Jonathan Coleman’s valedictory

Jonathan Coleman delivered his valedictory statement last night:

Hon Dr JONATHAN COLEMAN (National—Northcote): One of the things I’ve often been asked is “Why on Earth would anyone want to go from being a doctor to becoming a politician?” And, indeed, there’ve been one or two occasions over the years—and, in fact, some in more recent times—when I’ve asked myself that very same question. But despite my job coming with a permanent open invitation to go on Radio New Zealand National Checkpoint and notwithstanding the maligned motives that some less generous citizens might attribute to politicians, the fact is that it is a very real and rare privilege to serve in this place, to represent one’s community, and to be allowed in to the lives of a wide range of New Zealanders as they experience the best and worst of what life has to offer in this country. That is also because if it’s possible to get in to Government and make it to the Cabinet table, there is the chance to effect real change to improve the lives of our fellow New Zealanders. That is the reason why we all come to this place regardless of our political views.

Twelve years, six months, and 29 days as a member of the New Zealand House of Representatives is a career probably longer than most but shorter than many. I’ve felt honoured to serve as the member of Parliament for Northcote with nine years as a Minister of the Crown. I’m extremely thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had over that period. When I look back on that time, there’s been some incredible political and life experiences, but above all I’ve gone to work every single day determined to make a positive contribution for my electorate and for our country. I was aware that each day I spent in this place was because I’d been sent here by the people of Northcote, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Some leave this place under duress, some too early, and some too late. For me, now is the right time, and I’m looking forward to the future and to the new challenges ahead. There is so much to fit into a valedictory, but having listened to a few over time, the best have a bit of reflection, maybe a little advice, a little bit of philosophy, a whole lot of thanks, and, believe it or not, not too much politics.

I was lucky enough to secure the nomination to contest the Northcote electorate for the 2005 election. My time as a candidate was pretty eventful, with an intense campaign of door knocking, human hoardings, and pub canvassing. It culminated in winning the seat from the sitting Labour member, which, of course, was a massive achievement for the whole Northcote team. That turned out to be a defining point in my political as well as personal life, as Sandra and I moved in to the electorate and built our family life there. And Northcote is now well and truly home. I’ve been fortunate enough to represent an electorate within which the previous five generations of my family have all lived, since 1846, and that has meant a huge amount to me over my career. I believe it’s a pretty rare thing, especially for an urban seat.

That first term as an MP pretty much determines your future in this place, both in the electorate and in this Chamber. I was lucky enough to be part of a health team run by the inscrutable Tony Ryall. He was prepared to share the opportunities around, especially at question time. That certainly enabled me to build a bit of a profile, clashing with the then Minister of Health Pete Hodgson who would scream across the Chamber in response to naïve questions from a young backbencher, which was a bit of a win as far as I was concerned. Yes, I felt like screaming at times as Minister of Health but I never actually did it. Anyway, the point is that politics does not have to be a zero sum game; it’s often described as being that. But sharing the opportunities with colleagues, especially junior colleagues is an approach I’ve tried to follow. Yip, there was the odd career-threatening moment in that first term but I survived to become part of the three-term National-led Government that swept to power in 2008.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to spend nine of my 12 years here as a Minister. My ministerial career kicked off with a short phone call monologue from the new Prime Minister, who had already had to wade through party negotiations and discussions with multiple colleagues. By the time he got to me he wasn’t about to enter into any debates, he just said “You’re doing immigration, broadcasting, associate health, and associate tourism. I’m the Minister of Tourism so you’ll be doing all the work. Catch you Monday.” John Key was a great guy to work for. Ministers agreed priorities with him and if he had confidence in an individual he just let them get on with it. He was, of course, arguably the most talented politician we’ll see in our life time, and to serve as part of that Government was at times a pinch-yourself-to-make-sure-it’s-not-a-dream type of experience.

He could also be pretty forgiving. As his erstwhile attending physician I was with him when as Prime Minister he tripped heavily on the stage stairs while running up to give a speech at Chinese New Year celebrations in 2009. Returning to the seat beside me he commented that his arm was a bit sore. I advised him of a treatment plan with which members of my family are very familiar, namely take a couple of Panadol, forget about it, and all would be well. However, it seems the Prime Minister did not actually follow this advice because the next day he rang to inform me that his arm was actually broken in two places. Anyway, I already had my Cabinet warrant so that was that. Being the Cabinet doctor certainly gave an interesting insight into the constitutions of various colleagues, several of whom seem to think I had an unending appetite for graphic descriptions of their symptoms. Let’s just say there seem to be a lot of very serious man flu running around.

