Anatomy of a Meti-crisis: Green leader James Shaw's candid account of 'the longest week of all time'
The Greens took a gamble. Now, they face the prospect of political oblivion. How did it go so wrong? Co-leader James Shaw speaks exclusively.
James Shaw sits in the bath at home, watching an hour-long episode of Game of Thrones. Perilously clutching his cellphone just above the water, Shaw immerses himself in a world of make-believe. The characters' struggles are not his own. And as the steam rises around him, he can finally escape what has felt like "the longest week of all time".
It was last Saturday night. His party had lost three MPs – and four points in the polls. But for a brief moment, none of this mattered. Shaw ate chicken with his wife Annabel; the first time they'd had dinner together in a fortnight. He climbed into bed at 9.40pm and quickly fell asleep. But his body is used to functioning on just five hours' sleep. By 2am he was wide-awake again, scrolling through his Twitter feed in the darkness.
Shaw snorts with glee as he tells me this story. I'm standing in his office in Parliament, a few nights later. It's just after 7pm. He hasn't left the building all day. But he has agreed to stay at work tonight to do this interview, over a bowl of Thai takeaways. I wanted to hear his own account of the peculiar events of the previous month.
He fires up a playlist by one of his favourite bands, Las Vegas rockers The Killers. After pouring a glass of wine, we begin a three-and-a-half-hour conversation, during which he pauses to close his eyes and sift through his blurred memories from the weeks before. Whenever there's silence, the distinctive wail of singer Brandon Flowers echoes around the office.
"Can we climb this mountain? I don't know / Higher now than ever before / I know we can make it / If we take it slow…" – The Killers, 'When You Were Young'
In early July, as winter began to wrap its bony fingers around the capital, Shaw received an email from Greens co-leader Metiria Turei. She had drafted a speech that included an explosive revelation: as a young solo mum, she had told fibs to WINZ, in order to receive enough cash to feed her daughter.
Despite leading the party with Shaw for two years, Turei had never told him about her benefit fraud. After reading the email, he decided to support her decision to open up, in the hope of starting a debate about poverty. At his desk in Bowen House, Shaw hit the "reply" button and typed four words that would ultimately seal his friend's political fate: "That's a good speech."
"You have to remember," he tells me, in between mouthfuls of Thai green curry, "the country was sleep-walking towards this election. Everyone was just waiting for it to be over. And after the madness of the 2014 election, there was a bit of relief about that. But there was also no debate. We thought; if we don't do something dramatic, nothing is going to change."
Turei's draft passed through the hands of party strategists, who weighed up the likely risks and rewards of her startling admission. They wanted to use it to draw attention to the Greens' new welfare policy, but they also knew the speech could backfire. The Greens offered the Labour Party a heads-up about what they were planning to do.
"If Labour felt it was a catastrophic risk; if they said 'This is going to burn the house down; this is a really bad idea for both of us; you gotta stop this,' I would have listened," says Shaw.
Turei dropped her bombshell at the party AGM on 16 July. While watching her give the speech, Shaw caught a glimpse of TVNZ political reporter Andrea Vance. As Turei's lips released the words "lie", "fraud" and "criminal", Vance's jaw dropped. Shaw thought to himself: "Okay, we're onto something here."
Sure enough, the story led the news, sparking a flurry of debate online.
"For the next two weeks, although there were howls of outrage, the arc of the story was working," Shaw reckons. "People were coming forward and saying, 'Yes, this is my story too'. The right people were mad at us, like the trolls. There was a lot of heat, but we thought, 'This seems to be going in the direction that we want it to go in'."
The 1 News Colmar Brunton poll put the Greens at 15 per cent for the very first time.
If the party could hang onto that figure, it would bring a host of fresh young faces into Parliament. Shaw was cautiously optimistic. The Beehive, just outside his office window, was a little closer.
"If they drag you through the mud / It doesn't change what's in your blood…" – The Killers, 'Battle Born'
'PEOPLE WENT CRAZY'
The party expected Turei would face some scrutiny. But it hadn't counted on more revelations about her years as a beneficiary. Journalists discovered she had been registered to vote at the same house as the father of her child, while she was claiming the DPB. Another surprise: she had voted in an electorate that she wasn't living in.
"That was the turning point," Shaw sighs. "That's when people really went crazy. I started to get angry when people started piling on. We realised, 'Okay, every little detail – everything – is going to be fair game. I thought it was recoverable, but it was going to be tough."
Other politicians were sharpening their knives. On breakfast TV, Labour's new deputy Kelvin Davis said Turei's situation had turned "ugly", and that the Greens had "made their bed; now they have to lie in it".
Turei and Shaw knew they had only one option for damage control. Turei had to throw herself upon the altar.
