Former speaker, Minister and MP for Kaipara, and Rodney Lockwood Smith delivered his valedictory speech on Wednesday.
I think it deserves to be appreciated in full, though have taken the liberty of highlighting some of the highlights.
Dr The Rt Hon LOCKWOOD SMITH (National) : Mr Speaker, may I first congratulate you on your election as Speaker. To me, the Speaker’s role is more than one of just presiding over this House. The Speaker has a responsibility for the quality of our parliamentary democracy. I found it both challenging and rewarding, and I wish you all the very best.
I came into this House at the snap election of 1984. They were extraordinary times. It was only 11 years after Britain had joined the EEC, and, having lost the opportunity for further growth in those high-value markets, New Zealand was struggling to find a way forward. During the 4 years prior, I had been a marketing and product development manager with the New Zealand Dairy Board and knew the impossibly high tariffs we faced for primary produce in the developed markets of the world. As we struggled with the challenges of establishing new markets in developing countries, New Zealand sought to broaden its industrial base and pursued a protectionist path involving subsidies, import licensing, and high levels of Government intervention. By 1984 the economy was in a mess, and I hope history will record more positively the decisive actions of both the Lange-Douglas Labour Government and the Bolger-Richardson National Government that followed. The resilience of the New Zealand economy during the recent global downturn owes much to the courage of those Cabinets, at least in their early years, putting New Zealand’s very real needs ahead of political considerations in pursuing necessary reform.
Twenty-eight and a half years is quite a long time—long enough for me to see 288 members arrive in this place and 263 leave. So many things we rely on today did not even exist then. It is not just the iPads and smartphones; personal computers were in their infancy, as were, I must say, some of our current colleagues. There were no emails, and most members shared a secretary using an electric typewriter. I might also add that there were no such things as electorate offices or electorate agents; that work being carried out unpaid by members’ own families. I had not been a political junkie prior to coming here. In fact, I had been a member of the National Party for only 3 years. I remember during my first days in the House being somewhat surprised by the careless use of facts and figures, and stunned by the scant relationship between what I knew was going on and what I read and saw in the media.
Over the years there have been both personal highlights and regrets. Special highlights include addressing the Anzac Day service at Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli, in 1999. Even the hardest heart could not fail to be moved by the thousands of mainly young faces streaming tears as they struggled with the enormity of the sacrifices made in that special place. A standing ovation from a full ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization at Geneva in 1998 was also special. Whether it was because I spoke for only 3 minutes when most Ministers read interminable speeches written by officials or whether it was what I said, I will never know. But it was the only standing ovation I ever saw accorded a fellow trade Minister, and it stood me in good stead as I went on to chair the APEC trade Ministers forum in 1999. And, of course, the most special highlight was to finally marry the love of my university days, Alexandra, in the Legislative Council Chamber in 2009. We had been apart for 20 years and re-met purely by chance.
Regrets that have lingered include my voting against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in 1986. I faced the classic dilemma of voting according to my own judgement or the opinion of those I had been elected to represent. As a new member I opted for the latter, and I have always regretted it. Edmund Burke was right. As a former Commonwealth Scholar in Science, I have often regretted that I never got involved in that area during my time here. Science and technology have been so crucial to the advancement of human well-being, yet scientists are a rare breed in politics. Internationally, there is something of a disconnect between the two. In politics, for example, green is the claimed colour of sustainability. Yet in science, the very reason we perceive plants to be green is that they reflect green light. They cannot use it. It is red and blue light that sustain most of our living world. [Interruption] It is true!
