SARAH DOWIE (National—Invercargill): When I started my parliamentary career, I would have done anything to make it to the caucus room. The drive was immeasurable. I would have clawed at the windows or walked across hot coals to get in. It was on that premise of motivation that I ran my campaigns and worked with gusto in Parliament and in my community. On leaving, I have the same level of intensity: I could claw at the windows or walk across hot coals to get out.
It’s with that amount of passion that I believe one should act and make decisions. Today, I look back on my six years with humility and pride, being so honoured to represent our mighty and southernmost seat of Invercargill. At the heart of all of my work has been the mantra to improve my constituents’ lives, from the battle with a doctor who was refusing to offer free medical visits for children, to lobbying for aquaculture expansion and gaining funds for feasibility studies, developing conservation policy and my shark cage diving bill, or leading the charge for Southland DisAbility Enterprises—one of my favourite charities—to win back our local WasteNet contract.
I believe, however, that some of my greatest achievements have been local and private. As the local MP, you are uniquely attached to the people, helping constituents no matter what their political beliefs or backgrounds, from the pregnant mother with toddler who was unable to find accommodation via Work and Income at 4.55 p.m. on a Friday, to navigating through ACC cases; and the heart-breaking, from those who have experienced severe abuse over their lifetimes, and parents just simply trying to protect their children—countless numbers of cases, never publicised but a significant and important part in our service as MPs.
There’s a lot to be said for being in an MMP environment. Equally, there’s a lot to be said for being a backbench MP in a stable Rt Hon Sir John Key Government, where discipline was almost a monotheistic religion. In the House, the whips would regularly blow their whistles, and we would head over the metaphorical trenches to present our views in the first, second, and third readings. Sometimes National’s position on issues would stick in one’s craw, none so much for me as voting against Sue Moroney’s paid parental leave member’s bill on the basis of fiscal prudency, only to later campaign on it in the 2017 election. I remember being nervous about speaking, because of my views, and, of course, Labour were in full rampage. Their tongues cracked against our skin like electricity.
My speech was a little more moderate than most. Mr Speaker said to me afterward that he couldn’t tell whether I was supporting the bill or not. In Copperfield’s, the Hon Annette King complimented me on my delivery. I think it’s safe to say I’ve never had a pokerface as a politician, and it’s still sad to me, despite understanding why, that major parties can’t come together on good policy more often than we do. In saying that, my colleagues still give me gyp about getting a standard operating procedure regarding the extension of keeping-in-touch hours, voted in by Labour in 2017, but I’m uniquely proud of it. Paid parental leave, including having workable conditions governing it, resonates. I am, of course, before a politician, first and foremost a mother, and it just goes to show what happens when a bit of common sense gets injected into parliamentary debate. I thank Iain Lees-Galloway for picking it up.
It’s easy to get embroiled in domestic politics, but when we go overseas, party colours go out the window. I came to realise this more so in 2017 while travelling with Peeni Henare from Labour on a trip that will forever remain with me: the 100th commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele. It had extra significance for me. My great-great-uncle died at Passchendaele and was awarded a VC for his efforts. Peeni joined me in visiting his grave, and from there the raw, visceral emotion continued to build. Passchendaele is unreal. I have never felt emotion like it. It wasn’t just sorrow or pride; whatever it was sat in your gut for days and manifested in the physical and, of course, tears. The services were so powerful you could literally feel the spirits of the dead rising. That’s how intense it was.
From there, we went on to St Petersburg to join the Inter-Parliamentary Union. And when you’re away from home, it’s pretty standard to get your kids some sort of trinket. While sauntering jauntily on my lunch break, I espied a fake Fabergé egg in blue and gold in a shop near my hotel. Expectations were high because I knew that my daughter, Christabel, would be expecting a National Party blue. The surly Russian shopkeep deliberately informed me via “nyet” that the blue was unavailable. I then scrutinised the Labour red and Greens green fake Fabergés. Unable to decide, I tried to explain to the shopkeep that if she knew me, deciding between red and green was an issue. She then warmed and suggested, “You’re not choosing a husband. Make a choice.” I retorted with “I’m no good at that either.” She looked at me with a grave sense of disappointment and despair. I then asked, “Do any of those colours signify anything special in Russia?” And she responded with “Blue is best but green for hope.”
According to the more experienced politician, everyone has an annus horribilis. Mine hit full peak in January 2019, and I didn’t think my personal life was too out of the ordinary until my name scrolled across The AM Show’s newsreel, bumping Brexit as the lead story. While it’s clear I had made some poor choices, the fact that a press gallery reporter was live providing analysis brought the whole sorry affair to a new level. In my eyes, it can only be described as comical. She was maniacal, could hardly get her words out, and she didn’t have the nous to work out the difference between a complaint, investigation, charge, and proceedings. What followed was worse: a litany of diatribe from even the so-called reputable outlets. At best, some comments could be called wide of the mark. Others were just downright lies. In hindsight, I question whether I should have sued some publications.
One article claimed I ran on family values in 2014. I absolutely did not. The journalist wrote that story without seeking confirmation of facts. It’s irresponsible, lazy, and just downright wrong. A subsequent article on the Politik website suggested I only got promoted because of my alliances—nothing about me holding a law or science degree, having practised and worked for the Department of Conservation. One other paper said I’m not a conservation naive, but for some reason, in 2019, my qualifications and experience were overlooked in favour of the salacious. These stories made taking the high road a very bitter pill to swallow. Nevertheless, I rose above it, continued to front and show up to work.
