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February 27, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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Rod Donald: Unsung Hero

It’s an indictment on society that we sometimes never really appreciate a good thing until it’s gone. Rod Donald was one of those hard working, honest, salt of the earth types that never bought attention on himself – no matter how much good he did. In the wake of his untimely death at the end of last year, Salient News Editor Nicola Kean talks to some of those who knew and loved him, and evaluates the impact on the Green Party having to fill his shoes.

The news was as unexpected as it was tragic. On November 6 2005, Rod Donald, co-leader of the Green Party, died a day before he was to be sworn into Parliament for his fourth term. In the coming days, as people all over New Zealand mourned, it was revealed that the cause of death was viral myocarditis, a rare and hard to detect infection of the heart muscle that often results in heart failure. He was just 48, fit, healthy, and had a role in the newly formed Government just within his grasp.

“I think all of us just felt disbelief for a long time afterwards,” says remaining Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons over the phone from her home in Thames. “It was almost as if he’ll stick his head around the door any moment now and say ‘ha ha, just joking’.” Fitzsimons’ disbelief is echoed by fellow Green MP Nandor Tanczos: “it was an enormous shock. I was stunned, I couldn’t believe it. It seemed so unlikely. I know people who laughed when they heard it because they thought someone was pulling their leg.”

For ACT leader Rodney Hide, Donald’s death was particularly disturbing. They were born in the same year. “When you heard an MP had died,” he says, “you’d think of 119 names before you thought of Rod Donald.” He tells of how the day after Donald’s funeral, he went to an A&P show and bought the “fattiest deep fried hot dog I could find and a punnet of chips”. If someone like Rod Donald could be struck down so suddenly, he figured, you might as well enjoy yourself while you can.

I only vaguely remember the first time I met Rod Donald. A couple of years ago, long before I had a title, business cards and a salary, I crashed a Green Party midwinter Christmas party for the press gallery. Organic beer in hand, I wandered around among the big wigs, trying to introduce myself to as many as possible. I ran into Donald at the bar, wearing the brightly coloured suspenders he was famous for. Unlike some politicians I have met both before and since, being a volunteer student journalist didn’t still meant I was worth talking to. I was struck in particular by his politeness and charm, the sincerity with which he told me to ‘have a good night’. Like many others all over the country, I received the news of his death with disbelief and sadness.

Rod Donald was quite possibly the dictionary definition of life long activist. In 1972, at the age of fifteen, he single handedly started up an Ecology Action group at his school. A year later he joined the Green Party’s predecessor, the Values Party, skipping Bursary exams to help the party campaign in the 1975 election. Collective housing projects, protest, and work with Trade Aid and Volunteer Service Abroad followed. But what brought him to the public eye was his role as spokesperson for the Electoral Reform Commission during the Royal Commission and referendum on electoral reform in the early 1990s. While First Past the Post allowed two parties to virtually dominate Parliament, the Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP) eventually opted for in the referendum meant a more diverse electoral system.

“I don’t think we would have got proportional representation if Rod hadn’t been fronting it”, says Fitzsimons. The move to proportional representation had huge consequences for democracy in New Zealand. “The Greens wouldn’t be in Parliament, ACT wouldn’t be in Parliament, New Zealand First wouldn’t be in Parliament, and United Future would have just have the one seat if we didn’t have proportional representation and I think Parliament would be the poorer for that.”

The campaign for proportional representation gave Donald a whiff of national politics that he was keen to follow up. He joined the Green Party and was somewhat surprised to find himself elected co-leader in 1995. A year later he was in Parliament, where some MPs were a little shocked by his behaviour. Not letting the compulsory suit and tie get in the way, the activism he was known for continued. He camped out at the Waihope spy base protests, slept in a cardboard box to highlight poverty and rode his bike. He even continued to make spiced apple cake for community meetings in Christchurch, Fitzsimons remembers.

He was both an effective politician and a real Green, she says. “I think of him on holiday with his family, standing up to his chest in the surf, with a cell phone strapped to his ear, doing a media interview.” Yet he still found the time to install solar powered heating and tend the garden at his home. “He lived Green as well as being a parliamentarian.”

Across the other side of the political spectrum, Hide also has fond memories. “For the entire time that I was here in politics, Rod Donald was here. I’d see him more than I’d see my own caucus colleagues.” He particularly remembers the Thursday night before the election, when they both appeared on Campbell Live. With ACT polling too low to see the party return to Parliament, Donald was asked what he thought. He responded by saying, that even though ACT had very different political views, it would be sad to see them go. “Here was a guy who was on the opposite end of the political spectrum and yet he understood ACT played a role in Parliament”, says Hide, glowing in the joy of proving the pundits wrong.

It was a characteristic Rod Donald moment. “He didn’t play the man he played the ball,” says Associate Professor of Political Science Nigel Roberts. “He argued the issues rather that the personalities.” Roberts partially credits the Green’s seats in Parliament to Donald’s campaigning ability, and an uncanny knack he had in getting ideas across. He was, argues Roberts, “a person who didn’t antagonise people”, or as Hide put it “the friendly, acceptable, cuddly face of the Greens”.

