It was a dark and stormy night. The wind was blowing, rain was pouring and I was going to see Kevin Hague. Kevin agreed to meet with me after a blog post he said he’d write on bike touring never eventuated. He was “keenly aware” of this fact and wanted to make up for it. The fact that he thought there was something to make up for is a reflection of how good a guy Kevin is.
When you talk about Kevin Hague to anyone who’s political, they all speak highly of him. They say he’s a really nice man and very smart. In fact of all politicians that have a high-ish profile, Kevin is the one who seems to be held in highest regard across the divide. I put it to him that everyone thinks highly of him and he seemed genuinely chuffed about it. That wonderful New Zealand modesty kicked in. And he wasn’t even born in New Zealand.
“I’m very pleased to hear people say that”, he began in a self-effacing manner, “if they do say that, I think it reflects the fact that I try and find common ground. There’s no mileage in being somebody’s enemy.” That’s probably Kevin in a nutshell. Eminently reasonable. Which is possibly not something you naturally associate with the Green Party. But we’ll get to that.
We arranged to meet at 8pm in his Wellington office. When I got to Bowen House there were a lonely security guard and some awkward-looking lobbyists waiting there. The guard on desk tried to call Kevin but there was no answer. Had I gotten the time wrong? Was I here on the wrong day?
I sat in the lobby feeling like it was high school all over again, when the elevator dinged and out walked Kevin. He’s a tall man and has a nice smile. However he does bear a striking resemblance to Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. I asked him if people told him that all the time. He said no and then did an excellent impression of Brando’s “the horror…the horror”. I love a man who gets my film references.
He came over and introduced himself and we went to his office. He explained to me the ‘late shift’ he was on and that a lot of party votes required 75 per cent of the party to be in the house or you’d start losing votes. I’m always interested to learn political process like this because I’m a HUGE NERD.
However I wasn’t there to indulge my nerdiness, I wanted to ask some questions. The Green Party has a funny place in New Zealand’s political spectrum. It is easily our third most influential party (some might even argue it’s second), and yet it is probably treated as a fringe party. Last weekend Russel Norman went on television to debate Jamie Whyte. One of those people is the co-leader of a party polling in the mid-teens. The other is the leader of a party polling within the margins of error. The public also demands that the Greens’ policies stand up to more rigour than we ask of any other political party. I think this is because they still have a whiff of pseudo-science about them.
There are stories of former Green MPs entertaining 9/11 truthers, some campaigning against aspartame and other such non-sciencey things. Kevin Hague is not one of those and he goes to great lengths to explain that to me. He’s pro-fluoride but understands the disconnect that creates between him and some of the Green Party base. We talk about that – I compliment him on the way in which his party has adopted more rational stances on a lot of issues but wonder if the ‘radical base’ is disenchanted.
He says that the Green Party is a very broad church. The idea of the hippyesque Green Party member was correct but is less so, now. There are still a wide variety of people who support the party. The conspiracy theorists make up a proportion of these, but only a small one.
“Some of them may even believe in chemtrails“, he says, as though that’s the benchmark for crazy conspiracy theory.
This is all well and good, but the Green Party’s policy on fluoride is to give territorial authorities the right to opt out of fluoridation, and it also wants to look at doing new studies to test whether or not fluoride is dangerous.
The science is pretty settled. So what the hell, Green Party? Kevin tells me that the party’s policies are written by committee and not by him. He personally would have not had the study component, though he doesn’t see that as being harmful. He would have kept the part where TAs can opt-out. “There’s no national constituency to make that decision.”
He then goes on to cite a very “interesting” decision by the Health Select Committee. It recently recommended that the power of fluoridation decisions be taken away from TAs and given it to the DHBs. This has not been formally adopted though. As a former DHB CEO, Kevin is in favour of this. DHBs are made up of “health experts”, you see, while city councils require … less expertise.
I ask him about folic acid. The Green Party’s health policy here is similar to its policy on fluoride. Except folic acid isn’t already in our food supply, because the National Government backed down from that policy. Kevin is of the opinion that for something like folic acid to get to the people who need it most, it would have to become mandatory.
This leads to an interesting discussion about health education.
“Tony Ryall as Health Minister seems to believe that you can fix a problem by throwing more health education at it. But in actual fact, you don’t reach the people who need it most. If you print off a brochure and hand that out, the people who read it are those who already know. Health education is only effective for those already empowered.”
This sentiment touches on a cornerstone of Kevin’s health policy beliefs. The Green’s health policy seems to very much follow a utilitarian principle: to the needy, the most. But Kevin doesn’t think that’s how it’s currently working. He thinks that under Ryall, National has turned health into a politicised vote-winner. Elective surgeries, hip replacements, and waiting times – these are all “success measurables” now. However, focus on these issues doesn’t work to actively make New Zealand healthier as a place. To achieve that, it requires the sort of long-term planning that this Government isn’t famous for (see: sales, Asset).
