National MP for Selwyn Amy Adams delivered her valedictory statement this week:
Hon AMY ADAMS (National—Selwyn): In rising to make my valedictory statement, I feel every bit as humbled and as privileged as I did when I rose to make my maiden speech from the very back row of this Chamber 12 years ago. It’s always seemed to me that time has its own rules in this place. My maiden speech feels both just like yesterday and at the same time a whole lifetime ago. I battled my emotions during that speech, and I give the House fair warning that I’m highly likely to succumb again tonight. I remember giving a pretty emotional speech in the general debate shortly after the first major earthquake had devastated much of Canterbury and losing the battle on that occasion not to cry in this House. As I tried to get a grip on myself, I recall Hone Harawira yelling out, “Kia kaha, sister.”, and I remember thinking, “Holy cow, if Hone is feeling sorry for a Tory like me, I really must be a mess.”
I spent a good portion of my maiden speech casting back to some of the debates in the battle for women’s suffrage that reflected on the benefits that women members would bring to politics. I’m incredibly proud and actually quite shocked to find that I was just the 98th woman member in New Zealand’s history to become an MP. Over my time as an MP, I’ve tried to use the role to encourage more women to see their futures without limits and to push back on the still unlevel playing field. As any woman in this place can tell you, we continue to face a type of scrutiny and criticism that is unique to us, and often a different measure of competence. While the number of women in politics is growing, we still have some way to go. But as MPs we have the ability to model possibilities for so many New Zealanders, and that’s something we should never lose sight of.
One of my proudest moments came five years after I’d been asked to give a speech to the seniors at my old high school, Rangitoto College. I talked about the fact that I’d never won a prize of any sort at school, and while I’d done OK, I certainly wasn’t someone who was marked out for bigger things. Years later, a woman came up to me and told me that she’d been in the audience that day and after hearing me, she decided she would go to law school, too. She’d just graduated, and she came up to thank me for making her believe that she could. I have to say, I was lost for words that our stories could have such an impact, but they do.
I’ve never really seen myself as a politician. I didn’t come from a political family. I wasn’t a youth MP. I wasn’t a member of a youth wing of any party, nor did I study political science or work in the halls of power before coming here as a member. My path to this place grew out of a deep love of my country and an overriding sense of optimism of what being a New Zealander could and should mean for everyone. After my children were born, I found myself increasingly thinking about what their futures in New Zealand looked like and worrying when I thought we as a country were getting it wrong. I grew up in a household where sitting on the sidelines complaining simply wasn’t an option. If you thought something was wrong, you had two choices: you could suck it up or you could do something about it. So the opportunity to step into the ring and try and make a difference became everything. Standing for Parliament and nailing my political colours to the mast was one of the scariest things I have ever done in my life. It involves doing that very un-Kiwi thing of stepping forward and saying out loud that you think you’re good enough. But it has been, without question, one of the best decisions of my life.
I have to say that I started my time as an MP in a relatively bizarre way, and I’ve seen it end in a similarly unusual way. My selection and initial election involved a candidate being selected for the seat then unselected after a public furore, then a new process being commenced, then a High Court injunction, and finally a rare Electoral Act challenged based on a disgruntled aspirant challenging the party rules. After a hearing before a panel of judges in the High Court in Christchurch, which some of my colleagues will member for a number of reasons you can ask them about later, I had to come to a question time early in my first term to listen to the Speaker deliver the judgment of the court, without any idea how the court had ruled and knowing that if the applicant had won, then the Serjeant-at-Arms would be called upon to eject me and I would’ve had one of the shortest terms as an MP ever. I have to say that keeping a poker face while the judgment was being read involved acting skills my famous namesake would have been proud of.
After a beginning like that, it’s only fitting that the end of my time as an MP has also been somewhat non-traditional. It’s always good to hold some of the firsts in this place, and I’m pretty sure that I am the first MP to have retired, unretired and then re-retired all without actually leaving. When I told my son a few weeks ago that I would be announcing I was stepping down, he said, “OK, thanks for the update, mum. Just let me know when you un-retire again.” It was a bit harsh, Tom, but I do admit that I must seem a little bit like the A J Hackett of New Zealand politics.
