Russel Norman was not everyone’s cup of green tea but he believed strongly in what he stood for and he was a significant force behind the improvement in Green vote (but could also be responsible in part for it hitting an apparent Green ceiling).
There are a number of interesting and important points in his speech including:
- Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people…
- The state of democracy in New Zealand
- The fourth estate
- A bad culture around dissent
- There are too many cows
- Justice and inequality and poverty
Some of these topics may be worth exploring separately.
Inthehouse video: Valedictory Statement – Dr Russel Norman – 22nd October 2015
Speech – Dr RUSSEL NORMAN (Green)
Dr RUSSEL NORMAN (Green): I rise to pass a few comments and a few thanks at the end of my 7 years as a member of this Parliament and 9 years as co-leader of the Green Party.
I want to start with a little story from Queensland. Some of you may know that I was born in Brisbane—if my accent does not give me away. The thing about Brisbane is that, aside from having a very right-wing Premier for many years, who was very anti-democratic, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who of course was a Kiwi expat, but I have never held that against New Zealand, it also had a terrible history of the treatment of Aboriginal people.
After the frontier wars, Aboriginal people were locked up in concentration camps, called reservations. There was a reservation near Cairns, called Yarrabah. In Yarrabah there was of course a lot of conflict between the Aboriginal people of the Yarrabah reservation and the white overseer, who also owned the store and sold rancid meat, amongst many other things.
The conflict developed between Percy Neal, who was a leader of the Yarrabah community, and the white overseer. Percy Neal, in his argument, spat on the screen door that separated the two of them and for this he was charged with assault and put before a magistrate.
The magistrate said he was an agitator. He said Mr Neal was an agitator. The magistrate sentenced him to 2 months’ jail, with hard labour, for spitting on the screen door. Percy Neal appealed to the Queensland Supreme Court, which in active injustice, increased that penalty to 6 months’ hard labour for spitting on the screen door.
Eventually the appeal went to the High Court in Canberra, the highest court in Australia, and was heard in front of Justice Lionel Murphy. The thing about Lionel was that he was a little bit of an agitator himself, and was appointed by the Whitlam Government on to the High Court of Australia. Lionel wrote a judgment about this case. I just want to quote a little bit of Lionel Murphy’s judgment.
He said, and I am quoting from Justice Murphy: “That Mr Neal was an agitator or stirrer in the magistrate’s view obviously contributed to the severe penalty. If he is an agitator, he is in good company. Many of the great religious and political figures of history have been agitators, and human progress owes much to the efforts of these and many who are unknown.
Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people…
As Oscar Wilde aptly pointed out: ‘Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them … there would be no advance towards civilisation.’ ”
Lionel Murphy finished with a very famous quote, where he said: “Mr Neal is entitled to be an agitator.”
I use this quote to tell a little bit about my story about Queensland, and growing up in Queensland, but it is also about the value of activists and agitators—people who challenge the status quo and people who have the courage to stand up against the established order and try to win other people to those ideas.
I believe that activists and agitators have a critical role in human progress. I have been very proud to call myself amongst one of them—one of the many. The other reason I bring it up is that democracy itself is never absolutely secure nor finished.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen was a deeply anti-democratic figure.
I believe that democracy is a lot more than voting once every 3 years. In fact, I think in some ways that is the least part of it. It is all the institutions and culture that sits around it.
The state of democracy in New Zealand
I want to use my remarks to voice my concern about the state of democracy in New Zealand. Democracy is not a black and white thing.
There are gradations of democracy. Putin has elections once every several years, or whatever, but that does not make Russia a democracy.
Some of the institutions I think we should be deeply concerned about: access to information, and Government information in particular, is critical to the functioning of a democracy. In my view, the Official Information Act is relatively moribund now in New Zealand. It is very, very difficult to get information from the Government that the Government does not wish to release. That is a problem.
There was the Jane Kelsey case recently, where the High Court found against Tim Groser, and the Chief Ombudsman, I mean, shamefully, supported Tim Groser in this illegal activity, under the Official Information Act, of suppressing information.
I think we have got a problem with access to information in this country, and that is a critical part of our democracy. Written questions—it is very difficult to get written parliamentary questions answered any more. It is hard to get straight answers. How do you have a proper democracy if you cannot access information?
Question time—let me try to be diplomatic. Lockwood Smith said that a straight question deserves a straight answer. I loved question time with Lockwood Smith. It was one of the highlights of my parliamentary career. He was electric. He made Ministers answer questions. Question time was answer time.
It is no longer answer time, and I think that is a big problem for our democracy because if you cannot access information, it does not work.
