David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Greatest NZ stories: Following in barefoot steps of idealistic dad

Reporter David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell drove from Cape Reinga to Bluff in a Kea campervan meeting amazing Kiwis. Today the daughter of Green MP Rod Donald tells them about her father.

Do you remember where you were when you heard my father had died, asks Holly Donald, daughter of Rod.

He was only 48, so the question is fair. Few enough sitting MPs die, and Rod Donald was someone who filled politics with such colour and passion.

Holly, now 29, was in Christchurch as a university student. That night, she had come home late from work as a waitress. Her flat was largely empty. Most flatmates had gone out, the remainder were asleep.

Holly turned her mobile phone off and sat in bed eating the dessert she'd brought home from work. "The flat phone kept ringing," she says. She ignored it. It rang and rang.

See the interview with Holly Donald here.

"I turned my phone back on. It rang. It was my sister Emma." And then she learned her dad had died that evening.

"I just remember being in proper shock. I knew I couldn't drive. I woke my flatmate up and she drove me home."

Holly came home to an ambulance parked outside and Rod still in bed. She walked in as her younger sister Zoe came down the stairs, having just woken and yet to be told. Holly broke the news and then went to see her father.

"I went and sat with Dad for ages. I just wanted to hang out with him. It felt like the right thing to do."

Rod stayed at the family home in the week leading up to the funeral. Holly remembers the first night when her parents' friends gathered, all those people who had grown with the family for so long they became part of it. They sat up all night and laughed and talked, telling stories and sharing memories. The tears came just before dawn.

The funeral was held in Christchurch Cathedral, although they didn't really know what Rod had wanted, other than being buried standing up to conserve space.

They weren't sure what to plan for, or how it would unfold. As Holly says, "the Greens weren't cool then".

"It wasn't like the Prime Minister had died. It was the leader of a minor party."

Rod was taken from home into town on a bus. "Then halfway through the journey a cycle convoy joined us." When they turned into the square, it was filled with people.

Taking Rod into the packed cathedral, they were greeted by a haka from children in the entrance way. Speakers set up across the square carried the service beyond the cathedral walls. And then he was gone. The cause of Rod's death was later found to be "the most ridiculous thing", by Holly's description - a rare condition called viral myocarditis which sees a virus fatally inflame muscle tissue in the heart.

The week before her father died, there had been talk about his upcoming 50th birthday. "I had started thinking of him as an old man, and I couldn't." He was simply too young.

"I could never imagine what was going to be next for him. He was really big and I can't imagine what other kind of space he could fill."

For Holly, it took from her plans to flat with him in Wellington the following year. Having just finished a political science and mass communications degree, she was moving to Wellington to study at Victoria University and intern with the Greens.

"We'd shopped for stuff for the house. I've still got it. It's so ugly but I can't bring myself to throw it out."

Instead, Holly took a year off and stayed in Christchurch with family.

She first remembers politics in the family home during the MMP campaign. She was born in 1984, meaning she was only 5 when Rod joined the apolitical Electoral Reform Coalition in 1989 and 9 when the campaign succeeded and MMP was chosen as the new voting system in 1993.

"It wasn't long after that he joined the Alliance. And it went from there. He wanted to be an MP since he was a kid." Rod belonged to the Green Party, one of the constituent parties which made up the Alliance.

"Most of my memories of Dad from that point on was of someone who worked 100 per cent of the time. He had a cellphone strapped to his head."

The raising of the family fell to his partner, Nicola Shirlaw. "If you're in [political life] you have to hand over an element of control. So Mum was in charge because he just wasn't there enough for it to be any other way.

"I was very aware of the fact he wasn't there. I don't remember resenting it.

"For me, I know he was very good at what he did. I know he really believed in everything he did. He worked very hard." If it wasn't the case, then she'd feel differently. But her dad was driven by issues which mattered to him.

"I never questioned the time he was away because it was the right thing. He genuinely believed in what he was doing across the whole spectrum of everything he was doing."

That didn't mean it was easy, because it wasn't. When he came home, he still wasn't there. "When he was home ... he was always on the phone.

"He'd say he was coming home but he might as well have not been there. I'm sure I would have been pissed off at the time but nothing I carry with me."

It certainly wasn't easy to grow up with. "You knew he probably won't be there for your birthday. It's about having really low expectations."

Some occasions stick. "My 21st birthday got hijacked by the Brethren," she says of the 2005 election campaign, and revelations the National Party had jacked up a secret deal with the Exclusive Brethren religious group. Rod forgot he was meant to give a speech, which once remembered was delivered - another family event brought to chaos by politics.

Growing up, she always remembers there were causes and campaigns. Rod lived his politics. Holly remembers holidays to Australia away from New Zealand politics as a treasured time - but also for being able to buy Arnotts biscuits. Rod had banned the company's biscuits in New Zealand - he was all about "buy Kiwi-made". Only in Australia could you buy Australian biscuits.

When Holly said she wanted to be a checkout operator, it turned into a visit to the supermarket during which staff were quizzed about their jobs. "He got the woman at the checkout to tell me about labour conditions. The point was around fairness."

Also at the supermarket, he got jute sacks introduced. The vegetable fibre bags were more environmentally friendly than the plastic bags.

Was it embarrassing? "Oh my God yes. It took me a really long time to understand - and I'm probably still adjusting - to the meaning behind everything."

Holly's return to university the year after Rod died was confronting. During a visit to Parliament, she spoke to current Minister of Finance Bill English and retired National Party MP Katherine Rich.

"Listening to them talk, I realised how far away my politics were from them. I'm 100 per cent a product of my upbringing. I genuinely don't understand the other side."

When it was time to apply for jobs, she put an application in to the Greens. "When I was studying I always said I didn't want to work for the Greens. Pretty soon after I started here I realised I could not have worked for another party."

In Parliament's cloistered environment, some would recognise the family link and talk to her about Rod. "I like hearing things because I'm really proud of him. This is the part of him we never got to see. It's really nice coming here and for people to talk about him."

Work is a constant reminder - her job has had her literally walking in her father's footsteps. "Where [Greens co-leader] Russel [Norman] sits is Dad's office. I'm in Dad's office. I have to read Dad's speeches to work out our position on something."

Is it a way of being closer to Rod, I asked? Holly: "My sister said that last year ... I was explaining why I'm so interested in politics. And she said, have you ever thought it's a way of spending time with Dad?"

So, perhaps.

It's a different Green Party from the one Rod left, just as Holly is different from her father.

"One of the big differences between me and Dad is I'm really organised and care about how things are perceived," she says.

She remembers coming to Parliament and seeing Rod in bare feet, thinking "what are you doing?". "I thought 'why don't you look more proper?'."

The Green Party caucus room in Bowen House looks across Bowen St to the ministerial offices of the Beehive. A photograph of Rod hangs on the wall, looking over serving MPs intent on those ministerial roles. "I think he would love what [the Green Party] has become," she says.

She has no desire to be an MP. "I've always said you have to be crazy or incredibly passionate about what you're there for."

Instead, as a political and media adviser, it's her job to help take the Greens across the road to offices which her dad never held. She's writing her own story.

"I feel less and less like Rod Donald's daughter [in the workplace]. In the beginning, that was the lens people viewed me through."

At times, it hasn't been easy. "I put myself in this position. I'm proud to be Rod Donald's daughter."

Send in your stories
Do you have a great story you think Herald readers should hear?
Send it to: greatstories@nzherald.co.nz

Tomorrow: Forging of the One Ring

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf01 at 25 Oct 2014 07:15:16 Processing Time: 625ms