Photography Adrian Malloch
If the Labour-Green coalition pull off an election victory, Green MP Julie Anne Genter could be the next Minister of Transport – and she wants to scupper some big roads and funnel more money into public transport projects for the city.
It’s one of the perils of being moored in perennial opposition which, unfortunately for the Greens, has been the case for its entire 27-year life span. “Being in opposition, your job isn’t about implementing policy, it’s more about getting headlines and getting into news stories, and I have to confess I don’t think that’s a strong suit of mine,” says Genter. “It’s been tough to learn that – what’s a story and how do you get the media to pay attention?”
After completing an undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, the American native moved to Paris to improve her French and study politics at Sciences Po (the Paris Institute of Political Studies). This was during George W. Bush’s tenure, the “you’re either with us or against us” years, when overzealous US patriots renamed French fries ‘Freedom fries’ because France wouldn’t support its invasion of Iraq. “I was really demoralised about Bush and the way the country seemed to be overtaken by this nationalism,” says Genter. “It was really frightening to me. And it was obvious that what we were about to do in Iraq was completely wrong-headed and was only going to make the situation in the Middle East worse. So I went to France when he got re-elected in 2004 and that’s really when I made the decision to not go back to the US and started considering moving to New Zealand.”
She had some loose connections to the place. “I had four really good Kiwi friends I’d met over the years: an exchange student in high school when I moved to Minnesota; an au pair from Gisborne I met when I was 18, having just come back to California; and a brother and sister from Nelson I got to know when living in France. They all left me with a great impression of New Zealanders, and of course the gorgeous bush and beaches are well-known across the world.” She also admired our then-leader, Helen Clark.
A big fan of cycling and nature, she moved to Auckland in the belief it was a paragon of cleanness and greenness. Which, of course, it is not. “I love the natural environment here, but I was disappointed with the built environment. The first two years cycling around the city I was really horrified, and I wondered what I’d done. I thought, even LA is investing more in public transport. But there were huge opportunities to fix it and there still are.”
Genter had never intended to get into politics, and there’s “no way” she would ever have done so in the US, but she found the Green Party compelling. “It had these great co-leaders, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Russel Norman, and they were the first politicians who spoke exactly what I thought and I was really impressed by them. So I decided to help the party as a volunteer and I got to meet a whole lot of friends around the country that way, really dedicated people and all trying to change the world in all sorts of ways, so it felt like home.”
After gaining a Master of Planning Practice at the University of Auckland, she worked as a transport consultant, occasionally appearing on TV and radio to expound such controversial proposals as making parking in the city more expensive. Green friends suggested she stand as a candidate. She mulled it over for a year and a half before concluding “that it wasn’t really for me to decide, that I wasn’t pushing myself on the party but just giving them more choice. So I stood and got lucky.”
The Greens have undergone something of an image overhaul of late. Tie-dye is out, suits are in, and more than a few commentators feel their policies are drifting to the right. Former Green MP Sue Bradford was appalled when the party joined with Labour to announce their Budget Responsibility Rules, committing to restrained Crown spending. And last year the party said it would cap overall net migration at one percent of the population, which some saw as a concession to anti-immigrant sentiment.
How did Genter feel about that, as a recent-ish immigrant herself? “We’re not opposed to immigrants. The issue is we need to protect the environment, we need to protect wages and workers, we need to invest in infrastructure, and it’s clear that the National government hasn’t been doing those things for the last eight years, particularly the last four or five when we’ve had record net migration. The party recognises that there are ecological limits to population growth.”
Going into this year’s election, the Greens hope to boost their chances of finally making it into government with a memorandum of understanding forged with Labour. All going to plan, Genter would end up as Minister of Transport. “I’m excited about the MOU because it’s the first time that Labour and the Greens have worked together so closely before an election. It’s too easy for National to go around saying, ‘you have to vote for us because the other people are all going in different directions’. We’re saying, ‘yes we’re distinct parties that have slightly different priorities but we’re willing to work together’.”
Genter is an unflappable performer in Parliament, where she fronts up daily to an ever-revolving gallery of conservative white dudes. After she locked horns with Jonathan Coleman last year over a sugar tax, NZ First MP Tracey Martin pointed out how often disrespect is shown to members of the Green Party, and women. Genter says, “at times I’ve felt unfairly shut down. The speaker [David Carter, a former National Party minister] is not very hard on government ministers, no matter what their position is. I’ve said on TV he has unconscious bias where he tends to cut women off. But nobody’s at fault here, there’s just this systemic bias and it’s a problem that we want to solve together as a society.
“Parliament is not ideal right now. It turns people off politics because people don’t see themselves represented there. They think it’s a bunch of people in a room somewhere, mainly men, mainly white, mainly older, having vicious arguments. Politics should be about everyone respectfully representing their views and finding ways to live together. You can stand up for what you believe in without sledging someone else.”
If the Greens make it into government, how will Genter fix the atrocity that is Auckland transport? “There’s probably not much we can do about bad projects like Puhoi to Warkworth [motorway],” she says, “but we could put a hold on Warkworth to Wellsford, the East-West link, and Penlink. I mean, this is billions of dollars on projects that will do nothing to improve safety or how people get around, to reduce emissions, and if the same amount of money was put into rapid transit, safe walking and cycling, rail freight and coastal shipping, it would make a huge difference. There’s an opportunity to make things way better without needing to raise a lot of new revenue.”
Genter was “humbled and honoured” to eventually get the number four slot on the Greens’ party list. “It’s good to feel like people like what you’re doing because in my job, I question whether I’m doing enough or whether I’m doing the right things, and I suppose that’s a vote of confidence in my work... to feel the members have so much confidence in me is a huge boost to my self-esteem and my sense of purpose.”
Does she want to co-lead the party eventually? “I never had my eyes set on it but I wouldn’t rule it out either. I just want to see us get into government.”