Greens' Russel Norman - a reluctant leader

GREEN MACHINE: Russel Norman seems at home guiding a tour through Wellington’s Zealandia – but says he stepped ‘‘outside my comfort zone’’ to co-lead a Green Party which was in a ‘‘huge crisis’’.
GREEN MACHINE: Russel Norman seems at home guiding a tour through Wellington’s Zealandia – but says he stepped ‘‘outside my comfort zone’’ to co-lead a Green Party which was in a ‘‘huge crisis’’.

‘Introverted, shy' Russel Norman has found himself in charge of a political party but, as he took part in our series following the party leaders at play, he jokes that he's still not sure he wants to be a politician. STEVE KILGALLON reports. 

It's eight years since Russel Norman became leader of the Green Party. His charismatic, much-loved predecessor, Rod Donald, had died. At the election a year earlier, the Greens had won just six seats. In Norman's own words, the party was in a "huge crisis".

Norman, a med-school dropout, former factory worker, communal farmer and politics PhD student, felt there were no "standout options" to replace Donald.

With care, he says the most obvious candidate, dope-smoking Rastafarian Nandor Tanczos, had great qualities and was very intelligent, but would have left them "painted into a corner through no fault of Nandor's". In essence, he felt compelled to take on a job he probably didn't really want: Norman is no campaign-trail baby-kisser.

"I'm not exactly the most outgoing or extroverted kind of person in any respect whatsoever," says Norman. "I am always more happy, generally, and certainly in previous lives, just to support other people from behind the scenes. But it became clear I needed to do something that was outside my comfort zone."

The reluctant leader has been cornered in something close to his natural habitat - we're taking a walk through Zealandia, a fenced nature reserve 3 kilometres from Wellington city centre. Originally, we were scheduled to go snorkelling, but the poor weather forecast has diverted us here. Norman has a season pass (and one for the zoo), primarily to give his three-year-old eldest son somewhere to run. Today he's tired: his two boys didn't sleep well last night (so nor did he), but he has energy enough for a brisk walk and a two-hour conversation.

An assured, considerate guide, he points out "crazy-looking" takahe, "cute" geckos, kaka and bellbirds with affection, talking about the history of the place and drifting from there into his long-running water pollution campaign.

Earlier interviewers found Norman spiky (I didn't), defensive, even shy.

"I am still basically an introverted, shy person who is happiest doing my own thing," he confirms. "But you learn to do other things. So I think I've learned to be more outgoing and tried to learn how to be a better communicator." At this, he points out a tuatara.

So what was the moment when he decided to become a politician? "I haven't had that moment yet," he offers, drily.

Yes, he says, there would still be room for a "super-bright" guy like Tanczos in Norman's modern Green Party. But. Well, but "we have worked really hard for people to understand that we are a professional outfit that knows what they are doing and they can vote for us with confidence".

At its heart is Norman's sober, understated pragmatism, which belies a background in political activism. He's clear about where he needs to position the Greens to win votes, and he talks with enthusiasm about the backroom policy brawls with both Labour and National to secure victories in areas such as home insulation.

Having established he's not deeply excited by leadership, it seems he's not particularly interested in power either. It is, he says, "simply a mechanism to achieve good things".

The Greens' focus is change, he says. That change could even be achieved by their subsumation by a larger party adopting their ideals. "Sure - that's winning. If you're aiming to produce real change, policy change and good change, that's what winning means, not how many MPs you've got."

At present, he notes, the major parties are resistant and the Greens need good numbers in Parliament. He's bullish. Labour's refusal to include them in their

2005 coalition still colours his attitude ("what it said was Labour put power before all else, and so it was a good lesson") but this isn't 2005 and Winston Peters cannot stand over them. The speedbump, admittedly, is the Internet-Mana "circus" and Norman says his visit to the Dotcom mansion to persuade the him not to launch his own party has been justified.

But their long-term rise is, he believes, inexorable. "Either the bigger parties will accommodate us, in the sense they will adopt our ideas, which is great, I don't care, but if they fight us, eventually we will overwhelm them and become much bigger than them. One way or the other, the world will change . . . climate change ain't disappearing and every time there is a big weather event or the sea level rises, it's apparent that people like John Key are taking us down the wrong track."

