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James Shaw’s Maiden Speech

James Shaw MP
James Shaw MP
james [dot] shaw [at] parliament [dot] govt [dot] nz (Email)
Contact: James Shaw MP
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Tena Koe, Mr Speaker.

I would like to take this opportunity to speak a little of the past, the present and the future.

The privilege to serve in this Parliament was given to me by all those who gave their Party Vote to the Green Party at this year's election.

I thank them all. I pledge to do my utmost to live up to their hopes and expectations.

In particular, I would like to thank the people of my electorate, Wellington Central, 30 percent of whom voted Green this year.

Mr Speaker, over 300 people volunteered on the Green Party Campaign in Wellington Central.

Thank you all, so much, for everything that you did. That 30 percent belongs to you. You are an amazing group of people. I am proud to be associated with you.

***

I am proud, also, to be a Wellingtonian. I was born here in 1973. Surviving on only her teacher's salary, my mother, Cynthia Shaw, raised me and somehow saved enough money to send me to a private primary school. Scots College. Later I transferred to Wellington High School, where, occasionally, I even went to class.

My mother grew up on a farm called Waiphero near Opotiki. She and her brother and sisters were the last generation to grow up on that farm, which had been in the family for nearly a century. They were the first generation to go to university, live in cities and travel the world.

My first ancestors in New Zealand were Charles John Shaw and Annie Mathilda Baggett. They were married in St Johns Church in Christchurch in 1867.

Annie was the grand-daughter of a Jamaican plantation slave, who was valued at eighty pounds in an inventory of her master's property in 1807.

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 empire named the 'Indian Mutiny'.

After that, Charles' father thought his prospects might be brighter in New Zealand, and so packed him off here with little more than a saddle, a bridle, spurs - and a double-barrelled shotgun.

My mother is here today, with my brilliant, beautiful wife Annabel. Annabel and I were married in January of 2013.

Six months later the right to marry the person you love was extended to same-sex couples. Couples like my mother and her partner of thirty years, Susanne, who helped raise me.

They're here along with many other members of my family. I thank them and acknowledge them all. My story is woven together with their stories.

***

In their speeches, friends of mine in the seats opposite sometimes quote conservative heroes like Margaret Thatcher.

Well, Margaret Thatcher was one of the first world leaders to warn about the problem of climate change. Thatcher trained as a chemist. She understood you can't change the chemical composition of the atmosphere without consequences.

In a speech to the United Nations in 1989 she said, "What we are now doing to the world by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate is new in the experience of the earth. It is mankind and his activities that are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways."

Thatcher was right. In 2013 New Zealand was hit by our worst storm in sixty years. It left 30,000 Wellington homes without power, some for up to a week. It set the city back $4 million in direct clean-up costs. Around the country, it resulted in over $31 million worth of insurance claims.

That summer of the same year we had our worst drought in seventy years. It cost New Zealand $498 million in lost exports. Treasury estimates that this drought cost our economy over $1.5 billion.

The worst drought in seventy years. The worst storm in sixty. The warmest winter on record. Billions of dollars in costs and damages. All in the same six months.

***

Mr Speaker, I am forty-one years old. In just those forty-one years, fully half of all the planet's wildlife has been extinguished. Thousands of species have become extinct.

This is ecocide. The destruction not just of species, but of the habitats and life-support systems they need to survive.

We know that the cause of this carnage is economic but that the solution is political.

Annie's grandmother was a slave during a time in which slavery was seen by many as a vital component of the global economy. The abolition of slavery was opposed as a threat to financial stability.

Charles' brother William was a colonial soldier, during a time in which India was the jewel in the British crown and empires were considered necessary for the expansion of wealth and trade.

Annie herself wasn't allowed to vote, and people opposed to the suffrage movement argued that giving women the vote could lead to the breakdown of civilisation. There would be a battle between the sexes. Society would crumble as women become militant and unruly.

Just as well, because the Green Party draws much of our strength from militant, unruly women.

Mr Speaker. People pollute the atmosphere. They destroy rivers and species and ecosystems for the same reasons they used slave labour, or seized land belonging to people of a race they considered inferior.

