Russel Norman had many talents as co-leader of the Green Party. He was articulate, sharp and combative and schooled himself in economic policy alongside the environmental and social specialties of his caucus. Armed with a political science doctorate and a good dose of Australian confidence he could communicate well in debate and in soundbites. He seemed happy to share leadership with his two co-leaders.
In his time, the Greens clearly confirmed itself as the third party of New Zealand politics, ahead of the likes of New Zealand First, to sit around 10 per cent in the past two elections, and vied with Labour for leadership on issues such as asset sales.
Yet, for all that promise, the party has never served in government. As Dr Norman announced his departure yesterday, the Greens were entering their umpteenth year in Opposition. It has advanced some policies, notably home insulation, with governments led by Labour and National but has otherwise been unable to put its policies directly into action.
In the election campaign just gone, Dr Norman was taken by TVNZ news to have made a late hint that the Greens could find some ground to work with National. While that was officially denied, he certainly spoke with enough ambiguity to suggest flexibility was on his mind. But of course nothing came of that. The Greens, who had confidently talked of 15 per cent of the vote, had to settle for 10 per cent and Dr Norman's hopes of being a finance minister in a Labour-Greens-led coalition were as far away as ever.
Immediately after that poll, debate began over whether the Greens ought to focus more on their environmental policies rather than seeking to be the flag carrier for left-wing social platforms. Could an environmental party position itself more to the political centre and find ground to work with either of the major parties of the left and right? The answer, publicly at least, was that environmental and social policies are inseparable; that the Greens are not for turning.
If Dr Norman has a personal flaw as a leader it is an inability to mask a general impatience or irritation with his fellow New Zealanders when they don't see the rightness of his and his party's arguments. When Green views on the Dirty Politics allegations, on John Key's crony capitalism, on higher taxes for the wealthy were not generally endorsed by the votes, there was no Andrew Little-esque acceptance of the public will. Shortly after the new government was elected, Dr Norman was back into television soundbites personally, tenuously blaming Mr Key for that day's controversy.
Dr Norman will leave the leadership with his party in no worse position than he found it. The Greens have a number of able, male MPs who can contest the vacant gender-specific chair. Kevin Hague, a former health board executive and activist, and Dr Kennedy Graham, a former diplomat, present well and are experienced in the House. Co-leader Metiria Turei had a strong campaign last year. She has personal warmth and communicates effectively.
The party's broader challenge is whether to remain in competition or co-operation with Labour on the left or to focus tightly on environmental progress which either end of the political spectrum could endorse in a coalition negotiation. Dr Norman's ambiguous hint was too little, too late.