Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell On Who May Succeed Jeanette Fitzsimons

February 23rd, 2009

Jeanette Fitzsimons
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The fortunes of politicians can change overnight – cock of the walk one day, coq au vin the next. Not that Green party Co-Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons will be treated quite so cavalierly, but inevitably once she departs from the centre stage of the party leadership – and it is expected she will announce her resignation as Greens Co-Leader today – the focus will inevitably shift to who will take her place.

More on that later. As they say, Fitzsimons will be a hard act to follow. Decades of dedicated activism and research have served the party well, as she has been a major force in moving green concerns from the outer margins of public concern to centre stage. Now, it is the climate change deniers who look like the cranks. After the Greens broke away from the Alliance, Fitzsimons and the late Rod Donald formed almost a perfect, complimentary duo. Donald with the boundless energy, wit and warmth, Fitzsimons with the steady, reasoned arguments to back it up, and the strategic nous to take things forward.

The glib way of putting this is to say that Fitzsimons lent immense credibility to the Greens. Well she did, but – besides being patronising to the issues she has fought for – that term obscures both her strengths and her weaknesses. To my mind, her credibility and vast knowledge of her subject were secondary aspects of her formidable political instincts. Fitzsimons could instantly grasp and express the essence of arcane information – but more importantly, she had an intuitive sense of which buttons to push, and how hard.

How could that trait also be at times, something of a weakness ? Well, Fitzsimons herself used to joke about the common perception of her as being this nice, twinkly-eyed old lady. The Granny of Green, too nice to play rough. It was quite a misleading image. Years of fighting her corner had made her far tougher than that image would suggest – and while she kept to the principle of not playing personality politics, she could be far more politically ruthless than the party, or the press gallery for that matter, ever came to realise.

I think the public sensed it, though. Fitzsimons inspired respect but not a very wide degree of public affection. That may have changed if she could have played a more central role in government but perhaps not even then. A certain intellectual aloofness – at times, an irritated arrogance – was also part of her persona, and it became more apparent once she lost the balancing role that Donald provided.

She had to be tough and forceful though, to get green issues taken seriously. To her credit, Fitzsimons unabashedly loved the detail of policy, the more complex the better. She was a policy wonk’s dream of what a Cabinet Minister should be, and the country has lost out by never reaping the benefits of having her intelligence brought to bear in such a role.

Now, the succession struggle commences. Routinely, the gender balance in the Green leadership is depicted as political correctness. Or tokenism. The fact that the structure and process of Green politics tries so overtly to match its goals – which are that the opportunity should not be denied anyone because of their race, gender or class – is IMHO, almost beside the point.

Last week, the visiting UK Attorney- General Baroness Patricia Scotland made a more relevant and interesting point in a Scoop interview. In the wake of the global meltdown some evidence is emerging, Scotland maintained, that firms operating with gender balanced leadership took fewer crazy risks, and suffered fewer dire consequences. There is something about men and women working together, Scotland suggested, when the risk-taking impulse is being tested against its social and economic consequences that produces better decisions than those that emanate from workplaces comprised entirely of men, or entirely of women.

Finding the best form of that balance is something the Green party membership now has to address in choosing the next Co-Leader. It is a truism to say that Russel Norman is not Rod Donald. He isn’t, but he is Russel Norman – and that has been largely a good thing so far, and is likely to get even better. Neither of the two candidates to succeed Fitzsimons – Metiria Turei and Sue Bradford – would suggest they are replacements for Fitzsimons. They bring different qualities to the leadership balance.

Metiria Turei, Sue Bradford
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In fact, it is worth asking whether in this new configuration, Norman is not in fact the new Fitzsimons – an incumbent Co-Leader, brainy, a bit of a policy nerd and even more inclined in public to show his colder and steelier side. Smart and abrasive he certainly is – but a warm, emotionally intuitive politician ? Not really. On environmental matters, he is arguably a better exponent of green issues than either Turei or Bradford.

Hopefully, the contest will not be dominated by the fact that (a) Turei is Maori and (b) Bradford sponsored the Section 59 Bill. Both points are labels, not evaluations.

