Transcript: Russel Norman

  • 31/10/2015
Transcript: Russel Norman

Lisa Owen: Good morning.

Russel Norman: Good morning.

Is it a relief you're out, or do you feel slightly panicked and a little scared about being the new guy at your next job?

It's great, yeah. I mean, it's something that I've wanted to do, so it's really great to be out. I feel like I've made a contribution and I'm really happy with that contribution, and now it's time to do something else and for someone else to take over.

So a slight sense of relief, then?

Yeah. I mean, it was hard work. It was something I really believed in, but change is good.

All right. In your valedictory speech, you said – you warned us, actually – that democracy is in danger, but is it really any worse now than it's been in the past, say, under Muldoon or all the way back to Seddon?

I don't think it's like black and white, democracy – you either have it or you don't – it's like degrees of it, and I think what we're going through at the moment is a bit of a degrading of some of our democratic culture and practices – the Official Information Act; getting access to government information is very difficult. And I also think the media's under a lot of pressure because of the cuts and the lack of resourcing for journalists. So I think those are very real issues for our democracy and the health of our democracy.

So do you think it's just a perfect storm now for that?

I think it is a real challenge. I mean, when you look at more cuts for journalists just recently… When you think about the growth of the PR industry, which is—you know, government employs hundreds of people to spin information every day versus the slow decline in the number of working journalists, I think it does make it hard for us to hold government accountable, and that's at the heart of democracy, so it's important.

Being all about democracy as you are, this is a third-term National government, so the voting population has exercised their democratic right and chosen National; they think they're the best of the country, better than the Greens and better than Labour, haven't they?

Well, that's right. So 47 percent or thereabouts voted for the National Party at the last election, so about half the country supports the government, and about half the country doesn't. And so what that means, I think, is that there's a responsibility on government to govern for everyone as much as they possibly can. And that's why having open government so people can have access to information, accountability in Parliament, a strong media that can hold government accountable, that's part of the democratic process. It's not just a plebiscite once every three years. I mean, Putin does that. That's not a democracy, right? It's about all the other things that happen in between those elections.

All right, well, I just want to reflect back how frustrating was it for you in the lead-up to the election when Labour couldn't get its act together?

Yeah, it was pretty frustrating. We were pretty up front about it at the time. I don't think we particularly hid our frustration. And it made it more challenging. I thought the Greens, we did keep it together, I thought we did quite well. We could always do better. But clearly Labour had some problems, and that was difficult.

It must drive you nuts, though, that your fortunes are tied to another party and at a vital point in time you couldn't get it together, together.

I think that's true, but the only thing I would say is that my view of politics is a little bit different as well, because I think that how… it's about people power as well as parties, you know. So when you think about the mining in national parks, we won that battle because of people power. We stopped the government mining in national parks. You think about the home insulation scheme. We got that from opposition. You think about the electrification of the Auckland rail network. We started that under Labour, and we kept the pressure up, and we got—you know, I caught the train in here this morning. It's fantastic, right? So you can achieve things in politics. Not everything is about parties. And in my view, if you look at history, all the great things that have happened have happened because of people power. So, yes, it was frustrating, I agree with you, but I also recognise there's more to it than that.

Yeah, because the power is in government, isn't it?

Some of the power is in government, but not all of it. People have power too. Because I'm going to Greenpeace, right, so I've got a certain perspective on this. Because I believe, and I've always believed this, that people have power as well and governments are forced to respond to what people think. So I also think that activism and people getting involved and 'come along to the climate march on November 28', all that kind of stuff, that's really important too.

But how much do you think it cost you – the fact that you couldn't put a united front forward with Labour? How much did it cost you, and how much is it still costing the Greens now?

There's no question that it was a problem, right, but part of it is that it also was so much simpler on the National Party side, because it's, like, there's going to be National Party government. Whereas on our side, it was a partnership, right. You have to show that you can be an effective partnership. And so it was a more complex thing to do. On the other hand, wouldn't you rather have a government which is a partnership? It's not just one party controlling everything. And in some ways there's a benefit in that, but we were unable to present that government-in-waiting, which I think was needed. And I think that that's a fair criticism.

Because people like stability, don't they? And they were looking if — if they were looking — for a stable alternative and they couldn't see one.

I think it's a fair criticism, you know? I mean, you know, you don't always achieve everything you set out to achieve in politics.

So you get it, but does Labour get that yet?

Well, I think some in Labour definitely get it, and some in Labour think, 'Well, maybe this third party, cos we grew this Green Party.' And the experience of a lot of Labour MPs, they started out when the Greens were irrelevant, and they've had to accommodate the growth of the Green Party. I mean, we doubled the vote over the time I was co-leader, me and all those other people. And so Labour have had to accommodate that, and some of them do, and some of them still struggle with it.

