Hon Dr NICK SMITH (National): Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa. Last month I saw this quirky cafe sign that appealed to my nerdiness that 31 years equates to a billion seconds. Bar a few thousand, it’s been a blast and an enormous privilege to be part of governing this amazing little country we share. My time here has had many ups and downs—in fact, as many as the southern mountains that I studied in my PHD thesis.
I acknowledge you, Mr Speaker; past and present National leaders from Jim Bolger to Judith Collins; all my parliamentary colleagues; and my family and friends in the gallery. I also want to acknowledge the many good MPs who post – election 2020 did not have this opportunity.
I came to this Parliament 30 years ago with a passion for enterprise, for science, and for nature. I wanted New Zealand to be prosperous, where hard work was valued, and where every Kiwi has the opportunity to succeed. One of my first duties as a 25-year-old MP was attending the Waimea College prize-giving, where I was dutifully asked to present the academic awards. All miked up, I made the standard congratulatory comments as each student crossed the stage: “Well done. Good effort.” It started to feel tedious, so I changed my message: “What uni are you thinking of attending?” I asked an attractive young woman, “What are you doing after school?” Quick as a flash and loud enough for everyone to hear, she responded, “It depends what you had in mind, young man.” I have since kept my congrats to the safe and boring in the hundred or so prize-givings I’ve attended since.
In my maiden speech I talked of a nation that had lost its confidence and its way. Our economy was a basket case with high unemployment, rampant inflation, and high debt. Our best and brightest were leaving in droves. I do not wish to diminish our current challenges, but we are a much better country today. I caution those in Government who wish to decry the reforms of that era when they’ve been the foundations for the much more successful and resilient nation we are today. I worry that this year’s Budget has public debt ballooning out to $200 billion and back up near 50 percent of GDP, as it was when I was first elected. Imposing the workplace policies of the 1970s is not the answer to the challenges of the 2020s.
I came to Parliament when the seniors were David Lange and Rob Muldoon. I will never forget Sir Robert gruffing at me in the lift: “So you’re a doctor. Are you one of the ones that make you well or are you one of the ones that make you sick?” Sir Robert would be much happier with our deputy Dr Reti.
The luckiest fortune of my first term was the friendships I forged with what began as the under 30s caucus, but got branded the “brat pack”: Roger and Shirley Sowry, Bill and Mary English, Tony and Kara Ryall have become the closest of friends. Many wrongly assumed the strong friendships between the four of us meant that we agreed. We have been on opposite sides of many of National’s policy, conscience, and leadership debates. Our annual week-long shared holidays rotating between the upper and lower and the North and South islands over 30 years have enabled us to enjoy watching our 16 children grow up together.
My first ministerial job was conservation. I know all in this House would want to wish the current Minister Kiri Allan a full recovery. Conservation is the best job in the Cabinet room. To get it once is lucky; to get it twice is to be truly blessed. My appointment to the role was in the aftermath of the Cave Creek disaster. My job was to put in place the systems with director-general Hugh Logan to ensure the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) thousands of structures and facilities would be safe. We also established in 1999 a conservation rangers programme that has trained over 600 since to do the school DOC fieldwork professionally and safely.
My first big Nelson project was advocating for the Kahurangi National Park. We opened it in 1996 with Prime Minister Jim Bolger, Denis Marshall, and I tramping the journey between Mount Arthur and the Cobb Valley. It was a joy to mark the 25th anniversary this Easter with Denis and the key DOC staff involved by retracing the same route. The highlight was the noisy dawn chorus in the Cobb that was silent at the opening, a tribute to the pest control work of both DOC and volunteers. During my second stint as Minister, we did the Great Walks partnership with Air New Zealand, then led by Chris Luxon. That has helped enable takahē to return to this park after an absence of over 100 years. Another highlight in that portfolio was working with Lou Sanson to protect the Lords River on Stewart Island in ’98, then initiating the process for establishing the Rakiura National Park in ’99.