Turei for instance would probably be the first to bridle at the thought that her race gives her an automatic advantage (in or outside Parliament) any more than her gender does. More to the point, the friendly overtures for joint action sent out by the Greens to the Maori Party over the past three years went absolutely nowhere. With the Maori Party now part of a centre right government, that road is virtually closed. At best, the Greens will be seen as useful enablers by the Maori Party in order to get themselves off hooks of their own devising. Any disillusioned Maori Party supporters are likely to bypass the middle woman, and go straight back to the Labour Party.

Similarly the image of Bradford as the anti-smacking ogre is pretty superficial. True, some people do see her as an unbending ideologue. That’s somewhat ironic, because when it has come to reaching across the aisle and forging alliances with her political opponents, Bradford’s track record in Parliament is second to none.

John Key for instance, may have garnered the public love for finally closing the book on the section 59 law change, but it was Bradford who got Helen Clark on board, and who later worked constructively with Key to get the Bill passed by an emphatic 113-8 margin. Later, she got her babies in prison bill passed unanimously, partly due to her constructive engagement with Simon Power. Arguably, all these gains belong to a bygone era of centre-left government, but it should also signal that Bradford’s political flexibility and lobbying skills are not be taken lightly.

Metiria Turei
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So, what skills would Turei and Bradford bring in their own right, and to the balance with Norman ? Clearly, Turei is relatively young at 38, articulate and energetic – and she brings some of the Donaldian warmth and charm to the equation that the party ( and Norman) sorely need. On the downside, the credibility gains that Fitzsimons has brought to the role could be jeopardized if the media decides to have a field day with Turei’s background prior to entering Parliament. As Wikipedia says :

Metiria was a founding member of the Random Trollops performance art troupe. Like fellow Green MP Nandor Tanczos, she was a candidate for the McGillicuddy Serious Party in the 1993 election and for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party in the 1996 election. When she was elected, Metiria left her job as a corporate lawyer for Simpson Grierson to become a Member of Parliament.

That last sentence of course, should be the signal that Turei fits no easy stereotype. Not many former campus radicals and McGillicuddy Serious veterans would be willing, or able, to work for Simpson Grierson. In fact, Turei’s lawyerly flair and passion are some of the stronger elements that she brings as a balance to Norman’s analytical approach. The risk is that she might double down on Norman’s penchant for the abrasive one-liner. A Turei/Norman ticket could be seen as somewhat lacking in solidity and gravitas.

Sue Bradford
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Bradford, on that score at least, is a useful foil. A global recession that is promising to last for years will make her policy strengths relevant to a party in opposition. In policy terms, the balance would leave Norman free to focus on the environment and the economy, while Bradford focused on the employment and welfare aspects of the Greens’ social justice mandate. Moreover, if Labour is the obvious pool from which the Greens are to poach votes in future, Bradford is a credible person for the job.

Bradford’s public image however, can be a real drawback. While she works gruelling hours and has a pugnacious honesty – on that score, Bradford offers an alternative version of the Fitzsimons’ brand of integrity – Bradford’s main liability is her public style. While she can defend a position to the death, she is not good at going on the front foot and winning new adherents to her point of view. Even her advances tend to sound defensive. That may not be a crippling liability for a party likely to be in opposition for the foreseeable but – unless New Zealand discovers a belated ‘diamond in the rough’ affection for Bradford, it could leave Norman with the main task of wooing uncommitted voters.

In other words, two highly competent, but less than perfect choices are available to the Greens. Hopefully, for a party that prides itself on democratic process, the leadership will not signal its preference quite as clearly as it did during the Tanczos/Norman struggle in 2006. There is a potential for division, and conflict. It is no secret that Turei is the favoured choice of the leadership, while Bradford enjoys quite wide support among the party at large.

Being the Greens, it will be an extremely tough and rugged contest that will be conducted with fierce politeness – more tai chi than karate – all the way down to the finale at the Greens annual conference on Queens Birthday weekend. The queen is dead, so long live the queen.


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    1. 6 Responses to “Gordon Campbell On Who May Succeed Jeanette Fitzsimons”

    2. By Don Murray on Feb 24, 2009 | Reply

      Excellent analysis Gordon. Thankyou for doing a good(professional) job. I hope that both (Green) party faithful and the wider public get to digest your comment.

