Interview: Jeanette Fitzsimons, Green Party co-leader

Jeanette Fitzsimons, Green Party co-leader spoke this week with Herald political journalist Kevin Taylor. An edited version of this interview was published in today's Weekend Herald.

Why vote Green at this election when that risks reducing Labour's chances of being the party with the most seats in the next Parliament - and thus its chance of being the party with first right to form a Government?

Not voting Green in this election risks Labour not having a sensible coalition partner or being forced into the arms of Winston Peters. Voting Green is the only vote that is going to deliver a Green Labour Government, because no other party will tell you who they're going to work with.

Do you think voters have really got the message that a vote for the Greens is a vote for a Labour-led Government, or has the bickering between you two simply left voters confused?

We've been saying it now for two years; I think the message is getting across but that's what the next six weeks are about, of course, is making sure that it does get across. I don't think we've been bickering. I think we've been criticising them when their policies weren't up to it and supporting them when they were.

Do you ever regret the fallout with Labour over GM which resulted in Labour going with United Future? In retrospect was the cost in terms of the wider centre-left agenda too large regardless of the merits of your stance on GM?

There was no way that the Greens could have been in Cabinet when the moratorium was lifted and applications were allowed for the release of GE, and kept any integrity at all or any confidence from our voters. For all we knew there was actually going to be a full-scale release once that moratorium came off and we just had to be the principled thing even though it cost us a lot.

This time GM is not the big issue, but you would still oppose its release into the environment. How far would you take that opposition - to the extent of withdrawing confidence and supply?

There's no imminent risk of GE release because there are no applications even in the pipeline and no-one that's known to be wanting to be putting anything in, so it seems unlikely that that is going to come up in the next few years.

If it does the Greens will put everything into opposing the release of GE into our environment. Without knowing the precise circumstances I can't tell you any more than that.

Why are you avoiding making bottom-lines this time?

Last election was a very particular circumstance. There was an imminent threat that we wanted to avoid and that was the one time in history when that bottom line could be set. That is not the situation now.

Every party actually has lots of bottom lines. Labour has told us they have heaps of bottom lines. But this time we don't see one particular issue that is likely to be a coalition breaker in the sense that we can't negotiate some progress towards our agenda.

Of all the Green Party's key policies, which can you therefore guarantee you will deliver in Government?

I think you can anticipate that the Greens in Government would deliver a lot of progress towards more sustainable energy use, preparing for rising oil prices, environmental progress in the sense of cleaning up our water and our air, a better deal for students and young graduates - our policy is still the strongest and obviously we'd be negotiating around that.

Some improvements for the poorest members of our society and some improvements in health and safety of food for our kids.

How essential is it that you go into a formal coalition this time with Labour. Is this election the Greens last chance of making it into Government for a while given things will inevitably shift to the centre-right?

The Green movement is around for the long term and nothing is ever the last chance. We are ready I think for the responsibilities of Government.

We have eight experienced MPs returning and some very high-quality candidates coming in behind them, so this would be a good time for us to take greater responsibility in a Government.

But what happens after the election will be based on what is best for New Zealand and for the long-term future of the Green Party. There's no mad rush to go into Government at any price.

What would you want to see in a coalition agreement?

We would want to see substantial progress on a range of Green policies so that our supporters would feel, yes this Government is delivering quite a bit of what the Greens have been campaigning for.

And we would want to see a working relationship between Labour and the Greens based on trust and where there is a process that will work for dealing with the inevitable difficulties that come up during the term of a coalition. So it is about process as well as about the policy outcomes.

If a deal meant ministerial portfolios, what would the Greens want?

There are quite a lot of portfolios that the Greens could handle and I don't intend to litigate them through the media in advance. I think it's pretty clear that we've got a number of capable people that could do a range of different portfolios and we just have to wait and see.

What mechanisms would you want in the arrangement so that you do not suffer the same fate as the other minor parties who have gone into coalition?

The other parties who've gone into coalition and virtually disappeared have not had a really clear brand. They've been kind of, well if you take the Alliance they wanted to be more Labour than Labour, but they were on the same continuum.

If you take United Future they just wanted to be centre, and the centre of the road is a very crowded place where you tend to get run over.

The Greens have got a very identifiable brand and a philosophy that is different from other parties, so I don't think there's the same risk of us being swallowed up and disappearing. And we would expect in coalition never to have to hide what we really thought about things.

But the question is what mechanisms you would want in the arrangements so that you don't get buried? You must have a clause for example that allows you to speak out when you need to?

Well the Cabinet Manual now has a clause that allows partners to agree to disagree and even to vote separately. I think that's got to be used with great caution and very sparingly, but I think it is a good safeguard for those rare cases where it's too important just to compromise.

I think also a mistake that the Alliance made in coalition was that their supporters never knew whether they'd put up a fight in Cabinet and lost on an issue or whether they'd never even put up a fight.

I think there's nothing in Cabinet solidarity or the Cabinet Manual that prevents you from going to the public when an issue's being debated and saying, look this is our view, we argued it all the way through in Cabinet, we didn't have the numbers, we lost.