Reporters scrambled to Bowen House for a snap press conference. Turei announced she would not become a minister in any future government. She paused and took a deep breath, looking deeply shaken.
Standing just over her shoulder, Shaw felt the shockwave.
"Here was Metiria ruling herself out of being Minister for Social Development; the very role that she had her heart set on so that she could be the one to fix this broken system. My heart really went out to her. We've become close over the past six years, and I know how much that role meant to her."
"While everyone's lost / The battle is won / With all these things that I've done…" – The Killers, 'All These Things That I've Done'
In Christchurch on 7 August, Shaw was at a debate with other senior MPs. But his eyes kept darting towards Green MP Eugenie Sage, who was sitting in the audience, texting furiously. After a while, she left the room. Shaw knew exactly what had happened. His MPs, Kennedy Graham and Dave Clendon, had walked.
"These are two people who I've been close to for a very long time," says Shaw. "I had seen them at lunchtime that day, and I was exasperated. I was like, 'Come on! Can you not see how this is going to play out?"
When the news broke, Shaw flew back to Wellington. A taxi whisked him to Parliament, and at 9.30pm he stepped onto the black and white tiles in the foyer, where the TV cameras were positioned. He was calm, but there was fire in his eyes. He spat out the word "betrayed". He wanted to expel both men from the party. But by the next morning, Shaw had changed his mind.
"I had realised that these guys had taken what they saw as a principled stand. Everybody disagreed with them, and it was painful. But who are we if we just say, 'Okay, you did a bad thing; now we're gonna screw you over?'"
The party made peace with its rebel MPs. They would leave caucus, and Turei would stay on as co-leader. But just as the dust was beginning to settle, another scandal was brewing. Media had been contacted by a member of Turei's extended family, who claimed she had made herself out to be poorer than she really was.
The claims were "absurd", Shaw says, and never substantiated. However, Turei knew her family would face more scrutiny. On the morning of 9 August, she and Shaw gave their last interview together in his office. Turei put on a brave face, "but she was gritting her teeth a bit". By lunchtime, she had phoned her husband and decided to call it quits. Shaw doesn't know how that conversation went, but the guts of it was: "I think I'm done."
At Parliament, chaos was about to break out. Shaw needed someone to lean on. He texted his wife Annabel, a dispute resolution consultant, and asked her to meet him at Parliament. She texted back, asking what was happening. Her husband, a man of surprisingly few words when he chooses, replied: "Events".
"It would be easy for us to lead parallel lives. You have to find ways to include each other. I decided to pull her away from something that she was doing, which I'd normally be pretty loath to do. But I said, 'I would really like you to be here for this'."
The evening's events had to occur with military precision. At 4.45pm, Shaw would announce to his staff that Turei was quitting. At 5.07pm, she would resign on John Campbell's radio show. A press release would be fired off at 5.12pm. The crescendo would come at exactly 5.17pm, when Turei would step in front of the cameras one last time. Her fight was over.
"So long to devotion / You taught me everything I know / Wave goodbye, wish me well / You've got to let me go…" – The Killers, 'Human'
HOLES IN HER STORY
By telling an incomplete story, Turei had given voters the impression that she couldn't be trusted. What's more, the Greens had refused to condemn those who rip off the taxpayer. It was a foolhardy, and perhaps foolish, political strategy. Even now, Shaw won't say whether poor people should break the law.
"Do I condone fraud?" Shaw asks himself. "Of course I don't condone fraud. Do I condone withholding food from your baby? I don't condone that either. Give me a real choice. People need to get some some empathy. Life isn't that black and white."
After the election, Shaw wants a external review of the disastrous start to the campaign. But for now, he's trying to reboot the Greens' agenda. He is buoyant, but he's also hurting. I ask how he has dealt with the emotional toll of losing three close colleagues. "It leaks out in funny moments like this," Shaw says, wiping his damp eyes.
"You know what? I've been thinking a lot about [former Labour leader] David Shearer's valedictory speech. His last line was: 'For God's sake, be bold'. He talked about how politicians come here and try to do good, but nothing changes unless you take a stand. He's right. If you lose your principles in moments like this, you're finished."
It's approaching 11pm. Shaw clears away our takeaway containers, and picks up his Ted Baker satchel. We take the elevator down to the street. He wants to clear his head by taking a 30-minute walk to his home in Aro Valley, where Annabel will already be asleep. Lambton Quay stretches out in front of him, as does the six-week campaign that will determine his party's survival.
"But it's just the price I pay / Destiny is calling me / Open up my eager eyes / 'Cause I'm Mr Brightside…" – The Killers, 'Mr Brightside'
- Sunday Star Times