Conserving a good chunk of our landmass for nature was the challenge of last century; the focus needs to shift seaward. I’m a strong supporter of New Zealand’s sustainable fishing industry, and I do not support the Greens’ call for a blanket ban on bottom trawling. It’s no more practical than prohibiting ploughing. But, just as on land, we need to set aside marine protected areas. The Marine Reserves Act was passed by National in 1971, but only one reserve was created by the time I came to Parliament in 1990. This was at Leigh and opened by then fisheries Minister Jim Bolger in ’77. I’ve worked hard all over New Zealand to expand that network. Making the Poor Knights a no-take marine reserve in ’98 was pretty controversial. When visiting the site near Tukukākā, I faced a barrage of protest from recreational fishers. I required a police escort after a death threat was made. I was confronted only a few years ago at Whangārei airport by a cheeky local who introduced himself rather unnervingly as the guy who had made the threat. He jocularly told me not to worry, as he now thought it was such a great idea that he would shoot anybody that would undo the reserve!
I’ve subsequently been involved in creating 17 marine reserves around New Zealand in special places like Kaikōura, Akaroa, Punakaiki, and the sub-Antarctic. I am disappointed the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, covering an area twice the landmass of New Zealand and 10 percent of our ocean, has not progressed. The commercial fishing there is negligible. The history of customary fishing is minimal. This is about New Zealand—Māori and Pākehā stepping up and doing our bit globally to better care for the world’s oceans. My original Government bill got through to the second reading stage and then, post-Election 2017, transferred to Minister Parker but has since gone nowhere. I created a further member’s bill for the sanctuary that I’ll pass on to Scott Simpson. I urge progress on either or both bills.
Prime Minister Jenny Shipley added corrections to my conservation portfolio in ’98. I remember the Opposition interjecting that my only qualification for the job was being descended from convict stock compulsorily deported to Australia. Now, my 86-year-old father in Cairns would want me to put the record straight. Our ancestor Jeremiah Smith migrated to Australia in 1791 by choice. It was seven years in Australia or hanging! The Kiwi contingent of my family still think it would have been a difficult choice. Initiatives I took in corrections were separate youth prisons, the introduction of random drug testing, and expanding drug and alcohol treatment. I remain unapologetically today an arch-conservative on drugs and alcohol. Substance abuse and addiction is at the heart of so much crime, hurt, and tragedy. I don’t buy this line that going soft and being more permissive will see less use and less harm. It’s not a choice of enforcement or treatment. We need to do more of both.
I’m also counting on my colleagues Simon Bridges and Michael Woodhouse to continue the campaign started with the Matthew Dow petition in Nelson to get on with random roadside drug testing. Every month of delay costs another six lives. I’m so relieved New Zealand rejected the legalisation and commercialisation of cannabis. Anybody that believes age limits work have not parented teenagers. There is a scourge of vaping sweeping through our intermediate and secondary schools that makes a joke of the regulated age limit. I also fear we’re being sold a pup on vaping with the claim it’s just a healthy replacement for smoking. We’re actually allowing another generation to become addicted to nicotine.
The 1990s were groundbreaking for Treaty settlements, and for a period I was the associate to Sir Douglas Graham during the historic Ngāi Tahu settlement. What was then considered radical became standard, as Chris Finlayson supercharged settlements during the Key years. My involvement was in the natural resources elements. It was particularly satisfying settling the eight Te Tau Ihu claims covering Nelson and Marlborough, completing the process in the South Island.
I’ve introduced 50 bills to this Parliament, and 45 have passed. Two members’ bills I’m particularly proud of are the Royal Society of New Zealand Act and the Chartered Professional Engineers of New Zealand Act. Science and technology are key to improving productivity and our environment. I commend the Government and the country on the way that we have embraced the science associated with COVID. The cuts to science funds in Budget 2021 are short-sighted. I strongly endorse the ambitious plans of Judith Collins and Andrew Bayly to have our tech sector recharged.
I also want to challenge this Parliament, and particularly the Greens, on their reversion to biotechnology. The GE-free campaign was a con. None of the scary scenarios predicted 20 years ago have occurred. Our outdated laws are holding back opportunities for innovation on climate change and pests and weed control and also in health treatment.
