Hon NICKY WAGNER (National): Thank you, Mr Speaker.
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Tonight, after 15 years, I say haere rā to this place. Thank you, for giving me the opportunity to speak and thank you to everyone who’s come tonight. It means a lot to me. I’m delighted to celebrate this evening with my good friend David Carter. He was the first MP I ever met and he’s always encouraged and mentored me. He even delivers flyers for me at election time. Thank you, David.
Being an MP, of course, is an enormous privilege and it’s hugely demanding and it requires the support of many; thank you so much. Firstly, it’s just plain hard work. It’s physically exacting, 24/7 commitment, and it’s hard to get enough sleep. Emotionally, it’s challenging. I think it’s a treadmill of events, enormous adrenaline-fuelled highs and desperately mentally destructive lows, and always in the public eye. We need to look after ourselves here and look after each other. And I do have to say, I’ve always had the support of the class of 2005 and my mates in this caucus.
I came here because MPs can actually make a real difference for the people in their communities. Working through our electorate offices, we can fix stuff. We can sort out housing problems. We can deal with health and education issues. We can remove barriers for disabled people. And we can even diffuse neighbourhood clashes. You name it, we do it. I want to acknowledge all those constituents who have trusted me with their issues and every one of my staff who’s worked so hard to solve them.
In particular, I want to mention my long-serving office managers Heather Wellington and Nicola Olds. Now, Nicola’s wit is matched by boundless compassion for people, and she’s a true advocate for those who are in need. Now, Heather joined me when I first became an MP and she, her organisation skills, and her can-do attitude helped me get established in Christchurch, and then she moved to Northland, but she returned each election to volunteer to help me in my campaign, and I think that’s real dedication. Thank you very much.
And of course, Kirsten, who worked so hard on our communications during the earthquakes. You know, our newsletter really became a lifeline to so many. The same can be said of my current team, led by Karen Duff, with Marion Bishop and Boyd Becker. We tallied up the other day and figured that our office had worked with over 7,500 constituents and organised and hosted over 500 different events.
Electorate offices are the public-facing part of an MP’s job. They receive the good and the bad. They help people who are at their wits end. They support the vulnerable in our communities, but they also cop the abuse and deal with the threats. My team are extremely hard-working, enormously capable, and totally loyal, and I appreciate each and every one of them.
I never imagined or prepared myself to be a politician. As a local businesswoman, I was drawn into running in 2002, because I was incensed by the way that the Labour Government, I felt, was neglecting Christchurch and particularly small business and the small business community during the winter of discontent under Helen Clark. I was then elected on to the list in 2005, and that campaign, like all that’s followed, could not have been possible without the help of friends, family, and the wider National Party. Christchurch Central gave me the opportunity to stand and they have actively supported me ever since. I would like to thank my current chair, Brooke Law, and also a special thankyou to Stuart and Julie Laing and Murray and Joan Spackman. Those people have served continuously on the team since I was first selected and they’re still going strong, supporting our new hard-working candidate, Dale Stephens. So go well, Dale. I’d also like to thank the wider National Party, President Peter Goodfellow and the board, and our favourite regional chair, Roger Bridge.
Being a new MP was a steep learning curve. So much to do and so little time to do it. One of the issues that was vexing Christchurch Central at the time was boy racers. I worked with the police and neighbourhood groups on a member’s bill. It was never pulled from the ballot—none of my bills have ever been selected—but it was picked up by the then Minister, Judith Collins, when we came into Government. And, you know, the boy racers never saw it coming.
I also worked closely with the local Afghani community after a Christchurch taxi driver was stabbed to death. I supported his widow and family, but I also lobbied for the installation of taxi cameras. And, you know, it was CCTV technology that finally solved a longstanding issue of payment problems and horrible violence against drivers. We just don’t see it any more.
One of the most heartbreaking cases I had was the plight of a Kurdish family. One son had been left behind when they came to New Zealand and they sought my help because, in desperation, he had turned to people smugglers and had ended up in a boat that sank in the Black Sea. He survived, but he lost his wife and child. Of course, the whole family was distraught and eight of them practically camped in my office. Could we rescue him from Turkey? Could we bring him home? It was a really long and difficult negotiation, but the joy when he arrived really made it worthwhile. He got a job immediately and has been contributing to this country ever since.