In 1987 my life was to change for ever. Jim Bolger appointed me National’s spokesperson on education, and the Minister was none other than Prime Minister David Lange. He was a formidable parliamentarian with a great sense of humour. I still remember the Tuesday when I came into this House after tripping and landing on my face when vaulting over a gate on the farm. Lots of skin was missing. David Lange called out across the House in his booming voice: “Huh! He’s been visiting kindergartens again.” I had to either bury myself in education work or my political career would not have been long. We took a pretty bold education policy to the election in 1990. Under David Lange and Phil Goff, Labour had initiated much-needed administrative reform. We carried that on, but my focus was on learning and achievement. Starting with the youngest, we brought in the first ever early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, which remains essentially unchanged today. Believing parents had to be more involved in the education of their children, and with research showing the first 3 years to be so important, I introduced a whole new concept called Parents as First Teachers. I am told the programme recently celebrated its 20th year in operation.
In the school sector we funded the first kura kaupapa Māori and introduced the first ever national curriculum. It brought the teaching of physics and chemistry down into primary level and introduced a whole new concept, technology, designed to help integrate learning. In hindsight I think it was asking the impossible of teachers. With a new curriculum, professional development is so important, and we simply did not have enough money to fund it adequately. At the tertiary level, polytechnics were liberated from the shackles of central bureaucracy, and private training establishments, including the first Māori tertiary institutions, were funded on an equitable basis for the first time.
And, yes, I confess to being the architect of both the student loans scheme and means-tested student allowances. Although the former, I would argue, was good policy—made less good by some later changes—the latter I was never happy with. It was so transparently unfair where students whose parents were unable to, shall we say, camouflage their incomes were pinged and all were means-tested up to an age when young people simply are not dependent on their parents at all. We did it because of the fiscal position at the time, and in tertiary participation New Zealand was languishing at the bottom of the OECD. Although the schemes were not popular, they were part of a package that over 5 or 6 years took our participation rate closer to the top. In other words, they did give many more students an opportunity. By the late 1980s, apprenticeship numbers were also in serious decline. We developed a new industry skills training strategy, establishing industry training organisations and putting industries themselves in charge of the kinds of skills and qualifications needed. Implementation saw a significant turn-round in the numbers involved in industry training, and industry training organisations are still with us today.
To me, though, the most significant development was the Qualifications Framework. Over the years I had watched academic learning and skills training follow their separate courses with little linkage between the two. From my time at Massey University, as both a student and a lecturer, I had seen the synergy result from bringing together theoretical and applied learning. I really believed that if we could break down that old divide, not just between the qualifications but also between the institutions delivering the courses, we could facilitate the learning of so many more students. I dreamed of a seamless education system where students could pursue their learning via a multitude of pathways, their hunger for greater theoretical knowledge driven from the challenges experienced in developing their skills in practical areas of interest. I think it is fair to say that the Qualifications Framework is now well embedded into our senior secondary, tertiary, and industry training systems. But to me it is only starting to deliver its full potential. With the explosion in knowledge, I wanted to see motivated students well into their first tertiary qualification or part way through an apprenticeship-type programme before they completed their secondary years, and it is great that is starting to happen.
After almost 6 years of ongoing reform, one could almost hear the sigh of relief from the sector when I moved on to agriculture and deputy finance roles. However, just as in education, some institutional arrangements in agriculture were also overdue for reform. It was obvious that the producer boards could not continue as they were. I well remember the first meeting I had with dairy farmers in Whangarei, when I outlined the principles of reform that were to lead ultimately to the formation of Fonterra. Fortunately my own involvement with the Dairy Board prior to entering Parliament gave me some credibility, but it would be fair to say the Northland dairy farmers were not convinced. Although I might have initiated the producer board reforms, I give full credit to my successors John Luxton and Jim Sutton for carrying those reforms through. Being deputy finance Minister included the privilege of working with Sir William Birch. I learnt more from working with Bill about to be an effective Minister than from almost any other source. He had the political instinct to know what was possible, a remarkable commitment to getting on top of detail, and the ability to mould officials from disparate Government agencies into a cohesive force to make things happen.
