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Russel Norman Interviewed By Duncan Garner

The Nation

Russel Norman

Interviewed by DUNCAN GARNER

DUNCAN The Labour Party’s annual conference is underway in Auckland this weekend not far from the studio here, but this week the Greens have been staking out their left wing credentials in a speech by Co-Leader Russel Norman. He wants a capital gains tax, except of course on the family home, tax breaks for the poor and more state housing, about 6000 state houses. Dr Russel Norman joins me now live from Wellington. Thanks for joining us Dr Norman. I just want to start with looking at your relationship with the Labour Party and especially Phil Goff if we could. We've got Labour about 32% in the polls, yet Phil Goff is polling at around 8% as preferred Prime Minister. What do you think of him?

DR RUSSEL NORMAN - Green Co-Leader Well Phil’s got a very tough job, you know taking over after the last election, and so I've got quite a bit of sympathy for him in that it's a pretty difficult role, but he's giving it his best shot and I think he's kept Labour in the game, so good on him.

DUNCAN Do you think he could win?

RUSSEL I think it's possible, I mean when you look at Australia with Kevin Rudd, everyone thought you know Rudd was miles ahead but then we saw right at the end there he ran into real trouble, so a lot can change in politics pretty quickly.

DUNCAN Yeah it's not an overwhelming endorsement from you though is it, I mean you think it's possible. What sort of genuine house do you think that Labour has because your fortunes, the Greens’ fortunes rely, without a strong Labour Party you're not going to be in government are you?

RUSSEL Well I think if you look at the way the Greens worked you know with the current government, we've got our Home Insulation Scheme as part of our Memorandum of Understanding, 180,000 households retrofitted with insulation, the biggest single part of a stimulus package, so we've worked with the current government in order to get some progress on our policy objectives, so we work with Labour, we'll also work with National, but the main thing we want to do is promote the Green economic agenda and social agenda.

DUNCAN I mean the Greens’ fortunes in formal arrangements effectively do rely on Labour don’t they, or are you saying that you could effectively work in a formal arrangement with National, you would prop up a National government?

RUSSEL Well what we're saying is – before the last election what we said was that we wouldn’t give confidence and supply to National but we would work with them on areas of agreement, and that’s exactly what we've done with the home insulation scheme, the cycle way, and some other projects – we're announcing a new one next week, but what we said is we wouldn’t give them confidence and supply.

DUNCAN And would you move on that stance, I mean if National were the majority party at the next election would you want a seat around the table, would you do a deal with the National Party?

RUSSEL Ah what we'd do is like we do each time before each election we announce our position in the lead up to each election, and we'll be doing the same next year. So we've got our conference in June and so we'll talk about it then, but you know we try to have constructive relationships with whoever’s in the government, and I think we've been pretty successful about that, I mean the 180,000 households retrofitted with insulation is a great project.

DUNCAN But voters can be forgiven for thinking that you are the natural party of government with Labour aren’t you because Phil Goff said last year in an interview with Gordon Campbell actually, that the Greens are the first cab off the rank, that you are the natural party for Labour, and effectively saying that you wouldn’t work with National.

RUSSEL That’s certainly what we said in the lead up – no actually in the lead up to the last election we said we would work with them, which is what we've done, but we wouldn’t give them confidence and supply, and there's quite an important difference. So you know we have worked with them on these very large projects, this Home Insulation Scheme and other projects, but we certainly wouldn’t give them confidence and supply, and I think it's important to you know hang on to that distinction because that’s exactly what we've done, and I think we've made some good progress there.

DUNCAN What would the Greens think of perhaps a four headed government with Labour, the Greens, perhaps the Maori Party, and throwing in Winston who you'll see on the show very shortly here on The Nation, I mean could the Greens work in a four party or a four headed monster if you like?

RUSSEL Well we'd have to see what that government looked like and you know whether Winston were to get back, but obviously for us the key thing is to make progress on moving our economy in a more Green direction for example it seems to us one of the key things we need to do, and so we'd be wanting to make progress on those. That’s the bottom line for us, it's about actually making policy progress.

DUNCAN And I want to talk about policy very shortly, but do you see any difference between Labour and National. I mean in the Mt Albert bi-election when you stood up there, I covered a meeting where you described Labour as you know neo liberal and hard right, and you referred to Goff in that sense as well. I mean do you see much of a difference really in the two major parties?

RUSSEL We have seen a difference around some of the social policies, but in terms of some of the sustainability issues, greenhouse emissions increased dramatically under the last Labour government, and you know obviously that’s anathema to the Greens, we want to reduce our greenhouse emissions. Water quality got much worse under the last Labour government, so we do have serious criticisms of Labour as well, and the Greens are an independent party, so if we agreed with Labour or National we'd be in with Labour or National, but we don’t, we're critical of both of them, because we think the Green agenda is much bigger than either of Labour or National.

DUNCAN I just want to look at that policy where you may be critical of Labour, and tomorrow they are going to announce sort of a new hard line on foreign investment, shutting out foreign investment, and announce that policy tomorrow, but your policy in fact has been hard line you know for years. Do you think there's a bit of hypocrisy coming out of the Labour Party trying to steal the march on other parties perhaps?

