Screening and scrutiny vital

Queen Elizabeth II famously described 1992, a year laden with ill-fortune and scandal for Britain’s Royal Family, as an "annus horribilis".

If on the scale of bad years there is something worse than an annus horribilis, that is what the Green Party is having, and then some.

After all the other travails which have beset the Greens in recent months, Monday’s shock news that co-leader Marama Davidson now has a breast cancer diagnosis on her plate is yet another straw heaped upon the party’s already heavily-loaded back.

First and foremost, this is a sad human situation. Ms Davidson’s politics may not be to everyone’s tastes but she is well-respected around Parliament for her sunny personality, constructive approach and all-round decency. Leaders of all parties wished her well.

Ms Davidson is just 50, and is a mother of six. This is devastating news for her whanau, made all the more difficult for it playing out in such a public way.

But Ms Davidson’s decision to go public was entirely typical. Her first thought was to find a positive from such a terrible negative, and she spent much of her Monday press conference educating about breast cancer and stressing the importance of monitoring and early detection.

One in 37 women in their 50s will develop breast cancer. It is the third-most common cancer in New Zealand: the leading cause of death in women aged under 65, it kills about 650 mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts every year.

But it is treatable, and the chances of successful treatment are far greater the earlier a diagnosis is made.

Ms Davidson spoke about how she had attended a breast cancer event at Parliament and been urged by survivors that, being of an age when the risk of cancer increases, that she absolutely needed to get a routine screening mammogram.

Green Party co-leaders Marama Davidson and Chlöe Swarbrick Photo: RNZ
Green Party co-leaders Marama Davidson and Chlöe Swarbrick Photo: RNZ
She did so, and it was that which detected the early stages of cancer. Her treatment is about to begin and she will undergo surgery next month.

The road to recovery will be long and hard, but detection is the first step: an early diagnosis, prior to the formation of lumps in the breasts, gives a 10-year survival rate of 95%.

Ms Davidson has done all she can to protect herself, and set an example for everyone else in the process.

Despite her illness Ms Davidson intends to stand again for her co-leader role at the upcoming Greens’ annual meeting. There had been little prospect of her being challenged and Monday’s announcement should reduce that to zero chance.

The party has already lost one experienced leader following the retirement earlier this year of James Shaw, and with a large and largely inexperienced caucus to be guided it cannot do without Ms Davidson’s guidance at this time.

Her co-leader Chloe Swarbrick is highly capable, but is a matter of weeks into her new role. Only three of her colleagues have more than a term of parliamentary experience, and of them one, Julie Anne Genter, faces a privileges committee hearing into her behaviour in the debating chamber and another, Teanau Tuiono, is a presiding officer and hence to a degree limited in just how political he can be.

While Ms Davidson’s role in caucus and Parliament will understandably be reduced while she heals, her guidance from afar will be vital as the Greens navigate choppy waters ahead. An inquiry into one of its MPs is ongoing, and its many first-term MPs are still learning their way around the complex, let alone their new jobs.

The party has had to draw deeply on its bench strength but the new MPs who have unexpectedly entered Parliament, Celia Wade-Brown, Dr Lawrence Xu-Nan and Dunedin’s Francisco Hernandez, have adapted well to the challenges that they have faced.

At the risk of tempting fate, hopefully this is the final misfortune to befall the Greens this year.

Parliament is about to progress significant and controversial legislation affecting two of the party’s key constituencies, the deprived and the environment. These are proposed law changes which merit robust scrutiny, and need an effective Green Party to highlight any perils or pitfalls which they contain.