Book review: A Gentle Radical, by Gareth Hughes

Holly Walker is an independent writer, researcher, and policy consultant, and an Associate Fellow at the Helen Clark Foundation. She was a Green MP from 2011-2014.

REVIEW: Political biographies and memoirs used to be few and far between in Aotearoa, but recently we’ve been enjoying a boom. We’ve seen ‘legacy’ tomes from Clark-era heavyweights Michael Cullen and Margaret Wilson, more personal memoirs promising a glimpse of the ‘real’ person behind the political mask (a genre especially favoured by recent National Party leaders), and several unauthorised biographies of our ‘world-famous outside New Zealand’ prime minister.

Fans of the genre can add a new title to their bedside pile: A Gentle Radical, Gareth Hughes’ comprehensive biography of former Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, who died unexpectedly in 2020, aged 75.

Hughes is an interesting choice to write Fitzsimon’s biography. A former Green MP , he largely owes his political career to her, as he explains in his introduction. They first met in 2006, when he applied to be her executive assistant. Fitzsimons immediately saw he wasn’t cut out for what is surely one of the most critical and undervalued jobs in Parliament, but offered him a role as a climate and youth outreach coordinator, better suited to his campaigning background. Hughes didn’t look back; four years later he entered Parliament as Fitzsimons’ replacement when she retired in 2010, and stayed for 10 years.

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Hughes makes no attempt to disguise his affection and admiration for Fitzsimons; as he clearly states, she was his mentor and his friend. His connection to Fitzsimons uniquely qualifies him to record the life of one of our most significant politicians in recent decades. He does this thoroughly, sensitively, and with a nuanced understanding of the personal and political tensions humming in the background; things that might have been invisible to other biographers.

Major political turning points are especially well conveyed: the convoluted process of establishing first the Values Party, and later the Greens – both via several anarchic and competing iterations, both at times convinced that political parties could function without leaders (they couldn’t); the Greens’ critical decisions to first join, and later leave the Alliance; the ebullient mood of hope when the Greens first entered Parliament in their own right off the back of Fitzsimons’ win in Coromandel in 1999; and of course the shocking death of her fellow co-leader and “political soulmate” Rod Donald in 2005.

A Gentle Radical, by Gareth Hughes.


A Gentle Radical, by Gareth Hughes.

When Donald died, the Greens had just survived a gruelling election campaign (dominated by a truly bizarre intervention from an obscure Christian sect, the Exclusive Brethren, who funded a nationwide anti-Green leaflet with the apparent endorsement of National Party Leader Don Brash) and Fitzsimons was exhausted.

She was also disappointed; prior to the election, Labour had been widely expected to form a coalition with the Greens if the results allowed it. Prime Minister Helen Clark had even campaigned with Fitzsimons to cement this signal to progressive voters. But after the election, Clark opted for a three-way coalition with New Zealand First and United Future instead. The Greens were allocated two small ‘Government spokesperson’ roles in exchange for abstaining on confidence and supply, a far cry from the ministerial portfolios they had hoped for.

Then Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons speaking on Canterbury’s water at a public meeting at Riccarton. Pictured in 2007.

Don Scott/Stuff

Then Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons speaking on Canterbury’s water at a public meeting at Riccarton. Pictured in 2007.

Exhausted and disillusioned, Fitzsimons thought her chance of ever holding a ministerial portfolio had passed. She discussed her plan to retire with Donald and was ready to share it with the party when she received the devastating phone call from Donald’s partner Nicola. Thus, instead of retiring in 2006 to tend her Coromandel farm with her husband Harry Parke as planned, she stayed in Parliament for another five years to ease the party through a difficult transition, at significant cost to her own family and wellbeing.

Hughes isn’t entirely uncritical. He often points to examples of political naivety and self-limiting idealism from Fitzsimons and others that may have stymied the Greens’ chances of greater electoral success or policy gains.

Their decision to walk out of Parliament in 2002 over the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Bill, and to make the lifting of the then-moratorium on genetically engineered organisms a bottom line for coalition negotiations (heightened by Clark’s memorable clash with TV3’s John Campbell over allegations of a GE cover-up – the so-called ‘Corngate’ scandal)is one Hughes clearly disapproves of in hindsight.

From our 2022 standpoint, it’s clear these events cemented an unfortunate enmity between Clark and Fitzsimons that never fully abated, depriving New Zealanders of the more progressive and environmentally ambitious governments their votes arguably supported in both 2002 and 2005, and positioning these two remarkable women leaders as antagonists. Who knows what transformational good use their different but complementary political gifts might have been put to when combined.

Parliament TV

Jeanette Fitzsimons’ 2010 valedictory speech.

Still, none of this could have been predicted in 2002. What is clear from Hughes’ account is that on the GE matter, as with every decision she faced in her career, Fitzsimons sought to make the best, most principled, and future-oriented choice she could, drawing on her considerable intellect, deeply held principles, and clarity of foresight.

If Hughes’ ability to write an objective biography was limited by his proximity to the subject matter, I must also acknowledge my own lack of objectivityas a reviewer. I am also a former Green MP, albeit with more distance than Hughes, having left Parliament in 2014. I knew and admired Fitzsimons, though not as well or for as long as Hughes, and I now work with Helen Clark at the think tank she founded.

I never shed my deference to her mana and intellect enough to count Fitzsimons as a friend, but I do include Hughes in that category, so it was with some trepidation that I accepted the invitation to review A Gentle Radical. I have learned through unfortunate experience that it is not always a good idea to review books by your friends or colleagues; if you don’t like them, or don’t think they nailed the brief, but don’t want to write a disingenuous review, there is very little room to move.

Fortunately, Hughes has done an excellent job. It’s clear his research was meticulous and thorough – he read every word Fitzsimons ever uttered in Parliament in Hansard, and interviewed many of her closest family members, friends, and colleagues, drawing from them frank and personal insights that a less trusted biographer would not have elicited.

A Gentle Radical is a fascinating, inspiring, and sometimes depressing read; Fitzsimons launched New Zealand’s first climate change campaign in the late 1980s. If the then government – or any since – had heeded her calls, we might not be in the difficult position we are now, faced with having to rapidly reduce our emissions and with a huge gap between our net zero 2050 target at the potential impact of the actions we have so far committed to.

Last month, one of Jeanette’s successors, James Shaw – a Green Party Climate Change Minister, something she could only dream of! – launched Aotearoa New Zealand’s first Emissions Reduction Plan. If she was still alive, Fitzsimons would have both celebrated this historic achievement, and in the next breath, robustly (and rightly) criticised it for lacking the requisite ambition and commitment to tackle the scale of the crisis. May we all channel some of her ‘Steel Magnolia’ nerves (Rod Donald’s adorable nickname for her) and unwavering principles and demand better.

A Gentle Radical, by Gareth Hughes (Allen & Unwin) is out now. RRP $39.99.

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