Nine years after his colourful entrance to Parliament, Nandor Tanczos today farewells his colleagues. Martin Kay talks to the MP who, if nothing else, proved you should never judge a book by its cover.
He has dreadlocks down to his ankles, regularly uses cannabis and cut his political teeth in the world of environmental activism and cruise missile protest camps.
His maiden speech to Parliament began with greetings in the name of the Creator, the Most High Jah Ras Tafari, he was stomped on by Melbourne cops during an anti-globalisation protest a few months later, and he is probably the only New Zealand MP investigated by police for drugs.
But beyond the turban and the wispy Bob Marley-style beard, the hemp suits and the skateboard, he has proved to be more earnest and bookish than the radical rabble-rouser many stereotyped him as. More bespectacled than wild-eyed, pensive rather than raving, Nandor Tanczos has turned out to be . . . well, a bit nerdy, really.
Nine years after he came into Parliament on the Greens' list, New Zealand's first Rastafarian MP will farewell his colleagues today and head to the trees to ponder where to next.
Even those who most despised and feared his nonconformity – he came to Parliament strongly advocating cannabis law reform and direct-action protests – would have to concede he leaves behind a mild, even sensible, legacy.
It includes negotiating the creation of an independent body to investigate abuse of prisoners and a select committee inquiry on the rights of crime victims. He spurred the Government into allowing the commercial cultivation of hemp – versatile, but banned as a relative of cannabis – inspired a law allowing minor criminals to expunge their records after seven years, and took the controversial waste minimisation bill inherited from former colleague Mike Ward to the point where Labour adopted it as its own.
That is not to say Mr Tanczos has shed the more radical views that spooked conservatives when he first came to Parliament – he still believes cannabis should be decriminalised and would no doubt be first to chain himself to a bulldozer – rather, that he has learned to pick fights he can win.
"The reality is in Parliament that you can only do what you can get support for. I faced a lot of prejudice and stereotyping when I went to Parliament, and I think one of the things that has happened is that a lot of those stereotypes – at least among my parliamentary colleagues – have dwindled away.
"I went into Parliament, I think, with a pretty realistic idea of what it was like. People often ask me if I've become cynical about it and I don't feel like I had any illusions. It hasn't been like I've expected to be able to achieve more."
Mr Tanczos' entry to Parliament was the culmination of an interest in politics, social justice and activism that began around the family breakfast table.
The son of a Hungarian father and a mixed-race South African mother, he moved from Britain to New Zealand with his family at seven and grew up in a politically aware, though not politically aligned, home.
At high school, an interest in punk rock music led to an interest in anarchy, and he was drawn to the anti-cruise missile protest camps when he later spent time in Britain.
He has a social science degree from Waikato University, along with other qualifications, and joined the Greens in the mid-1990s. In 1999, he led the youth Wild Greens, who were accused of a $430,000 raid on GE crops at Lincoln University six months before the election.
Nine years on, he refuses to confirm or deny whether he was involved in the attack, though police found no evidence against him.
He is less coy about his cannabis use – the issue which, rightly or wrongly, overshadowed his time as an MP.
In 2003, he was investigated by police after NZ First MP Craig McNair complained about public admissions that he used cannabis as part of his Nazarite Rastafarian faith.
The lengthy investigation resulted in no charges as police were unable to pinpoint specific dates, times and places needed to prosecute.
Mr Tanczos, 42, says he still uses the drug "regularly, but sparingly", but insists if that is the issue that defines him for some, it is their problem.
"It dominated, certainly, the coverage of me for a number of years, and I'm sure still dominates some people's thinking. Yes, I still use cannabis. It's a sacrament of my faith, as far as I'm concerned. It's, if you like, a religious right guaranteed under international human rights conventions. It continues to be illegal, but nevertheless, it's my human right to practise my faith."
But his strong support for cannabis law reform hurt his political career.
Though the Greens back a law change, Mr Tanczos' vocal advocacy caused tension as the party sought to broaden its support in 2005, and he was dropped from fourth to seventh on the list.
The demotion meant he missed out on a seat as the Greens scraped home, but he was returned two months later after the sudden death of co-leader Rod Donald.
He was jolted and asked not to be given the cannabis law reform portfolio, fearing stereotyping of him was clouding the issue.
Further political maturing followed as he prepared a carefully argued strategy for the Greens positioning themselves to work with both National and Labour – anathema to its hard left, but essential to long-term survival.
The strategy was central to his campaign for the vacant co-leadership spot – and has since been championed by eventual winner Russel Norman, who takes Mr Tanczos' seat next week.
Mr Tanczos' decision to go comes after he courted further controversy by staying till the way could be cleared for Dr Norman – a process that involved convincing a reluctant Mr Ward to stand aside.
Mr Tanczos says he only ever intended to stay for three terms, and though he would have kept on had he won the co- leadership, he is looking forward to exploring other avenues.
"Parliamentary work is very abstract in the sense that we're creating laws and we're creating opportunities and spaces for people. But in terms of actually practically building anything, it's always up to someone else, so I'm quite looking forward to getting my fingers in the soil again . . . seeing some real things come to fruition and getting back involved in grassroots activity and community activity.
"It's a good time for me to take a little while and take stock and take myself somewhere kind of away from people and just sit down and clear my head . . . I really need to meditate and seek some spiritual guidance.
"I like to think that I've changed Parliament, but I think it's also true that Parliament's changed me – for the good and the bad.
"I've got a huge new experience and I've learnt an enormous amount and I've developed skills in negotiating . . .
"In terms of my spiritual development, it hasn't been particularly good. It's a pretty toxic place. It's not a place where people spend much time engaging in deep philosophical issues. It's very opportunistic and short term, and often very short- sighted. Living and breathing that context for nine years has taken, I think, some of the polish off my soul, if you like, and that's one of the things that I want to do, clean some of that encrustation off."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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