The most satisfying chapter of my career was being part of the Key-English Government. We shared a vision of where we wanted to take New Zealand, and we built a strong relationship in policies in Opposition to work as a team. My work involved creating the Environmental Protection Authority and a fast-tracked but robust consenting process. This enabled us to get on with important projects like Waterview in Auckland, Transmission Gully in Wellington, and Christchurch’s Southern Motorway. I disagree with the Government’s aversion to building roads on the basis of climate change. The answer lies in changing what we drive on our roads, as well as investing in public transport.
Practical laws I’m particularly proud of are those requiring all rental homes to be insulated and to have working smoke alarms. The ACC portfolio was financially challenging, but our reforms got the scheme to be fully funded for the first time in its history.
The work of the Land and Water Forum enabled significant strides in improving water management, including the first legally binding national policy. We do need to lift our game on fresh water, but doing it with farmers and not to farmers will achieve far more. Water storage is part of the solution, and I’m pleased with the role I played in enabling the central plains scheme from Canterbury and the Waimea Community Dam in Nelson.
The last issue from the Key era, which I wish to note with a word of caution, is that of Pike River Mine. John Key’s commitment in the days following that tragedy to do everything possible to recover those 29 brave men was genuine and compassionate. We were as gutted as the families and the nation to be told in 2016 that it could not be done. It was wrong, in 2017, for Labour to promise the recovery of those men when, by then, 800 pages of technical reports said it was not possible. I’m proud to have delivered on my commitment to Bernie Monk of the Paparoa Track and the Pike29 Memorial Walk. I hope we can find a way in the future to avoid national tragedies becoming political footballs.
There is an issue I got wrong. In 2013, I voted against gay marriage. The error is all the more personal, with my 20-year-old son being gay. I want to put on the record today my apology to New Zealand’s LGBT+ community. I pay tribute to Louisa Wall, Fran Wilde, and Amy Adams for their leadership that has improved the lives of my son and thousands of other New Zealanders. I also acknowledge Jenny Shipley’s courage as the first PM to attend a gay pride parade in 1999.
My greatest thanks this evening is to my wife, Linley. She is my rock, my soulmate, and my best friend. I also want to acknowledge my first wife, Cyndy, who supported me through six elections. She jokes that Linley got off lightly, having to only do five. Linley and I are very proud of our blended family of Hazel, Logan, Samantha, and Alex, who are in the gallery. I thank them, as sometimes this job has negative impacts on them. I also thank my wider family, including brother Albert and sister Margo, who have travelled from overseas.
I got good training for Parliament as a child. Each dinnertime, our dad would sit up like Mr Speaker and ask each of us eight children to give a report on our day. I am sure this and my mum’s passion for education influenced my three sisters, all of whom have made great contributions as teachers and principals. In later years when retired, dad campaigned full-time for weeks for each of my 10 successful campaigns. COVID proved a bad omen and kept him away in 2020.
The year I was born, he founded a small construction company. Learning to drive heavy trucks, bulldozers, and cranes was just part of my teenage life. I’m proud of the nationwide contribution my siblings have made to our nation’s infrastructure in each of their businesses, with projects like the wind turbines at Scott Base, the Arthur’s Pass viaduct, the Waikato water pipeline to Auckland, and dozens of bridges and walls around New Zealand. My brother Tim did not sleep for three days in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake so he could ensure that every one of his cranes were assisting the rescue effort. He booked to join us today but had to cancel yesterday due to doing emergency bridge repairs in Temuka. It will be good to re-join the family business, doing more and talking less. I’m looking forward to projects like the Turitea wind farm that will help us meet our Paris climate change commitments.
I must secondly thank the National Party, its board, and its volunteers. My Nelson electorate chairs, from Dan Strong, Dan Dollish, John Sandstone, Russell Wilson, Graham Sutton, to John Weirs. My campaign chairs, Murray Balaise, Max Spence, Bill Dahlberg, Paul Matheson, Garry Stocker, Trevor Cameron, and an army of volunteers—too many to name. A special thankyou to those who helped found the Bluegreens in 1998, Guy Salmon and the late Sir Rob Fenwick. Enterprise and the environment must work together. I also acknowledge my Bluegreen buddies in caucus, like Maggie Barry, Nicky Wagner, Hon Jacqui Dean, Stuart Smith, Erica Stanford, and Nicola Willis.