Bill English made a remarkable contribution to New Zealand politics, and it was great working with him across my time as a Minister. Of course, his time as the Prime Minister was all too short but he made a massive intellectual contribution both to the National Party and also to New Zealand politics.

I’ve never been that keen on being dictated to and that is aligned with my political philosophy, namely that while it’s up to the Government of the day to draw up the boundaries of the playing field, if you like, it’s important to then allow New Zealanders to get on with it because they, not the Government, are the best people to determine how they live their lives, spend their money, and raise their children. And that’s what has always attracted me to the National Party’s philosophy. In line with this, on conscience issues that result in massive societal change my instinct has always been that the people should decide, not the Parliament. While thankfully our politics in New Zealand is not as polarised as in some jurisdictions it’s still important to note that philosophical differences are certainly there. While the votes are in the centre, political parties have to be able to mark out clear territory on the electoral spectrum in order to survive.

I came to politics through a background in medicine and business, and I believe that it was the former that stood me in greater stead. Because politics, in the end, is about understanding people. It’s about listening, it’s about dealing with the full range of human nature and emotion, it’s about making decisions and charting a course of action when sometimes there is no right or wrong obvious answer. Medicine also gave me daily contact with New Zealanders of every type and background imaginable. My time working as a doctor in south Auckland remained a long-term private reference point as we sat around the Cabinet table taking policy decisions. Ten dollars to see the doctor was a lot of money for many of my patients and I never forgot that. Later on when faced with really tough issues like cancer patients seeking funding for life-saving drugs I was able to reflect on my bedside experiences.

But there’s no blueprint for being a Minister of the Crown apart from a little known and, I suspect, a little read tome entitled How to be a Minister by the late Gerald Kaufman, an English MP. And I suggest some members of the new Government get hold of a copy pretty quickly. Considering its somewhat limited audience the author probably didn’t make a lot of money from book royalties. I withdrew it in my first week as a Minister and had it on continuous loan from the Parliamentary Library for quite some time, by which time I think two colleagues had actually been dismissed from the Cabinet. I felt a bit bad that my long-term loan of the library’s only copy may have deprived them of career-saving advice. Basically though, new Ministers have to make their own way and it’s very much a sink or swim environment. A Minister has to have a few very clear big picture priorities if they wish to achieve anything. Understanding details is important but it’s the agenda that counts.

My ministerial career started in immigration, which I soon discovered makes one a very popular guest at ethnic events. Some of the representations to my office were slightly unconventional, including one which arrived accompanied by a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey, which needless to say left the office in the custody of the owner. Right from the start I focused on attracting migrants with the skills and capital to make a contribution to New Zealand, including a highly successful business migration programme and the introduction of the silver fern visa to attract promising qualified young people who are likely to make a long-term contribution. We also drove the reconfiguration of the Immigration New Zealand network, aligning the footprint to important markets across the globe while moving processes online and eliminating as much bureaucracy as possible. It’s my view that New Zealand must continue to position as an outward-looking internationally-engaged open economy and immigration is central to that.

However, that term wasn’t always totally rosy. One night in September 2010, Peter Dunne offered me the generous opportunity of reading for him a bill on tax, entitled the Taxation (International Investment and Remedial Matters) Bill. Unfortunately, he sent me down with a copy of a speech he’d given two years ago, on the Taxation (International Taxation, Life Insurance, and Remedial Matters) Bill. Tell me if you can tell the difference. In fact, no one in the Parliament could, until about minute seven or eight, when Stuart Nash suddenly realised there was something eerily familiar about the words that were being uttered. But in the end, of course, the bill passed its reading and as far as I can see hasn’t been repealed yet.

My period as Minister of Defence was extremely interesting and satisfying, and there was a lot going on. The New Zealand Defence Force had three large missions in Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, all of which we withdrew from over those years. At the same time, there was a major review of defence capabilities required to deliver on New Zealand defence policy. We were also engaging with the US on defence matters, after a considerable hiatus, and all in all this was a period of major change.

I came away from my time in that portfolio with a deep respect for the men and women of the New Zealand Defence Force. I’ve never met a group of people more dedicated to the service of their country and with greater pride in their vocation.

