Gareth Hughes’ new biography of the late Jeanette Fitzsimons tells the story of a revered figure in New Zealand green politics. In an interview for Gone By Lunchtime, he talks about her life and legacy, and the concerns she shared with him about the post-2017 Green Party.
Just over half a century ago, on May 30 1972, the Values Party was founded in an awkward meeting attended by about 60 people at the Victoria University of Wellington Student Union Hall. The chrysalis from which the NZ Greens emerged 18 years later, Values was, some say, the world’s first distinctly “green” party to enter national politics. Today, the Green Party has become part of the political furniture. But one prize still eludes it: signing on to a formal government coalition.
“It’s quite phenomenal, isn’t it?” says Gareth Hughes. “Fifty years on. They’re a middle-aged party now, they’re not the fresh-faced new kids on the block, and they still haven’t been around the cabinet table.”
That reality, he says, was part of what prompted him to write a biography of Jeanette Fitzsimons, the woman he describes as a giant of the green movement, of the Green Party and of early MMP politics. “Often in society we don’t remember or celebrate the builders, the people who operated in an environment that was actively hostile to new ideas,” he told The Spinoff in a special episode of politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime. “She was such an outsider, pushing these ideas like climate change in the 80s, which society wasn’t really responding to. We don’t remember these stories … I think it’s important to celebrate those early builders and founders.”
A Gentle Radical: The Life of Jeanette Fitzsimons tells the story of an early convert to the Values Party mantra of repudiating rapid growth and promoting environmental principles – a conversion prompted by a newspaper clipping from her father in New Zealand, which she read on a beach in Corsica. She was living in Geneva and had read the seminal Club of Rome book The Limits to Growth. She returned home and got stuck into the politics, policy debates and sometimes Byzantine internal, ultra-democratic processes. At one point, when the Greens were grappling with whether to abandon their no-leader model, one member proposed that, yes, the party should have leaders: somewhere between 500 and 1,200 of them.
In 1999, Fitzsimons – by then co-leader of a Green Party that had extricated itself from the Alliance, a relationship that had become, says Hughes, “hostile and toxic” – had the chance to take the Greens into cabinet. “It was almost like Lord of the Rings,” says Hughes of a meeting Fitzsimons had with Helen Clark and Jim Anderton. “The ring was handed out before her and she could have grasped it and become a minister. But despite passionately wanting it – she thought she would have made a good minister and I believe she would have – she stepped back from grasping it, and there was a lot of wisdom in that decision.”
Was there, though? Might grasping that opportunity have begun effecting some of the changes green politicians are still seeking all these years later? “Possibly,” says Hughes. But the Greens were greenhorns, and MMP is “a graveyard” of new parties that have “disappeared within three years”. What she could have done, however, is make far greater demands for confidence and supply support. “They only asked for about $20 million,” says Hughes. That was a “missed opportunity – she really had the power of government in her hands. She could have got hundreds of millions of dollars for policies, billions potentially.”
Another missed opportunity came at the next election. Fitzsimons’ deeply-held position on genetic modification led her to set a bottom line – there had to be a moratorium or the Greens would not be entering any negotiations. That, to Hughes’ mind, was a position he could respect, but also a great shame. It was, he says, “a tragedy that two of the smartest, most effective politicians of a generation, Helen Clark and Jeanette Fitzsimons, couldn’t work together … Imagine what the country could have been, with those two as prime minister and deputy.”
The most powerful and poignant story recounted in A Gentle Radical concerns Fitzsimons’ partner in politics, co-leader, friend and Wellington housemate, Rod Donald. “He was the tactician, she was the strategist. He loved the media, she suffered it.” After a disappointing 2005 election – “the nadir of her political career” – Fitzsimons told Donald she was going to stand down, swapping the Beehive for the Coromandel farm she shared with her husband, Harry Parke. A few weeks later came the executive meeting in the capital. “The plan was for [Rod] to go on the Saturday to rark up the troops. She was going on the Sunday to announce her retirement. Rod died that [Saturday] evening.”
