The Green Party has recently announced that if it ever came to power, its Cabinet would contain an equal number of women and men. It would be a big change from the current makeup of the Government, where only 30 per cent of Cabinet ministers and 32 per cent of MPs are female.
Green Party co-leader James Shaw recently took time to chat about his party’s plans, his views on Canada’s election of feminist Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and why progress on gender equality in New Zealand seems to have stagnated. Here’s what he had to say:
Villainesse: Your party has announced that, if it came to power, half the Cabinet ministers would be women. The question really is, why is that important?
James Shaw: Because half the population are women, and we think it’s no longer acceptable to have a situation where half your population is dramatically under-represented in Parliament and the cabinet.
Villainesse: It’s 2015 now. New Zealand of course was the first country in the world where women gained the right to vote, but we still see women vastly under-represented in politics. Does that add a sense of urgency now that it’s 2015? Is it shocking that women are so under-represented?
James Shaw: I think it is. And I think one of the things that spurred us into action around the Cabinet places announcement a few weeks back was the information that the gender pay gap is as bad now as it was 10 years ago, and the number of female MPs in parliament is the same proportion it was 10 years ago as well. So in a decade we haven’t really made a lot of progress. And I think that the Greens have always been on the leading edge of this kind of thing. But we felt that given that in the last decade there has been no further progress [towards equality], we needed to push the boat out further.
Villainesse: That leads nicely into what my next question was going to be about, the gender pay gap. If we look at the data from Statistics New Zealand, the gender pay gap right now is the highest it’s been since 2008. Women are paid 11.8 per cent less on average than men. Is that a major concern?
James Shaw: Yes, it is. It’s increasing on average. It’s increasing in some areas and it’s decreasing in others. So it’s getting kind of mixed views. But you’re not getting anything like the scale of progress that we need to get true gender equity. So that was again one of the reasons why we said, “Look, if you have a Cabinet that was composed half of men and half of women, then they might consider things a little differently in terms of some of the legislation that comes before Parliament. They might be a little tougher on public service chief executives to really lift their game to make sure that the public service pay gap was shrinking and so on.” So, having more female voices around the table would just mean that the whole groups thinks about things a little differently.
Villainesse: Thinking of areas around the world where a 50-50 Cabinet has been tried lately, you’re probably well aware that in Canada they have a new Prime Minister and a gender-equal Cabinet. What are your views on that?
James Shaw: I was delighted. I actually didn’t know that Justin Trudeau [Canada’s new Prime Minister] was going to do that. Our announcement happened only a few days before the Canadian elections. I think it was the day after the elections he [Trudeau] reaffirmed that commitment, and now he’s actually confirmed his Cabinet. And not only is it gender-balanced, but he’s also made sure that within that Cabinet that people are not conforming to gender stereotypes. So for example, Minister for Social Welfare is now a man, and the Minister of Finance is a woman. And those have historically been gendered the other way around. We’ve actually done something similar with our most recent portfolio reshuffle. Julie Anne Genter, who’s an outstanding Member of Parliament, is our new finance spokesperson, for example. Our primary industries spokesperson is Eugenie Sage. And those are roles that have traditionally gone to men.
Villainesse: So it sounds like there are a lot of lessons we can learn here in New Zealand from Canada?
James Shaw: Yeah. I mean, I say this facetiously, but I think the lesson is vote for the Green Party. Because a lot of the same things that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are doing in Canada are exactly the same things that we would do here if we were in a position of power.
Villainesse: Could this really be inspiring? Is that really important for inspiring young men and women in New Zealand today?
James Shaw: I’ve heard a lot – particularly from young women but also from young men – from New Zealanders since we made that announcement [about plans for a gender-equal Cabinet], and they were delighted. But I’ve also heard a lot from people you might think would normally be National Party or Labour Party voters who just said that they were really pleased that someone was finally taking a stand in New Zealand.
Villainesse: So your party has proposed this. But could you conceivably see any other parties doing something similar in the near future?
James Shaw: I think Labour would probably be more likely than anybody else in Parliament to move down that path. I think our most likely coalition partners would be the Labour Party, and I think for the most part they could conceivably go down this route.
Villainesse: Another issue in 2015 is we’re still facing issues of sexual violence and inequality. What are some things the Green Party is doing to address issues facing young women today?