The 2008 election was an exciting one. I became a Government MP and I soon learnt that it was infinitely more productive than being on the Opposition, especially under the leadership of Prime Minister John Key and Deputy Prime Minister Bill English. John was ambitious for New Zealand, full of energy, with a strong vision for a confident, successful, and outward-looking nation, and always driven to make the boat go faster. And Bill was ambitious for New Zealanders, knowing that the system had to do better for those that struggle, and totally committed to social investment. He was convinced that the Government could do better to understand and respect individuals and families, and invest in them to help them get ahead. The drive to make New Zealand a better place for all New Zealanders underpinned everything our National Government did, and New Zealanders responded to the challenge. Despite the global financial crisis and the Canterbury earthquakes, the economy grew and more jobs were created than New Zealand had ever seen before.
I feel enormously privileged to have been able to work with the National Government from 2008 to 2017. We worked hard. We were effective, the country prospered, and New Zealanders rewarded us with their votes. I felt a small taste of that success because, in 2011, I became the first National MP to win the electorate of Christchurch Central—with the smallest of margins; a draw on the night, and then a whopping win of 47 votes in the recount. I well remember the night in Premier House when John Key proclaimed that the most unexpected, the most exciting thing about the 2011 election was winning Christchurch Central.
The present Government is keen to rewrite history and say that the National Government didn’t deliver for New Zealanders, but the voters said otherwise. Each election from 2008 to 2017 National’s vote increased, and in the 2014 election, in response to the earthquake recovery work of Gerry Brownlee, Christchurch turned blue. Every electorate gave National their party vote, and I was honoured to be re-elected with a majority of over 2,400 votes. In the 2017 election, National gained 1,152,000 votes—the most votes that any party has ever received in the history of New Zealand. Now, you tell me. Was it a system failure, a miscarriage of justice, or a betrayal of democracy that National and Bill English ended up on the Opposition benches?
Life in Christchurch has been challenging over the last 10 years. We’ve had multiple earthquakes—with liquefaction and flooding—followed by the Port Hills fires, then a mass shooting, and now a pandemic. We are battered, and we’re still a little bit munted, but we’re still there and we’re still strong. So kia kaha, Christchurch.
It was those 15,000-plus earthquakes that really shaped my work as a local MP, getting out during the emergency, throughout the aftershocks, physically delivering water and digging liquefaction, or managing to connect people to the services they needed. They were long, tough, and dusty days. Back then, we wore masks for the dust, do you remember? We’re now wearing masks for the pandemic. Everyone had lost someone or something. We were all upset, but we were all together. We all had to unite as a community, and people were magnificent. I have never been so proud of my community. We shared a toilet among our neighbours, and if you ever want to test whether your street would unite or divide, make them share a portaloo.
There was a constant circuit of public meetings full of people desperately looking for information, for advice, and for help, and together with my electorate team, we helped hundreds of people who had just run out of options. And then months and years of rebuilding, of insurance claims, of fixing and upgrading roads and services, restoring community assets—we engaged far and wide across the community, we worked with the community forum, we got their advice and guidance on the decisions that we had to make on laying out the blueprints for the city. I really thank all Cantabrians who came together to put forward ideas and took an active, future focus on the recovery and regeneration.
As a local MP, I was heavily involved in everything, but the highlight of my career was the opportunity to serve the Christchurch community, firstly as the associate Minister and later as the Minister for Greater Christchurch Regeneration. Our focus was on rebuilding homes, families, and communities, and to deliver the blueprint, the plan to rebuild Christchurch as a modern, people-friendly, and 21st century city. We wanted Christchurch to be a city of opportunity, with an energy that attracts, that encourages, and that inspires people to come, to live, to work, and to raise a family there. We can now see the shape our new city, and I know we’re on the right track. That was confirmed for me when we recently welcomed home our oldest son and his Melburnian wife to Christchurch, and now we have another one-eyed Cantabrian granddaughter on the way.
One of my greatest challenges was to broker the agreement to reinstate Christ Church Cathedral. The cathedral in the square has long been a powerful symbol and heart of our city, and there was a real sense that, until its future was decided, Christchurch would feel broken. I worked with Bishop Victoria and city stakeholders, and developed a cross-party parliamentary group to deliver a recovery package. The journey was long, and it wasn’t until 9 September 2017, only a fortnight before the election, that we finally got the decision to restore. I think the whole city celebrated because, regardless of their opinion, everyone needed a decision so the city could move forward.
