For the decade Sue Bradford spent in parliament as a Green MP, party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons led by example, bringing a quiet but steely determination to everything she did.
The news of the sudden death of Jeanette Fitzsimons has been a shock. My heart goes out to her dear partner of many decades, Harry Parkes, to all Jeanette’s family and friends, and to everyone who knew her in the Green Party and green movements she made her own.
As happens all too often, it is likely that the true scope of Jeanette’s contribution to the political life of this country will only become apparent now she has left us. From her time in the Values Party of the 1970s onwards, Jeanette dedicated her life to advocacy for the physical world upon which we humans depend for our survival. She was in politics to give Papatūānuku a voice.
She also understood, like the man who became her Green Party co-leader, Rod Donald, that the planet can’t be saved unless people are nurtured and protected too, in a far fairer economic and social system than the one we live in at present.
The dual kaupapa of “caring for earth, caring for people” was why I joined the Greens in 1998, going on to become one of that first group of seven MPs who entered parliament under the name of the Green Party in 1999. It’s moving now to look back at the photos from that time, to see how happy we were, so full of hope that together we might help to change the world. Some of us felt very much outsiders in that place of power, but Jeanette and Rod had already served a term in parliament and were highly effective guides in those early years.
The fact that Jeanette won the Coromandel electorate outright in 1999 was a massive victory in itself, testament to the years of grassroots activism that had already happened in the Hauraki district, and to the respect in which she was held as a representative and leader.
Many people don’t realise that Jeanette had been a university lecturer before she went to parliament. She brought with her a wealth of detailed policy knowledge and the ability to translate that detail into effective advocacy, skills with which not every MP is blessed.
She and Rod melded the new Green caucus into the most effective group that could be achieved given our highly diverse composition. We were a close unit, which is why when Rod died – also very suddenly – in late 2005, we were shaken to the core. I don’t think the Green Party has ever been the same since, and I feel fairly certain that Jeanette would agree with me on that.
She and I went on to pick up the two government spokespeople roles the Greens had negotiated for following the 2005 election – Jeanette as spokesperson on energy efficiency, and me with Buy Kiwi Made, a role that would have been Rod’s if things had turned out differently. These were the only two slim strands of governmental responsibility the Green Party achieved during the time Jeanette was there, and I know she relished the opportunities offered by the quasi-ministerial position.
During her time as co-leader of the Greens, Jeanette brought a quiet but steely determination to everything she did. Her public persona was often of a kindly maternal intelligence, but underneath lay an iron commitment to fighting her corner and achieving what she thought best for the caucus and the party.
In the wider operations of parliament, she was as hard a worker as you’d find anywhere, absolutely committed to select committee tasks and to her contributions in the house. During question time, always that unruly space where we Greens felt embarrassed by the childishness of so much that went on, Jeanette led our crew by example. We really did do our best to demonstrate that one could go to parliament and attack policy and politics, but not the person, in a mature, respectful way.
There was another side to Jeanette too, one that didn’t become apparent to many until some time after she left parliament. Early on, at one of our caucus retreats, Jeanette came up to me and almost whispered with that sweet smile of hers, “You know Sue, I’ve always wanted to be a militant like you. I’ve always dreamed of being in a monkeywrench gang.” (“Monkeywrench” is a word used for environmentalists who use non-violent direct action and sometimes sabotage as part of their activism).
I was delighted to be the recipient of such a confidence, and replied that I hoped one day she’d be able to engage in such activity. And so it came to be. In recent years Jeanette has been prominent on the frontlines of a number of environmental protests, chaining herself to doors, facing down police, and trying – but failing – to get herself arrested. Sometimes you’re just too well known, and too respected.
Jeanette had the heart of a militant ecologist, the mind of an academic, the determination of a politician and the compassion of a partner, mother, mentor and friend. Respect, and may earth’s green flag fly with you always.
*With thanks to Marc Ribot and his song ‘The Militant Ecologist‘, whose lyrics are referenced above