James Shaw: Jan Logie is our spokesperson on women’s issues, and she has probably been the most active Member of Parliament – across the whole Parliament – in terms of domestic violence issues in particular. And she’s been doing a lot of work with a coalition of organisations recently on how to get employers, to get businesses, to notice the effects of domestic violence and to support their staff through those kinds of situations, to offer them a supportive environment. And part of that has been built on some research by an economist on the effect of productivity, the cost to the New Zealand economy of domestic violence. And they estimated it [was] something like $360 million a year in lost productivity because of domestic violence. Domestic violence is a terrible thing, and we need to get rid of it for the sake of getting rid of it. But, when we’re dealing with a National government that looks at everything through an economic lens, I think that was a really useful piece of information to help shift the dialogue with them to say, “Look, this isn’t just a bad thing, but it’s having a cost for all of us, and we need to do something about it.”
Villainesse: So it sounds like quite a lot going on then with the party. Is there anything else the party is doing at the moment in terms of fighting for the rights and equality of women?
James Shaw: One of things I’m really focused on is our candidates going into the 2017 election, and having young men and women who are well-represented on our party list. So what that means is – having that focus on women and having that focus on young people – means that we actually have to go out and find those people who would make good MPs. And that’s why I have no problem with this idea of having a quota. Because one of the things it does is it forces you to go and look for the talent. And I think that the argument that people say “Look, we just appoint on the basis of merit,” is a really lazy one, because essentially you just take what comes to you. In a situation where like attracts like – if you’ve got a party that’s mostly composed of old white men – then that’s going to attract more old white men, and it’s not going to attract people of other ethnicities, it’s not going to attract women, it’s not going to attract young people. And so when you say, “You know what, we’re going to have a Caucus and a Cabinet that actually looks roughly proportional to New Zealand so it’ll contain people of different ethnicities, it’ll contain 50-50 men and women, it’ll contain a good spread of age groups, and so on,” then you have to go and look for those people, and you have to recruit them and you have to bring them on board and provide a supportive environment for them.
Villainesse: If you could possibly speculate, what do you see New Zealand looking like in 2020, 2025? Do you see us as a more equal society and, if so, what steps do you think we need to take to reach that point?
James Shaw: I think there are two scenarios. I think there’s the kind of ‘business as usual’ scenario, and I think New Zealand will be a less unequal society in 2020, 2025 if we don’t change anything, but the rate of change will still be glacial. So the gap may have closed a wee bit, but [only] one or two percentage points. So that’s why I think we have to force the issue, because the New Zealand I want us to live in is one where people get paid the same amount for the same kind of work, where our Parliament and our Cabinet actually reflects the demographic makeup of the country, where people aren’t harassed at home or at work on the basis of their gender or their sexual orientation, or their ethnicity, or their age.
Villainesse: Well, that’s something we can certainly hope for. We all want to see New Zealand become a more equal society for everybody.
James Shaw: Well that’s what we would like to think. And this is part of my problem with the way things are going. We kind of think of things as getting better – and they certainly are a lot better than they were 30 years ago, or 100 years ago. But it’s still not where we want it to be, and things are moving too slowly. And I think the thing is a lot of New Zealanders go “Oh yeah, we recognise there’s a problem, but things are getting better.” And that was the thing about that recent pay gap announcement, that actually things are not getting better, that things are static – they’re actually the same they were a decade ago. And to me that’s unacceptable. We have to keep pushing the boat out, we have to keep showing leadership on this, we have to keep challenging ourselves and our country that we can do better.
Villainesse: What are some things everyday New Zealanders can do to fight for equality and demand it?
James Shaw: I think the obvious thing is to look around your own workplace and to really question how things are. I work in an office with about 40 or 50 people, and it’s a pretty good balance of men and women. But in Parliament you’ll notice, for example, a lot of the executive assistants are women, and a lot of the policy analysts and policy advisors are men. So although you might have a 50-50 workplace, the roles that they’re taking on, or are being given, are still quite gendered. And associated with that is pay, because executive assistants don’t earn as much as senior policy advisors. And so you really have to challenge yourself to say “Well, I think we can do better than this.” You know, I think there are men out there who would make great executive assistants, but we don’t think of them as being executive assistants. And so those men are missing out on doing that kind of work. So you’ve got to go looking for them. And, obviously, there’s a whole lot of women out there who would make great policy analysts. So you have to go out and look for them and be really proactive. And I think you can start asking for stats. You can ask “Well, what’s the pay gap within our business, in our workplace?” And that can open you up to some pretty challenging results as well.Support Villainesse