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July 31, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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The show goes on…

Rod Donald’s death left an indisputably massive hole in the Green party, and was mourned right across the political spectrum. In a follow of to SALIENT’S article about Rod Donald’s death in issue one of this year, News Editor Nicola Kean talks to the new Green Party co-leader Russel Norman.

Rod Donald’s untimely death late last year left large shoes to fill within the Green Party. After a long period of mourning and collecting thoughts, last month the party elected campaign strategist Russel Norman the new male co-leader. But Norman has large feet. Literally. He’s a tall guy.

If you haven’t heard of Norman, you probably aren’t alone. The usual response to dropping his name into conversation is “uh, who?” Explaining that he’s the newly elected Co-Leader of the Green Party results in an “oh, him”. Unlike his closest rival for the job, Nandor Tanczos, Norman has the disadvantage of not already having a high public profile, or having a seat in Parliament.

But Norman appears unfazed. “So far it hasn’t been a problem,” he shrugs. “I’ve had lots of media attention, and lots of opportunities to talk.” If anything, he argues having a co-leader outside Parliament will give the Green Party a chance to get to work on improving party organisation. “We’ve got to do some party development. We need to build our party organisation if we’re going to run an effective election campaign.”

Visiting the offices of Green Party politicians is always delightful in its contrast to those of other parties. Norman is to be found on the second floor of a building on the artsy end of Courtney Place, above a cafe, up a stairwell smelling vaguely of urine. There’s music that could be Bob Dylan playing in the office as I arrive, and papers everywhere. A framed photo of Rod Donald stands on a window sill. Volunteers and staff are laughing at a poster of a blob fish, whatever that is. They’re endangered, apparently. Norman calls me “mate” and I ask him if he thinks his Australian accent will be off-putting to New Zealand voters. “I guess time will tell. People have told me I’ve got a weak Australian accent, so I don’t know. You tell me.”

Norman may have been touted as the ‘safe’ choice for co-leader against the Rastafarian, dreadlocked Tanczos, but his expertise in running campaigns and party strategy counted in his favour. He’s been a back-room presence in the Green Party since the late 1990s. Moving to New Zealand from Australia in 1997, Norman became involved in the Green Party just as it was splitting from the Alliance. From there he worked to rebuild the Auckland and Waiheke branches, before becoming a candidate in the Rimutaka electorate in the 2002 election. Two years later he was appointed the National Campaign Manager. After being elected at a party forum over Queen’s Birthday weekend, he stepped into the limelight of coleadership.

“I’ve got more of a policy background than Rod had”, he says. “But Rod had better people skills. I need to learn some of those skills he had, just as he had to learn a whole bunch of policy stuff.”

He also has a PhD in politics. Highly intelligent and informed about his area of academic speciality, conducting an interview with him felt a bit like interviewing a textbook. Perhaps to his credit, Norman doesn’t speak like a politician; he rarely speaks in three second sound bites or snappy break out quotes. And when he tries to, it’s with perceptible unease. When he states that the Greens are “sensible, sane and just like you”, I get the vague feeling that it was a line that had been prepared in advance.

But he’s frank about his weak points: “I’ve got more of a policy background than Rod had”, he says, “but Rod had better people skills. I need to learn some of those skills he had, just as he had to learn a whole bunch of policy stuff.” After Donald’s death many commentators predicted that the Greens would suffer at the polls with the loss of someone who was perceived to be the friendly face of the Greens. Is Norman going to try to fill Donald’s shoes? “My line is that I’m not going to try, basically,” Norman says matter-of-factly, motioning at my coffee cup. “Do you want more milk?”

Host duties duly fulfilled, he elaborates: “Rod’s got his own shoes, I’ve got mine.” But he is acutely aware that the Greens need to pay attention to the packaging of their ideas. “I wear a suit and a tie and try to look not too scary. It’s really important that we do pay attention to our marketing, so that people can hear what we have to say and not be frightened off by the way we look.”