Kevin says that diabetes is a good example. If you invest in diabetes prevention rather than treatment, you don’t see any benefit for 10–15 years. Meaning that no Government is likely to get the kudos for such an investment.
Kevin doesn’t seem to think highly of Tony Ryall’s job as Health Minister. He thinks Ryall’s let the important stuff slide while just trying to tick off a series of key performance indicators that make it look like our health system is performing well.
“Under National, in real terms, funding has gone down. Ryall has reduced the arguments to sound bites.” Kevin views Ryall’s decision to increase elective surgery as a “crass judgement call”.
We talked about Ryall’s “surprise” retirement. Except to Kevin it wasn’t much of a surprise. He’s 100 per cent confident Ryall acted irresponsibly around the Southern DHB scandal to do with possible fraud. He doesn’t explicitly say that this may have pushed Ryall into leaving, but it seems to be the subtext.
One of the reasons I personally hold Kevin in such high regard is that his speech on the marriage equality bill at its third reading caused my wife to cry. Now I’m not a sadist who loves making his wife cry, I just love seeing my apolitical wife take an interest in politics every now and again. The only other time she’s cried during a political speech was when Obama gave his victory speech at the 2008 election. By that measurement, Kevin is in some high class of politician.
I asked him why he thought the marriage equality issue connected with New Zealanders. I was expecting to hear that it appealed to New Zealanders’ alleged innate sense of fairness. Instead Kevin surprised me by saying that it was because of love.
“Everyone gets what love is”, he said. “We deliberately framed it like that so that everyone could connect with it.” And nearly everyone did seem to connect with it. Two fairly well-known lobbyists from opposite sides of the Red/Blue divide joined forces to help make marriage equality a reality. It was this pan-party support that really tickled Kevin.
“We very quickly built a cross-parliament team which included MPs and staff and worked with those parties’ organisations outside of parliament”
Despite this, there was still some doubt as to whether they’d be able to get the bill over the line. There was a clear turning point:
“When John Key said he’d vote for it, we knew then. If he didn’t, we knew there was no chance.”
The marriage equality bill threw up some weird and wonderful heroes and villains. It’s a matter of record now that Maurice Williamson’s big gay rainbow speech hit a chord with people. But Kevin says it’s almost disappointing that Maurice’s speech got all the attention, when there were other powerful and great speeches. He cites Chris Auchinvole and Dr Paul Hutchison as having delivered particularly good speeches.
There was one speech that came in for a bit of scorn though. That was National’s MP for Wairarapa, John Hayes.
Hayes called the bill a “sideshow”. He dressed up his bigotry by saying it represented the views of his constituents. He then ran through the bingo card of gay-marriage-bashing: slippery slope to incest and polyamory, marriage is under God’s eyes and God hates the gays – he even busted out the ol’ marriage is for procreation stance (did anyone ask him if this meant infertile or those who didn’t want kids weren’t allowed to get married?).
Hayes’ speech is the closest to homophobia that Kevin has experienced at parliament. He’s sure there is other examples; he’s just not witnessed too much of it.
He doesn’t have terribly kind things to say about Hayes. He said when he started his first term in parliament he sat next to Hayes and Alan Peachey. He said they were like Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets. Always interjecting (not cleverly), not helping, just being old white men (my words, not Kevin’s).
Kevin didn’t take it personally if MPs voted against the bill. He’s too mature and agreeable for that. He said he had a lot of time for Chester Borrows. He believes that Chester’s views were sincerely held. He was, however, disappointed with Rino Tirakatene.
“Rino voted no but didn’t warn anyone. I just felt sorry for him, then disappointed.”
He thinks that those who voted no will eventually realise they’re on the wrong side of history.
On the Greens’ website, it says Kevin’s favourite movie is Zoolander. I asked him about that. To be fair, it’s a terrible movie and we should all judge him for it. Kevin says he watches films for escapism, as his work can get quite heavy. Which I will allow. He does have some high-lit type films that he enjoys – Slaughterhouse-Five and The Fog of War. So his taste in film isn’t all bad.
We finished talking about NZ First’s (or more likely, Winston Peters’) apparent hatred of the Greens. Kevin said that if you take a holistic view of parties then you’ll just fight and squabble because “your party isn’t exactly the same as my party, otherwise I’d be in your party”. He said that there are similarities between the Greens and NZ First, and he hopes Winston realises that, because “there’s power in commonality”.
And that’s Kevin isn’t it? Always looking for a way you can relate to him, or he to you.
This represents but a small fraction of the conversation I had with Kevin. We got all deep and philosophical-like, but good lord, I’m already up to 1,950 words and I try to keep blog posts to a meagre 800. So y’all miss out.