Never send to find for whom the bell tolls

Once in 2002 I rang Rod Donald somewhat before 6 in the morning, anticipating he would be calling for the latest poll averages and determined for once to get in first. He didn’t answer but rang me back a bit later.

The phone had been on, he said, but he had been in the shower. Upon which I tried some humour: no doubt, he slept with it under his pillow. Well, actually, he did. Nicola was not very pleased, he added.

Many times I went, telephonically speaking, through the X-ray machine at Christchurch or another airport as Rod still had a point to make to me when he reached the security check.

One of the most recent such episodes was on the Saturday before Helen Clark stitched up her government. Rod was sombre and angry. Clark could have tried harder with the Maori party, he grumped. She had been spooked by Don Brash’s gambit to jerry-build a blocking arrangement and was giving in too much to Winston Peters and Peter Dunne. Perhaps — definitely not for publication — it might be better if there was a Brash government because it would fall apart quickly and the election re-run would usher in a Labour-Green affair.

I can’t recall any other time Rod expressed anger (though he did at times get irritated or disappointed). Hardly ever was he sombre either — except after the election when he agreed that if the Greens had had electorate candidates in all seats the extra profile might have got the 1243 more votes needed for a seventh MP.

I can recall him embarrassed. At his urging once I flew to Christchurch to a Green conference — held at his old school, the posh St Andrews — only to find it closed to the media.

More embarrassments: several times when it was Rod’s turn to buy one of our occasional lunches, he turned up minus credit card. A problem with attire, cards in the wrong jacket. Rod didn’t go for ties, a point of deep and abiding agreement between us and a failed attempt at parliamentary reform on his part.

But those embarrassments were fleeting. Food was not the point and Rod would cheerfully eat un-Greenly. As he used to tell his fellow MPs, “we didn’t come here to eat lunch.” The point of lunch for Rod was discussion and disputation. Punctuated by phone calls.

And the point of politics for Rod was action. He was a do-er, not a be-er.

But he chose the edge of the political spectrum — so anti-GM that Pete Hodgson once flounced that the Greens could hardly save the planet when they spent so little time on it, so anti-free trade that Jim Sutton said he had rocks in his head for insisting, in defiance of orthodox economics, that blocking imports from low-wage workers would improve their lot (though he and I did agree long ago the trade imbalance was a serious issue).

Rod also insisted brake-squealing, stinking, roaring, rocking buses are nicer than quiet, comfortable take-you-where-you-want cars and that roads only encourage cars (right, but cheap cars have hugely improved the lot of the poor, for which he also stood). He rated glass — the stuff that cuts kids’ bare feet — above plastic.

Once I did find myself more radical than Rod. We discussed our preferred burial methods. Rendered down for fertiliser was mine, profane and perfunctory. Upright in a hole and plant a tree on top was Rod’s, planet-friendly.

Out there on the edge of the political spectrum it is cold, literally: a true Green, Rod rollocked in dead-of-winter conferences in unheated backpackers and school halls and the like. At one such frigid conference in 1995 he became co-leader — but only after the conference first decided among three options: one leader (like regular parties), two to be gender-balanced or 692 (the paid-up membership) to be democratic.

But out on the edge of the spectrum there is not much action of the sort most politicians yearn for: new laws and projects to change the nation, or at least some part of it. The Greens’ influence on Clark’s first two governments was marginal. In part that reflected initial high-level distrust of Rod’s operational relentlessness.

So Rod the do-er had to settle for insidious action — living an example. Get people to think and behave differently and the world would change. He thought up the Green MPs’ Thorndon property-based superannuation scheme which doubled as their Wellington base. He backed windfarms and ethical investors and organic growers and brewers and banged on about them.

I was thereby introduced to some fine organic beer. And when callous Australians killed Sergeant Dan the Cremoata Man in Gore and with him an icon of my childhood, Rod vouched for an alternative supplier of rolled oats. Most mornings, therefore, and sometimes over a beer Rod is with me.

He was with me again a few nights back when I decided not to go to his funeral, it having grown too grand for quiet introspection. In that half-in-jest but always-in-earnest tone with which he cajoled attention to a speech or attendance at a Green event I heard him remonstrating over and over: “Why aren’t you coming to my sendoff?”

Instead, while the funeral was on I wrote this piece, in quiet contemplation of someone I came to like almost unreservedly. How could you dislike a cheerful political marketing innovator who worked a morning as a checkout clerk to meet voters, a wholehearted square dancer and hopscotcher in solidarity with his fellow Greens and to hell with media sneers, a kindly deliverer of morning teas to his party’s scrutineers in Banks Peninsula polling booths on election day?

Rod’s action-by-example lived out the John Donne apophthegm, that no one is an island. Of him it can be said, more than of any other politician I have met, “Never send to find for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”