But some of my most interesting years followed my appointment as international trade Minister in 1996. I was fortunate that my predecessors Mike Moore and Philip Burdon had built bipartisan support for trade liberalisation. Strategically, we approached it at a number of levels. Regionally, we wanted to get ASEAN, the Association of South-east Asian Nations, linked up to CER in a free-trade deal. I still remember the day in Singapore when George Yeo, the Singapore trade Minister, and I, the main promoters of the concept, obtained the agreement for the establishment of a working group to scope the benefits and challenges of such a deal. It was the day Beryl called me to tell me my mother had been found on the floor of our home with a brain haemorrhage. But I could not leave Singapore until I was satisfied the ASEAN Free Trade Area CER concept was safely under way. In 1999 New Zealand chaired APEC. One of our key goals was to try and get APEC trade Ministers and leaders to agree to the abolition of export subsidies for the next trade round at the World Trade Organization (WTO). In the build-up, I visited all APEC trade Ministers. Amazingly, we achieved that agreement at APEC, but, sadly, 13 years later the WTO has made very little progress.
At the same time I was actually working on an even more exciting project. Based on the belief in the power of trade and economic integration to bring stability and sustained peace, a project code named P5 aimed to link the Americas across the Pacific into South-east Asia via Australia and New Zealand. To me, it was important for the sustained economic stability of the Asia-Pacific region, and a chance to bring some real momentum to APEC’s flagging Bogor goals of free and open trade. It was not originally my idea. The concept was suggested by US trade ambassador Charlene Barshefsky. But because of my particular involvement with APEC trade Ministers at the time, it was decided that I should promote it. It was called P5 because it involved five countries: the United States, Chile, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. I had obtained the support of four of those.
While President Bill Clinton was in New Zealand with APEC leaders in 1999, the question was put to him at a meeting with Cabinet Ministers in Christchurch as to whether he would endorse the project. He responded very positively, saying that he would return to Washington to sort out what was needed to do it and get back to us. After a few weeks of hearing nothing, I went to Washington to meet with President Clinton’s chief of staff. I was told that time had run out in that presidential term and that Congress could only cope with one major trade issue at a time anyhow. Then it was permanent most favoured nation treatment for China, China having just acceded to the WTO. Having been the first trade Minister in the world to sign China up to the WTO, I could hardly complain about that. Hopefully, the loss of P5 has been more than compensated for by New Zealand being the first developed country to negotiate a free-trade agreement with China, something that may not have happened had New Zealand not played such a prominent role in China’s WTO accession.
With P5 going nowhere at the time, I decided to try and start somewhere and initiated a free-trade agreement with Singapore. George Yeo and I both realised there were no real trade benefits in such an agreement. The idea was to create a 21st century model that other countries could then be encouraged to join. The last Labour Government completed that Singapore trade deal, and through it has been born the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now achieving exactly what I had once envisaged with P5. My trade Minister’s life ended with chairing one of the four main working groups at the WTO as it attempted to launch in Seattle what has become known as the Doha round. That too was an amazing experience, for all the wrong reasons. Massive protests by the anti-trade movement meant dodging tear gas just to get to the conference centre. Despite working 48 hours non-stop in the green room towards the end of negotiations, it was an abject failure, yet interestingly not for the reasons shown in the movie Battle in Seattle; that was pure fiction.
While all that was going on, I was also Minister of Tourism, and I am chuffed that the “100% Pure New Zealand” campaign that we initiated way back in 1999 still seems relevant today. It was always intended to have a wider application than simply our beautiful environment. And so as I reflect on those 9 years in Cabinet, I am reminded of a small verse my father once shared with me when I had to write an essay for homework, my first at secondary school, entitled “My Ambition”. Dad said his father had once quoted him the lines: “We’re here for a brief, brief space, but while I stay I should like, if I may, to brighten and better the place.” I just hope something in those 9 years might have helped do a little bit of that.
