Helen Kelly And The Compassionless People*
By Alastair Thompson
Helen Kelly, the best of us.
Content credits: Quotes from members of the public included in this report were posted by members of the public on the Action Station petition for Helens Kelly's reinstatement. Photos of Helen Kelly from memorial event (various sources). Cartoon of Helen Kelly by Foxy Lusty Grover
I wasn't a close friend of Helen Kelly's. But her passing has moved me to tears more than once in the past two weeks. I feel honoured to be one of the many who worked with her and was helped by her.
On Saturday 29 October, encouraged by Action Station's Marianne Elliot I launched and promoted a petition to get Helen restored to the New Zealander of the year awards.
That said, I am pretty sure Helen herself probably wouldn't have cared that much about the honour. In fact she said as much to Stuff reporter Talia Shadwell earlier this year, "I don't need awards. If the Government were to decriminalise cannabis that would be better than any award."
In August, Helen Kelly told me: "I don't need awards. If the Government were to decriminalise cannabis that would be better than any award." https://t.co/DPL77Q8J1R— Talia Shadwell (@TaliaShadwell) October 29, 2016
But clearly 1000s of people think Helen should be honoured, and disagree with the decision to disqualify the 102 nominations received for her. These nominations amount to nearly a third of the 316 total nominations received for New Zealander of the Year by the date of the deadline on September 30th. And these awards, which are based on public nominations, are supposed to take into account the views of the public.
Any nation needs it’s heroes and here in New Zealand - perhaps because there are so few of us - it is customary for us to wait until they die before we elevate them into that status. That said, for many of us Helen was already a hero while she was still with us, especially as a result of the way she faced her own death. There is clearly very strong public desire to see her recognised in a substantial manner.
Helen never gave up on us, and we should not give up on her, or her mission. Which from what I can see was to make our small and isolated nation a fairer and more just place for all its citizens to live in prosperity and harmony.
Forty four thousand of us watched the live stream of her memorial meeting at the Michael Fowler Centre last Friday a number which must be close to a record for a streaming NZ event. In the nine days since 6500+ signatures have been gathered on twin petitions to Kiwibank and to the award organisers that call for her reinstatement to the competition.
In addition to the 102 New Zealanders who went to the effort of nominating her for the award – which was a fairly elaborate process by all accounts - 100s more have written remarkably thoughtful comments on the two petitions explaining precisely why they think Helen ought to be honoured as 2016 New Zealander of the year. Last week Scoop compiled the comments from the Kiwibank petition here.
Many of these mention being inspired by two qualities in particular Helen had in spades, kindness and selflessness. And that has gotten me thinking. How should we honour our memory of this remarkable woman?
With all this in mind I have gone to the effort below of recalling in detail Helen's kindness to me and the impact her assistance provided to keeping Scoop.co.nz alive over the past five years.
I think we can learn from her example about how to go about healing the things that are going awry with our beloved New Zealand. And finally I provide some reasons why I think the effort to get Helen Kelly reinstated should be taken seriously, as well as a proposal for an alternative way of honouring Helen's memory, should we in the end fail to convince awards manager Glyn Taylor to reconsider the nomination disqualification decision.
* [The title to this piece is intended to be a bit provocative as is its content. But for me when thinking about Helen Kelly that is entirely appropriate. "Mate," Helen might have said, "if you are going to rark people up a bit you may as well do it properly.]
This is the time to honour her sacrifice. She died fighting for human rights and social justice." - Annabel F
For 44 weeks of 2016 #HelenKelly was strong, courageous, selfless, empathetic, caring, honest, and brave. She never stopped helping others and yet she had every reason to be selfish. If this isn't the complete objective of NZer of the Year, what the heck is?" - Karen W
**** SCOOP AND HELEN KELLY ****
My friendship with Helen Kelly
I would certainly class Helen as a friend, albeit more a professional one than a personal one. Helen had hundreds if not thousands of friends.