As a Minister, I’ve also held responsibilities for statistics—the only ministry that counts!—customs, disability issues, and associate roles for conservation, health, and tourism. I loved being the Minister of Customs. It’s the oldest Government department—180 this year—but, with Carolyn Tremaine as its comptroller, it was forward-thinking and innovative. During my tenure, we rolled out SmartGates in our airports and completed the Trade Single Window, a world-first electronic platform for cargo and excise. But my most important work was to rewrite, modernise, and streamline the Customs and Excise Act. That was a huge job, but I’m really proud of the quality of work that was produced. Our customs officers are remarkable people, who do so much to protect our country, and their work is not often recognised. I always enjoy the story of a suspected drug mule who, when questioned by our perceptive customs officers, said he’d come to New Zealand to play golf and view our wildlife. Further questioning revealed he didn’t have golf clubs, he’d never visited a golf course, and he was really keen to see our native giraffes!
As the Minister for Disability Issues, I quickly learned that disabled people want more choice and control over their support services, and more opportunities to live a good life. But mostly they just wanted a job. And, supported by both John Key and Bill English, I developed a two-pronged strategy. With John Key and Business New Zealand, I launched the Disability Confident campaign. It was to empower and educate employers, and give them the tools to open doors and welcome disabled people into their businesses. That, coupled with the employability scheme that we rolled out across the country, enabled hundreds of disabled people to get jobs and for the employers to get first-rate, loyal employees—a win-win. Even today, people seek me out and thank National for supporting them to get a job.
With Bill English, I worked on rolling out the Enabling Good Lives programme. That’s a scheme that provides individualised funding and navigators to help disabled people design their own unique good lives. We believed that the scheme would benefit all disabled communities, and I do hope that this work will continue, because it has transformed the lives of people that have been involved. With the right support, disabled people can shape their own lives with enormously positive results. I’ve been privileged to watch Yaniv Janson develop as an artist. Supported and encouraged by his family and his support worker-cum-art teacher, his talent has blossomed over the years. His work sells readily—I bought a couple myself—and I was delighted to be able to help him mount an exhibition at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Yaniv’s work has achieved artistic recognition on the world stage, and he’s been able to build a satisfying and sustainable career. Congratulations, Yaniv.
Of course, it’s the ministerial staff that makes things happen for any Minister, and I want to acknowledge all the various private secretaries who worked in my office, including Danielle from the Office of Disability Issues, Maurice from the customs department, and Mike from the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery. Also, all my press secretaries and ministerial advisers—you were a great team; thank you very much. I particularly want to acknowledge and thank Beryl Bright, my senior private secretary. Beryl has been in this place since 1984, and her knowledge of Parliament and the standing of Cabinet, and her reputation are immense. She’s a legend, respected and loved by so many. Also Cath Bell—Cath started working with me as an executive assistant when I arrived in 2005, and stayed with me through thick and thin until she retired in 2017. A dear friend, she now lives in the South Island; so some new adventures ahead, I think.
I’ve done so much with so many wonderful people since I became an MP, but—as always—there’s so much to do and so little time. I wanted to talk about the fantastic work of the Department of Conservation—conservation boards, Predator Free New Zealand. I wanted to outline the steps that we’ve made towards Smokefree 2025. I wanted to reflect on the invaluable insights that I’ve learned about Te Ao Māori and hākari from being on the Māori Affairs Committee and, more personally, from working closely with Ngāi Tahu as we regenerate our city, but the clock is ticking, I am aware.
So, to my family, who should of course be first but always tend to be last when you have a job like ours. Tonight, I am missing my two brothers, Hamish and Jonathan, and their families, who are locked down in COVID in Australia and can’t be here, but I’m grateful to my husband’s four sisters, all who are here. Both sides of the family have embraced and supported me, our children, and now our grandchildren, over so many years. And to my husband, Billy—I hit the jackpot when I married you. You were a good man then, but it’s amazing what 47 years of training has done for both of us. We are better people for each other, and look what we’ve produced. Two fine young men who have brought their fabulous wives into our lives and, in turn, produced our two little granddaughters, with another one on the way. I used to be the only woman in my family, and I always felt that you three ganged up on me, but now the gender balance has reversed—so look out!
In the immortal words of John Prine, Billy’s favourite Country and Western singer, “Against all odds, honey, we’re the big door prize” and I’m never gonna let you go. Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.