Interview: Green Party co-leader Russel Norman

by Fiona Rae / 07 April, 2012
How much do we know about the co-leader of our third-largest political party, asks Guyon Espiner, and how much does he want us to know?

You may well have voted for the Green Party. Almost 250,000 people cast their party vote for the Greens at the 2011 election – mostly well-educated New Zealanders from wealthier electorates. Most of those voters know little about one of the party’s two leaders, Russel Norman. And he likes it that way.

“People want to know you a little bit and I can totally understand that, right? But politicians can be pretty cynical about it and use it. I just think voters need to look at the policies.” There’s no false modesty in this. He’s the anti-celebrity politician with an A-list celebrity connection. Actress Anna Paquin is the sister of his partner, Katya. There’s about as much chance of him basking in the celebrity glow as there is of him drinking fracking fluid or slurping shark-fin soup.

“John Key does it the best of anyone in New Zealand. He is the master of it, but I think you can really focus too much on it,” he says. His voice is like him: laconic and serious, but fragile, too, as though at some point he’s going to crack and let it all out. Old parliamentary hands say it’s possible to sight glimpses of the rare and endangered Norman in his natural habitat. You might see him rolling his own durries out the back of the Backbencher pub after a couple of pints and hotly debating the pitfalls of free-trade agreements.

Mid-evening you could spot him at one of Wellington’s impossibly cool Cuba St haunts, Mighty Mighty or the Matterhorn, banging on about the importance of public broadcasting and the woeful state of the media. If you stay up really late, you might catch him with a small group of friends, standing tall with a glass of wine in hand, belting out a Henry Lawson ballad.

But this Russel Norman hasn’t come out tonight. It’s drawing close to 9.00pm on a Tuesday, a House sitting night. A lone Green Party staffer shuffles through the dimly lit reception area, returning to his crepuscular lair. Norman is alone in his office on the 14th floor of Bowen House. Outside it’s a liquid wind, a curtain of wet. He’s tired. His face is pale and his curly mop of ginger hair has flopped. He keeps glancing at the television. Lianne Dalziel is on her feet pontificating on the Search and Surveillance Bill. Mercifully, Norman has the sound down. He needs to know when debate ends in case he has to trudge down to the House to speak on a turgid Regulatory Standards Bill.

At home his partner and newborn son are waiting. He hates this job. He loves this job. He won’t do it forever. But he does it for now because he cares deeply about the issues. We know this because the issues are all he wants to talk about. Talking about himself genuinely fills him with horror, although he’s not above doing so for a good cause. He recently spoke about his battle with melanoma at the age of 15, to help raise money for Leukaemia and Blood Cancer NZ.

Norman has just returned from Japan and is somewhat matter of fact about witnessing nuclear devastation. His group gained access to the exclusion zone in Fukushima. They drove through a nuclear nightmare as the Geiger-counter whirred and beeped. “That’s what a nuclear accident looks like. Abandoned villages, a ghost town, abandoned paddy fields. You drive around and there is no one in there.” He doesn’t say: “I told you so, I knew this would happen.” But that is the feeling you’re left with.

It’s not that he lacks compassion. Norman just has that way about him. When he talks about polluted rivers, kids in poverty or climate change, he does so with a sigh, a resignation that he is part of a small group that knows the full truth and that you on the outside won’t be listening or acting until it is too late. It has a jarring effect – more so because you fear he’s probably right and that the unspoken disdain is justified.

Norman and the Green Party are all grown up. He will turn 45 in June. The party has gone from green shoots to a hardy thicket of 14 MPs. “It feels good, right? It feels really good to have a big team. To be the third-largest party,” he says. “I still think we are activists.” During the election campaign, Norman did say, though, that he wanted to “bring the party into the suburbs”. Doesn’t suburbia require a little more decorum?

“Not all activism is necessarily throwing yourself in front of a police baton,” he says, in a veiled swipe at inveterate protester Sue Bradford, who left the party, accusing it of selling out. “I don’t think that’s the only type of activism. Activism is also getting out there and holding a public meeting about fracking. Activism is about being active and trying to change things.”

Norman is surprisingly coy when confronted with his own infamous act of political theatre – the scuffle with Chinese security guards after he brandished a Tibetan flag at visiting Vice President Xi Jinping in 2010. On the TV news that night there was the gangly Green nagging at the goons in an anxious falsetto, like a teenager arguing with a bouncer. “Give me my flag back. Give me my flag back.” Would he do it again?

“Umm, yeah. I think I would. It was never my intention to become involved in the fracas that I ended up in. It was meant to be a bit more dignified,” he says. Norman may not have kept his dignity as he grappled with the Tibetan flag that day, but he has been proudly flying the Green flag for six years now, after taking on the almost impossible job of filling the big shoes of the late Rod Donald.

Norman became co-leader in June 2006, two years before he was even in Parliament. He lacks Donald’s humour and verve but has the expertise in economics and political strategy to give real heft to the Green leadership. According to his official bio, he has worked in a sheetmetal factory, on a car assembly line, doing native bush regeneration, as a tutor and on an organic farm. He also has a doctorate in politics from Macquarie University in Sydney.

Currently he’s pondering the implications of David Shearer shifting the Labour Party to the right: “I think it creates a lot of space on the progressive end of politics.” But if Labour moves closer to National to take the middle ground, the Greens may again be faced with a choice between “Coke and Pepsi”, as Norman put it when Helen Clark and Key were potential coalition partners.

Norman is not critical about Shearer but not fizzing with excitement, either. “You know he’s umm, I dealt with him over the byelection,” he says, recalling the Mt Albert contest that brought the Labour leader into Parliament. “I quite warmed to him. Obviously, he is still untested, so I don’t really know. We’ll find out. He’s committed, he’s got strong beliefs and he’s a decent person.”