We met on a handful of occasions over the years, mostly at functions, and we had a very memorable lunch once. We corresponded a fair bit by email and from 2012 onwards we also struck up an alliance on Twitter which I greatly enjoyed. Helen was an adept twitter user and not remotely afraid to say exactly what she thought.
Looking into our archives I see that Helen Kelly was first mentioned on Scoop.co.nz in April of 2000 in the context of then Labour Minister Margaret Wilson conducting consultations over employment relations policy with Labour Party stakeholders. In the years since Scoop has published a further 832 articles referencing her work which works out at an average mention rate of once per week.
But while Helen and I were familiar with each others work we didn't collaborate directly until 2011, five years after she was elected President of the NZ Council of Trade Unions.
And in the years that followed our initial collaboration it would be fair to say that Helen's advice and assistance was invaluable in keeping Scoop alive.
A cartoon about the Hobbit Dispute by Trace Hodgson
A phone call from Helen, with a Scoop
Fairly late on a Monday evening in April 2011 I was working late in the Scoop offices, the phone rang and it was Helen. She told me she had just finished a paper on the Hobbit Dispute and was keen to be able to distribute a link to it to people to read. The paper was fairly lengthy and she wanted it up quickly. I readily agreed to help and she sent it through. It was clearly a Scoop, even though it related to events which had taken place six months earlier, and it was a submission we were grateful to receive.
I quickly turned her text into an op-ed and we led with it the following day. It was very widely read and shared and our top rating item for the month. In the years since it continues to be linked and cited and has now been read over 10,000 times.
For Helen, I think, publishing of her paper enabled her to draw a line under the dispute – which had clearly shocked her. During her memorial service Richard Wagstaff and Robyn Malcolm spoke of how much she had been a blind-sided by the public reaction over the event. Particularly around how she and other unionists had been accused of something close to treason for simply standing up for workers’ rights.
this is no doubt the reason for the quote on the top of the
paper, which is very Helen.
"Say then but this of me
Preferring not to crawl on his knees
In freedom to a bowl of buttered slops
Set out for him by some contemptuous clown,
He walked to jail on his feet
- Dalton Trumbo – one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’, sent to prison for claiming 5th amendment protection to not name names in the investigations of the House of Un-American Committee"
The small favour from Scoop became the basis of a cooperative relationship which lasted for the six years that followed. Helen provided me with a warm introduction to the union communication managers group and in 2011 Scoop was included in union advertising schedules for the 2011 general election.
A shining light in an unfair world." - Chris T
Right up until the end she pushed for us all to be kind to each other, I would say that based on her life of work, the kindest think you can do would be to honor all the effort people went into voting for her, keep her in the ballot. <3" - Samareh B
Scoop seeks Helen's assistance
The following year, 2012, I invited Helen to lunch to quiz her more generally about Scoop's relationship with the Union movement. We had always found it a bit puzzling that the preferred inbound press release communication tool of many unions was a paywalled service provided by the NZ Stock Exchange, rather than the more comprehensive service provided by Scoop, an organisation which clearly shared some important values.
We met at Nikau Cafe and Helen explained the way things worked in the union movement – in particular the importance of trust and personal relationships. For my part I explained that Scoop had been struggling to make ends meet since the financial crisis, and that - in an increasingly polarised political world - we needed the support of all the not-for–profit sectors such as the Trade Union movement that benefited from Scoop's ability to carry their messages into the news stream.
Helen was encouraging, explaining that she had no idea about the challenges that we had been facing and that she valued the services we provided. She generously offered to help me navigate the building of relationships with both the CTU and the wider union movement.
A memorable highpoint in the working relationship that followed occurred when I was invited to present to an Affiliates Council meeting about Scoop's community.scoop.co.nz initiative. I vividly remember the warm welcome we received from everybody attending and Helen's jovial chairing of the meeting.