The fourth estate
The second institution that I think really matters is the media, the fourth estate. This is not a complaint about a status quo bias to the media. Sure the media does have a status quo bias.
Media institutions are large financial institutions, existing in the status quo, and no one should be surprised that they do tend to have a bias towards the status quo. That is not my gripe.
My gripe is the resources available to journalists. Journalists used to have to produce one or two stories a week in some cases. Now they have to produce four a day. It is very difficult for journalists to do their role in our society, to hold the Government and powerful institutions to account, when journalists do not have the resources to do their job. I think this is a problem for all of us, and I think it is a problem for our democracy.
A bad culture around dissent
I also think we have developed a bad culture around dissent. Look at what happened to Eleanor Catton, look at what happened to Nicky Hager, and what he is currently going through, after the police raided his house because he dared to criticise and get involved in the Cameron Slater issue—one of the Government’s favourites.
There is a bad culture around dissent, in my opinion, and it makes it difficult for people to speak out. The culture that exists matters in a democracy—whether we have a real democracy or not. That is important.
And finally there is the investor-State disputes settlement clauses. These are about placing restrictions on democratically elected Governments. That is why they exist.
So I would say we can fix this. Democracy is an evolving institution. It is a living institution. But it will take a concerted effort from civil society groups and those outside of this institution, I suspect, as much as those within in it, in order to make our democracy healthier than it currently is. That is the first thing I wanted to say.
The second thing I wanted to say was around sustainability. Finite resources, I think, is one of the key insights that the green movement brings to the world—that the small “g” green movement brought to the world. That is, resources are limited and the ability of the planet to absorb our pollution is relatively limited.
There is a connection between democracy and sustainability and that connection became apparent in what happened to Environment Canterbury. The reason why the elected councillors were removed from Environment Canterbury was because the people of Canterbury started to vote for councillors who wanted to restrict the dairy sector. It is as simple as that. That has been stated pretty publicly by the agriculture Minister at the time.
That in my opinion is very problematic because in order to protect our democracy and in order to protect our environment we need a functioning democracy. This is really important and I think that was a classic illustration of it.
But there is a bigger problem, and this came out in the environment report that was released yesterday, and that is around dairy intensification. We need to confront the fact that we have got a big problem now. It has been growing for probably 15 to 20 years but it is now an astronomically large problem around dairy intensification.
It is causing massive climate change emissions, water pollution, water abstraction, compacted soil as the Environment Aotearoa report said, biodiversity loss, and polluted aquifers.
When you think about the fact that if you take water from the Canterbury aquifer—parts of the Canterbury aquifer—and feed it to infants, that water is so polluted that those infants will die. The medical officer of health in Canterbury has said that and it should be a wake-up call that we have got a major pollution problem on our hands.
There are too many cows
It needs to be said that there are too many cows. We just need to say it because it is true. The world is finite. There is not infinite capacity to absorb our pollution. There are too many cows and I think we need to confront that fact and we need to deal with it if we are going to clean up our environment.
One of the great things about my job is that I went on this dirty rivers tour. You know, I went and paddled in lots of dirty rivers—dozens of them; not hard to find—and there are communities all around the country that are trying to protect their rivers.
There are courageous people in rural communities who are speaking out about the impact of dairy intensification on their rivers and their communities and we need to listen to the voices of those people.
I do not think that leadership is going to come from Government and I do not think it is going to come from the industry because there has been plenty of time to fix this problem and it is not getting any better—it is getting radically worse.
It is going to rely, I think, on the NGO sector and the community sector to speak out in order to save our rivers and to protect the natural environment of New Zealand, not to mention the climate change emissions that are coming out of the agriculture sector because, of course, the agriculture sector does not face a price on its greenhouse emissions, so what would you expect.
Justice and inequality and poverty
The third thing I just want to touch on briefly is about justice and inequality and poverty. We have said it 100 times but it has got to be said: there is too much poverty and inequality in New Zealand. Things got worse after the new-right reforms. The Gini coefficient got worse after the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s but things have not really got any better and that is a major problem.
People say the Government cannot do everything. Well, that is true. The Government cannot mend a broken heart; but the Government can fill an empty stomach. That is within our capacity. We can do those things and I think we should, and I think we have a moral obligation to deal with the issues around poverty and inequality.
Honestly, I think it strikes to the very heart of our democracy as well, because when you sit in a society that is highly stratified and you look below you and think “Goodness me, that could be me if I speak out, if I do the wrong thing. If I lose my job, I can’t pay the mortgage, feed the kids, that could be me next.”
