with National? Are we trying to seek attention? What is their ulterior motive?

CORIN And are you happy for people to read that all into it?

JAMES Well, people are going to say what they’re going to say, right? Pundits are going to pundit.

CORIN So you are happy?

JAMES Well, it comes with the territory. I’m not saying it’s convenient for us, right, giving National a stick with which they can have a go at us once a week or twice a week. But it is consistent with what we said, and frankly, I think it is part of what the Green Party has always tried to do is push the boat out in terms of our parliamentary institutions, experiment in ways with changing the democracy for the better.

CORIN Let’s get to climate change. We’ve got a few minutes to go. But let’s get into it. So you’re doing your climate change Zero Carbon Act. So you’re going to write into legislation across Parliament, all the laws, that we have to meet a climate change target? Is that right?

JAMES Yeah, so the Zero Carbon Act does two things. One of which is that it puts into law the goal of being a zero-emissions economy by the year 2050, and it establishes an independent climate commission, which will…

CORIN …set a target.

JAMES Well, what it will do is to help guide the pathway towards that target of a zero emissions economy by setting what we call carbon budgets. So essentially a kind of a pollution limit that we have to live within.

CORIN And they would come out every five or six years?

JAMES Yeah, that’s right.

CORIN The thing that I’m trying to get my head around here is that you’re locking in future governments to their policies, their laws – they’re a democratically elected government – you’re locking them into a certain framework, aren’t you? So there’s a constitutional issue here. Don’t we need bipartisan support for a change of this magnitude?

JAMES Yeah, I think that we do need bipartisan support for a change of this magnitude, and this is one of the reasons why I’m undertaking such a comprehensive and thorough approach to the design of the legislation is I want to make sure that the concerns that the National Party and the ACT Party, to be fair, represent, that we hear those concerns and we make absolute best effort to address those concerns, and I’m not saying that I’m relying on that vote, and I’m also not saying that we’ll dilute the legislation to a point that it’s equally acceptable, but they’ve got genuine and valid concerns, they represent real people and real industries out in the regions, and it’s important to try and meet those concerns.

CORIN Sure. The bottom line is in the future, if, say, there was a recession in the future and a future National government in 15 years’ time or something decides that it needs to do something which will put us in breach of your Carbon Act, somebody could go to the court and challenge that, right?

JAMES Well, the exact nature of the Zero Carbon Act and where the balance of powers between the commission and Parliament sit is yet to be determined.

CORIN That’s massive, though, isn’t it? It’s like the Treaty of Waitangi.

JAMES Yes. Or another way that I’ve been thinking about it is a bit like the Reserve Bank, right? So you’ve got a spectrum. At one end you’ve got the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, which publishes reports and very thorough, and we kind of look at those, but it’s kind of take it or leave it. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the Reserve Bank Act, which as a series of powers and it’s very difficult for Parliament or the executive to interfere with those in any way. And then there’s a range of options in-between those.

CORIN Which way are you leaning? Further towards the Reserve Bank or further towards…?

JAMES Well, it’s multidimensional. It depends on which set of powers you’re talking about. So in the UK, the model is more like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. It’s what we call a transparency model. So they publish the budgets and then they say to the government of the day, ‘Look, it’s up to you to determine how you meet those budgets.

CORIN But you’ve got to meet them?

JAMES Well, actually, the parliament actually has to adopt those budgets, but if it doesn’t, the government is obliged to come up with a better offer, right? And that’s the built-in tension that they’ve created there. But also in the UK, because they’re currently part of the European Union, they are part of the EU’s emissions trading scheme. Now they’re going to have to determine if they’re going to have their own emissions trading scheme once Brexit happens. It’s arguable that once they’ve got their own emissions trading scheme that they might adopt more of a Reserve Bank-type model when it comes to the emissions trading scheme.

CORIN Tougher.

JAMES So there’s a spectrum of things here.

CORIN So what happens in the future, 15 years, a hypothetical government decides that it’s not going to pass a law, so it doesn’t run the risk of going to court, but it wants to come up with a policy that would allow, say, some mining or something. What happens then if it’s in breach of your Carbon Act?

JAMES Well, I guess the onus will be on the government of the day to do that. I mean, Parliament ultimately is always supreme, right? So a future government could come along and it could abolish the whole thing, but we want to make it as difficult as possible for that to happen.

CORIN So it’s entrenched? And I don’t want to use that word, because that’s got…

JAMES Yeah, it’s not strictly entrenched, but that’s ultimately why you want to try and get bipartisan support for it.

CORIN Just finally, before we go – we’ve got about 20 seconds – in Simon Upton’s report, he basically said, ‘New Zealand has done the work, the technical work. We’ve set up the ETS.’ We’ve got it all nice. The bureaucracy has done the job, but nobody has been prepared to show some bite and actually come up with policies that will actually hurt us a bit, because we’ve actually got to make the sacrifices. Are you the man that is going to come up with a policy that actually bites, make the sacrifices and makes New Zealand do the hard work?

JAMES My goal is that by the end of this Parliament, we have put in place the architecture for that transition to the low-carbon economy. But I see this as the greatest economic opportunity in a generation, right? It’s not all sunk cost. This is about investing in a cleaner, smarter, more productive and higher value economy. To me, that’s a tremendous opportunity and that’s the way we should be thinking about it.

CORIN Well, we will bring you back later in the year to talk about your Green Fund and your Green Transport Card and all that sort of stuff, because it is fascinating. James Shaw, thank you very much for your time.


Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1.
Repeated Sunday evening at around 11:35pm. Streamed live at www.tvnz.co.nz
Thanks to the support from NZ On Air.
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