From listening and reading the tributes of so many people that have followed her death, I realise that my experience was common, Helen opened doors, she encouraged and she gave good practical advice and help. She gently and kindly ushered Scoop into a world we had experienced difficulty connecting with. And over the years that followed a relationship of mutual trust was gradually built up between Scoop and the wider union movement through active collaboration. Important client relationships followed which have helped us to keep the wolf from our door.
The CTU's "Get Out and Vote" campaign on Scoop, August-Sept 2014
Election Year 2014
In election year 2014 Helen without fanfare, agreed to assist Scoop.co.nz refresh its relationships with affiliate unions, and to the extent that she could, assist me in her political circles also. Looking back now Helen's encouragement to keep going, her fellowship, was probably as important as the practical assistance she provided. Again she re-opened the door.
In the months that followed Scoop and I were able to actively assist with multiple get-out-the-vote (GOTV) initiatives including Laura O'Connell Rapira's RockEnrol, the NZUSA's efforts on campuses coordinated by Daniel Haines, and the CTU's (Conor Twyford facilitated) Get Out And Vote campaign. We provided the campaigns with advertising support and communications support where we could, and I encouraged them to coordinate with each other – which is something that I think we don't do nearly enough in NZ.
Much to my delight the significant 2014 election GOTV coalition efforts worked, turning around several election cycles of falling turnout on a percentage of registered voters basis. Scoop mended many bridges with this activity, and in the end Scoop also had a good 2014.
But as soon as the 2014 election was over we returned to trenches. Advertising revenues had held up during the election, but by November it was apparent that Scoop could face closure unless we could pull a rabbit from a hat.
At the end of December 2015 we launched "Operation Chrysalis", to transform Scoop Media from family owned media company into Scoop Foundation, a charitable trust owned entity held for the benefit of the public. And again I started my public outreach efforts with Helen.
My email requesting a meeting was met with a cheerful reply nine minutes after I sent it. Half an hour later we had arranged a time to meet in four days time. Again Helen listened to my petition and again she agreed to assist, and followed through with her undertaking.
This notwithstanding that a month after our meeting news broke of Helen's diagnosis with cancer. I was shocked and sent her an email of support. "Thanks mate," she replied. I wonder now if she was already aware something was wrong when she met with me.
Regardless, Helen's simple willingness to respond to my call for help meant a great deal to me. It encouraged me to forge on with a plan which in retrospect was pretty crazy, but one which in the end means that Scoop continues to exist today.
**** LESSONS ****
Helen Kelly, the best of us.
Kindness, Holding Hands and Being There
For me the lasting lesson impression left from the past three weeks of thinking about Helen's life and work is that in many ways it wasn't until she died that I began to fully understand just what it was that she was doing. How she did what she did. The secret of her success.
Those closer to her probably knew lots of what follows already – and please send me feedback if you do have a view on this - but it was in the days after her death that it became clear to me – and particularly during the speeches at Helen's public farewell.
For me Helen always seemed rather old-school. Meeting were preferably face to face. Your agreement was your bond. It was clear from day one that the things that mattered to her were trust and values: in particular, solidarity, fairness, loyalty and generosity, all delivered with kindness.
For Helen much of the work was about building bonds, and bringing people and organisations together. She very often did this by being there for people when they needed it. She visited Pike River on multiple occasions, including more than once after her diagnosis. She cut short a family holiday to head to Auckland when the Ports of Auckland dispute broke out. And when union rights were being trampled in Fiji she ignored threats to her freedom from the Fijian government and went anyway.
Being there is one of the highest forms of kindness. It’s a way of showing with your presence how much you care. Pretty much everybody who worked with Helen was called her mate – even her opponents - and you knew that she meant it.
One of the other things that was said of Helen at her memorial was that she was a great one for holding hands. Both, by holding hands with the people she was helping personally, when she was being there, but also when bringing individuals and groups of people together to get things done. What she did with Scoop was holding hands at an organisational level, ensuring that the CTU would be there to listen when we asked. And it really did mean a lot to us. It was also the basis for a series of cooperative engagements that built trust over time.