It makes everyone very frightened and on edge and it does not give the peace of mind and the stability that a mature democracy needs in my belief.
A few thanks in my closing remarks
I would like just give a few thanks in my closing remarks. Firstly, I would like to thank my partner, Katya Paquin. Katya has not only been a tremendous personal support to me but also a real political support as well. Katya used to be the political director for the Green Party before she got a much more important job, which is looking after our three beautiful kids: Tadhg, Frankie, and Stella.
Aside from doing a fantastic job bringing up those beautiful kids, Katya has been a key political support for me and has provided me with enormous insight into politics. To Tadhg, Frankie, and Stella I would just like to say you have changed me in ways that I never expected—as having kids does to you. But it was only possible really to bring up those kids because of the community we lived in and I would like to thank the people at playcentre, and at kindy, and I would like to thank Katya’s mum, Mary, who has been very, very supportive of us, and also my mum, Ollie May.
My mum is one of those people who is very disrespectful to authority—still is—and I suspect that that was very, very helpful. I do think that those in power often have a vested interest in telling you lies. It is true—it is just true.
So I think it is very important that people look at people in power and do not believe everything they say, take it with a grain of salt, and think for themselves, because the people in power are not always going to tell you the truth.
I would like to thank my brothers and sisters: Linda, Peter, Richard, Alan, and Sandra. I come from a big family. I also thank my friends. You cannot do the kind of work we do here or have a great life without great friends, and I thank Helen and Steve, Rebecca and Steve, John and Paula, Jeff and Roddy, and lots of other people who have been great friends of mine and great people support to me during all of this.
In terms of my staff I have been really blessed with fantastic staff. I thank my assistants Jo Beaglehole, Anna Hynes, Izzy Lomax, Charlie Chambers, and Simon Tapp . You have gone beyond the call of duty.
To all the staff who have supported me over the years—there are too many people to mention. But I thank Ken Spagnolo, Robert Ash, Babs Lake, Andrew Campbell, Holly Donald, Paul Benzeman, Scott Compton, Katya Paquin, Michael Pringle, Sarah Holm—there are more and more of them.
The Green Party, I think, has been extremely blessed with very, very talented staff over the years. I would also like to thank the members of Green Party, and also the members of all political parties.
Democracy has survived only because people join political parties and get engaged in them voluntarily. So although I disagree with people who might be members of other political parties, I certainly respect the fact that they get involved in democracy. I think it is really important.
But I would particular like to thank the members of the Green Party, especially the Rongotai branch, who have been incredibly supportive to me. To the co-leaders I have worked with—Rod, who tragically died, Janette, and Metiria—and good luck, James—it has been great to work with you.
I thank all the Green MPs. It has been great to work all of you—those of us who are here, those of us who have come before. I think the Green MPs have made a huge difference. I would like to really thank the green NGOs, or the environmental NGOs.
Environmental NGOs often have to do the heavy lifting of protecting New Zealand’s natural environment on behalf of everybody else in the courts, day in, day out, and everywhere else. Really, they are often doing the job that the Government should be doing to protect our natural world. It is the environmental NGOs that end up doing it. So I would really like to acknowledge their work.
I would also like to thank the voters, the 250,000-plus people who voted for us at the last election. Thank you for your act of faith in voting Green. I hope you got what you wanted, and I hope that you continue to support the Greens.
I thank all the parliamentary staff: the cleaners, the messengers, the Clerk’s Office, all the people who provide the food and the security, but especially the Parliamentary Library.
Particularly when you are in Opposition it would be very, very hard to do your job without the Parliamentary Library. So I would really like to thank the library staff for all their hard work over the years.
In conclusion I would just like to say that my view is that humanity faces some really big challenges in the decades ahead, particularly around sustainability and climate change, and around inequality and poverty, but also around democracy. I think that democracy faces some big challenges globally, actually. But we also have huge opportunities.
The world is finite—that is true—but human creativity is infinite. Human generosity is infinite. Human courage is infinite. So we have access to some fantastic resources.
As well as facing these big challenges and problems we have inherited from the past, we have also inherited lots of great things from the past, and we have the opportunity to really create a world of abundance for everyone and for all of us living within the finite limits of the natural world.
I think that it is an opportunity that we really should grasp with both our hands, because our children deserve nothing less.
Finally, I would like to dedicate my time here to the people who stand up for a better world regardless of the cost. We are all entitled to be agitators, as Justice Murphy said, and we should exercise that entitlement frequently, and I intend to do so. Kia kaha.