Compared with recent events where media analysis lasted only a couple of news cycles, the speculation and rubbish continued for me for weeks on end. One woman said to me recently, “Sarah, you were absolutely trashed in the media in 2019, and yet these other MPs experience a couple of media cycles of scrutiny and hide behind mental health issues for their bad behaviour.” The antithesis is the hypocrisy of the media calling for a clean up of politicians. Yes, we are representatives and should take responsibility for poor behaviour, but we are not elected as angels. We too are human and make mistakes, just as journalists do and have. But when a predator is able to manipulate the media for his agenda and the media is directly party to it, it is the media fraternity that needs to audit themselves as to their ethics and their conscious peddling of sexism and patriarchy. If it takes me to be New Zealand’s scarlet woman to highlight this, then so be it.
New Zealand has a long way to go with how we view women. Successive Governments have been concerned with eliminating all forms of violence against women. Violence does not stop at the physical and sexual, and from what I’ve seen and experienced, it seems that unless a woman loses her life, they are afforded very little sympathy for situations or circumstances they find themselves in—ones in which they can’t control.
It’s that underlying patriarchal view that persists in New Zealand that stimulates this. “She shouldn’t have been travelling alone.” “She shouldn’t have led him on.” “She should have seen the signs earlier.” “She should not have been wearing that skirt.” What about: “No, she deserves justice and an environment where she feels safe to report abuse.
What is surprising and deeply disappointing to me is that in some cases these views are held by women who can be most vicious in their criticisms. You cannot legislate for a women’s code, but policy can re-educate. We should encourage everyone to encourage women to contribute to our communities, and we should build a society that enables our daughters to achieve all their hopes and dreams and to do so without judgment or guilt.
Therefore, I am not unchanged from the experience of being an MP. People often say to me, “Why on earth would you want to be an MP?” referring to the endless criticisms—some fair, some not; the hours of work; the arduous travel schedule; endless days away from family and your home; and, even when you are at home or off the clock, eagerly watching for media alerts. Being an MP is all consuming; it’s not like normal employment where you get to switch off at the end of the day.
But we do not walk alone. We seek out a pack for camaraderie and support, and I have been so fortunate during my lifetime in politics to meet some of the very best men and women in New Zealand, to call them my friends, and I will be eternally thankful for their care. In particular, I mention four colleagues who came in with me in 2014. We have spent countless days and nights in each other’s company, experiencing the highs and lows of Parliament and life. Brett Hudson, Stuart Smith, Matt Doocey, and Todd Barclay. We are the self-proclaimed breakfast club of misfits, acutely comfortable in our own skin, never actively seeking limelight—[Member hands Dowie a box of tissues] Thank you—but quietly going about our jobs, doing them well and with skill. That shouldn’t be underestimated or underrated.
I thank them from the bottom of my heart for being there in the dark times, for taking me under their wings like a sister and protecting me. I also thank you for the endless laughter and gibes and the ability not to take ourselves too seriously. These friendships are what restore my trust and faith in people. To the class of ’14, a family of alphas, each in our own niche, yet a group that has fitted together like a jigsaw and now withstood two terms without any falling outs, you are talented, kind, and compassionate, and I value each and every one of you.
To the Simon Bridges administration, including Rachel Morton and Jamie Gray, thank you for your faith in me and being my defenders. To all of the National Party women who circled the wagons and to the National Party men who rallied and, finally, to my staff who have helped me day in and day out to be a better MP. To Roger Bridge, Peter Goodfellow, and the rest of our board, including the team behind the scenes at National House, thank you for your words, often received at moments in time that were poignant. To Jon Turnbull, Deborah Turnbull, and Kim Forsythe, the people who have become my Invercargill family. Mary Street has become a haven of solace, a place to let off steam and to, most importantly, celebrate.
To Rachel Bird, my southern sister, rising star of the National Party, our regional chair and board member—I put the regional chair first because, in my mind, it is the most important role. No one can truly quantify how valuable it is to have a strong link between the parliamentary and party wing. It’s people like you who galvanise that partnership. Rachel and I once had a conversation about our political legacies, and, while Rachel certainly has goals, it is the unwavering, unconditional, and tireless support that you have shown me and that you show other MPs, some not even in your region—this is your legacy. I am also proud to call you my friend.
Mum and Dad, who, despite being retired, put themselves back into the parenting game to help with the care of my children so that I could continue for as long as I have and for having the strength to ride a storm of epic proportions with me. Never underestimate a Dowie; we are as tough as nails. To Christabel, my beautiful 10 year old, who is fast going on 16. A classic all-rounder, who is a singer, an actress, a speaker, and an artist. She is an old soul who has walked this earth before. She has compassion for others and is wise beyond her years, and I can’t wait to be there to see her develop into the strong, capable woman she can be. And Hunter, the once – 18 month old that hung like a monkey over this balcony of this House, yelling “Mum, Mum!”, now 8 years old. A mathematician, a sports nut, a musician, and an ambidextrous Fortnite player with haka capability. You were just a baby when I arrived, and I am pleased that I will get more time to spend with you to watch you apply your talents to whatever you choose for yourself.
If you were a fatalist, you would believe that my journey has been set from the beginning, and it would make no difference as to the decisions I made, even if I thought I was acting with free will. I believe that the outcome of my tenure is a woman who loves to see the best in people and to help others where she can. A fierce advocate, a mother, a good friend, and a lot of good fun, and a woman who is passionate about conservation and justice. None of that has changed from my maiden speech.
In conclusion, I refer to the lines of The Breakfast Club, and I tailor them for the context of Parliament. Dear media, we accept that we had to sacrifice part of our lives in your scrutiny for whatever it is we did wrong, but we MPs think you are crazy to make us write a valedictory telling us who you think we are. You see us how you want to see us—in the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions. But what each of us found out is that one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the breakfast club.