Gordon Campbell on the Russel Norman resignation

While not the decisive factor, last year’s election result must have made it easier for Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman to finally call it a day. After three years of solid campaigning on social justice, economic and environmental issues – and amidst another round of self-destruction by Labour, its ally and rival on the centre-left – the Greens had realistically expected to end up close to 15 % on election day. Instead, it barely held its own, and failed to increase its vote.

This would have been an especially bitter result for Norman. For the past six years, Norman has been the de facto leader of the Opposition – especially after Labour lost the plot with a series of inept leaders and a chronic identity crisis about what, if anything, it now stood for. In 2015, the future for the Greens still looks somewhat bleak, as was underlined in this recent 3News-Reid Research poll. The poll had a slightly resurgent Labour Party gaining four points, apparently at the expense of New Zealand First and the Greens, who dropped below their election night result, into single figures.

At the very least, Norman would have been facing three further years in Opposition – and quite possibly six more years – in a co-dependent relationship with Labour. If a Labour Party led by Andrew Little is to succeed this will, in all likelihood, continue to be partly at the expense of the Greens. (Under Little, Labour still shows no sign of making any inroads among National supporters.) That’s the dilemma the Greens face. It seems they can aspire to the heady heights of 15% plus only in a context where Labour fails utterly, and the centre-left remains in Opposition. Conversely, if Labour is to flourish and win power, then 10-12% of the vote looks very much like the natural ceiling for the Greens. That’s a daunting prospect for any Greens Co-Leader, well before you factor in what life would be like as a junior partner in a government led by a Labour Party that has never been renowned for its tolerance of dissent, or for showing respect to its allies.

In brief, Norman was facing – after nine years in the job – a significant further period in Opposition, in unceasing toil. A bit like Sisyphus in the Greek myth who was punished to roll a huge boulder uphill, only to see it roll back down again and be forced to start again. For any parent with a young family – and Norman and his partner Katya Paquin now have three pre-school children – you would have to wonder whether there weren’t more rewarding ways of spending your life.

His likely successor – Kevin Hague – will face the same problems after Norman has stepped down in May. At the moment, Hague is not confirming whether or not he is a contender, but the cupboard is not exactly full of other options. (It would be theoretically possible for the Greens to elevate talented new MP James Shaw, but unlikely.) In the meantime, Norman will continue as Co-Leader and as the Greens’ finance spokesperson.

When the party annual conference in May anoints the new leader however, there is a compelling argument for Norman to relinquish that finance role as well, in favour of Shaw. Not only would that help ensure that Hague is not upstaged by his predecessor, but the finance role would provide a useful platform for Shaw to lift his national profile, and widen his support base within the party. Hague would bring his own skills to the job. He is a solid performer and a good off-the-cuff public speaker, with prior senior management experience in public health. Hopefully, under Hague and Metiria Turei, the Greens might be able to gain some added traction with voters on health issues.

Still, Norman will be sorely missed. The Green Party – and Parliament- will be the poorer for losing his incisive debating skills, and his ability to launch credible attacks on the government’s economic and environmental settings. He has earned a break. The social demands of being Co-leader – the enforced bonhomie with journalists etc – often seemed like a conscious effort for him. In that respect, the grumpiness detected by some commentators post-election was not an aberration, but a sign of his natural tendency not to suffer fools gladly. All up, Norman’s departure does look like it is occurring at the right time, and for the right reasons.

In future, the interesting contrast – or lack of one – will be between Hague and Andrew Little. After May, it seems that the centre-left will be led by two quite similar political personalities – Little and Hague are both plain-talking, uncharismatic and capable managerial types with a good deal of integrity. The “loony left” label will be hard to apply to them. Yet the edgy intelligence that enabled Norman to reach younger, normally apolitical voters will be missing – at least until Shaw has earned his spurs.

Catton Footnote
Now that the high drama of the Eleanor Catton incident has receded, maybe we should be asking ourselves what form our support for the arts should take. Somehow, dishing our prizes for any form of art – or for journalism – has always seemed a very odd thing to do. It rarely brings out the best in people, much less reward the best in art.

Prizes for film, music, painting and writing serve to force what is literally incomparable, onto a competitive grid. They are mainly about marketing, and serve as means of directing art consumers towards the cash register. For that reason though, credibility suffers from the endless process doling out of prizes. If artists (and journalists) want to critique the dire effects of profit-driven markets on society, they can hardly do so credibly when they’re operating a winner-take-all reward system of their own, to determine who is the certified top dog in their line of work.

Vanity and an endless need for self-assurance feed the whole process of prize giving in the arts and journalism, and it is not pretty to watch. So, by all means, give grants to artists, but lets leave the prizes and the gold medals to the athletes. Years ago, Monty Python conveyed the absurdity of confusing the two realms.