Hard News by Russell Brown

The Contribution

In the fractious and sometimes silly environment of online argument, people seem genuinely shocked and saddened by the news of Rod Donald's death. There are many heartfelt tributes on frogblog, and DPF has a thread about the sad news and a roundup of news stories. A number of other blogs, left and right, responded yesterday by simply posting a photograph of the man.

Perhaps what happens is that when something like this occurs, people put aside ideological differences and the adversarial character of politics and focus on what the man's hopes and aspirations were for his country. And Rod Donald's were lifelong, sincere and inspiring.

I never actually met Rod, but I remember him from years ago in Christchurch. I was a kid and he was the lippy ginge, a few years older than me. We both once took part in one of Gordon Dryden's discussion roadshows - I said something dumb and Rod responded. He totally slamdunked me. I have disagreed with him since, but I was always more careful to think about what I said since that evening.

Rod's early identification with the Values Party had a significance that might be lost on some younger Green voters. Values appeared from thin air a few months before the 1972 general election, spawned from a meeting of about six people at Victoria University. It was afforded some room by Norm Kirk's pulling Labour further towards the centre, but its motivation was fresh and independent. Something new.

By the time polling day rolled around, Values had attracted 1700 people to a public meeting in Auckland Town Hall. It polled 2% of the vote nationwide, and 9% in Karori. Its profile was even higher than those numbers might suggest: it was brought to the nation's attention in a famous Gallery programme, and - amazingly - the November 13 editorial of the National Business Review endorsed the Values Party.

In Brian Edwards' book on the 1972 election, Right Out, party founder Tony Brunt wrote that "the country was going to the left, not in the socialist sense of that term but in the sense that it was becoming more activist, more aware of the national rejuvenation that was needed, and more willing than ever to make it a reality.

"New Zealand underwent what I can only falteringly call a change in national consciousness. It was this critical ingredient that enabled the rise of the Values Party. The politics of inaction was not enough on its own to spark the emergence of Values, for, on reflection, the bankrupt nature of New Zealand politics had been almost as much in evidence in 1969 as it was in 1972. It was just that New Zealanders on masse, suddenly decided in 1972 that they had had enough.

"This mood of utter disillusionment coincided with an instinctive - and frustrating - apprehension by many that a new and important political synthesis was forming outside the vision of the two major parties."

Rod didn't join Values until the following year, but that was the mood and the momentum that drew him into politics. It was to his great credit - and it is his legacy - that he went on to campaign for the electoral reform that finally shucked off the old system and gave voice to a new diversity in our politics. He helped create a new New Zealand.

I can understand that Nandor Tanczos will be feeling shocked and distressed now, but I personally hope he takes up the challenge of returning the Parliament. No one would ever wish to be called in such a way, but an opportunity to contribute has arisen.

And in a way, that's the thing. I don't know about you, but I'm old enough now to sometimes think about whether, were I gone tomorrow, I'd be happy with my contribution. I hope Rod Donald had cause to reflect in that way before he died. Because more than most of us, he had reason to feel proud of his contribution.