Those are the attributes of Norman himself: an honest man with integrity and strongly held beliefs. When he found out that Green activists were defacing National Party billboards during the election campaign, he went public immediately and his executive assistant, whose partner co-ordinated the attacks, was stood down. Bradford thought it was a legitimate hit on the enemy and accused the Greens of “selling out their own people”. But Norman was horrified. Small roadside placards are the low-cost way for politicians to connect. Shutting down an opponent’s political message offended his sense of fair play.

Norman is at his strongest when defending democracy. He does it from Opposition and that is his attitude to government, which is where he wants to be as soon as possible. “If you want to actually change things, you need to convince people that things need to change, so if you’re a democrat you can’t just suddenly take hold of government and say, ‘Hey presto, we’ve got a majority and now we are going to do all these radical greeny things,’” he says.

“I don’t believe that is how it works. What you have to do is convince people of your green ideas, and then when you go into government, there is support for what you want to do.”

The Greens have not yet been in government, but Norman says the Greens and Labour may well present themselves as a coalition government-in-waiting as the 2014 election nears, although this still has to be worked through by both parties. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a similar possibility with National. The “highly unlikely” threshold the Greens put on a deal with National in 2011 looks like it has been raised to “not on your life”, as the Key-led Government shifts to the right in its second term.

Norman is a staunch defender of MMP and it was his strong belief in democratic principles that saw him sever his early affiliation with Marxist and Leninist political parties in favour of the Green movement. He still believes he’s an advocate for working-class people, even if they don’t vote for him.

The Greens poll best in the wealthy electorates such as Wellington Central, where they got 10,903 votes at the last election – more votes than Labour. If you doubt the rich bias among Green voters, consider this: in the country’s wealthiest electorate of Epsom, 4424 people gave their party vote to the Greens. That is more than the combined total of Green voters in the poor Auckland electorates of Mangere (962), Manurewa (995) and Manukau East (913).

Norman admits South Auckland is one of the worst-performing areas for the Greens. “There is a direct correlation between the level of Green voting and the level of educational achievement, that’s true.” So, why don’t poor and poorly educated people tend to vote for the Greens?

“A lot of people think the Greens are just about the environment and if your primary concern is survival from week to week, then it is hard to give that a lot of attention even though it is critically important to your survival. Your survival next week is not about the environment even though in the long run it really is, so I think that can make it challenging.”

So, if poor people were better educated they would realise that voting Green is good for them. Again, he doesn’t say that, and it’s unfair to paraphrase him that way. But Norman does stray into that territory at times.

Norman was almost 30 when he moved to New Zealand. He was doing his PhD on the Alliance Party and staying with mates on Waiheke Island. One thing led to another and he never left the country. He’s a Kiwi now and has adopted the moral superiority we often display when comparing ourselves with Australians.

“I think Australia is more racist than New Zealand. I think it’s true,” he says. “Not based on any survey – just my experience. Just growing up in Australia versus New Zealand.” He says Australians don’t like to talk about race in public. “Of course, in a family setting, people are quite happy to talk about race issues. And it’s not all good.”

Norman was one of six kids growing up in the Housing Commission suburbs of Northern Brisbane. Each house was much like the next. The occupants bought them from the Government with long-term mortgages and low interest rates. “We were a family that got opportunity because of education,” he says. His parents, Colin and Olive, both came from poor backgrounds. “My father got a trade and became a fitter and turner and then he became a boilermaker up in the sugar refineries in North Queensland. He came back and studied engineering at night, became a mechanical engineer, and by the time I was a teenager he was lecturing in mechanical engineering. He changed our lives and we became middle class.”

His father’s interest in politics and economics was also rubbing off on Russel. First, he joined the peace movement, then it was animal liberation and vegetarianism. He joined the Socialist Workers Party, but ultimately felt he didn’t belong. “Although I shared a lot of the values of socialism, and I still do, there were two things I wasn’t happy with, and one was around democracy. I am very wedded to democratic principles and ideals and the dictatorship of the proletariat didn’t really do it for me.

“The other was sustainability. I was of the view that the socialist movement wasn’t taking that seriously enough, and also that given that capitalism was pretty much here to stay, we had to transform capitalism.”

It’s still his mission: to transform capitalism from the 14th floor of Bowen House on Molesworth St, Wellington. He says capitalism was “humanised” between the 1930s and 1950s and “the next challenge is to green it”. It may surprise some people to learn that Norman is a capitalist at all. “I support a market economy with an important role for the state. I am not radically different from an old-style social democrat.”

He largely practises what he preaches. He walks, bikes or buses to work and “almost never” drives. He flies around the country frequently, but contributes to a carbon-offset scheme. He has to be in Auckland a lot and catching a cab into town is about the only option, although he takes the shuttle bus when his hectic schedule allows.

It’s not a pace Norman wants to keep up forever. Besides he doesn’t believe it’s healthy to stay in Parliament a long time. He wants to be a minister. Perhaps two or three terms at that, then he’ll do something else. He loves the serious stuff like campaigning for cleaner rivers and a greener economy. He hates the sideshows.

“It’s often petty. It’s often very shallow. I think the things I value and that are important are seldom reflected in legislation that passes in the House,” he says, wearily. “I don’t like spending time away from my little boy. I really miss that and my partner.” He considers himself lucky living in Wellington. “It’s easier for me than for other people, so at 10 tonight I am going to be out of here and I’m going to go home and I will see my boy, although he’ll be asleep.”

It’s nearly time for him to call it a night. Norman ushers his guest out, offering a light handshake. He grins sheepishly, uncomfortable with how much he has revealed about himself, and gently closes the door.
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