That's democracy and as part of a government we have to live with that, but we tried. And I think the public will accept that, that even if some cherished policy you don't succeed, well the answer in a democracy is, well give us more votes next time and we will.

Would you be willing to work in a four-way arrangement with Labour, United Future, and Progressives if necessary?

I don't think it will come to that, and it's certainly not our preference, but we haven't ruled out any relationship that is based on a policy that we can sign up to.

It's not about the people or the position, its about the policy platform. And if they're prepared to sign up to a policy platform that were prepared to sign up to then yes, of course, we'd give it a go.

Could you work with New Zealand First as a partner in Government?

Well the same applies to that, if they're prepared to sign up to the policies. I guess if you have several parties in Cabinet, they've got their different portfolios, they're pursuing what they want to do in those portfolios according to a platform that everyone's agreed to.

If you can't reach agreement on that basic platform then you don't form a government.

Your polling has you above the all-important 5 per cent threshold in some polls, but below in others. Given you have no backstop electorate seat to fall back on, how confident are you of getting over the threshold?

Oh, I don't really think there's a risk of not getting over the threshold.

You were Coromandel's MP 1999 to 2002. Why not try to win it again to give the Greens some insurance if the worst happened?

Small parties don't win seats unless their party support is highly concentrated in a few places. The Green support is probably more evenly spread through the country geographically and demographically than any other party.

So winning Coromandel was one of those rare instances where circumstances all came together, an unpopular National Government, an unpopular National MP, Labour nowhere to be seen, hadn't tried for decades, and I was a clear second and we made it a two-party race.

The moment Labour decided that they wanted to be in with a chance, too, and put up a different candidate and campaigned at the last election to take the seat off me, it became a three-way race and I can't win a three-way race.

You have put much store in campaigning on an oil shortage being just over the horizon. Why are voters not responding?

The public are responding very strongly to that message. I'm not sure they're linking it with the way they vote and I guess that's our job in the next six weeks.

But the meetings I've been doing around the country on that issue of the end of cheap oil and rising oil prices and oil depletion have been as well attended as the ones that I held on GE some years ago, in quite small places, quite surprising turnouts.

The public are concerned and they're intensely interested in what they can do in their lives to prepare and also in what we should be doing as a country to prepare. And I haven't found naysayers at the meetings.

People see this as credible, they look at the overseas evidence, they look at the people who've had a lifetime in the oil industry who are saying this and they are saying yeah, we'd better take notice. The skeptics are all in this place (Parliament).

Retiring Green MP Ian Ewen-Street delivered a warning recently that the party was sending confused messages to voters and it was at a crossroads over how it presented itself. Do you agree with that?

No, I don't, and neither does the rest of the caucus or the party. There are a few people in the Greens who are uncomfortable with the idea that we are not solely an environmental party.

We have never been solely an environmental party, neither was the Values Party before us. We were founded on four principles: ecology, social justice, democracy and peace. Those four principles underpin everything we do.

Are the Greens anything more than a bunch of single issue causes masquerading as a political party?

Well this is Conservation Week and the theme of Conservation Week this year is all things are connected. The connections between those four principles are extremely strong. You cannot protect the planet's ecosystem if you ignore the face of people; they've got to go together.

The same forces that are destroying the environment are the forces that discriminate against people, drive down their wages, and cause social harm. And they are the same forces that lead to war. So those four principles, it's very hard to see how any of them can work without the others.

Why are you pushing marijuana law reform when there's certainly no will in Parliament for it, and it risks being a vote-loser for you?

Our assessment is that we could get a majority in Parliament for Nandor's new bill, which is a softer approach than we've been talking about previously and which treats a marijuana offence as an infringement offence, rather than a criminal conviction.

So we do think that there will be a majority for that. Helen Clark herself has in the past advocated that approach to drugs. It's part of our overall message that marijuana is a health issue not a criminal justice issue, and that we have to focus on preventing the abuse not on locking people up.

Things like the Supreme Court and Maori TV are only law because of the Greens support, yet you've had absolutely no recognition. Given that, hasn't it been a frustrating three years for you?

Opposition is always more frustrating than being in a position of influence, and that's what we are hoping to change.

You and Rod Donald are co-leaders of the party and have been for several years. If you or he left, would such a co-leaders arrangement continue?

Yes it would. The party has a strong commitment to shared positions and to gender balanced positions, although in a way that's kind of less necessary than it was because it happens automatically. Our list is gender-balanced without anybody having to make it that way, just because that's the way our members voted.

Is this your last election as co-leader?

I haven't made any decisions about the future. Apart from this current cold I'm in excellent health with plenty of energy, and enjoying my job. I'm looking forward to this election and to the next term and after that, who knows. I make each decision as it comes.

Who would you see as future co-leader material or leadership material in the party?

I can see quite a few at the moment and it would be more than my job is worth to start picking on one at this stage.

So no names?

Absolutely no names.

* Greens co-leader Rod Donald was in Australia when this interview was conducted.

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