James Shaw, MP

Now that we are at low risk of a terrorist attack there are a lot more stickers to be handed out and stuck on your shirt when you go to parliament. Presumably this is on the basis that someone without a sticker can be shot, and someone with a sticker shouldn’t be.

Once we had been swept for metals and weapons we were siphoned off into the main lobby of the Beehive.  The main lobby of the Beehive is usually a place of hush where a Social Studies teacher leading a group of Year 9 students to the Education Centre is glared at if any of his students speak in a tone above a whisper.  Today there was no hush.  Today there was an excited buzz as the friends and family of Marama Fox and James Shaw were milling about waiting to be taken to the public gallery for the maiden speeches.

After a while we were herded into the old parliament building where we signed in and got our first sticker.  It had a G on it.  After those of us with bags had checked them in, James’ Executive Assistant told us to begin climbing the stairs to the public gallery, but another security guard told us not to until he had checked if it was ok.  He spoke forcefully into his walkie talkie which crackled responsively but produced no other response.  After a period of standing about in which nothing seemed to happen the guard lowered his walkie talkie and waved us upward.

Upward were more marble corridors and oil paintings of men with comedy beards.  And more security.  This time another metal detector and a series of little wooden lockers where people deposited their cell phones.  There was a lot of cell phone depositing.  It seemed to be a slow business, and for some probably psychologically difficult, but once it was done we were more or less there: the pulsating heart of our democracy.

Every year when I take my classes to parliament and enter the debating chamber everyone always comments on how small it is.  It is pretty small.  The furniture is very large and bulky which adds to this impression; there is lots of cabinetry for the members to squeeze between, and lots of green leather to sink into. It is always strange walking into the gallery when the house is in session.  Because the things that are being said are supposed to be of great moment, and because you sort of sneak in part way through it always feels like you are eavesdropping on something that you thought was going to be of significance only to realise, gradually, that what the speakers are saying is deadeningly dull.

When we arrived Chris Finlayson was speaking.  He was speaking in that way that intelligent people speak when they think they are being witty, but are actually just being pricks.  After awhile he finished much to the relief of everyone bar Chris Finlayson’s sense of self-importance.

And then there we were.  Cathy, and I, and James’ family and friends and supporters were sitting in the gallery and James was standing up and thanking the Speaker, and saying his maiden speech in parliament.  It was a moment in time that was both totally predictable and totally unbelievable.

It was predictable because James had been working his way towards this moment for a very long time.  I had once spent a misty, windswept afternoon twenty odd years ago handing out leaflets for James in Karori trying to encourage the people of that suburb to vote James on to the Wellington City Council as a Green candidate.  Handing out Green party flyers in Karori in the early 1990s for a candidate still, I think, in his teens at that time, was  – let’s be honest – a complete and utter waste of time, but it signalled a commitment from James to Green politics that has been ongoing since.  Getting to parliament has been twenty years work.

It was also, as I said, an unbelievable moment, because… well, because you don’t really expect someone you know to become an MP.

I am, naturally, quite biased about James’ speech, but I believe it was very good.  He spent a lot of time on it with a friend, and its craft was evident.  I did worry, initially, about the direction we were going in:

My first ancestors were Charles John Shaw and Annie Mathilda Baggett.  They were married in St. John’s Church in Christchurch in 1867.  Annie was the granddaughter of a Jamaican plantation slave worth eighty pounds in an 1807 inventory.  Charles Shaw grew up in Somerset in the UK.  His older brother William died fighting in India, in a struggle for independence that the victorious British empire referred to as the Indian mutiny.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love history, and part of me was looking forward to the next thirteen minutes passing by in a detailed analysis of the finer points of the Shaw family genealogy, but another more sensible part of me felt that this might not play well, and that we would all have to pretend to have liked his speech afterwards.

I needn’t have worried.  Charles and Annie Shaw were in there for good purpose.  After reminding us again of the signs and consequences of how we are treating the planet and all that dwell on it James’ ancestors returned to remind us of some things.

Annie’s grandmother was a slave in a time in which slavery was seen by many as a vital component of the global economy. The abolition of slavery was posed as a threat to financial stability. Charles’ brother William was a colonial soldier during a time in which India was the jewel of the British crown and empires were considered necessary for the expansion of wealth and trade. Annie herself was not allowed to vote.

Which leads us to this:

I am a huge fan of the market. When it comes to setting prices and allocating scarce resources, it generally beats the alternatives hands down.  But the market is not sentient. It is not magical. It does not know that habitats are being eradicated or that species are being extinguished or that the climate is changing. We need to tell the market that this is happening. We can do it the same way that we told the market that we would not tolerate slavery or colonialism or limits on suffrage. Through the political system, we change the law.

It was a moment that probably surprised some people, and which some people might decry; the idea that the market is good is not something you are supposed to hear from a Green.  At least this is what John Key would like people to think, and is how he characterises them.  I have problems with the market, but my main problem is the one that James described in his speech.  The market is not magical or sentient, and we must tell it things.  What people like James are telling us is not that the market must be overthrown in a revolution but that the market must be given some more information; information that will stop it using up the earth and its resources as if all of life is merely an expendable servant of profit.

John Key paints the Greens as a stark choice between his sensible economics and the lunacy of everyone else.  John Key’s sensible approach is built on the arrogant assumption that the wealth of [some] people is more important than any other consideration on our planet.  It is an idea that I hope we will look back on and shake our heads at.

When James’ speech was over we stood up and clapped, and MPs levered themselves out of their seats and went and shook James’ hand.  We edged our way out of the gallery and back into the halls of parliament where we congratulated the friend who had worked on the speech and breathed a sigh of relief that it had been a good speech after all.  Afterwards people lovingly retrieved their cellphones, and descended staircases, and got bags and filed off towards the celebratory drinks.  Getting to them meant getting a sticker (an E sticker) to cross from the Beehive to the basement of Bowen House on long travelators, and then getting another sticker to get in the lifts of Bowen House.  Pleasingly this final sticker had a B on it so we were able to line all the stickers up on our tops and spell BEG.

In the caucus room of the Green Party there were tables with finger food, an upright piano, bottles of wine, and a plunging view down into Bowen Street and over to the Beehive.  People circulated and nibbled and there was the exciting frisson of semi-recognising people you may have seen on the news once but couldn’t quite place.  When James finally extracted himself from the house, and came in to speak, and thank people, I was mostly struck by the pride of his mum, standing near the front of all us fanned about the room and beaming at him.

He’s done good, I reckon.  A lot of people are proud of him.  Me included.  There’s an awful lot to do, but at least one more good person is there to help do it.

Time is too short for resignation. Things are too bad for pessimism. It is too big a task for petty politics. It is too important for partisanship. These things we must transcend and transform. If any other member of this House from any political party or any member of the public listening hears this challenge and wants to rise to it, my door is open.

I hear you bro.  Loud and clear.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō