There’s a fairly straightforward and informative interview on Stuff today, providing an insight into Russel Norman’s outlook on life. Prior to this I had been more familiar with Metiria Turei’s working class background – something that has informed and motivated her campaign against child poverty and inequality.
Russel Norman is more known for his role as economic spokesperson and co-leader of the Greens. As his bio says on the Green Party website, Norman also comes from a working class background, although, his father made his way into the middle classes eventually.
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!
It was the late 1990s Alliance Party that drew Russel to NZ, and resulted in him staying.
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!
Well, of course he did leave Waiheke, but he continued to live in NZ.
Today’s Stuff interview, foregrounds Norman’s attitude to money and consumerism, headlined: “Frugal Russel true to his roots“. Some extracts:
What was your first paid work?
[Age] 15, I think, I started at Woollies. I started packing … then I got promoted into the fruit and veg department, which was awesome.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude to money?
We were a bit short of money on occasion. I don’t like spending money, as anyone who knows me well knows. Both my grandfathers were Depression-era out-of-work carpenters, who drank too much so both my parents had a rather frugal attitude.
What are your best and worst investment decisions?
Probably my education is my best investment.
Are you a big spender, or a big saver?
I’ve pursued things that haven’t always been well-rewarded, financially. When you’re an environmental activist, the financial rewards aren’t particularly high, for example. Because I’m not a big spender, it’s meant that I’ve been able to support myself. Now that I’ve got a family [partner Katya Paquin, and sons Tadhg and Francis], of course, it’s a bit more challenging. I obviously need to be able to bring in enough money to support them.
Do you think society would be better off if people were thriftier and lived on less?
I’d probably look at it slightly differently. If you look at, say, TV advertising, it encourages what I call a consumer mindset, which says that you will get happy by consuming things. [But] it’s never quite satisfying enough. Then you watch the telly, and they tell you all you have to do is buy one more thing. That is very problematic – both in terms of people not being happy … but also because the consumer ethos is quite destructive environmentally.
Do you trust the “money men” – bankers, financiers, advisers and others who handle money?
I trust them to act in their own interests, if that’s what you mean
What’s the biggest lie about money that people routinely tell or fall for?
That money can make you happy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very important to have enough money. You just need enough money to do the other things which actually really do make you happy, whether it’s your relationships, your passions, or what you find enjoyable.
Norman’s background, then, has some similarity with Turei’s, but there are differences resulting in a bit of a different perspective. His father was upwardly mobile, and he never had to cope with being a single mother.
Norman has, however, developed a healthy skepticism towards the consumerist ethos and the “money men”.
Turei and Norman in combination, provide an important left wing outlook on the problems, and ways forward, in the dysfunctional, “neoliberal” dominated world – part of why I will continue to party vote Green.