Dr Russel Norman is the Green Party’s male Co-leader.
Russel has worked in a variety of industries – in a sheetmetal factory, on a car assembly line, doing native bush regeneration, as a tutor and on an organic farm. More recently he has worked as a policy researcher and has served as a Green MP since 2008.
His passion for the environment has focused on clean water for New Zealand, and a series of campaigns to protect our rivers, lakes and aquifers from agricultural, urban and industrial pollution. He has also led the Greens’ smart green economics work.
Russel has a doctorate in politics from Macquarie University, Sydney. Born in Brisbane, he moved to New Zealand permanently in 1997 and lives in Wellington.
For a man who loves working behind the scenes, Russel Norman sure has a habit of attracting the spotlight. Indeed, despite his wonderfully laconic manner, sitting back has never been the Green Co-leader’s natural inclination.
“When you really care about something and you’re driven by it, sooner or later you have to take a leading role,” he says. “I can get a lot done in the background but because I have such strong feelings I think I tend to get dragged to the forefront. I’m a bit of a troublemaker, I suppose, but then again, there’s a lot to make trouble about!”
Russel describes his political motivations with simple emotions: love, anger and hope. He has a great love for people and the planet; he’s angry about the perils faced by each; and he’s ever hopeful that we can all do our part to turn it around.
“I’m a bit of a troublemaker, I suppose, but then again, there’s a lot to make trouble about.”
His current position seems a long way from his roots in working class Brisbane, where he and his five siblings were raised. His mother took in ironing to pay the bills while his father, through sheer determination, completed his engineering studies.
“My family was pretty poor during those years but my father was passionate about education,” he recalls. “It made things very tough for the family but that helps to shape the way you think, and the way you act in life too.”
He admits the way he thought and acted was slightly different from the rest of his family. Though his parents were once Labor members, they had fallen out of organised politics following the new right Labor reforms of the 1980s and Russel soon found himself the lone political voice of the family. Peace rallies, anti-nuclear demonstrations and animal rights activism soon became a large part of his extra-curricular high school life, something that always made his mum a little dubious!
The ‘black sheep’ seems to have been unable to avoid his political bent since these formative days. “I went to university to study medicine, thinking I could save the developing world, but realised that it was better politics – not better doctors – that were actually required,” he says.
Abandoning his studies, Russel headed to Adelaide where, perhaps incongruously for the ‘almost doctor’, he found himself on the factory floor, attaching headlights to Mitsubishis. But it wasn’t long before he felt a desire to return to study, and this time politics and history were his chosen subjects.
Russel’s connection with New Zealand also formed at this time. He completed his Honours thesis on the Alliance Party and embarked on his PhD in 1996. When some New Zealand friends asked him to stay with them on Auckland’s Waiheke Island while he studied, he jumped at the chance. And never left!
Date of birth:2 June 1967
Family: Partner Katya Paquin, sons Tadhg and Francis
Hobbies: Hanging out with friends, music, gardening, history, red wine
Favourite NZ animal or bird Hector’s dolphin
Favourite movie: Twelve Angry Men
Favourite novel: The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Music I play on Saturday mornings: Steve Abel
My never-fail recipe: Putanesca
Greatest sporting achievement: Third in men’s 15 year age group Queensland orienteering championships
Year entered Parliament: 2008
Green Spokesperson for: Economics and Finance, Environment
First political action: Palm Sunday peace rally in Brisbane as a teenager
Most embarrassing political moment: I wasn’t embarrassed, but I did protest for the return of the Student Union’s condom vending machines after they’d been banned in Queensland; the police came and crowbarred them off the walls at 5am
Proudest political moment: Walking alongside and then speaking to the hundreds of Māori and Pākehā who marched down Whangarei’s main street in 2008 to express their dedication to cleaning up the harbour
Like many of his colleagues Russel recalls the small New Zealand Green Party meetings out the back of Keith Locke’s bookshop and the challenge of building the Party following its split with the Alliance in 1997. He also recalls the joy of success after the 1999 general election. However, as the euphoria gave way to practicality, Russel returned to his studies satisfied with his small part in such a fine achievement.
Of course, he couldn’t stay away! After completing his Doctorate, the freshly minted Dr Norman returned to the Greens with a staff role in Parliament, before using his years of experience to organise and help deliver massive opposition to Genetic Engineering.
“The whole GE thing was massive,” he says. “We organised huge demonstrations with thousands of people in Auckland and I loved it! It was such a celebration of people’s collective power and a real awakening to the idea that we have a chance to elevate humanity; to begin to show respect for the planet and its people.”
Russel stood for the Party the following year and in 2005 took responsibility for the management of the national election campaign. (“They asked me to apply,” he says, “how could I argue with them?”) After the election, Russel took a research role with the Association of University Staff, but tragedy would soon have him back with the Green Party.
That tragedy was of course the sudden and untimely death of inspirational Co-leader Rod Donald, and Russel says his decision to stand for the vacant position was taken only after plenty of soul searching.
“We found ourselves at a point in our Party’s history where we needed to stand up and be bold,” he says. “That meant there was a fierce contest for Rod’s job, there was a lot of productive and healthy debate, and, ultimately, the Party’s members decided that I was the right man for the job. It was very humbling.”
So, is the Co-leader confident the Green Party can lead us all to a better place?
“It is entirely possible that we will not always succeed,” he says. “But with each small failure will come a newfound resolve to work harder, to be smarter, and to never give up.”
It’s a typical statement of intent from Russel Norman, and further proof that for a man more comfortable in the background, he’s certainly found his niche at the forefront of sustainable politics.