Sunday 20 June 2010

Rod Donald 1957-2005

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. 


mike said...

Yes, the implied point about Norman's less-dignified style of protest is well made.

Although an obituary and hence not the venue for criticism, I find it interesting that Rod Donald is not tarred here with any of the same brushes you've been dealing out to the Greens in recent months. Was he an exception to the rule? If so, why would he ever associate with a bunch of fellow-travellers of Maori separatism and Euro-paedophilia?

Victor said...

Rod Donald was undoubtedly a more inspiring figure than Russell Norman and his stoic dignity may well have been more compelling than Norman's rather splenetic grandstanding.

However, I think we should be wary of making too much fuss about style at the expense of substance.

The rise of a new authoritarian, state-capitalist, global Hegemon is a very serious matter, particularly as the Hegemon's rise is fanned by the winds of racially-based nationalism and by a range of other values and interests inimical to our own.

peterquixote said...

In the light of the political reality of apologies all round to China for daring to show flag, a eulogy to Rod Donald is ..well ..dreamy and old.
Like most eulogies Trotter's glowing report on Donald is missing balance.

Rod Donald was relatively dogmatic and unable to compromise. He had a weak background in Science and in my opinion lacked intellectual vigour. There is more, so see elsewhere because Chris doesn't print infidel comments.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Peter Quixote.

Follow the Bowalley Road Rules, Peter, and you'll not have any problems.

Anonymous said...

With due respect to Rod, his absence made little difference in the media bombardment about being Green in the last election which surely heavily outweighed anything previously & was of a scale to that of the simultaneous running down of Labour to the general electorate, nor also the billion dollar funding on an international scale that being Green gets driven by.

Also a similar context was surely about with focus for mmp being benefited to the Green party over say other Alliance people of the time ( Chris has blogged about the media as per the Alliance), just as the emphasis that lead to the Alliance electorate support was initially created independently by Social Credit & Bruce Beetham, with only negative media coverage when even being acknowledged despite the truly widespread nature of the wide grass root support for their paradigm changing policies at the time.

In many ways China is a major source of global stability and reason making for peace, as they help restrain & bring balance to the hard power side of the Neocon anglo-american global financial Nato umbrella, which is over much of the world.

And they use their banking system to some degree that is of real benefit to their population - something well beyond our politics.

Perhaps if it had been Joe Biden for example, facing his entourage being elbowed into in order to have a flag put in their faces, the reaction & fall out may have been a lot less mild & considered.

Victor said...


Dress it up how you may, the fact remains that goons guarding a foreign despot interfered on our soil with lawful protest by a member of our democratically-elected parliament.

I think you are fooling yourself if you think any other major nation's representatives would behave thus in the face of wholly peaceful protest, when on foreign soil. Not even the Yanks would be quite so crass (and that's saying something)!

It is extremely worrying that so powerful a nation has so little respect for the norms of democratic societies such as ours.

I would, however, agree with you that,in general, the 'Rise of the Rest' provides a welcome antidote to the excesses of US/UK power. India, Brazil and South Africa, in particular, are wise and significant global players. Within the ranks of developed, industrialised countries, the same can be said for Germany.

Nor would I deny that China's achievements in lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty are praiseworthy and admirable.

But China's speedy assumption of economic dominance has provided her with an excess of power that is, at the very least, just as problematic as that enjoyed by the Anglophone West.

This power excess is particularly obvious vis-a-vis a small country such as New Zealand, which is firmly within the new hegemon's sphere of influence.

Subordination to China's economic interests may well be our inevitable fate. All the signs are that our current government takes this view, which why it is encouraging a shift towards resource exploitation at the expense of environmental, consumer quality and branding concerns.

If so, it is all the more important that we continue to assert our political independence and our commitment to the democratic ideals for which so many Kiwis have fought and died. We should not wish to be 'Finlandised'.

Anonymous said...

From the 'goons' perspective, they are charged with protecting one of the more powerful political representatives on the planet who's duties often involve highly charged issues of great diplomatic consequence effecting the planet's political balance.

A stranger barging into their protective ring, with a flag, chanting anti sentiments ( agree with them or not) even if they do not understand english; what were they to do? They don't know how important the protester is... or what the intention was.

Could have been a militant person of some unknown origin with intent to harm their vice president underneath the flag being shoved into their circle rather than a m.p. trying to score some local political points with their vice-president's presence etc. What's the more likely scenario from their POV & duties in the moment & what has to be the more prudent reaction?

Also the history of the geo-political Tibet independence movement, which enjoys CIA funding, isn't so cut & dry, as was the plight of the Tibetan people before their 'current' overlords not so straight forward.

Victor said...


Even allowing for cultural myopia, the notion that Russell Norman was doing anything but offering a peaceful protest is laughable. If the goons don't understand that it is because of their political-organisational culture and poor briefing.

Part of their briefing should have been that they leave matters of this sort to the New Zealand authorities. Not to do so shows disrespect for their hosts.

Another part of their briefing should have been that not all New Zealand parliamentarians approve of some of their country's policies,that these parliamentarians can be expected to protest and that they must be allowed to do so.

It's not as if China's heavies don't have previous. Just think back to their aggressive and violent behaviour in connection with the Olympic Flame.

Yes, I accept that, in similar circumstances, the Yanks would have flooded Wellington with their own goons, who would have got under everyone's feet.They would, however, almost certainly, have been briefed to recognise Norman and behaved accordingly. Bill Clinton would probably have wandered over and shaken his hand.

As to Tibet, the receipt or otherwise of CIA funding is irrelevant to the justice or otherwise of arguments for its independence.

Similarly, no-one, not even the Dalai Lama, is recommending the re-institution of clerical feudalism in the country. So that point is also irrelevant.

It is deeply troubling that there are so many New Zealanders, such as yourself, who care so little for their nation's dignity and independence, for the sovereignty of our parliament and the integrity of institutions and practices, that are the product of centuries of struggle.

Hitler had his 'Fifth Columnists', Stalin his 'Useful Idiots' and George W Bush his Neo-Con cheer-leaders. Plus ca change etc.

Peter said...

Thank you for the reminder of a man well remembered. We are a poorer nation for his passing.

Anonymous said...

The IPCC consensus on climate change was phony says IPCC insider.

I do genuinely wonder if Rod Donald would have gone along with the CO2 taxing of the population, & the horrible future this paradigm (global scientific dictatorship) is trying to put in place, as more & more light has been shed on the issue over the years.

Also from my POV, it has been a loss from the political paradigm that instances of Rod Donald's passion for politically hard things like the use of recyclable glass bottles in the milk industry foe example, died a quick death once his presence was no longer active - for in those type of areas his feet were very much firmly planted on the ground.

Anonymous said...

Its good enough for Bill English:

The Emissions Trading Scheme, while copping a lot of criticism, was important to attract capital investment especially for high- carbon resources - Bill English

The Government would look favourably at helping fund Solid Energy's
multimillion-dollar lignite projects in Southland as long as they were
commercially and environmentally robust, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance
Minister Bill English said yesterday.

The state-owned enterprise was investigating three major projects for its
vast lignite resources south of Mataura, arguably the heart of the
minister's Clutha-Southland electorate. It was expected to make an
announcement soon on the site of a briquetting plant, which transforms the
low-grade lignite into a cleaner and hotter-burning fuel, while studies
were continuing into a lignite-to-urea plant and lignite-to-fuels plant.