A Gentle Radical
Jeanette Fitzsimons was a visionary, a pioneer and a radical. This is the story of someone who battles National and Labour’s lock on parliament and had the courage to challenge political sacred cows. She was the co-leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand from 1995 to 2009, and a member of parliament from 1996 to 2010. Highly regarded by all, she was the first (and, until recently, the only) Green MP to win an electorate seat. She died very suddenly and unexpectedly in 2020. Fitzsimons is a unique figure in our political history yet someone whose personal story is still unknown.
How did a girl from a conservative rural family get to the front lines of radical political thought and then into the front benches of Parliament?
How did she become the first Green MP in the world to win an electorate seat?
How did she survive the brutal world of politics and get through the death of her co-leader Rod Donald?
How did the world’s first national Green Party form in New Zealand, and what was Jeanette’s role?
What can we learn from her politics and what did she think of the Green Party that followed her?
Fitzsimons lived a fascinating life, filled with moments of high political drama, and her example of how to navigate politics, adversity and triumph is more important than ever.
One of the brightest stars
We will fight them on the sea.
— Jeanette Fitzsimons, blog post, 26 November 2013.
Is it ethical to have children in the twenty-first century? This was the topic of conversation between three women aboard the sailing vessel Vega in the Tasman Sea west of Raglan in 2013. Jeanette Fitzsimons, veteran Greenpeace leader Bunny McDiarmid and young Dunedin activist Niamh O’Flynn were aboard the historic wooden yacht 100 nautical miles off the coast of New Zealand.
Braving wind, waves and fatigue, they were part of a small flotilla of boats protesting against deep-sea oil drilling. They had a lot of time to talk as they kept guard over the proposed oil drilling site. The three women talked about love, politics, the environment and whether the battle against climate change was winnable. After a lifetime of watching greenhouse gas emissions increase, species succumb to extinction and glaciers and forest boundaries retreat, Jeanette was not sure that she would again choose to have children if given the chance. O’Flynn, aged only 24, was struck by Jeanette’s words. ‘She was so straight up — how big and bad the whole thing is that we are facing,’ she remembers.2 Jeanette was a realist; she was not about to mollycoddle the young activist. She was far from convinced that the world would do what was necessary to stop the worst of a rapidly warming climate, but she was also a passionate believer that a better world was possible. We had to give it our best shot.
An imposing grey shape loomed on the horizon. Through binoculars they could make out the hull of a huge ship — longer than two football fields. The incredibly tall latticework tower, the maze of pipes and series of blue cranes marked out the Noble Bob Douglas, a Liberian-flagged deep-sea oildrilling ship. The Vega’s mission was to stand in the way of this 100,000-tonne behemoth and stop it from doing its job.
As the Vega approached, the captain of the ship called over the radio instructing the flotilla to exit the drilling zone. The rest of the activist fleet backed away but McDiarmid, sitting next to Jeanette, responded over VHF: ‘Thank you, Bob Douglas. This is the sailing vessel Vega. We will not be moving. We are here in defence of our ocean, future generations, our climate and our coastlines.’
For the next week the three women tacked back and forth to keep position in the notoriously rough waters of the Tasman Sea. It took about eight minutes to cross from one end of the zone to the other; then they turned back around. Back and forth, over and over. The monotonous occupation of this small patch of water ensured that the Texan oil company Anadarko could not start the process of drilling an exploratory well 1500 metres under the surface. The mere presence of the 12.5-metre yacht within the drilling exclusion zone kept the 229-metre drilling ship inactive. They just had to keep up.
The Vega, with rainbow peace flags flying off the stays, had been built on a Northland beach from kauri logs and launched in 1949. It was named after one of the brightest stars in the night sky. With a prodigious protest history, the Vega had sailed multiple times to Mururoa to protest against French nuclear testing, and to ‘greet’ US warships visiting New Zealand ports that would not confirm or deny that they were carrying nuclear weapons.
Now the aged vessel had once again been drafted into service to protect the environment. Aboard the cramped boat the crew rotated four–hour shifts as they rode up and down the waves, their track leaving a thick spider web image across the chart plotter as they squared off against one of the largest oil companies in the world. Anadarko was seeking oil, gas and profit: Vega’s mission was to keep the fossil fuels out of the rapidly warming atmosphere.
For Jeanette, white-haired, nearing 70 years old, this was something of a lifelong dream come true. Years earlier she
had confessed to Sue Bradford that she had always wanted to be a ‘monkeywrencher’ — someone who did not just talk or read about an environmental crime but took non-violent direct action to stop it. She was finally putting her body on the line for her beliefs. Gandhi was someone whom she singled out as influencing her.
Jeanette had not hesitated when Greenpeace’s Bunny McDiarmid had called her a few weeks earlier to ask if she would join her on this mission. It was a brave decision. Earlier in the year, under parliamentary urgency, the Nationalled government had passed harsh new provisions to limit anti-oil protest activity at sea. Under the new law someone convicted of interfering with an oil rig could face up to 12 months in jail or a fine of up to $50,000.