      Would that this was the standard of understanding and objectivity that was characteristic of New Zealand media – print, television and radio. I am so often frustrated by the superficial trivia that is the norm – and is effectively neoconservative or liberal enlightenment propaganda.

    3. By StephenR on Feb 24, 2009 | Reply

      Yeah good stuff. Mentioning your work as the Greens’ media manager might have been worth doing, sort of as disclosure and credibility booster 😀

    4. By David Moloney on Feb 24, 2009 | Reply

      I think you have got it wrong, although they will miss Ms Fitzsimons. The Greens do miss the political savvy of Saint Rod. They became another bunch of politicians when they got Norman into Parliament by sidelining those above him on the list and dumping Tanczos. Many people in NZ were put off by Ms Bradford’s use of assault and violence when describing a light smack. If she is elected as the Co leader the Greens will struggle as many of the non-core supporters were put off by their endorsement of Labour prior to the last election. Dumb politics and, had Donald been there, I doubt that would have happened.

    5. By Shona C on Feb 26, 2009 | Reply

      Yeah ,yeah,yeah. Rod Donald was sooo savvy he thought Kiwi Bank was a bad idea. I will miss Jeanette for her profound knowledge and deep political understanding. This is a new era and urban Greens are the norm; like him or loathe him Dr Norman has an attitude that is essential if the Greens are to survive and grow politically. it would have been irreversibly DUMB politics to align with the present collection of incompetents who are pretending the govern the country at present.

    6. By Robert Miles on Mar 9, 2009 | Reply

      I can’t help thinking that a real green party would believe in the environment, public transport of the rail and electric type, not damming rivers or hydro and it would believe in beauty as the truth and its collary the creative destruction of life, nature and the market which is after all the ‘force that drives the green fuse’ to quote Dylan Thomas. Even compared with the larikin Aussie Russel Norman who is amusing if too serious Sue Bradford is a Red. A Red not even a Red Green. A paternalist socialist who believes in keeping people in a cage if they are fragile, disabled or so called mental or the prison of Aoteaoroa after Clarks Welfare deal with Australia in 2003 which basically denied the kiwi poor welfare in Australia as part of a tradeoof with small time Sydney barrister John Howard unless they were massively disabled by far more stringent tests than that for kiwi Invalids benefit.Bradford Mnental Health Laws were the greatest blow to New Zealanders human rights in 6o years basically handing the power to the police and families of the mentally ill. Almost inevitably the families only interest is countering sex and embarrasment. The shear cruelty and injsutice of Bradfords naive subjective laws. Bradford has consistently been on the warpath to destroy the few outposts of justice in the NZ mental health system. Her determination to remove the mental health unit form the humane and convinently sited Wellington hospital to the deser of Kenepuru her determination to get hit squads of social workers on the streets of Auckland destroy the only system and place were the mentally ill were fairly assessed and given a chance. I can not hide my extreme distaste for Bradford and all she stands for and under post war German legislation I think she should be judged an illegal party in the Nazi or Communist category and barred from parliament.

    7. By Jason Sanders on Mar 19, 2009 | Reply

      Jeanette F. gave her all for the Green Party without a doubt, but was she a highly effective leader? Mr. Campbell you have failed to cover several key aspects of her leadership. She is highly articulate and intelligent, but is basically dry and uncharismatic. Rod Donald had some charisma and humour, and the Greens have looked a bit drab without him. J.F. was also internally pretty dictatorial. The party itself is top heavy and largely undemocratic in it’s day to day running despite all the rhetoric about being the most democratic party in NZ (which might still be true). As a former grassroots Green Party activist I can testify to that. Factionalism is rife, and many grassroots activists have left, disenchanted. Jeanette liked to control things too much, and if it meant democratic procedures were ignored or paid scant heed to, then so be it. To my mind, any replacement who is less controlling, and not so elitist will be a vast improvement to the internal health of the party as a whole. From what I can gather Metira would be better from that point of view. Bradford would be a P.R. disaster for the Greens if selected, anyway.

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