The resignation was delayed by five years. In the cause of holding the party together, she in one sense also “lost her future”, says Hughes.
In Hughes’ own final term in parliament, he kept in touch with Fitzsimons, who had retired in 2010. They “shared concerns”, he says, about the Labour-NZ First coalition, with the Greens having agreed to provide confidence and supply. What were those concerns? “Things like the speed and ambition of climate policy. Things like the election integrity bill, the so-called waka-jumping legislation – that was something I shared with Jeanette and maybe older Greens as well.”
While Fitzsimons opposed the waka-jumping capitulation at select committee and in print, Hughes opposed it in the caucus room. “I never bought the argument that we had to support it because it was in New Zealand First’s coalition agreement with Labour. So was a free-trade agreement with Putin’s Russia. That was never going to happen and the Green Party would never support that. So I saw it as inconsistent, and I was a dissenting vote in caucus on that.”
He adds: “She was always really cautious to not damage the party. She had some concerns, which I think were widely known, but she wouldn’t attack that party. And, you know, as a politician, it’s a team sport, it’s not an individual sport. That was something I was really cognisant of, too. Yeah, there were some decisions I was really unhappy with, in that last term of government. But I never wanted to damage a movement that I believed in.”
On climate change, Hughes continues to believe the Greens could push harder. “I want to see greater action. Many countries around the world have reduced their emissions. We’ve increased ours, by 25%. Agriculture is still being subsidised by ordinary consumers doing it really tough.”
But what more could the Greens have done? “You’ve got to remember that agriculture emissions pricing was actually in the confidence and supply agreement, so that could have been advanced at a minimum,” he says. “But I struggle when people today or officials are asking for new ideas to reduce emissions in New Zealand. This has been a debate that’s gone on for 40 years. The Greens, for example, have published screeds of policy. The ideas are out there. It’s just the political will for implementing them.”
Last month, James Shaw – a Green climate minister in a Labour government – unveiled the Emissions Reduction Plan. It marked a big moment in the history of climate change response in Aotearoa. What might Fitzsimons have made of it? “She was constantly challenging the Greens and all politicians to go further and faster, to challenge those sacred cows,” says Hughes. “We’ve really got to change stuff. We’re not here just to manage the decline of the climate and all the issues that come with that. Personally I think it was a positive start. But a small start. I was disappointed to see all the plans for plans – I think a dozen different plans – in the Emissions Reduction Plan … Again, the ideas are out there, we just need to crack on and do them.”
One of the perennial questions pitched at the New Zealand Greens is: why not fling open the doors to a conscious coupling with the National Party, and increase negotiation leverage in the process? It’s a question that gains extra currency in light of the success of the “teal independents” in the recent Australian election.
Hughes’ response is that he’d like to see less of a “tribal battle” in New Zealand, with more “working across party lines” – in pursuit of the kind of consensus politics Fitzsimons sought. As for working with National, he says the membership would find such an arrangement “anathema”, adding: “Maybe the question shouldn’t be: ‘can I imagine the Green Party changing enough to work with National?’, but ‘can I hope for a National Party to change enough to really take climate change, poverty and inequality seriously?’”
Hughes is no longer a member of the Green Party, having taken up a role leading New Zealand’s branch of an international group called the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. He’s still only 40 – would he rule out having another go at parliament? “I wouldn’t rule it out. But, boy, that was a stressful, stressful, hard decade. When I went back to research the book,” he says, gripping a fist of his own hair to the memories, “my back got sore, I started to get a headache.”
And what would he like to see the Greens do differently today? “Constantly think about the big picture,” says Hughes. “In parliament … most of the debates were about what kind of ambulance was going to be at the bottom of the cliff – a red state one, a blue privatised one, or a green electric ambulance? We really need to think big, think systems-level. And for the Green Party, whose kaupapa from 50 years ago, in the Values Party, was a fundamental transformation of what society and the economy in Aotearoa could be, my challenge would be to do well at the day-to-day politics, but really keep your eye on the big picture, keep your eye on the ball. That was this new, exciting, pioneering idea that emerged out of the 70s – we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. It’s just physically impossible.”