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

by Mike White / 18 April, 2017

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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

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