UPDATED: Sparkling or still: The Greens leader Q&A

Greens co-leaders James Shaw and Metiria Turei. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

What a difference eight hours can make. This morning Newsroom sat down with Metiria Turei, then co-leader of the Greens, and her counterpart James Shaw for a scheduled leaders Q&A. They both swore they would still be in charge, no matter what happened at the election. Here’s what they had to say:

Sitting down with Newsroom for a leader’s interview following a week that showcased the brutal side of politics, the pair were putting on brave faces. The left-field announcement from Turei that she had committed benefit fraud – an admission largely designed to boost their vote – had set off a cascade of events that soon raced out of their control.

There’s a hint of exhaustion in their eyes, but only a touch as Shaw offers a choice of sparkling or still.

He’s talking about water, a wider issue the duo believe will be at the forefront of voters’ minds come election day.

That may be true, but it hasn’t been what’s the public’s, or the media’s, mind concerning the Greens lately.

Honesty. Integrity. Poverty. The debate has been raging.

The latter is what the party wanted the discussion to be solely about, for the public to question whether our benefit system was fair.

Soon after Turei’s admission it appeared to be working, with the Greens receiving solid bumps in the polls.

But it has morphed into an uncontrollable beast as the media began digging into her past, after being invited to, and found there was more to the story.

Turei’s mother had been living with her at the time, and Turei had also registered in the wrong electorate in order to vote for a friend.

MSD announced they would investigate, and there’s still the potential that charges might be laid.

A futher blow came soon after Labour elected their new leader and “Jacindamania” swept the nation. Ardern showed her mettle by stating she would not have Turei as a Minister in her government and the Greens co-leader announced she would not be seeking such a position.

Two of the Greens’ own MPs, David Clendon and Kennedy Graham, then went rogue and withdrew their support, eventually being forced out of caucus.

Turei admits it has been a tumultuous period, one that will likely see a dip in support.

Despite the trouble, Turei says there’s no chance she will step down despite being repeatedly pressed on the issue.

No matter how bad the election result, both herself and Shaw expect to stay on as that’s “not how our organisation operates”.

“It’s tricky at the moment but we’ll weather it, politics is all about persistence.

“That’s not how the Green Party works with its leadership change, I know it’s how it works with other parties, but we’ve been through worse difficulties than this, we’ve had worse results, quite bad results actually where we only just made it over the five percent threshold and there was no intention from the party or the rest of us or the leadership that they would step down because of that.”

When asked by Newsroom about whether she would make a personal decision to resign, Turei says no.

“The caucus supports our leadership…our party is still saying this is the right thing to do.”

It has not been the worst week in her political history, she says, describing herself as “a little bruised, but still standing.

"The thing about politics is you just have to persist. We know our issues on climate change, and rivers, and poverty, are ones that resonate so the political buffering we’re suffering from at the moment, that’s just part of campaigning.

“The week where Rod Donald died and we lost the chance to be in government, we worked incredibly hard over that 2005 election and he did, he worked incredibly hard, he couldn’t achieve what he wanted for us, we almost didn’t make it back in, then he died, so things have been worse for the Greens.”

So things have been worse, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t bad now.

In the past few days the party has tried to shift the conversation by blaming the media, calling the intrusion into the private life of Turei unfair and bordering on a witch-hunt.

But as a politician, and a co-leader of a political party, are you not open to more intense scrutiny? Can you complain just because you failed to control the message?

Turei says she could have done better. If granted a do-over, she would have put more thought into the consequences for her family and the scrutiny they would face.

There have also been offensive and derogatory comments (she won’t say what or where they are coming from) that she believes are stronger than what other MPs under similar pressure would face.

It’s been difficult, uncomfortable, but still worth it to have finally got the nation talking about poverty after 15 years of trying through other channels failed, she says.

“There’s been a lot of talk about my mother, for example, and that’s very difficult to see that happening and I would have liked to be better prepared for that but the story still needed to be told…there is a sacrifice to that, it means it’s been a difficult three weeks and I won’t be a Minister in the next Government but people are having a discussion about poverty.”

Sitting next to Turei, Shaw regularly nods his head in support.

At first glance the pair are chalk and cheese. Turei, the fiery, tattooed long-time politician and Shaw, the clean-cut consultant.

In May, Shaw had his two-year anniversary as co-leader, celebrating with dinner and a bottle of champagne with his wife.

During that time, he says he’s learned a lot from Turei about leadership, how to intervene in situations and whether to act firmly or with a soft touch.

The pair state there has been little tension in their relationship, except for when they were redesigning the office.

“Such a weird thing to argue about,” Shaw laughs.

“I really wanted to go to full open plan and we’re having this conversation about option A, option B, all this sort of stuff, my option was also quite a lot more expensive…and Met just turned to me and said, ‘can I just have what I want?’ and I said ‘OK’.”

Politicians may say they pay little heed to polls, but when the Greens had a string of favourable results two weeks ago Shaw took to Twitter with a GIF that screamed “we got momentum, baby!”.

While he says he’s not a complete cynic when it comes to polls, the tweet was really just a chance to pay homage to his favourite show.

“I’m a massive West Wing fan, like massive. When it ended I gave away my TV, I’m not kidding…so for me it was just an excuse to post a GIF of (actor) Josh Lyman.”

Joking aside, Shaw bristles when asked if the party have lost its green tinge by focusing strongly on social justice rather than, say, climate change.

Both Labour and National have released water policies in quick succession, while the Greens’ own conservation announcement was overshadowed by the storm brewing around Turei.

But both leaders are firm that environmental issues remain core, they just aren’t getting the coverage.

In elections, Shaw explains, two stories dominate. They are who is going to be Prime Minister, and the minor party stuff like Colin Craig, Kim Dotcom, and Gareth Morgan.

The Greens fall somewhere in the middle, so struggle to get their messages airtime.

“I think we did some analysis after the last election that said we got something like one percent of the media coverage, but we got 10 and a half percent of the vote, so we were quite pleased to have been able to maintain our vote given that squeeze on media coverage, so in the past three weeks we’ve had more media coverage than we have ever had before, and that’s because of the campaign Met’s been leading around poverty.”

There’s logic to his argument, but it’s also true that the Greens made the decision themselves to throw the focus onto poverty.

That focus has led to a vastly different landscape than the party had planned for.

Shaw says he was on-board with Turei’s benefit admission from the start.

It was understood it would expose both her, and the campaign, to personal risk but it was worth it to get cut-through.

“This was like, ‘we’re going to throw this on the table, yes, we’re going to have to ride the tiger on it but it’s that important’ and now, I know there’s a tonne of negative coverage right now, but what’s been fascinating for me is the number of op-eds and investigative pieces that are coming out saying ‘actually, let’s take a look at this’.”

That tiger has turned and taken several bites out of a party that just a few weeks ago was tracking to be one of the left's successes at the election.

How the Greens perform now, and what shape the party takes after the election, is anyone’s guess.