Both Fitzsimons and Tanczos beg to differ. “There’s been a lot of bullshit written about Rod Donald in the media,” Tanczos says with venom. “I actually got quite offended by the way the mainstream media was portraying Rod. He was the acceptable face of the Greens, the reasonable Green and now he’s gone we’re all fucked.” A sentiment echoed by Fitzsimons, perhaps more eloquently: “I think they’d have [said the same] which ever one of us had died.”

However, the facts appear to speak for themselves. In a conference held late last year discussing the results of the 2005 general election, Roberts and his colleague Professor Stephen Levine presented a paper analysing the results of a pre-election poll. In a question relating to the people the interviewee would least like to be Prime Minister, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Nandor Tanczos both figured. “The Green ideas do threaten some people”, Roberts says. “Rod Donald wasn’t seen in that light. In that sense he was very important. Whether the Greens can find somebody who can fulfill that role, making the party electorally appealing [is the question]”.

Indeed, the Greens are facing some difficult questions in the coming months. Scraping back into Parliament with a party vote just over the magic margin of five percent, they need to increase their proportion of the party vote in order to comfortably return to Parliament in 2008. However, shut out from the Labour-New Zealand First-United Future Government arrangement, they have the distinct advantage of being the sole beneficiary of left wing dissatisfaction and outright malice towards the Government. But Tanczos dismisses these as borrowed votes. “We need to develop a clear Green constituency, which is not a soft Labour vote,” he says. “Otherwise”, he adds, “we’re always going to be vulnerable to the kind of thing that happened in this election, where it turns into a two-horse race and the small parties are squeezed.”

Almost predictably, given his own situation, Hide believes the Greens need to win a seat to guarantee their place in Parliament. Fitzsimons’ 1999 victory in Coromandel brought the party into Parliament after it left the Alliance. But the seat was lost in 2002. For Tanczos, however, this isn’t necessary. He predicts that with improvements in some areas, the Greens could reach as high as the 10-15% region in the party vote. He even goes so far as to speculate about a future with a larger left wing bloc of which the Greens are an important part, a third force in Parliament along with Labour and National.

However, he says electoral popularity must not be at the expense of the Green’s core values. “I think it would be political suicide for us to become more mainstream. Every other political party is chasing the centre vote. They’re clamouring over each other to get in there, so much so that it’s at times hard to tell the difference between them.” Fitzsimons agrees that the strategic direction of the party will not change with Donald’s death. “Obviously we’ve got to play to the strengths of people we have.” She continues: “Rod was particularly strong in some areas where we may end up doing a little less because he’s not there, but I don’t think the strategic direction will change.”

The second major question facing the Greens in the coming months is selecting a replacement co-leader. A candidate will be voted on by the party over Queen’s Birthday weekend in June. Party policy set before the selection of Donald and Fitzsimons in 1995 stipulates there must be one male and one female co-leader. The Greens have two male MPs in Parliament: Tanczos and Keith Locke. However Green campaign manager Russell Norman has been widely touted in the mainstream media to be the next co-leader and former party cordinator David Clendon is also said to be after the position, showing that the net may be cast wider than the current Green MPs.

According to a recent column in the Dominion Post by political commentator Vernon Small, Tanczos is “poised to formally throw his colourful Rastafarian hat into the ring” for the leadership bid. But, predictably, he is cagey when asked about his intentions, calling for the party to look at and debate its future before selecting a candidate that will suit that direction. Does he see himself as that candidate? “No comment at this stage”, he responds.

Fitzsimons is equally non-committal on the subject. “I’m confident that there are going to be a number of nominations for the male co-leader” she says, continuing “and I hope there will be, and that the party will have some real choice, and I look forward to that process.” However, Hide speculates that she has already tacitly come out in support of Norman and would be forced to resign if the membership elected someone else. But as the character of Jim Hacker famously stated in the British sitcom Yes, Minister, a week is a long time in politics. It’s even longer until Queen’s Birthday weekend.

While uncertainty remains about the next co-leader, what is certain is that Rod Donald will be a hard act to follow. Roberts believes he will be very hard to replace: “You can never quite fill those shoes. The best you can hope for is somebody with different skills, different abilities, a different way of operating comes along [and is] eventually nearly as effective.” Hide is rather more blunt. “The Greens are going to struggle without Rod. He was their number one.”

Certainly in terms of public appeal, Donald will be difficult to replace and Fitzsimons was surprised by the mass public outpouring of grief that followed his death. “Rod was so much more widely recognised and respected and loved in his death than had ever been clear during his life.” He was, essentially, a man who lived and died by the principles he believed in so strongly. Even his funeral was environmentally friendly. On that day, in the hot early November weather, hundreds of people packed the Christchurch cathedral and the square around it to hear the proceedings. It was perhaps a measure of how much he meant to New Zealanders. Although I barely knew him, I’m going to miss him terribly. Especially those red suspenders.

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About the Author ()

Nicola Kean: feature writer, philanthropist, womanly woman. Nicola is the smallest member of the Salient team, but eats really large pieces of lasagne. Favourites include 80s music, the scent of fresh pine needles and long walks on the beach.

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