Nelson has been a very special place to represent, and I congratulate my successor, Rachel Boyack. It’s the only seat in this Parliament that has retained the same name since 1854. I love Nelson’s entrepreneurial businesses, its stunning environment, its creative arts sector, its rich heritage, and its caring community. My greatest concern for Nelson’s future is the centralisation of core services like education and health, with the loss of local control of our polytechnic and health board. My experience as education Minister was that the closer the funding decisions were made to the children, the more likely they were made in the children’s interests. If more central Government was the answer, KiwiBuild would be a roaring success. I’ve enjoyed the constituency role of getting to know thousands of Nelsonians, often over difficult situations. It’s been a pleasure to help many, but also a disappointment where I could not. This grassroots work was invaluable in exposing the parts of Government that are not working and for advocating reform.
Throughout these three decades, I’ve been supported by numerous talented staff, many of whom have become lifelong friends. Trevor Hill who gave 26 years and Nan Ward. It’s wonderful to see more than 20 of my former staff in the gallery.
I sincerely thank every one of them, alongside the backup staff, the Clerk’s office, select committees, library, travel office, cafe, and security teams who make this place work.
Now, the Speaker and I have had our moments, but the worst thing—the worst thing—he’s ever inflicted on me was actually when he was trying to be kind. We were in Turkey on the Speaker’s tour, returning from the Gallipoli Peninsula back to Istanbul. The motorcade consisted of a car for the Speaker, as the head of delegation, a van of MPs and their partners, and motorbikes back and front. Linley and I got a bad tummy bug, and the Speaker took pity on us, offering us the flash Merc for the 400-kilometre return journey. It got complicated when the interpreter decided he had to go in the van with the head of delegation, leaving Linley and I with a driver who did not understand a word of English. My plight was trying to explain to a drive doing 130 kilometres per hour in an escorted motorcade that I was desperate to go to the loo! It was an excruciating three hours. When we finally arrived at Istanbul airport, I tore out of the car so quickly that I caused a security furore.
The thing that struck me most from the Speaker’s trip to Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Turkey is how well-intentioned Governments over time get tired and arrogant. Regular changes of Government are essential for a healthy democracy. Nor should we ever take for granted the importance of free speech and a politically neutral public service. I thank the press gallery—you can be a pain, but our democracy would be limp without you. I pay a final thankyou to the hundreds of dedicated public servants who have helped me in my work. My favourite are those hardy DOC field staff, out in the wet and cold in the most rugged corners of New Zealand, repairing tracks, killing pests, and protecting nests.
I want to conclude on four observations of how this place has changed over three decades. Firstly, it’s much more diverse, by age and gender and ethnicity, and that’s a great thing. My hope for the future is that we also diversify the skills mix in this House. The second change for better is that Parliament is a healthier place, where you are far more likely today to meet your colleagues in the gym than in the bar. The most notable change for the worse is how lame select committees have become today. They’ve become perfunctory rubber stamps. Worthwhile inquiries are blocked. It’s got worse with the distraction of iPhones and laptops. Select committees need revamping to be more collegial, with Government and Opposition MPs genuinely holding Government departments to account for their spending and performance.
There is one last difference I celebrate in signing off from this 53rd Parliament. This morning I woke to the birdsong of tūī from my Hill Street flat, and, on my walk here, saw a beautiful kererū in Parliament’s trees, something you would have not seen or heard 30 years ago. It’s this stunning wildlife, whether you are Māori or European, Pasifika, Asian, or whatever, that helps define who we are as New Zealanders. May the birdsong forever be heard here at Parliament and across our land, to remind us how blessed we are to call these islands home.
Winning and holding a red electorate for 10 terms when you’re a blue MP takes a lot of hard work, a lot of helping people and a lot of building relationships.
It’s takes someone who not only knows the meaning of public service, but who practices it.