Michael Cullen described a valedictory as like being asked to give the oration at your own funeral, and I have to say it does feel a little bit like that. It’s a surprisingly uncommon thing to be able to say you are going at your own time, of your own choosing, and, in recent times particularly, to know that you leave with your reputation and your integrity intact. I’ve been here for less time than some, but for longer than most. And I’ve been fortunate to hold a vast number of roles, including holding 13 ministerial roles over six years around the Cabinet table. I do have one perspective, though, that those of you who are staying on don’t yet have. And that’s of being in the position to reflect back on my time here as I think about what really matters when you come to say goodbye.
That reflection puts our work here in a different light. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day, the relentless news cycles, the parliamentary skirmishes, the never-ending papers to read, and the palace intrigue. Years can pass like that, filled with unbelievable hours of hard work, little sleep, and high stress. But that’s not why any of us come to Parliament. Simon Power, who was an MP I greatly admired, said in his valedictory, “People don’t spend years getting elected, more years waiting to get into Cabinet, to then say ‘Well, I managed that week well. I minimised risk, I had no view, I took no decisions, I stayed out of trouble. Well done, me!’ Once you’re in office, you’ve got to do something. People come and go, but ideas endure.”—and I agree with that.
In the words of Teddy Roosevelt I have a horror of words that are not translated into deeds, of speech that does not result in action. None of us should measure our contribution here by our goals, our hopes, or how much public money we spend in pursuit of them. The only measure that counts is the difference that our actions, ultimately, make for people. It’s not good enough just to deliver a programme if that programme doesn’t actually make the difference it was supposed to. In my view, we don’t spend enough time as a system looking back and answering those sorts of questions.
I don’t think anyone leaves this place without some things left undone. I have plenty of things I would have liked to achieve, including—Mr Speaker, I’ll admit to you now—a secret desire to have been thrown out of this Chamber. There is still time, however.
SPEAKER: Three more days.
Hon AMY ADAMS: Ha, ha. But for all the things not done, there are many more that I do reflect on with pride. The Parliamentary Library tells me that I was responsible for the introduction or carriage of 74 pieces of legislation—each one of which I reflect on with pride and, as far as I know, none of which have yet been repealed, but you’ll be very pleased to know I’m not going to list them. Legislation aside, there are a few things that are being part of here that I do want to mention.
In my three years as justice Minister, it very quickly became clear to me that the best thing we could do to reduce crime was to intervene many, many years before the offenders ever turn up in court. That was the basis of my absolute adoption of the importance of social investment as championed by Sir Bill English. Yes, it’s early intervention but it’s so much more and involves radical change to our delivery models if we’re going to make progress on the hard intergenerational issues. Last week in her valedictory, the Hon Anne Tolley talked about the work that she and I had led to change the delivery model for family violence and to force agencies to come together to treat it as everyone’s problem, not just something for the police. The integrated safety response pilots we set up in Christchurch and the Waikato are embodiments of that and hearing from those involved that many lives have been saved as a result of that new way of working makes me incredibly proud.
As environment Minister, putting in place comprehensive environmental protections for our exclusive economic zone; delivering New Zealand’s first ever national standards for fresh water; and mandating regular, independent, environmental reporting feel like substantial pieces of work to have been involved in in that critical area.
In my maiden speech, I extolled the importance of long-term thinking and planning when it comes to the infrastructure needs of New Zealand. And in my longest-held ministerial post, I was fortunate to play a central role in providing better internet connectivity across New Zealand. To me, good internet connectivity is a great leveller, both for New Zealanders looking to trade globally and domestically across our communities. Our ultra-fast broadband, Rural Broadband Initiative, and mobile blackspot programmes were transformative in that regard, and I want to acknowledge John Key and Steven Joyce for their vision and commitment in that area.
I’ll never forget visiting a tiny school on Great Barrier Island with John and Nikki Kaye to launch the connectivity upgrade there, and watching a group of gifted students being able to study astronomy via remote learning, or listening to the story of a small baby on the West Coast of the South Island being able to be quickly diagnosed and treated in their local medical clinic by specialists at Christchurch Hospital through their dedicated fibre link. Of course, those stories were just a taste of what that vision and investment will mean for New Zealand for many generations to come—and didn’t we see that during the COVID lockdown, when we all worked from home.
One of the amazing things about being an MP is getting to experience parts of New Zealand life we wouldn’t otherwise get to see. When I became the MP for Selwyn, and knowing that my area included Burnham Military Camp, I realised that I also knew absolutely nothing about our defence forces, so I decided to go about changing that. During my first term, I convinced the Minister of Defence to let me set up a New Zealand equivalent of the UK parliamentary defence forces scheme that saw MPs embedded with either army, air force, or navy for a week, in uniform, and living on base. As the guinea pig, I did a rotation with each service, and I have to say they’re experiences I will never forget.
Now, I’m a massive coward when it comes to all things adrenaline. I scream on Ferris wheels—it’s really embarrassing. I never thought I would skydive. Yet my week with the air force saw me throw myself out of a plane at 12,000 feet. The only thing that made me do it was knowing that there were two bloody Labour MPs in the plane with me, and I was damned if I was going to wimp out in front of them! During my navy stint on the inshore patrol vessel Pukaki, I got to see a man overboard drill. When the man went over, I was somewhat startled to hear the command go up, “Get the rifles.” I commented to the captain that that seemed a pretty harsh consequence for falling overboard, to be reassured by him that the weaponry was for the sharks and not the sailor.
Those experiences left me absolutely blown away by the dedication of our defence force personnel. And in 2017, when I was given the honour of speaking for New Zealand at the dawn service at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli alongside Julie Bishop and I heard the stories of those young men and saw the countless grave markers, I came to understand what true public service really means.
So other than my first and last speeches in this Chamber, four other speeches stand out particularly in my memory: the speech post the 2010 earthquake that I’ve already mentioned; giving the final speech in the passing of the recent abortion law changes; talking about the death of my own mother during the euthanasia debate; and giving the apology of this Parliament to those men unjustly convicted of loving who they love as part of expunging historical convictions for homosexuality. In each case, the emotion was real, and it was difficult, but they were all speeches that needed to be made to be true to who I was.
Colleagues, the jobs we hold matter. They matter so much more than any one of us. We need good people to want to step into this arena, and we need them to do it for the best of reasons. I worry that increasingly the scorn and the vitriol that is heaped on politicians—often fairly—discourages those good people from stepping up. These jobs are tough. The life is brutal, and the public will never really see the hours, the stress, the impossibility of the perfection that is required, and the impact that life in the public eye has on our families. While you are here in your political role, it is your life. Friends, family, and our health get what’s left over, and often that’s not much. But this job deserves that level of devotion.
Hunter S Thompson once said about politics that it is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs—and there’s also a negative side. We all as MPs face the same personal challenges and upheavals as the rest of the population, but we quickly learn that we have to put on our public faces no matter what our internal turmoil, and that can take a toll. In my time in this House, I have dealt with the death of both of my parents and my two remaining grandparents. I’ve witnessed the devastation in my electorate through the Canterbury earthquakes, the Port Hills fire, and, more recently, the mosque shootings. I’ve received death threats and abuse, and I’ve seen my children have to deal with the relentless negativity and lies that are aimed at us through the media and social media alike. Yet not for a moment do I think it all hasn’t been worth it.
I want to quote from Teddy Roosevelt again: “It is not the critic who counts … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly … who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
If we’re honest, though, none of us get the chance to be in this arena and dare greatly without the incredible support of a huge number of people, and I’m honoured to have so many of those people here with me today. I want to start, of course, by thanking my electorate of Selwyn and to all its incredible communities from Akaroa to Arthur’s Pass, from Rolleston to Rākaia, what an honour it has been to represent you. Being chosen to be your voice in Parliament for 12 years has truly been a privilege. My thanks to the three electorate chairman I’ve worked with: the late John Skinner, Frank Brenmuhl, and John Suncle.
