A Dignified Protest: Rod Donald draws attention to the plight of the Tibetan people on the steps of Parliament during the visit to New Zealand by Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Chinese National People’s Congress, Thursday, 26 May 2005.
The following obituary was written for, but never published in, the New Zealand Political Review. With the media spotlight focused on the behaviour of the current Green Co-leader, Dr Russel Norman, I have decided to share these thoughts concerning Rod Donald’s political legacy with the readers of Bowalley Road.
DEATH is not always our enemy. In politics, especially, sudden death can bestow a sanctifying aura upon the person who has been so suddenly and so inexplicably stolen away. The fallen leader is caught in freeze frame – often in youth or middle age – with so many things left undone. It is this sense of having the future wrenched from our grasp that makes the loss of significant political figures so poignant and so hard to bear. And yet, we must also acknowledge that while premature Death robs the politician of his potential victories, it also allows him to avoid his inevitable defeats.
Rod Donald died just as the New Zealand Green Party was poised to enter a period of considerable soul-searching. Having been left standing at the coalition altar by Labour for the third time in a row, the Greens had some very hard thinking to do about their future. As by far the most pragmatic, media savvy and politically astute politician in the Green caucus, Donald was readying himself to play a crucial role in determining the party’s future direction. His sudden death has robbed it of a shrewd and experienced pathfinder.
Much of that shrewdness was attributable to Donald’s unique ability to blend the idealism of environmental and left-wing politics with the sort of down-to-earth practicality that actually gets things done. In this respect he was quintessentially Kiwi: largely uneducated when it came to the finer points of theory, but without equal when it came to the hands-on business of turning theory into practice. He was, if the truth be known, that rarest of animals – a left-wing entrepreneur. Someone willing to risk his entire stock of political capital in order to make it grow.
And grow it he did. From his first foray into re-cycling as a fifteen-year-old student at St Andrews College in Christchurch, to his transformation of the Trade-Aid movement from a well-meaning but loss-making charity, to a thriving business network, Donald had a way of working around the objections of the talkers and enlisting the enthusiasm of the doers. His intervention in the campaign to secure a "Yes" vote for MMP in the 1993 referendum demonstrated the full range of Donald’s entrepreneurial flair. Without it, the enemies of MMP would almost certainly have triumphed. For that achievement alone, Donald's place in New Zealand’s political history is assured.
In 1994, having secured the means of making a career in politics possible for representatives of the radical left, Donald lost little time in multiplying his enlarged political capital yet again by joining the Greens. With assistance from Jeanette Fitzsimons and her extensive networks of friends and allies within the environmental movement and the old Values Party, the hero of MMP rapidly rose to become the Greens co-leader.
The pairing of Donald and Fitzsimons was one of the most remarkable in New Zealand political history. Only rarely is a party blessed with such extraordinary complementarity. Where Fitzsimons was cerebral and serene, Donald was enthusiastic and practical. And where Fitzsimons knew exactly how to appeal to the Greens’ constituency, Donald was untiring in his courtship of the news media.
He understood the key role which the media plays in modern democracies, and cultivated political journalists with the same care and attention that other Greens devoted to cultivating organic fruit and vegetables. He also recognised the tremendous importance of image. His trademark white shirt and brightly-coloured braces made him instantly recognisable to the voting public. It is difficult to imagine a less frightening, more infectiously amiable promoter of the Green "brand".
This familiarity with the values of the contemporary New Zealand – and global – marketplace, while a source of suspicion and sometimes friction within the Greens’ own ranks, was also critical to the party’s long-term future. Donald was no Marxist, nor a socialist. In the 19th century they would have called him a Radical (with a capital "R"). One who believes that the rights of property should not be allowed to run roughshod over the rights of human beings. Being a 20th Century environmentalist, Donald would, of course, have extended that definition to include the natural world. He celebrated responsible capitalism – especially in its entrepreneurial, small-business manifestation. His reaching out to the business community in the days after the 2005 election was as genuine as it was courageous. Those who rejected his overtures may yet come to rue his passing.
Because the Greens stand at a political cross-roads – and Donald knew it. They can go on being Labour's loyal supporters (and receive their by now familiar reward) or they can reposition themselves as a force outside and above the classical Left-Right divide. I believe that Donald’s thinking was steadily shifting in favour of the latter option. It would not have been an easy course to steer. The 2005 New Zealand Green Party is among the most left-wing in the world, and re-orienting it after the fashion of the German Greens will not be accomplished without a great deal of bitterness and conflict.
Donald was not the sort of man to relish such a fight. He was a gentle and fun-loving person, as his partner of 20 years, Nicola Shirlaw, and his three daughters Holly, Emma, and Zoe will attest. And yet, I believe that Donald, as he had done so often in his career, would have been willing to give it a go; staking all his political capital on a fundamental reorientation of Green politics in New Zealand.
For better or for worse, Death has spared him the odium and abuse that such exercises inevitably entail. He will be remembered now, and always, as a tireless fighter for environmental sanity and social justice: a decent man struck down in the prime of his life and at the peak of his powers; a true Green politician who never once compromised his principles.
My abiding memory of this remarkable man – my friend – Rod Donald, will be of him standing alone at the foot of the parliamentary steps, his face a mixture of sadness and defiance, holding up the forbidden Tibetan flag. It was a noble protest - and all the more effective for being conducted not by some raggle-taggle band of New Age anarchists, but by a senior Member of Parliament and party leader, dressed proudly and patriotically in his best, New Zealand-made, suit.