Jeanette Fitzsimons: The Greens turned down two chances to be in government

by Mike White / 18 April, 2017
Rod Donald and  Jeanette Fitzsimons wave their hands in the air at the Green Party Campaign Launch in July 2002. Photo / Dean Purcell, Getty Images

Former Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons reveals principles and pragmatism trumped a promotion to government.

The Greens are hoping this election will be a breakthrough for them and will finally see them become part of a government. Over the last 20 years, they’ve been spurned as coalition partners by both Labour and National and never managed to wield real influence despite being our largest minor party.

But during an interview with former Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons for North & South’s May cover story on the party, writer Mike White discovered how the Greens twice came within a whisper of being part of a government.

In 1999 the Greens had to wait two weeks until special votes were counted to confirm they’d got seven MPs, giving them the balance of power in Parliament, recalls Fitzsimons.

“The government didn’t have a majority and needed our support on confidence and supply. Helen Clark asked me to come and see her. And there was a moment in that meeting – which was very amicable – and we were talking about policies that were important to us and what we wanted the government to implement.

“There was a split-second pause where she was expecting me to say, ‘And we want ministerial portfolios.’ I was pretty inexperienced at the time but I recognised that was what was happening and that if we had gone for this, Rod [Donald] and I could have had places in Cabinet because they had no choice. They couldn’t govern without us. And I thought, well, if we do that we’ve got another five MPs who’ve never been in Parliament, coming in late, they didn’t even know where the toilets were yet, had never been welded into a team – we had brilliant individual campaigners in 99, but we didn’t really have a Green team.

“And I thought, no, Rod and I have to put our time into the caucus and build a strong Green Party in Parliament and not be the sole dissenting voices in a Cabinet that would override us anyway. So I never said what I was expected to say, and the moment passed. I think Helen was quite relieved actually.”

Instead, the Greens agreed to support the Labour government on confidence and supply, allowing Clark to govern.

“Then in 2002, if we’d been prepared to back down on the genetic engineering moratorium, we could have gone into government. There were the numbers for a Labour-Green government but we had said, ‘We will not support a government on confidence or in coalition that lifts that moratorium and allows GE crops to be grown around the country,’ which is what they were planning to do.

“Now, there were escape routes for Helen, which would have saved face and met our requirements – she could have postponed [lifting] the moratorium a bit, for example.

“This was actually quite clever PR which I wouldn’t let happen these days – they managed to paint us as having unrealistic bottom lines – it was actually them that had bottom lines. And we should have been able to turn that around but they got in first. So we were seen as unreasonable and wouldn’t go into coalition with them because we stuck to what we promised the country.

Jeanette Fitzsimons sits beside the empty seat of her former co-leader MP Rod Donald during the swearing-in ceremony at Parliament in 2005. Photo / Marty Melville, Getty Images

“But a huge amount of our support had come because of that commitment. We were on really strong scientific grounds for what we were saying and it was better to stay out of government then, than to compromise on what we went there for.

“Since then, there hasn’t been another opportunity [to form a coalition]. We were hoping in 2005 it would be a Labour-Green government. Possibly it was a mercy that it wasn’t, because in Labour’s third term they were getting tired and out of ideas and a bit unpopular and we would have had to work quite hard to give it a new life and vitality that would be popular with the public. We had ideas, how to do that, but in the end we didn’t have the numbers without the Maori Party – and Labour refused to ask the Maori Party – so they went with Winston [Peters] and Peter Dunne instead.

“I think I only realised during those negotiations that, whatever might have been said publicly, the Greens were actually last cab off the rank. We were the ones Helen most didn’t want to work with.

“Policy-wise we were far closer than either Winston or Peter Dunne. But we had a few core principles we weren’t prepared to back down on. And she knew that what really mattered to us was the substance, not the baubles. So we couldn’t be bought with baubles or positions or whatever. We wanted policies – and that was uncomfortable.”
Fitzsimons says after John Key won the 2008 election the Greens have never been invited or interested in forming a coalition with National. And that’s a situation she’s very comfortable with.

“How could you possibly go into government with a party that’s going all out on increasing fossil-fuel extraction in a climate change world? How could you go into government with a party that’s still blaming the unemployed for their unemployment, and the disadvantaged for their disadvantage? A party that really thinks climate change is something we can leave to the next generation or two to deal with, rather than something that’s really urgent that we have got to act on now? The deep-sea oil-drilling, the increased coalmining, the anti-environmental policies everywhere? I mean, where would be our meeting-ground?

“It’s not an anti-National thing – it’s just based on the policies and on what the government would be like and on what it would do. And as far as I can see, a National-led government would not do what the Greens would want to have happen.”

 Video: The Greens as you have never seen them before

Follow North & South on on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and sign up to the weekly e-mail


The art and soul of Te Papa
88235 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Arts

The art and soul of Te Papa

by Sally Blundell

Twenty years ago, Te Papa opened with little space to exhibit its national art collection. Now, it is showing off its new dedicated art space.

Read more
Does chewing more help curb your appetite?
87918 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Does chewing more help curb your appetite?

by Jennifer Bowden

Our appetite-control hormones are affected by chewing, according to some studies, whereas others show no change.

Read more
How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the crowd to queen of the stage
88396 2018-03-16 09:42:00Z Music

How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the cr…

by Vomle Springford

Auckland rapper JessB is making her mark in the male-dominated hip-hop scene with the release of her much-anticipated debut EP Bloom.

Read more
Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of military aircraft
88389 2018-03-16 07:02:40Z Politics

Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of milit…

by Craig McCulloch

Defence Minister Ron Mark is denying any inappropriate use of military aircraft after revelations he has used them to fly to and from home.

Read more
Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close to school
88387 2018-03-16 06:55:59Z Crime

Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close t…

by Eva Corlett and Sally Murphy

Corrections says it will review its processes after it was discovered 11 sex offenders were living less than a kilometre away from an Auckland school.

Read more
Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports to New Zealand
88222 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports…

by Clare de Lore

When he arrived here from Ireland in 1960, Rodney Walshe had nothing but a suit and the gift of the gab. They took him a long way.

Read more
Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming home
88378 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming hom…

by Clare de Lore

The nomadic New Zealander who’s set his sights on space travel is no longer an alien.

Read more
How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk to celebrated jeweller
88263 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z What's on

How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk …

by Mike White

The Anarchist jeweller has a remarkable show at new Te Papa gallery, Toi Art.

Read more