James Shaw’s very public apology over his decision to give millions to a private school is an attempt to cauterise the wound, but the electoral ramifications are not yet clear, Sam Sachdeva writes

Between lion’s gate abundance ceremonies and crystal planting, the Green School in Taranaki has enough unconventional extracurricular activities to last a lifetime.

But should they be looking for an additional option, James Shaw offered up an impeccable lesson in ritual self-flagellation on Tuesday afternoon.

Speaking about his decision to grant $11.7 million in Covid-19 infrastructure funding to the private school for an expansion, the Greens co-leader all but begged for voters’ forgiveness over “an error of judgment for which I apologise”.

It was difficult to watch and presumably even more difficult to deliver, but clearly Shaw and his caucus felt the highly public display of contrition was necessary after days of bad publicity with the election looming ever closer.

In a vacuum, it is possible to understand why Shaw, in his capacity as Associate Finance Minister, decided to back the project.

As he noted in the ministerial press release announcing the funding, the construction work would create more than 200 jobs in Taranaki, while the school’s vision of a curriculum “educat[ing] for sustainability through community-integrated, entrepreneurial learning in a natural environment” would seem a good fit for the Greens.

But unfortunately for Shaw, life does not operate in a vacuum and there were more than a few real-world problems.

First, the school is a private enterprise which charges students up to $43,000 a year to attend (as noted by Stuff, which broke the story).

Providing it with nearly $12m in government cash sits uncomfortably with the Greens’ education policy to phase out public funding for private schools, and attracted the fury of state schools both in Taranaki and further afield waiting for their own construction work to go ahead.

Then there is the matter of the aforementioned lion’s gate abundance event hosted at the school by a parent, as reported by Newshub, along with the laying of a crystal bed that was called off following the Covid lockdown.

As a whole, the saga plays into two distinct but damaging stereotypes of the Green Party and its supporters: as chardonnay socialists whose talk about supporting the poor isn’t backed up by action, and as Morris-dancing, science-hating kooks.

Shaw sought to divert scrutiny away from the school parents and back to himself, but news of the out-there events – along with Covid-19 conspiracy theories propagated on social media by one of the parents in question – raised some obvious questions about the due diligence conducted by the Government.

As a whole, the saga plays into two distinct but damaging stereotypes of the Green Party and its supporters: as chardonnay socialists whose talk about supporting the poor isn’t backed up by action, and as Morris-dancing, science-hating kooks.

Neither is entirely accurate, but each has enough of a grain of truth that there is a risk of the mud sticking.

Then there is Shaw himself, already viewed with suspicion among some on the leftmost fringe of an already left-wing party.

The failure to include private schools on a ‘black-list’ of shovel-ready projects the Greens could not support was a simple oversight, Shaw said – but some supporters may suspect such an oversight would not have happened so easily had it been co-leader Marama Davidson making the calls.

But that would not be entirely fair to Shaw, given the wider deficiencies in the shovel-ready selection process which he himself noted were an inhibitor to good decision-making.

“It’s actually always been my view that ministers should not be making these decisions, that actually we should have ideally something like the Infrastructure Reference Group, or Crown Infrastructure Partners, or a development bank would actually be a more appropriate way for those kinds of decisions to get made.

“Ultimately we were in a situation where we were going through the pandemic crisis, we needed to move extremely quickly, a decision was made about how that process would play out.”

Finance Minister Grant Robertson did not seem entirely happy to be put on the spot about his Government’s support for a private school. File photo: Lynn Grieveson.

That does not exactly provide grounds for confidence about the allocation of the broader $3 billion in shovel-ready infrastructure spending, and it is little wonder the National Party has sought to milk the drama for all it is worth.

National leader Judith Collins headed to New Plymouth on Monday for an education policy announcement that doubled as a poke in the Government’s eye, while the party used a sizeable chunk of its Question Time allocation on Tuesday to quiz ministers about the decision.

It did not yield much useful intelligence, but the discomfort on the ministerial side of the House was nonetheless palpable, Finance Minister Grant Robertson slumping into his seat and shrugging his shoulders as Speaker Trevor Mallard asked him to properly address a question from National counterpart Paul Goldsmith.

It is hard to know exactly how significant the electoral ramifications of this will be.

On the one hand, it feels as if the issue has stayed in the news cycle longer than it probably merits due to the strange period we find ourselves in, with Parliament barely going through the motions as politicians wait for the election campaign to pick up full steam.

But with the Greens precariously close to the five percent threshold, even a minor drop in support could prove fatal.

Nor is the issue likely to disappear off the radar entirely; Government ministers have said it is too late to withdraw the funding from the school, although Shaw has mooted the idea of turning it into a repayable loan.

The Greens will hope that his abject apology, coupled with the launch of full-scale politicking next week, will help to put the matter behind them, and there is a good chance their voters will see the greater good in returning them to government.

But if that doesn’t happen, even healing crystals may not be enough to save them.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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