Gordon Campbell On Who May Succeed Jeanette Fitzsimons

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.