Today I come to the end of my Parliamentary career, just four and a half years after it began.
I well remember telling my then press secretary at the Reserve Bank, Paul Jackman, that I was resigning from the Bank to seek election in the 2002 election. He told me that, while he’d never envied me my job as Governor of the Reserve Bank, he envied me the chance to be a Member of Parliament. “Being a Member of Parliament”, he said, “is a very rare privilege, perhaps the highest privilege that your countrymen can confer on you. I envy you.”
I agree with him. It’s been a great privilege.
I admit that initially I found it a bit of a shock. Shortly after arriving in this august institution, I recall telling my loyal secretary, Anne Small, that I was just heading off for half an hour to get a haircut. “Have you got leave from the whips?” she asked.
And when I was ranked third in the caucus, and given responsibility for the Finance portfolio, I had this dopey notion that my office would be somewhere close to that of the Leader – whereas it was miles away, in the outer reaches of the National Party empire. It took me a little while to learn how offices were allocated!
But I’ve had a fantastic opportunity – an opportunity to meet people all over this remarkable country, from all walks of life, from every cultural and religious background; to visit some quite extraordinary companies and organisations, doing things about which all New Zealanders should be proud; to meet with, and gain respect for, politicians of all parties in this House – people like Peter Dunne, Jim Sutton, Tariana Turia, and Rodney Hide. And while I disagree strongly with many of their policies, I respect the ability of both Helen Clark and Michael Cullen. I’ll be eternally grateful for the opportunity I’ve had.
Madam Speaker, I’ve had a lot of fantastic opportunities in my career to date – the opportunity to work on the problems of economic development with Robert McNamara and Lester Pearson; to contribute to the development of a modern money market in New Zealand in the seventies; to chair the committee of three that designed our GST, and other committees that helped to make the New Zealand tax system one of the most efficient in the world; the opportunity while at the Reserve Bank to put four remarkable New Zealanders – Ed Hillary, Kate Sheppard, Apirana Ngata, and Lord Rutherford – on our bank notes; and the opportunity to reduce inflation from the double digits of the eighties to below 3% in the nineties.
But I resigned from the Reserve Bank at the end of April 2002 because I was deeply concerned about where the country was getting to, or perhaps more accurately not getting to.
Keeping inflation under control was very important, but it was not enough to lift living standards and prevent the exodus of tens of thousands of Kiwis across the Tasman and across the world.
Keeping inflation under control was not enough to improve the quality of our school system and prevent a quarter of our children coming out of a decade of schooling barely able to read, write and do basic arithmetic.
Keeping inflation under control was not enough to get hundreds of thousands of people out of the poverty trap which the welfare system had become.
Keeping inflation under control was not enough to fix the hospital system and give all New Zealanders access to the kind of healthcare they need.
Keeping inflation under control was not enough to keep New Zealanders safe from those who would prey on them and their property.
Keeping inflation under control was not enough to ensure that all New Zealanders, regardless of racial background, are treated equally under the law.
And those were the things that desperately needed to be done.
Looking back over the last four and a half years, I obviously have some regrets. I never made it into government. I didn’t change a single law.
I regret that my views on the Treaty of Waitangi were misunderstood by many as an attack on Maori, instead of a serious attempt to deal with issues which, if not dealt with effectively, can hugely damage the future of both Maori and non-Maori New Zealanders.
I regret that my views on the urgent need to reform the welfare system were misunderstood as an attack on those who depend on that system, instead of a serious attempt to free hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders from the shackles of dependency.
I made some mistakes.
Like sending a letter to the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral declining his invitation to speak, and making disparaging remarks about Helen Clark’s attitude to religion and the institution of marriage. While I didn’t personally write the letter, I did sign it, and take full responsibility for it. Given all the circumstances, that was not one of my most brilliant letters.
Or like confusing friend and foe alike by voting for the first reading of the Civil Union legislation and against the second reading, on the grounds that such a major change in our social institutions should require ratification in a referendum – while making it clear that I’d vote for such a referendum.
Or like remaining silent when the National Party caucus decided, under previous leadership, that, had National been in Government, we would’ve supported Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States in the invasion of Iraq, even though I had serious misgivings about the wisdom of that course of action.