Jeanette was quite prepared to be arrested because the cause was so important, the stakes so high. She actually welcomed the prospect of arrest and the chance for her public profile to raise awareness of the cause. She told numerous people she had only accepted the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2010 because it would make a bigger splash when she was arrested for environmental activism.
For Jeanette Fitzsimons, climate change was the single most important issue facing the world: a symptom of humanity’s asininity in chasing infinite economic growth on a finite planet. She founded the country’s first climate campaign in the late 1980s, unceasingly raised global warming as a critical issue since entering parliament in 1996, and after her retirement focused her last years on fighting the extraction of fossil fuel, especially coal. Aboard the Vega she explained:
We also sail on behalf of all our grandchildren —
the generations already born and still to come
who will have to live with extreme weather
events, food and water shortages, constantly
rising sea level and new pests and diseases if we
go on burning the fossil fuels that are changing
Over her lifetime Jeanette witnessed humans fundamentally alter the planet. The atmosphere grew alarmingly warmer; the oceans became more acidic; ocean life choked on plastic; a full 75 percent of the planet’s land surface was modified by deforestation and resource extraction. By weight, in 2020 humans made up only 0.01 percent of the natural biomass of Earth, yet man-made materials — concrete, aggregates, metals and plastics — weighed more than all the plants, animals and natural life on the planet put together. Geologists have a name for our era — the Anthropocene — and the fossil record will stand as a marker of a human-caused mass extinction event.
Perhaps more than any other New Zealander, Jeanette Fitzsimons campaigned for people to think of Earth as a fragile, finite body; yet across her lifetime things became so much worse. It was as if humanity was floating in the middle of the open ocean poking holes in the life-raft.
Throughout, Jeanette was in the front line — and as a relatively lonely voice in the beginning until mainstream society caught up. For 40 years as a politician, campaigner and academic she had worked through ‘legitimate’ channels — researching and lecturing on sustainability at university; publishing countless newsletters, reports and studies; participating in working groups, ministerial advisory groups, select committees, boards and trusts. She organised municipal recycling, opposed toxic agricultural chemicals and nuclear power, and encouraged public transport.
But in her mid-sixties she left politics disillusioned. ‘Governments, I have given up on,’ she would write in 2016, ‘ever since the debacle of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. I will not sign another petition to government — it makes no difference.’ For decades she had tried collecting signatures, convening and addressing royal commissions, leading campaigns, speaking to public groups — but still things were getting worse.
This is why this white-haired grandmother, a universally respected parliamentarian — once voted the most-trusted politician of her time — was 100 nautical miles off the coast of New Zealand staring down a giant deep-sea oil-drilling ship. She was standing between an oil company and its quarry and she was willing to be arrested to stop their relentless pursuit of fossil fuels because it was fuel the human race could not afford to burn. It was a radical step, but she had poured her considerable intellect, her Stakhanovic work ethic, heart and soul into saving the environment. Now she would also put her body on the line.
She was knocked about and bruised by the constant heaving motion aboard Vega. Sleeping was difficult in the cramped quarter-berth. Her crewmates worried that she did not have the physical strength to manage the heavy tiller, especially on solo night watches, and they gingerly tried to talk her out of it but she stubbornly persisted. Days blurred into one another. Not only were they trying to stop the drilling; they were also trying to stop the Bob Douglas’ supply vessels from unloading materials onto the larger ship.
After a few days the crew of one of the supply vessels became more aggressive. ‘They were real bullies,’ McDiarmid recalls. ‘They really played cat and mouse with us.’ Early in the evening of 20 November, a little after 6 p.m. and without any notice, the Bailey Tide, an 87-metre supply ship, started moving closer to the Vega, which was sitting to the side of the Bob Douglas — effectively sandwiching the Vega between the two larger vessels. At one point it came in so close that if they had let a ladder down over the side you could have leapt onto it.
The Bailey Tide’s thrusters created a powerful wash that churned the water, and the small ketch could easily have been swamped or had a mast caught and snapped on one of the larger vessels. Stuck in a floating metal canyon, the Vega could not use its sails to escape the closing vice. It bobbed about helplessly on high waves, the crew fearing that at any moment the Vega’s stays or spreaders would get caught in the metal railings of one of the larger vessels.
‘It felt very scary, because we couldn’t manoeuvre very quickly to get out of position,’ Jeanette’s young crewmate O’Flynn recalled. ‘It felt like we were going to be crushed.’ They frantically called a number of times on the radio but they had no response from either vessel. Decades earlier, the Vega had been damaged in a similar aggressively close approach by a French minesweeper near Mururoa.
With the boats close to collision, the Vega pulled its engine into full power and motored out of the dangerous situation. Listed as co-skipper, Jeanette later complained to Maritime New Zealand over the deliberately intimidatory tactic, but to no avail.