There is this recurrent sense he feels that activists have always had the foresight, but had to wait patiently for everyone else to catch up. When he mentions the Gulf War, there's an aside - "man, we were so totally right about that".

Yes, he says, his history in socialist movements is held against him but he doesn't hide it and isn't embarrassed by it. "John Key didn't know what side he was on. But we did," he says.

He's proud of an activist career which began with schoolboy protests against chicken cages and factory farming and progressed to anti-apartheid marches, Gulf War protests and support for change in East Timor, West Papua and Tibet (remember the flag-snatching protest against the Chinese in 2010? Yeah, he says, he got it back).

"You're only here for a short time," he says. "Do you want to want to make a difference with your time or not? We're gonna be dead real soon; we're all gonna be dead real soon."

Norman's late father, Col, was a defining influence. A fitter and turner who studied for his boilermaker's ticket, then put himself through an engineering degree and then became a mechanical engineering lecturer (and later took a science masters while studying economics on the side). "From sheer will, he was able to make a huge difference to his life," his son says. But Col's self-improvement was unpopular with Norman's grandmother, Stella, who didn't agree with Col thrusting his family into poverty so he could study.

Russel grew up in a Housing Commission home in suburban Brisbane, the youngest of six. Somewhere between his eldest sister, Linda, 15 years his senior, and him, they became middle-class. He was the first to go to university after his father. While they never left that home, "never had anything fancy", Norman has no stories of poverty to rival his elder siblings' tales of eating only porridge when the money ran out. All, he considers now, are middle-class like him (respectively, a teacher, roadworker, builder, fitter and turner and an administrator), but had tougher roads there than he did. "I was incredibly lucky and incredibly grateful," he says.

His was the generation given opportunities to break out. Now, he says, "this is Great Gatsby right before our eyes" and rails against the inequality that makes it so much more difficult for his present-day counterparts to fulfil their potential. This is why, he says, the Greens cannot extricate the social conscience from the environmental.

From his dad, he got an interest in learning how things work (Norman and his brothers were always tinkering with cars on the back lawn) and a distaste for the Labor Party his father developed after the Australian branch's rightward shift in the 1980s. He also inherited a fascination with acquiring knowledge - if there's one thing he enjoys about leadership (and there may not be too many), it's this: "I really love the freedom to learn. One of the great beauties of this job is I can ring up just about anyone and say, ‘hey I am interested in what you're doing' and they will talk to me."

Norman's CV is chequered. He dropped out of a medical degree halfway, the right decision, he says, but definitely not a waste of time. Various jobs culminated in 18 months in Adelaide, where he'd gone to chase a girlfriend. He worked at the Mitsubishi car factory, fitting the same part every 90 seconds. "After a while, you realise this isn't what you want to do for the rest of your life. Or at least I did. You start to feel like a cog in a machine. It's quite an experience."

So, after an invitation from a mate from the Gulf War protests, he ended up on a communal farm on Waiheke Island writing a PhD on the Alliance Party (a "fascinating" episode in political history, he says).

After five years on Waiheke, he shifted to Wellington, but just as he's unsure when he decided to become a politician, he's not sure whether there was a conscious decision to stay there. "Life is the thing that happens to you while you're making plans."

The only question he can't answer is what job he would do instead of this one. He certainly seems at home at Zealandia.

Having been stopped several times by supporters, and run into a friend of his, who detours us off track to show off a pair of rare native pateke ducks, we adjourn for lunch (Norman has a salad and slab of - I think - kumara, most of the menu off-limits thanks to a recent coeliac diagnosis).

Another civilian approaches, launching a confusing, double-headed question about cheap student bus tickets and the Transmission Gully road building project. Norman downs fork, and handles the attention deftly. "I used to get away with it [not being recognised], cos I'm kinda a generic-looking white guy, middle-aged, middle-class looking white guy and there are a lot of us around," he considers. "But it's starting to kinda stick."

Sunday Star Times