But I also look back with considerable satisfaction. Democracy works best when the government is held to account by a strong Opposition. When I arrived in Parliament in July 2002, the National Party caucus was a much diminished and rather demoralised group of 27. Following last year’s election, the National Party caucus was a greatly invigorated team of 48 enormously talented and highly motivated people, with a huge diversity of backgrounds. New people like Chris Finlayson and Tim Groser, like Nathan Guy and Jonathan Coleman, like Jo Goodhew, Kate Wilkinson and Jackie Blue. The gene pool from which John Key will be able to choose a Cabinet is as good as that enjoyed by any Opposition party in many a year.
Of course, last year’s National Party vote – the best in any election since 1990 – was the work of many of my colleagues, and of the Party organisation, and certainly not solely my effort. But I believe I can share the credit.
I also take some satisfaction that I’ve made some contribution to the public debate about the economy.
There’s now a widespread recognition that we continue to fall behind Australia, not rapidly but relentlessly; that seven years after Helen Clark talked about regaining the top half of the OECD within a decade, we’ve not moved up one rung on that ladder.
There’s even widespread acceptance that reducing the tax burden on hard-working New Zealanders needs to be one part of a package of measures to fix this situation.
I take some satisfaction that I was able to advance the discussion on relations between Maori and non-Maori in New Zealand – and managed to convert the town of Orewa from a place to a date, so that people no longer talk about north of Orewa or south of Orewa, but about pre-Orewa and post-Orewa!
Almost everybody now pays at least lip service to the principle that there should be one law for all New Zealanders; that the Treaty of Waitangi established the basis for a single sovereign state, providing everybody with the same rights and privileges, not some kind of dual sovereignty.
Almost everybody now accepts that having the resolution of Treaty settlements drag on and on, decade after decade, is seriously damaging to race relations in New Zealand, and encourages Maori New Zealanders to believe, against all the evidence, that their economic well-being depends on the size of a compensation cheque.
Most people now accept that there’s no longer any justification for separate racially-based electoral rolls, with the discussion focused on when, rather than whether, those separate rolls should be abolished.
And most people recognise that affirmative action of a kind that sees some New Zealanders getting access to university courses with lower grades than those required by other New Zealanders is demeaning and patronising, and engenders anger and ill-will on the part of those not so preferred.
When I was approached to stand in the 2002 election, one of the people I talked to was David Caygill. He encouraged me to stand. He warned me that National was likely to lose the 2002 election, but he said that even in Opposition I might have some influence on the national discussion, on the national debate. And so it has proved to be.
I even take some satisfaction on issues where I demonstrably failed.
Shortly after entering politics, my son Alan persuaded me to read Lynley Hood’s book “A City Possessed”, a book that tells the story of the conviction of Peter Ellis in the early nineties. I found it profoundly disturbing. Of course, I don’t know whether Peter Ellis is guilty or not, but Lynley Hood’s book raises some very serious questions about his conviction. I take satisfaction that Katherine Rich and I were able to mount a substantial petition calling on the government to set up a Commission of Inquiry into the matter – and have it signed by two former Prime Ministers, eleven law professors, eleven Queens Counsel, and many other prominent New Zealanders, including members from most of the parties in this House. We failed to get an inquiry established; Peter Ellis remains convicted; but hopefully there’s at least some additional awareness of the dangers of convicting on the basis on which Peter Ellis was convicted.
Madam Speaker, I want to thank all those who’ve helped me over the last four and a half years.
My Parliamentary colleagues, and especially my Deputy, Gerry Brownlee, my Parliamentary advisor, Murray McCully, and all of those who supported me through thick and thin.
My secretary, Anne Small, and those in the National Leader’s Office, and especially Richard Long and Wayne Eagleson, my Chiefs of Staff before and after the election; my special assistant in the two years prior to the election, Bryan Sinclair; senior press secretaries Jason Ede and Kevin Taylor; those who helped with Parliamentary questions, Phil de Joux and Sarah Boyle; those who helped deal with mountains of letters and, yes, emails, especially Janie Young.
And my thanks to all those other staff who have helped me – security guards, messengers, telephonists, librarians, VIP drivers, Bellamys staff, and many more.