There were many poignant experiences, including three visits to Afghanistan, returning the veterans to El Alamein and Monte Cassino, and speaking at the Gallipoli Dawn Service on Anzac Day 2013. But there was none more intense and emotional than travelling the length of New Zealand twice in the space of 10 days to visit the parents and close family of young men and women who had been killed in the service of our country in Afghanistan literally two days before.

One of the things I’m absolutely proudest of, and you wouldn’t have read much about it in the news at the time, was getting the families of those killed and wounded in Afghanistan and Timor-Leste into this Chamber for the dedication of new plaques commemorating those deployments, and those are there, above the entrance to the Chamber. I know that recognition made a huge difference to those people.

To maintain an active, engaged New Zealand Defence Force, operations are absolutely crucial. In that regard, present and future Governments need to think carefully about how they will maintain the important strategic capability that is the New Zealand SAS.

My biggest message on defence, though, is that despite what the sceptics might think, New Zealand’s contribution really does count and has a huge flow-on effect in terms of our overall standing with like-minded nations. I know it definitely helped reopen doors in Washington over the last 10 years.

As stimulating as defence might be, health is actually a much more dangerous portfolio for any Minister. It’s on the front line of politics, and I was delighted to take up the challenge for my final three years as a Minister. It’s certainly a great way to boost your profile, up to a certain point—in fact, even beyond the point you’ve announced your retirement. It’s a portfolio where there is always more to do. Every day in my office, the overriding priority was to continue to increase and improve access to clinical services for all New Zealanders. I’m not pretending the system is perfect, and there will always be pressures in health for any Government. But some critics do the country a disservice by their portrayal of the New Zealand health system.

We delivered results, and the figures tell the story: increased access to surgery, increasing numbers of specialist appointments, decreased waiting times for cancer treatment, vastly improved immunisation rates, and more doctors and nurses. There was also $3 billion of new health facilities the length of New Zealand and a $5 billion lift to the health budget—fully funding population growth and inflation over our time in Government.

Perhaps the biggest single initiative I was involved in delivering was the $2 billion pay settlement for some of the most deserving people in New Zealand—the 55,000 care and support workers, and of course most of those people are women. I know it made a huge difference to them and their families. If the new Government, in the end of their time, can have matched our record of delivery they will be doing very well indeed.

Apart from the focus on clinical results, my big-picture drive was on a new New Zealand Health Strategy, which lays out the blueprint for a sustainable health system. That was delivered, and its implementation will now set up the system for New Zealand for decades to come. The National Government also laid the foundations for an electronic health record, and that will make a patient’s key health information available through the system. It is the only way we’re ultimately going to unlock productivity in healthcare, and I sincerely hope that this is work that the current Government will prioritise.

There were other portfolios too: State services, where I was Minister at a time of the biggest reform of the Public Service in a generation—important, but it certainly seemed like work; sport, where we linked participation to better health outcomes while continuing to drive high performance results—important, but it certainly did not seem like work.

There’s so many people to thank for the past 14 years, first as a candidate and then as a member of Parliament. To colleagues across the House, it’s been a pleasure, mostly, to work with you over the years. To Wayne Mapp, to Nathan Guy, to Judith Collins, to Gerry Brownlee, to Maggie Barry, to Simon O’Connor, to David Bennett, and to Sam Lotu-Iiga, thank you for your friendship. We all need people we can talk to in this place, and I had that, and I’m thankful for it.

To Simon Bridges, National Party leader, and the rest of the National team here in Parliament, thank you for your support, especially since my announcement but over many years before that. Simon, I wish you and the rest of the National team all the best. You will make a great Prime Minister, and you are supported by a very talented caucus.

I had fantastic people around me during my career here in Wellington: my senior private secretary of nine years,

Melissa Turner, Oliver Thurston, Nikki Grant, James Watson, Martin Watterson, Steven Parker, Angela Keneally, Michael Johnson, Kirsty Taylor-Doig, J2 Jonathan Franklin, and Margaret Lawrie. Former Nelson Under-21s fullback and political soothsayer Peter McCardle became a close friend and mentor, and I thank you Peter for all the excellent advice, some of which I even took.

Thank you to the huge number of Public Service secondees and various officials with whom I worked over my career. I always placed the emphasis on building a team in my office over those nine years, and we had a huge amount of fun, as well as working long hours with great intensity.

