James Shaw has set a new standard for ministerial conduct in the way he has performed over the allocation of $11.7m of taxpayer money for a privately-owned Green school in Taranaki.
The Green School was one of 150 projects getting a grant from a $3bn fund— the shovel-ready infrastructure fund – and Shaw was willing to put them all at risk.
An email to government ministers and the Treasury from Shaw’s office included a stark ultimatum:
“Minister Shaw won’t sign this briefing until the Green School in Taranaki is incorporated”.
For all this, Shaw did not offer his resignation, but instead apologised and confessed to an “error of judgement”.
So much for the high ethical standards the Green Party espouses.
Let’s look at what the “error of judgement” involved.
First, the Green Party opposes government funding for private schools. Then co-leader Shaw pressured other ministers — some might say he blackmailed them — into accepting the Green School should be included among the shovel-ready projects.
Subsequently, in confessing to an error of judgement, he says he only “advocated” for it.
Fronting a press conference, Shaw then apologised:
“The decision to support this project was an error of judgement. If I was making the same decision again I would not support the project….I apologise to parents, to teachers and unions. I apologise to Green Party members who… have felt demoralised by this decision. I apologise to the schools in Taranaki who quite rightfully want the best for their children. And I want you to know, all of you, that I have listened to your concerns”.
Wouldn’t an apology to taxpayers be in order? Shaw has managed to create the impression that the $3 billion earmarked for shovel-ready projects is just another slush fund set up for ministers to divvy up. Yet he insists:
“I don’t think this is a resignation level event”.
Point of Order wonders whether Clare Curran, Meka Whaitiri and David Clark would agree. Each of them one was a member of the same ministerial team and each lost their jobs for various mistakes.
Still, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is known for her kindness and compassion, and she obviously has been exercising these attributes on behalf of her government towards Shaw who – despite his apologies – is determined to cling on to his ministerial salary..
But there is still a problem: the $11.7m grant to the Green School remains a government commitment, even though ministers have been running as fast as they can from it.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins told Parliament he had a conversation about the application with James Shaw towards the end of July and
“ … I gave him feedback that from an educational portfolio perspective the school would not be a priority for investment”.
Hipkins insists he was not one of the Ministers involved in approving the project. Their approval went against Treasury advice, which noted
“… it would be inappropriate to announce or provide government funding for a project that does not yet have the necessary education approvals”.
The Green School has yet to meet the legal requirements for registration.
So what does that say about how the Ardern ministry goes about its business?
According to a report of the press conference where Shaw offered his apologies:
With a deep sigh, he said: “I feel terrible about the way that this has played out.”
There is much to feel terrible about.