RUSSEL Yeah, I mean when Labour was in government they approved the sale of hundreds of thousands of hectares of land into overseas ownership, something we were very critical of, and so you know if Labour were to adopt our policy, which is – I put up a member’s bill that says any farmland over five hectares needs to stay in New Zealand ownership. If they were to adopt our policy which so far they haven’t, then that would be a good thing, and there are real advantages for New Zealand about keeping hold of New Zealand land in New Zealand ownership. So if Labour were to adopt our policy that would be great.

DUNCAN But Labour are hypocrites here aren’t? I mean wouldn’t you see Labour as hypocrites here, I mean it was Phil Goff that signed that Free Trade Agreement with China, and my reading of the Free Trade Agreement makes it very hard to effectively tighten your rules around foreign investment doesn’t it?

RUSSEL Yeah that’s right the Free Trade Agreement with China does make it harder for the New Zealand government to restrict sale of land into overseas ownership, and of course Labour and National both voted for the Hong Kong deal just a few weeks ago, which again makes it harder for us to put constraints around the attempt by the Hong Kong based company Natural Dairy to buy the Crafer Farms. So there is a tension between Labour saying all of a sudden that they're not so happy about foreign buy up of land.

DUNCAN It's hypocrisy isn’t it? Isn’t it hypocrisy?

RUSSEL Well if they were to change their mind, and admit they made a mistake that would be a good thing, but are they gonna turn their back on their total embrace of neo liberal free trade agenda. That will be very interesting to see.

DUNCAN And would you make – I want to look at bottom lines – would you make free trade agreements a bottom line in any kind of formal coalition with the Labour Party, would you for instance want FTAs going on hold? Because I mean it seems to be the greatest area of difference between the two parties.

RUSSEL It's a significant area of difference. For us it's about what the trade agreements do is they place constraints on the ability of the New Zealand government to protect whether it's workers’ rights or whether it's the environment. So we wouldn’t necessarily make it a bottom line, but certainly it's one of the key things. You know the Greens are actually really into trade, it's just a question of what are the terms of that trade, and what kind of bindings does it put on national governments, those kinds of Free Trade Agreements.

DUNCAN Just looking at your policy around foreign investment, would you actually stop land being sold you know when it's not a New Zealander? I looked at some of Kennedy Graham’s work on this, and it would seem to suggest that if you're not a New Zealander you may have trouble actually buying land in New Zealand.

RUSSEL Yeah it's about saying that land stays in New Zealand ownership which has a definition under the Overseas Investment Act, so it's either New Zealand citizens, permanent residents, or New Zealand companies or different kinds of commercial entities. We think that that’s quite a sensible policy, there's only so much land in New Zealand, there's a global land grab on at the moment because countries like China and other countries are trying to buy land, productive agricultural land, all around the world, which makes sense for China, but it doesn’t make sense for us to let it fall into….

DUNCAN So for Labour to be credible on this, for their big flip flop or u-turn tomorrow to be credible, do they have to go as far as that do they?

RUSSEL Well I think if they're serious about protecting New Zealand ownership of land, then actually they do need to go that far, because in that – we can a campaign against, if you remember National were proposing to weaken the laws about overseas investment about 18 months ago. We ran a campaign around that and got National to do a u-turn, us and others, and the test that National have introduced is pretty weak, and so the question is would the test that Labour introduced be as weak as the one that National introduced.

DUNCAN Well you called Phil Goff neo liberal, do you think he's credible on it or not? I mean you’ve criticised him in the past for being far too far on the right.

RUSSEL Yeah well I think it's a fair criticism, if Labour doesn’t adopt a strong policy on foreign investment then we'll be critical of it, we'll see what they come out with.

DUNCAN Just finally I want to look at capital gains taxes. You’ve had this policy now for a while on your books, Labour’s also spoken about it. Is this something that a Labour Green government would attempt to push through. I mean I think it would raise about 4.5 billion dollars, this is a capital gains tax on secondary property of course investment property. How keen are you for a Labour government, a future Labour Green government to push that through?

RUSSEL Well you know I think you’ve got to be a bit fiscally conservative right, so if you’ve got spending promises then it seems to me you have to talk about where you can raise the money. Capital gains tax is the missing part of the New Zealand tax system, they have it in most other countries. If you earn wages you pay tax on it, but if you make capital gains you don’t pay tax on it. So there's a fundamental missing link in the tax system. It would raise excluding the family home, it would raise four and a half billion per year, once it finally came into place. So yeah it's something that we would advocate because we think that it would help the New Zealand economy, and also it would help raise some money for the government books.

DUNCAN Is that the most crucial policy that you'd take into negotiation with Labour? What is the one single crucial policy that you would take into a negotiation, well as a small party you may not get too many wins, so what's the most crucial one?

RUSSEL Well, probably the greatest challenge I think for New Zealand is about moving our economy in a sustainable direction, and so for us that’s really one of the key issues, is how do we embrace a Green revolution if you like, the Green economic revolution that Arnold Swartzeneggar talks about. Jeff Ross in this morning’s paper talks about from 42 below, talks about eco capitalism. And so the question is how does New Zealand actually grasp the opportunities around the clean tech green tech revolution that’s underway at the moment….

DUNCAN Final question Dr Norman, if there was a portfolio or a minister’s job that you wanted, what would it be?

RUSSEL It is a simple question. One of the key areas obviously is to have a strong input into the finance portfolio, not necessarily as Finance Minister, but it's critical if we are to move our economy in a sustainable direction, we need to have some sustainable influences on the finance portfolio.

DUNCAN Alright, Associate Finance Minister potentially, Russel Norman. Thank you for your time this morning.

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