During this encounter McDiarmid remembers that Jeanette remained totally calm.11 It was a trait she exhibited throughout her career — staying unflappable under pressure. Over the course of her life she had been in many stressful situations but had never lost her cool, said something hasty in the heat of the moment or melted down under the glare of television cameras. As a young woman starting out she had to conquer her fear of public speaking and deal with multiple occurrences of blatant sexism. In politics she had been surrounded by large press packs — their cameras and microphones disconcertingly close and hungry to pounce on any slip of the tongue. As leader she would be ambushed by the media with allegations of supporting terrorism, and with the country’s eyes on her she would have to grieve in public for the tragic loss of her political soulmate. She would face high-stakes meetings where the viability of a government would hang in the balance.
But throughout her life Jeanette remained steely calm under pressure. It was one of the admirable things about this
I REMEMBER HUGGING Jeanette at the send-off event in Wellington in 2013 before the Oil Free Seas Flotilla departed for the Tasman. While she was aboard the Vega getting physical, I was in parliament challenging Energy Minister Simon Bridges to end the government’s support of Anadarko’s drilling.
I had first met Jeanette at a job interview in 2006. After graduating from university I worked for Greenpeace, contracted in their action team and for a while living with my then girlfriend (now wife) Meghan out the back of the warehouse where they stored boats and climbing gear. A friend of Jeanette’s told me she was looking for a new executive assistant and helped secure an interview for me. I was squeezed into a short diary window while she waited at the Auckland Koru Lounge to board a flight.
I arrived nervous and sweaty in a new dress shirt. In 1999, less than a month after my 18th birthday, I had voted Green in an election where Jeanette led the newly independent party to an unlikely win. Since then I had been inspired by the new style of politics the Greens represented in parliament. As a young environmentalist I was in awe of Jeanette Fitzsimons and left the interview thinking it went okay but I had no idea what my chances were.
Jeanette rang me soon afterwards to tell me I did not get the job. She said my strengths were not suited to that position, but was I interested in working with her as a climate and youth outreach coordinator? I was over the moon.
I did not realise I was joining the Greens at a low ebb, at what I know now was the lowest point in Jeanette’s life. In fact 2005 had been a true annus horribilis, with political setbacks and losses, followed by a near-disastrous campaign where she felt she was locked out of a ministerial role by Winston Peters — only to be capped off by the sudden death of her political partner, Rod Donald.
I spent the next two years working with Jeanette on climate change and rebuilding the party’s flagging youth organisation. I watched her pick herself up off the mat and in the next few years achieve her greatest policy wins, securing the Greens an enduring place in New Zealand politics. She left parliament, in 2010, at the top of her game. Jeanette encouraged me to stand for the Greens, and it was on the back of her retirement that I entered parliament, next on the list.
They say you should not meet your heroes lest you be disappointed; but I had the great good fortune to work with mine.
Her death in March 2020 came as a shock. She was 75 and her health had been declining, but only a week before she died we had stayed up late drinking wine in her ecohouse talking about the environmental priorities for the forthcoming 2020 election. Jeanette was still firmly focused on the future, working hard on a variety of projects and still trying to get arrested . . .
Her story deserves to be told. Jeanette was a pioneering politician. The Values Party was the world’s first national green party and Jeanette Fitzsimons was the first Green Party MP to speak in our parliament. She was the first Green anywhere in the world to win an electorate seat and it was on her shoulders that the Greens were elected in their own right to parliament in 1999.
As a major political figure in the first decade of MMP she pioneered a whole new way of practising politics and was widely respected across all parties as a principled, gracious and talented MP. Through her example she showed that you could be scientific and still warm; challenging and still popular; a politician and still trusted.
In 2007 I started an annual summer camp for young Green Party members in the chestnut orchard by the river on Jeanette and Harry’s Coromandel farm — the Young Greens Summer Camp still continues today. Every year I would hear her tell the story of the formation of the Greens and the battle to get into parliament to another wide-eyed cohort sitting around her under the trees. Aware of her advancing age and how little of this history was documented, Jeanette arranged to have some of these talks recorded. This record has been a key resource for my telling of her story.
She was such a private person that I had to dig hard to find details of Jeanette’s personal life. In interviewing more than 50 friends, colleagues and family members, some on multiple occasions, I slowly built up a picture of the person behind the politician. Fortunately I also had access to her personal archives — a cubic metre of papers — and the three linear metres of her parliamentary papers stored in the Alexander Turnbull Library. I made Official Information Act requests, waded through decades of media stories and read every single word Jeanette uttered in parliament. In so doing, I hope I have managed to do justice to my mentor,
colleague and friend.
This is the story of a life, and it is also the story of the rise of the Green Party in New Zealand in response to the big question Jeanette Fitzsimons asked throughout her lifetime: how do we manage growth on a finite planet?
In the 30 years since the party started calling itself Green, more greenhouse gases have entered the atmosphere than in the preceding three centuries. Jeanette’s pressing issues are our urgent dangers.
Her life’s work obliges us to respond to the great challenges of our age.
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