Let me acknowledge here the tremendous support I received from the National Party’s Board, and especially President Judy Kirk and general managers Steven Joyce and Greg Sheehan. Thank you John Ansell for your award-winning billboard and TV advertising campaign.
And thanks to all the many thousands of National Party volunteers all over the country who collect subs, run raffles, distribute pamphlets, put up billboards, and contribute to the policy development process.
I’m not sure whether I want to thank members of the Press Gallery or not! Sometimes I think I do, but at other times I’m not so sure! But I certainly respect most members of the Gallery, and have developed a lasting friendship with several.
Special thanks must go to my wife, Je Lan, and to my family – my children, my sister, my close friends. Only the families of those who have been in the heat of the political battle know just how much pain and how much stress families suffer as a result of the careers we in this House freely choose. Without their unstinting support through some pretty difficult times, I would not have survived.
Thank you to you all.
Madam Speaker, with just four million people, New Zealand’s not a large country. But it is a great country.
A country of incredible natural beauty.
A country where it no longer feels awkward to sing the national anthem in two languages.
A country where the son of a radical Presbyterian minister and a milliner can grow up to be the leader of the National Party.
A country where I can watch my 13 year old Eurasian son playing happily with a dozen of his friends, and count two Chinese, one Korean, one Sri Lankan, one Eurasian, six Pakeha, and the grandson of a Maori activist – all of them New Zealanders.
A country that has produced people who have succeeded on the world stage – Ed Hillary, Peter Blake, Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Rutherford, Kiri Te Kanawa, Peter Jackson.
A country where we don’t need to bribe public officials to get a fair hearing.
A country where we absolutely take it for granted that an election will be held roughly every three years, and that a government will be elected without bloodshed, with the army safely in its barracks.
As Chris Trotter remarked after a pleasant dinner overlooking a beach on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula a few years ago, “New Zealand is an unqualified success. We are free. We are at peace. And we are rich in all the things that matter.”
All that is true.
But it’s also true that this great country is at risk.
At a time when a trained mind has never been more important for earning a decent income than it is today, more than 40 per cent of adult New Zealanders are unable to read and write well enough to perform adequately in a modern economy – with more illiterate people coming out of our schools every year.
At a time when government spending on healthcare has never been higher – either in dollars or as a share of the national cake – we have hospitals up and down the land asking those with serious heart conditions to wait, and wait, and wait.
At a time when successive governments have made a serious effort to right the wrongs of the past, we have a minority of Maori New Zealanders determined to assert a view of the Treaty utterly at variance with the needs of a modern, democratic society, where every person is equal under the law, with nobody more equal than anybody else.
At a time of near-record export prices, we are still spending more overseas than we are earning overseas, thereby adding $40 million every day to our already-huge external debt.
At a time of almost unprecedented buoyancy in the domestic economy, we have some 300,000 adults of working age (to say nothing of their tens of thousands of children) living on a benefit.
And incomes well below those in Australia, in almost every walk of life.
If, as seems entirely possible, we lose an increasing proportion of our most able to the bright lights of Sydney, London and New York, there must be a serious danger that the pleasant society which Chris Trotter rightly praised will gradually unwind – with a whimper rather than a bang, but unwind nevertheless.
I want something much better – a society where every child is loved; where every child has a good education; where every person is free to pursue his or her dreams provided they don’t cause nightmares for others or expect other people to fund their dreams; where the state protects the natural environment and provides security for all; where all can live at peace, irrespective of race or religious belief.
Madam Speaker, I don’t mean to imply that the dangers we now face are solely the responsibility of the present government. The dangers have been growing for some years.
But I’m absolutely satisfied that the track we’re presently on won’t deal with those dangers.
We need to re-establish the principle of personal responsibility, re-affirm the importance of family and community, and turn our back on the politics of envy, where the party that wins is the one that can take $25,000 off a hard-working Kiwi and spread it around to win the maximum number of votes among those who aren’t so hard-working.
I am optimistic about New Zealand and New Zealanders. I have no doubt that, when the issues are clearly explained, they will support the policies needed to ensure that New Zealand once again becomes a place to which Kiwis want to return.
Let me end by wishing my successor, John Key, and his team every success in promoting those policies that will be of lasting benefit to all New Zealanders.
Copyright © 2021 Don Brash.