Some thoughts on Shaw’s State of the Nation Speech

I was at James Shaw’s agenda-setting speech yesterday. Overall I thought it was a good, ambitious, far-reaching speech, and it was pleasing to hear a party leader who clearly reads and thinks, and who has a sense that we’re living at a time of the end of one global political settlement and the birth of another, as yet unformed one.

What I thought was missing was a connection between the overarching problem – the failures of the existing settlement – and the solution, which apparently is environmental economics. The problems we face have been created on all sorts of levels: ethics, the desire for excessive consumerism, personal motivations, ideas about how large the public realm can be, the role of government, and so on. You can’t replace all of that with environmental economics; you need some wider belief system, and I didn’t feel that was sketched out.

Despite some references to Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics (which I think is a useful visualisation but not as revolutionary as has been touted), I wasn’t sure that the connection between economics and everything else was clear, nor what the structuring principles of environmental economics would be. Do all companies need to be social enterprises, or cooperatives? Do we have to be agnostic about growth, or push for radical decoupling of growth and emissions? If one broadens indicators of success away from GDP, will changes automatically flow, or do the ethical challenges mentioned above also have to be confronted? Maybe I’m being too much of a policy wonk here, but I would have liked to see those issues at least sketched out.

Separately, it was good to see all the Green MPs also speak briefly about their priorities, and when you added them up – real progress on equal pay, a big shift to environmentally friendly transport, aiming for zero waste – you could see that the change Shaw was talking about was actually underway.

It was interesting to hear, though, Shaw say quite plainly to Green activists that they need to understand how much the Greens “need” Labour and New Zealand First, and insisting that he wants to “call everyone in not call everyone out”. Of course he’s right that one should often look for compromise where needed, and seek win-win situations. But politics is often also fundamentally about winners and losers: few policies are universally popular. Adapting to climate change will create some massive losers, particularly among the fossil fuel companies. And the priorities of some other Green MPs, such as Jan Logie’s desire to overhaul the welfare system, will be extremely unpopular in some parts, both with the Greens’ coalition partners and more broadly. In short I suspect there needs to be both calling out and calling in, which is a very difficult balancing act for the Greens, and is as much about tone as the content of what’s said. But then that won’t come as a surprise to anybody.

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