“We have some ideas around environmental sustainability and social justice, but we’re not freaks”, he continues. Like Donald, he looks the part in a suit and a tie, and has a passion for the strands of political issues that make up the ideological foundations of the Green Party. “To me it makes sense to pull together social justice, environmental sustainability, democracy and peace. Those things are my political raison d’etre and for me it was finding a political home.”

“Our project is quite different to Labour’s”, Norman says. “We’ve got to build a vote and a constituency of people who understand what the Greens are on about and who think of themselves as Greens. That has to be our future.”

For Norman, the Greens’ focus on environmental sustainability is what makes them especially distinctive from the other parties in Parliament. “We find ourselves pretty lonely down on the sustainable end of that spectrum, because Labour and National and all the other parties just haven’t really grasped the fact that the planet is finite, and what that really means.” In the long-term, then, Norman intends to make climate change a focus for the Greens in the next election campaign – akin to the kerfuffle over genetic engineering in 2002.

“Climate change and the price of oil are the two things that are going to be the big issue for us,” he says. “Perhaps not quite as pointedly, but I think they are huge issues that the public are getting the hang of.” The recent and sudden rise in the price of oil has served the Greens well. As much as some hippy-haters might be loathe to admit, the Party’s constant barrage of Cassandra-like cries about how the planet’s going to hell in a SUV have seemingly been proven correct.

And Norman hasn’t been shy to criticise the Government about it, despite the arrangements between Labour and the Greens. “They’ve got no bloody policy at all,” he laughs indignantly. In one of his first speeches as leader, Norman invited Finance Minister Michael Cullen to have dinner at his house, on the condition that he journey to Mount Cook by bus in order to see how much work needed to go into public transport services. “He refused,” he says, looking a little disappointed.

One of the platforms that Tanczos campaigned for the co-leadership on was building a Green identity independent of Labour. On this Norman and Tanczos are in tune. “Our project is quite different to Labour’s,” Norman says. “We’ve got to build a vote and a constituency of people who understand what the Greens are on about and who think of themselves as Greens. That has to be our future.”

“We work with all parties on issues,” he continues. “We are closer to Labour than we are to National. But Labour and National are closer to each other from our point of view. We’ll continue to have the door open to Labour. But also we’ll challenge them.” As if symbolic of this stance, a week before the interview took place, a last minute change of heart by Tanczos saw the amendment to limit the micro-chipping laws to non-working dogs pass through Parliament. Like the usually faithful family dog that received just one too many kicks in the guts, part of the Green caucus turned on the larger party. It was a defeat and, it could be speculated, a little bit of a shock for Labour.

But not as much as a shock as it was for Green supporters who tactically voted Labour in 2005 in the expectation of a LPG coalition. “Their votes were basically delivered to Winston Peters and Peter Dunne. That was a good shock. You’ve got to vote for what you actually believe in.” Norman believes there was a perception that the Greens were closer to Labour than in reality. “What we’ll be saying to people next time is remember 2005.”

While cruelly denied a place around the Cabinet table last year, Norman says it is something the party will be seeking in the future. “We make a decision election by election. But we do want to get our hands on the levers of government. No question about it.” However, a coalition agreement will be subject to a number of conditions.

“There’s different kinds of power: there’s state power which allows you to change the law and run the bureaucracies. There’s also discursive power, the power to influence ideas through your voice. One of the dangers for small parties is they trade off discursive power in order to get state power. And in the process lose one of their great levers, which is to influence the way people see the world.” Unlike other parties, he says the Greens will not be willing to become a virtual lap dog for one of the larger parties.

You may not have previously heard of Russel Norman, but it’s a near-certainty that you will hear more about him in the future. He has already stated his intention to run for a Parliamentary seat in 2008, and it’s likely his place on the Green list will be bumped up to get him into Parliament. Although he argues the media have been kind to him so far, the honeymoon period of his recent election has yet to wear off. In the long term, without the advantage of getting free television airtime during the rhetorical toand-fro of Question Time, it might not be so easy. Again, only time will tell.

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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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