In a long political career, if there are successes, there are also some failures. I had a bill in the ballot for members’ bills for at least 6 years. The Land Transport (Left Hand Law) Amendment Bill languished forever whilst I watched new members have their bills drawn within weeks. I must have been jinxed. Not many would know that I put 7 years’ work into a project to redevelop New Zealand’s income tax, benefit, and tax credit systems. The work started on trying to find a way round the massive churning involved in employers deducting PAYE, only for the Government to pay it all back to some employees in family tax credits. My research unravelling that interface soon got into the challenging area of effective marginal tax rates. At the time, a single parent with three dependent children seeking to work their way off the domestic purposes benefit and trying to get from $10,000 of earned income a year to $25,000 would have had to work an extra 20 hours a week at, say, $15 an hour. The problem was the effective tax on that extra $15,000 of earned income was about $13,300, meaning that even though the parent was paid $15 an hour, their take-home pay would have been little over $1.50 an hour.
Things have improved somewhat since then, but high effective marginal tax rates still remain a significant disincentive for many people. I developed a model that completely integrated those three components—income tax, benefits, and family tax credits. It was a model that had tax-free zones for low-income earners only, managed and declining effective marginal tax rates until a flat top tax rate was reached, and all family configurations covered. I was invited to present the work to a round table of tax experts in Melbourne. The Centre for Independent Studies in Australia asked me to prepare a paper for them to publish. At the last minute it was pulled, for fear it might be seen as official National Party policy, and it was not. Seven years work and, even if I do say so myself, some pretty good ideas that could have perhaps gained me another PhD had it been done in a university environment, now no more than spam. I cannot even claim it made it to the trash bin of political history. But that is politics, where you take success and failure on the chin.
Another failure I am less proud of, though, was my failure to successfully help a former constituent with a grievance with the Commerce Commission, despite a 17-year battle on his behalf. It all related to Commerce Commission decision 172 to allow in 1986 the merger of Wrightson and Dalgety Crown Corporation, a merger the commission argued was only permitted because of the conditions it was imposing. The problem was not only could the conditions never be enforced under the law, but, as the Ombudsman subsequently pointed out, even the decision itself was unlawful. My deep concern over all the years has been that the Commerce Commission failed to acknowledge its stuff up and failed to advise my constituent that the conditions of the merger could never be enforced until it was too late for any legal remedy. What troubles me is not that an unlawful decision was made by an important Crown agency, as mistakes happen; it is the length that officials involved went to, spending tens of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on Queen’s Counsel to argue that black was white, including the final advice from a Queen’s Counsel that the unlawful decision involving conditions that could never be enforced represented “best practice”. Three separate select committees in three Parliaments considered this case, all of them expressing serious concerns and two of them writing damning reports on the performance of the Commerce Commission. Yet my former constituent’s life remains in tatters. I can only apologise to him for my failure, a failure I feel very, very deeply.
Some commentators assess members on how successfully they play the political game. But to me what sets a member of Parliament apart is how much they care about the impact of the State on an ordinary person, and how far they are prepared to go in representing people whose lives can be so knocked around by the actions of the State. As I look to the future, this is something that troubles me. The introduction of MMP in 1996 changed this place. Some of it is for the better. There is no doubt we have a broader face of representation, and that is good. But like so many policy changes, it is the unexpected outcomes that need to be watched, and one of those outcomes has been a significant shift in the accountability of members. Obviously list members are very much accountable to their political parties, as they owe their place on the list to their party, but the pervasive power of the party vote has meant that all members are now totally accountable to their parties. This House, in so many ways, has become a place of political parties rather than a House of Representatives. I am not for one moment trying to make a case for the old system, but I do believe there will come a time when we will need to re-examine that balance of accountabilities. Representation is enhanced when members have to help ordinary people in their local communities, many of whom may never have voted for them.