So do you think there'll be a bigger accommodation? As a side-line political commentator now, will there be a bigger accommodation coming up to the next election, then?

I think so, because as you get a new cohort of Labour MPs each time, they're just used to the Greens, and they're used to MMP. There's a whole bunch of MPs now who have never lived in anything except MMP, and they're very comfortable with it.

Okay. So which Labour leader did you most like working with? Cos there's been a few.

Yeah, I had five. And working with Helen Clark was very interesting. You know, she was very challenging, but I mean, I really enjoyed the interaction with her. She's really razor sharp, and she was in a position of power. The argument over the electrification of the Auckland rail network, that was really interesting. And so the Greens and all the Green movement, working with that, we achieved that, but it was hard work. And then in terms of opposition, David Shearer and I got on really well. I thought that was a very positive thing. But you know, they were all good people. They're all good people.

Did they roll him too soon? Because your fortunes were rising then if you look back at the numbers. So did they roll him too soon?

Absolutely. I mean, I've said this to them. There's no question. That was a mistake getting rid of Shearer, no question about it. At that stage, the Greens plus Labour were leading. I mean, we were looking at a very good position at that point.

For a mistake that you think could've changed the course of the election?

I think it could well have changed the course of the election. I do believe that. I think they made a mistake. But you know, that's politics.

Well, what about Winston Peters? Is there bad blood between you guys?

Well, we got a bit of bad blood over the privileges thing, about the donation and all that kind of stuff, the privileges hearing into Winston. And that didn't put us in a good footing. (LAUGHS) But since then, you know, we've had common ground on all manner of things. Even though we disagree about some important issues, there's a lot of overlap.

Because he does love to bag a Green when he gets the chance.

He does. He does. But, you know, that's— I don't mind that either. He's allowed. It's politics, it's a democracy.

Okay. Well, you talked about politics in your speech in the sense that you said, and I'm quoting you here, 'I do think that those in power often have a vested interest in telling you lies.' So have you had to finesse the truth, fudge things a little bit during your time in politics? Tell a couple of lies?

I haven't had to tell lies, but I think that any person presents their case as best they can and tries to underline what they think is their best stuff and hope people don't see the bad stuff. So, of course, you do that kind of thing. But I think that we played it pretty straight. I mean, I think the Green Party's played it pretty straight, when I was co-leader, in terms of communicating what we were on about. You think about that billboard incident in the election where one of our supporters vandalised the National Party billboards. We just went straight to the media as soon as we found out and we told everything we knew about it. And I think people respected us for that. It's like, it wasn't a good story for us, it was a bad story, but we told the truth about it as soon as we knew about it.

So do you have any regrets, then?

I don't have any regrets. I mean, for me, I was very interested in building a progressive political force in politics and making it strong, and I think we've done that. I'm very focused going forward in terms of building people power, and Greenpeace is all about making sure that people have a real pressure on politics. And so we're running a big campaign about tuna, for example, at the moment. It's headquartered out of Auckland. The international tuna campaign for sustainable tuna is being run right here in Auckland, and we'll be running more campaigns on deep-sea oil drilling, and we'll also be looking at water and those issues around that. So—

Well done for squeezing that in.

Don't think it's really important, but politics is more than just political parties. It's about people. I believe that.

I do want to ask you about Greenpeace. So you're off to Greenpeace now. You've talked about the depth of journalism and things and a democracy, but Greenpeace is an organisation that gets publicity through stunts, you know? And that doesn't seem to be you, because during your time in parliament, that's the bit you didn't appear to enjoy — the sort of stunts and the sound bites, that side of politics. But this organisation has garnered publicity through stunts.

They're not just stunts. Can I—? Let me challenge the word 'stunts'. Because when you obstruct, say, Shell—

Climbing parliament.

Yeah, or like Shell. When Shell tried to, you know, drill in the Arctic, basically Greenpeace threw itself in the cogs of that machine and slowed it down. Didn't stop it, right — eventually, we did stop it through public pressure, but the actions themselves slowed it all down and did draw attention to it, I absolutely agree with you. And that's very important, but, you know, when I did my dirty rivers tour going around the country and paddling all those rivers, the thing that was great about that was that I was meeting local people who are real heroes, because they were standing up, often in rural communities, for water-quality issues where they might have the big dairy company that's not very happy about them standing up for it, and it was very, very inspiring to connect with those people doing those on-the-ground kind of actions. So, yeah, the actions are important.

There's something more behind than the action.

Yeah, that's right.

Hey, we're out of time, but I just want to ask you quickly — could you ever conceive of going back to parliament?

I don't think so, no. I'm very happy. I feel like I made a good contribution, and now I want to do something else.

You look very relaxed. You're not worried about Auckland house prices now that you live here?

Oh, boy. It's out of control.

All right. Thanks for joining us this morning. That's Russel Norman.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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