Because they can. There's nothing stopping them. If people can maximise profits or reduce costs by polluting the environment they'll do so, because the market incentivises that behaviour.

***

Now, I'm a huge fan of the market. When it comes to setting prices and allocating scarce resources it usually beats the alternatives hands down.

But the market isn't sentient. It isn't magical. It doesn't know that habitats are being eradicated or that species are being extinguished or that our climate is changing.

We need to tell the market that this is happening, and we can do it the same way we told the market we wouldn't tolerate slavery, or colonialism, or limits on suffrage.

Through the political system. We change the law.

Just as we believe that we have an inherent, fundamental and inalienable right to "life, liberty and security of person", we can eradicate ecocide by extending to Earth's other inhabitants the same legal protections that we enjoy.

Corporations already have legal personhood - why not actual living things?

There are already precedents for this in Aotearoa. Both Te Uruwera and the Whanganui River now have legal personhood. They have the right not to be polluted. The right not to be degraded. The right to exist, inherent, fundamental and inalienable. Just like us.

There is always controversy about the expansion of rights. Whenever the status quo is threatened there are always doomsayers warning that civilisation will collapse, or vested interests predicting that the economy will be destroyed.

But the changes that seem so threatening never are in hindsight, and the warnings that seem so serious to so many people always sound absurd to subsequent generations.

***

In my early twenties I left New Zealand. I joined AIESEC, l'association internationale des étudiants en sciences économiques et commerciales. Founded in the aftermath of World War II to promote peaceful relations between nations, AIESEC was and is the world's largest student run, student exchange programme and I went to work for them in Brussels.

Then I moved to London where I worked as a business consultant for twelve years, first as a manager in the Chairman's Office of PricewaterhouseCoopers, then at Future Considerations, an organisational development consultancy I helped to establish.

My speciality was in working with business teams to build solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

In my time I've worked with groups of people in over thirty countries and I've travelled to more than fifty. I've learned that beneath all our differences there are values that are common to all of us, no matter how incomprehensible or alien we seem to each other.

That should serve me well here.

***

Last year, we were working with a village near Lake Bhimtal in the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand, India.

The village was on the edge of a forest that theoretically enjoyed full protection. And yet the people from the village relied on bamboo that they harvested illegally from the forest.

Their traditional sources of bamboo were disappearing because of dramatic changes in rainfall patterns. The forest park rangers were in conflict with the villagers. The villagers were losing what little livelihood they had. Their children were leaving the mountains to look for work in factories and call centres in Delhi.

When we sat down with these people we had no idea what the solution to their problem would be.

As it turned out, part of the answer was to get the forest park rangers to bend the rules to allow the villagers to enter the forest and continue to harvest the bamboo - in return the villagers agreed to plant two bamboo seedlings for every one plant they took.

It was a simple solution, it just hadn't occurred to the villagers or the forest park rangers because of the adversarial relationship between them.

When we're presented with this conflict between the economy and the environment it is almost always a false choice. There's almost always a solution that delivers both. The solution isn't always obvious when you start out. Problems and conflicts that seem unsolvable have solutions, and the hard part is getting the different parties to work together to find them.

***

Mr Speaker, I enter Parliament as a member of our country's 'loyal opposition'. My role is, in part, to hold to account, to challenge and to speak truth to power.

But I am not committed to partisanship for its own sake. Political tribalism is, I believe, the single greatest barrier to creating enduring solutions to the great challenges of our time.

I do not know what the answers are. I believe that the notion that anyone here has the answers is itself a dangerous thing. It is a pretence that we feel forced to maintain for purposes of political theatre.

I do know that we will need to change the way we think about ourselves and our relationship to the world.

I know that those changes will scare some people, and that there will be warnings about the destruction of the economy and the end of civilization, but that, as always, those changes will be seen as obvious and harmless in hindsight.

And I know that the first step in finding the answers is to work together.

Presently we are stuck. To get unstuck, we will all need to let go of some things and to be more committed to finding the answers than to being right or to others being wrong.

Time is too short for resignation. Things are too bad for pessimism.

It is too big a task for petty politics. It's too important for partisanship.

These 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.

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