My colleagues, with that off my mind, let me say goodbye. My sincere thanks go to the myriad of people who have helped me so much over the past three decades. I have had the privilege of working with some wonderful colleagues. To former Prime Minister Jim Bolger, my sincere thanks for backing me in such bold education reforms; likewise to Dame Jenny Shipley. The free rein given to me as trade Minister enabled me to pursue initiatives that trade Ministers from most other countries could not even dream of. To Mary Harris, the Clerk of the House, it has just been a privilege working with you. I also want to acknowledge the outstanding officials I worked with, particularly in the Ministry of Education, Treasury, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade; people whose commitment to providing sound advice and helping shape ideas into realities have been a special part of my time here. To those so often forgotten, Manfred the chef and his team at Bellamy’s, the messengers, security, and buildings, Chamber, and gallery staff—thank you. I say thank you to you all.
Hundreds of people helped me first over my 12 years as the member for Kaipara, and since 1996 likewise in Rodney. There are far too many to name, but let me just acknowledge my first electorate chairman in Kaipara, Ron McCallum, and in Rodney my long-serving loyal chair, June Levet. I also want to acknowledge long-time friend John Evans, who managed at least six election campaigns for me. Things would have been so much more difficult without loyal supporters like Richard and Patience Izard, who I lost to Louise Upston, and without faithful electorate agents like the inimitable Maggie Beaumont, who I finally lost to Nikki Kaye. To the self-appointed chair of my so-called fan club, Wendy Hawkings, my sincere thanks.
But standing head and shoulders above them all, despite her shortish stature, is Beryl Bright. I stole Beryl from Merv Wellington almost 27 years ago, and I am not sure he ever forgave me. She was my executive assistant in the early years, my senior parliamentary secretary in my 9 years as Minister, loyally stayed with me despite losing almost half her salary when I was back in Opposition, and has continued to look after me in my time as Speaker. Perhaps most special of all, though, Beryl helped shape the lives of so many young people who worked with me as a Minister—young people like Simon Tucker, newly appointed High Commissioner designate to Canada; Ben King, now foreign affairs adviser to the Prime Minister; and Matthew Hooton, commentator and founder of Exceltium. For all Beryl did, thank you seems such an inadequate word, but I say it from the bottom of my heart. She was wise, witty, loyal, and tough. Even my wife, Alexandra, quickly realised she first had to win over Beryl. But then Beryl was remarkably successful with marriages—six in addition to mine, I think, was the score amongst our staff.
And so, Alexandra, I likewise say thank you for sharing me with this place. Alexandra gave up so much of her own professional career so that we might be together again. As a professional counsellor, she taught me to find the good in all people. She made me a better person, which in turn enabled me to be a better Speaker. In recent years I have felt so guilty that she gave up her wonderful counselling job at King’s College to be with me, and yet has had me only part time. From now on it is full time, I promise.
My colleagues, I have said nothing about my time as Speaker. You have had to endure those 4 years and will make your own judgments. I just want to thank you for the tremendous courtesy and goodwill you have shown me. It has been a privilege to serve as your Speaker. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, may I say to the Leader of the Opposition, David Shearer, that you have my respect for the integrity you have brought to a fiendishly difficult job. And finally, Prime Minister, you bring such extraordinary skills to this place. I want it known that never once in my 4 years as Speaker did you ever try to influence the way I was chairing this House or any decision I ever made. Listening to other Speakers around the Commonwealth, I am not sure many are quite so fortunate. For that and so many other things, I thank you.
My colleagues, we all come here with dreams to, as my father said, brighten and better the place. We do not always agree on how best to do it, but that makes for healthy debate. To you all, every success as you seek to make your dreams a reality. E koutou katoa e rapu nei kia whai kiko aua moemoeā, te tūmanako ia ka tutuki, ka angitu.
[To all of you seeking to make those dreams a reality, the burning desire is that they be achieved successfully.]
Maiden and valedictory speeches are often the only opportunity we get to understand what oativates MPs and it’s usually only the valedictories which enable us to appreciate what they’ve achieved.