'We've got to solve New Zealand's social crisis'

November 25, 1992

Jeanette Fitzsimons, a long-term environmental and social justice activist, was elected deputy co-leader of the NZ Alliance at its inaugural conference in Auckland in November. She spoke to Green Left Weekly's Kath Gelber.

Why did you get involved in the Alliance?

There's a long history in New Zealand of realising none of the third parties could do anything without proportional representation.

I lived through that with the Values Party: After a very promising beginning in 1975 where a relatively new party got over 5% of the vote, there was a gradual realisation that it could never lead to anything.

Becoming a majority government under the first-past-the-post system was an impossibility. It was partly this recognition that turned people back to the idea of voting against the worst of the two main parties, rather than for what they wanted, so the vote dropped off. The Democrats went through a similar process.

I think the initial impetus for the Greens was that perhaps rather pragmatic reasoning, but that was followed quite soon by the discovery that we actually shared a lot more with the other parties than we had realised. The anti-nuclear stance, an independent foreign policy, a commitment to Third World justice, were shared by all the other parties.

The events of the last eight years have presented us with a short-term emergency in New Zealand that we didn't have before. We've got to solve the social crisis, and that is something we're all committed to.

The Greens' longer-term aims are for rather a different society, where people are less reliant on the state rather than more, where the focus of action and support is at the local and community level. But in our existing situation we realised that we can't devolve that to the local community until we have local community structures that can take it on.

The community has been dispossessed so that we actually need central government to do a lot more before we can make the progression to a decentralised community structure. Therefore, we find ourselves working with a very strong shared common agenda with the other parties in the Alliance.

Do you feel there have been any compromises that have had to be made in participating in the Alliance?

Everyone has made compromises. For the Greens it has been complicated by the fact that our own policy processes are not well developed yet.

We have a strong vision for where we're going, but we haven't reached agreement as a Green Party as to how we're getting there. There are Greens who don't believe that totally free education and health care are the way to the sort of society they want to see in the long term where people take more responsibility for their own health care, for example, rather than always running to a doctor. There are other Greens who are strongly in favour of free access to health and education because of the people who are being shut out at present.

Those sorts of divisions exist in the Greens but people have been very flexible and quite wise about agreeing to go with short term objectives even though we hope that in the long term they may not be so necessary.

There are still Greens who are mistrustful of the Alliance. In fact, in the early days of the negotiations, the Greens who were most mistrustful of the Alliance were put into negotiations deliberately, some were not yet convinced the Alliance was the best way to go. But we have been working personally with the leaders of the other parties on the Alliance Council and have therefore seen a lot of their point of view and negotiated common ground.

It's been interesting. We go back to the party all the time, and try to really involve the wishes of the people at the grassroots and provide a channel of communication.

How has the consensus form of decision making worked in the Alliance?

Theoretically, every party on the Alliance Council has the right of veto but nobody has ever used it. The Greens have been under pressure to use it once or twice and we've said, in practical terms, what does this lead to? Are you saying we should walk out of the Alliance on this issue? Isn't it better to go with the best compromise you can get?

The Greens felt very strongly about not having a single leader. A paper was circulated about a system of co-leadership which we practice in the Greens. The solution we finally reached didn't meet the strong Green commitment to not having a single leader.

However, as part of that process of discussion we achieved enormous things in the Alliance. We achieved a very strong commitment to the principle of sharing power and responsibility. The idea of a shared deputy position came out of that discussion. Also, a lot of commitment for open government and the principle of gender balance in leadership was accepted early on, although it was a new idea to some of the people involved. n

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