Electorate teams are special, and I had a wonderful electorate agent for a decade, Anne Lyttelton—utterly loyal, a great friend, and, best of all, she never failed over the years to take the bait when I’ve rung the office impersonating various demanding constituents. Gavin Cook, you’ve given 43 fantastic years of service to the electorate committee, and you’re like a close uncle to me. Colin and Helen Hartwell, you’ve been with me from day one and I thank you for all the times we’ve had over many years. We will still all catch up.

To electorate chairs Callum Dixon, Jason Shoebridge, Kevin Kline, and Alex Foan, thank you so much for all your work, support, and loyalty. To Angela Hare, Karen Meldrum, Valerie Taylor, Adrienne Moat-Wilson, John Palmer, Geoff Parry, Paul Lahore, Martin Cooper, John and Ali McFetridge, and Julie Fenning, to Peter Kylie, to Alastair Bell, Margaret Voyce, the Ellis family, to Martin Gummer, and to Tim Hurdle—thanks for the tremendous part you’ve all played along the way.

One of the toughest parts of being a member of Parliament—a long-term member in an electorate—is the people you lose along the way. I want to remember the late Bob Mitchell and the late Bill Plunkett; sterling guys, who left a big hole to fill.

To former Birkenhead and Northcote MPs Sir Jim McLay and Ian Revell, I’m absolutely thrilled that you’re here today. You’ve been staunch supporters over many years—my whole career—and I thank you.

To the National Party, to presidents Judy Kirk and Peter Goodfellow, thank you for the opportunities of the last 12½ years. To the people of the Northcote electorate, representing you has been the greatest privilege. You were so loyal in your support over five elections, and I thank you. I’ve been truly moved by the reaction to my resignation, and it has meant everything to me. Being an electorate MP is not a job; it’s a whole life. I feel privileged to have lived it for nearly 13 years.

Northcote is not an electorate I ever took for granted, but it will reward sheer hard work with loyalty. I wish the new National candidate and the team all the best in the upcoming by-election.

To personal friends, many of them from well outside politics, including the Northcote Book Club—thank you for your support and forbearance over the years. It’s going to be great, actually, now to be able to see a lot more people than I have been able to for quite some time in some of my favourite haunts, like the Northcote Rugby Club, the Northcote Tennis Club, and the Northcote Tavern. I’ll be able to spend quite a bit more time there, although hopefully not too much time in the tavern. But it will be good to be back home much more often.

To the wider Coleman and Keeney families, thank you for being there at a personal level. To my mother, Pat, and her husband, Jack, thanks for everything over more than just these last 13 years. To Kay, Richard, and Matthew, and families; to Judy, my mother-in-law, thank you. And I honour the memory of my later father, Ron, a Northcote boy. He would have been amazed to see how it’s all turned out.

Above all, to Madison and Jack, you’ve had a taste of the political life and are just two awesome kids who have grown up thinking it’s normal to see Dad on TV. Jack, you were born when I was a Minister and you’re now 10; so, you know, that’s a long time. I know you don’t like being mentioned too much, but your name is in the Hansard now. Madison, you are the same. You’ve been a fantastic inspiration to me over many years, and it’s now great to see where you’re going and the next stage, when you move off to intermediate school next year. Actually, Jack is eight; Madison is ten. I’ve spent so much away from home! I knew he was shaking his head for a reason, and he’s pointing his finger.

Anyway, to Sandra, who never liked being known as the Mayor of Rotorua’s daughter and had a very healthy sense of perspective on being the MP’s wife, this has been a long and important and fun chapter for us, but I couldn’t have started that chapter, I couldn’t have moved through it, and I certainly couldn’t have successfully finished it without you. Thank you. I still can’t believe I didn’t tell you I was contacting the National Party about being a candidate, but I guess that’s a while ago now. You’ve been with me every step of the way since that time, and you’ve seen and done it all, from delivering pamphlets to emotional support. Yes, I am in debt to you big time.

Finally, to distil political advice into succinct verse, look no further than a poem by an old white guy called Rudyard Kipling, called “If”, which he wrote as advice to his son. I’m not going to recite it in its entirety but it’s worth the read for any politician—or, actually, for any one at all.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—

Yours in the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Thank you, and kia ora. It’s been a pleasure to serve

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