Thanks to all of the incredible members and volunteers who have been with me and given extraordinary service. I couldn’t possibly name you all, but you have been like a second family to me.
To all my staff across 12 years, you made me look far better than I actually was. In Selwyn and in Wellington, what an incredible team you were. I particularly think back to the times we had as a Minister, and some of the hilarity that that included. Thank you, in particular, for stopping me one day from sending out a letter which had intended to call for a meeting with the iwi leaders, but which autocorrect had helpfully changed to request a meeting with the ISIS leaders—that could have been somewhat interesting; might have been easier, I’m not sure! The professionalism, laughter, and support of you all, and all of the officials that I had the privilege of working with, made every day a pleasure, and any successes that I’ve had in this job, I share with each one of you.
There are two staff, in particular, though, who need special mention and my deepest thanks. Sharon O’Callaghan, who has run my electorate office for every single day of those 12 years, like an absolute boss; and Caron Hoare, who has been my phenomenal executive assistant and senior parliamentary secretary for almost as long. These two are legendary, and, quite simply, you are the best in the business. I thank you.
Thank you to the National Party for giving me incredible opportunities; to party president Peter Goodfellow and the board, to all the leaders I’ve served under, and to our tireless regional chairman, Roger Bridge, my thanks.
To my caucus colleagues, present and former, what a group of minds you are. I’ve been so lucky to be able to debate and collaborate with you. I’ve made some incredible friends, particularly in my 2008 year group, in a way that can only be formed by sharing such a big part of your life over so many years. Go well, all over you.
A special thankyou also to Sir John Key for taking a chance on a stroppy young backbencher from Canterbury and for your being an inspiration to me every single day that you served in office. When I started here as a young fresh-faced MP, I thought it was highly likely that the Prime Minister wouldn’t really have a clue who I was; just a few months into my first term, I found out that he certainly did, when I stepped on to the treadmill in the Parliament gym early one morning, only to find it had been left going at warp speed by the previous user and I found myself jettisoned through the air, swearing like a sailor, to land, quite literally, at John’s feet while he was doing weights. He looked down at me, somewhat bemused, smiled, and said, “Are you right, Amy? Be a bit careful, our ACC budgets are tight.” I can tell you, I don’t recommend it as a way to improve name recognition.
To my wider parliamentary colleagues, most of you I have come to respect and enjoy, even though I usually thought that you were utterly wrong. The best of this House is when it acts with its humanity taking precedence over its politics, and I’ve been lucky enough to see that on many occasions.
To my family, my mother and father were both here with me at the beginning—oh—
Chris Bishop: Breathe.
Hon AMY ADAMS: —no, you’ve got to tell me to harden up, not breathe!—but you are no longer, and I miss you both. To my siblings Belinda, Ingrid, and Cam, and your partners and kids, my amazing in-laws, my uncles, aunts, and cousins, you all mean the world to me.
Finally, my husband, Don, and my two children, Tom and Lucy. As everyone in this Chamber knows, you guys serve in these roles as much as we do, but you don’t get any choice in the matter. Tom and Lucy, you were eight and 10 when I started this journey, and you’re both now in your 20s. I’m sorry I missed so much along the way, but you’ve turned into the most incredible people—I’m very proud of you.
Don, for someone who hates any sort of public attention, you’ll hate this, so how you’ve put up with my political life is a mystery. I am sorry that I refused your very kind offer to write this speech for me, but I really didn’t think we could afford the legal bills or the counselling for the Hansard staff that had to transcribe that, so I didn’t take the option!
If I have any advice for those who follow me, it would be pretty simple: do the right thing and let the politics take care of itself. Be brave, stand up on the divisive issues, and never lose sight of the difference you get to make in the time that we are here.
For me, I head off with no regrets, with immense pride, and now with the rare delight of being able to express an opinion without having to get 54 others to agree with it first. This place and these jobs matter. Go well. Kia kaha, kia maia, kia manawanui. Ka kite anō.