A next-generation leader focused long-term

Kevin Hague typecast himself out of a future-maker role for the Greens when he called James Shaw a “metrosexual”, a word from a past era. Shaw said he was “not even sure what that means”.

Shaw is 42. He is younger-X, the next power generation. He and Labour No 3 Grant Robertson (43), his Wellington Central opponent, are comfortably friendly.

Labour leader Andrew Little has just turned 50.

Little’s skilful shadow cabinet remake last year and appointment of Robertson to head Labour’s “future of work” commission have brought the younger-Xs and Ys into policy leadership.

But Shaw is an actual leader and Labour’s younger-Xs are a notch down.

Sure, the Greens are averaging only a third or so of Labour’ 30-odd per cent in polls.

But Russel Norman showed that accessibility, sound-bite-readiness and assuredness could make him look more an opposition leader than Shearer. David Cunliffe felt he had to undo the Norman-Shearer coalition-government-in-waiting under construction.

Shaw’s intellect, personal presence, charm, assuredness and lack of hubris will win him media attention, which he will use effectively. He is the nearest thing on the Labour-Green side to a macro-personality — but unlike, macro-personality John Key, he will not do teenage nyah-nyahing in Parliament.

And Shaw knows a thing or two, from working on environmental projects and poverty alleviation in London, the Andes, the Amazon, Indonesia and the Himalayas. He knows a business thing or two from stints in the “corporate sector” in New York and London. That business knowledge came working with businesses, not from trading dollars.

So it was as an insider and an outsider when on Sunday he said market capitalism was “dead”, succeeded by a hybrid model without a name that takes “some of the good but most of the bad elements” from both capitalism and socialism.

He termed this model “rational irresponsibility”. His objection, he said, was not ideological but “moral”.

That’s a risky word in politics but he used it to position social and economic issues as inescapable flow-ons from the party’s environmental sustainability raison d’etre, not as three policy areas of equal weight as some Greens do.

Then, in a whack at Key’s calling himself a “compassionate conservative” — a tired George Bush phrase — at budget time, Shaw said it was “definitely not compassionate conservatism” to “subsidise businesses to damage the atmosphere”.

And, in what can only be interpreted as a wakeup to Labour to revive and build a joint government-in-waiting, he invited Key to form “common cause on climate change”.

Key can’t do that or at most could only pretend to.

But Key will have to work out how to handle Shaw. Cuddle him, to isolate Labour, and/or build him up, calculating that when Greens go up Labour goes down? Or, via Whale Oil and the like, attack him on wild bits of his youth and his contracts with non-environment-friendly and other miscreant firms. (Shaw says he was advising them on how to be environment-friendly.)

Neither is likely to work.

Shaw is committed to coalition with Labour.

Cuddling National would gut the 6000-odd membership and deny Shaw his aim to quadruple it by mid-2017 with a lot more Maori, Pasifika, Asians, farmers, businesspeople and professionals, networked at community level as in the 2008 Barack Obama campaign. (The Greens have 250,000 on their email list and had more than a million Facebook followers in the 2014 election campaign.)

More likely, good-looking, clean-cut Shaw (plus good-looking wife Annabel) will appeal to some better-off National-voting urban women. He is more likely to add votes to the Labour-Green total than just siphon votes off Labour.

But there is another big difference with National. Shaw is talking “long-term” and “intergenerational equity” in social and economic access and environmental sustainability.

Key is essentially short-term: no pension reform, low science investment.

Key’s climate change line is for New Zealand to do a “fair share”, that is, not more than others. Greens (and Labour some days) rephrase that along the lines of “we cannot save the world but can show the world can be saved”.

Key’s climate discomfort shows in his perfunctory “consultation”, ending Wednesday, on the 2025-30 emissions target — a consultation you have when you aren’t consulting. The public briefing and its numbers look heavily “redacted”, excluding agriculture and co-benefits, among other things, from cost computations.

Some suspect this might be foreshadowing a sleight-of-hand, superficially positive target that excludes agricultural emissions on the grounds that people must eat and we have an unusually high percentage of farm emissions for a rich country.

Shaw aims to make Key look old-fashioned and unfair to young people.

To do that effectively, he needs Labour modernised and ready, under hard-nosed, ex-union-boss Little, to work with his party.

The test: an election in 27 months.

Politics, after all, is short-term.