An extraordinary woman - extraordinary circumstances require an extraordinary response - a rule change to accommodate these circumstances can only add to the credibility of your brand - you are celebrating people who have taken extraordinary actions - be part of that and take extraordinary actions yourself. This is a chance for you to go high here." - Alex W
I was one of Helen's 108 nominators. It wasn't an easy or quick process (spent lots of time seeking out external referees and their contact details) and it is utterly awful what they've done in removing her. Shame!" - Tim G
A passionless people becoming a compassionless people
This may seem pretty obvious, but to me holding hands, being there and kindness are not always the way business is done in New Zealand these days.
Receiving a swift reply to an email is a rarity – especially one which is in the affirmative. And putting a great deal of effort into an attempt to open discussions - which you hope may lead to a mutually beneficial relationship - to find yourself simply blanked is routine.
And all too often principled decision making – based on the merits of the idea being proposed - is eschewed in favour of a political calculation. What will the return be for me and my organisation on my investment of energy in this idea of some elses? Is this a strategically valuable relationship? Will I get any credit?
In New Zealand we are becoming more and more transactional even in many of our smallest interactions. And true altruism is growing rare.
I do not think New Zealand has always been like this. And I think that in this change we have collectively lost our way. We have come to think that being professional and business-like involves laser like focus on how any opportunity or relationship impacts on our individual funding and strategy plans . We are, by default, sceptical about attributing value to collective strength – and even if we respect, value and admire what someone else does, we will not enter a practical relationship except at a superficial level.
When we adopt an, "I must be self-reliant, and construct the capacity I need to survive internally" approach to organisational dynamics we dilute collective strength and our ability to cooperate, to move quickly, and to form organisational alliances to achieve things.
This approach also makes it far harder for innovators – who find it hard to convince organisations to test their innovations. And because most NZ markets are so small all too often we find ourselves competing with our closest friends, increasing isolation. And with all our focus on each other – looking over our shoulders at each others moves in our tiny little pond - we lose the ability to address systemic issues by working together and changing the structure of our working environment.
Helen Kelly, the best of us. In her final TV interview.
The importance of kindness
In her final broadcast TV interview when asked what she had learned from life Helen chose to talk about the power of kindness.
"I want people to simply be kind. I may be naive. But I think it would make one hell of a difference," she told TVNZ's Ryan Boswell.
For me we have as much to learn from Helen's small kindnesses as we have from her headline grabbing boldness and epic battles against injustice.
How Helen operated matches my personal experience that altruism has its own reward. Building relationships based on mutual trust and respect (rather than contract) makes you and your business much more secure, and more grounded. You never know when friends will help you, or even if they are doing so, but it's nice to have people around you who you know care.
I also know that in my role running the Scoop.co.nz business, after I stopped looking over my shoulder at every competitor (which required a conscious effort to do) I felt a lot less anxious. A competitive transactional world is a pretty hard world to flourish in, and it is one that massively favours the already strong - which often means the overseas owned multinationals.
Helen was not only an inspirational leader and change agent, she was also a personal friend of mine (and many, many others). Her work impacted on every working New Zealander and many more people beyond our shores. The sign of her greatness was that, despite her high profile, she remained unassuming and approachable. Her achievements will resonate for decades to come." - Jo B
Helen Kelly is worthy of having this silly rule overturned. She spent her life trying to make others' lives better. Not many can say that!" - Lesley P
The impact of Helen's kindness in practice
I have explained how Helen's simple kindness to me had a very significant downstream outcome, it was one of the key things that enabled Scoop to continue to exist.
I told this story because I wanted flesh out with an example how the impact of small kindnesses - just being there, holding hands, opening doors, answering emails with a kind word, can have at a systemic level.
Helen was kind to Scoop and to me I think because she presumably saw us as part of the solution. A fellow principled organisation that believed in justice and fairness.
For me and many of Scoop's ardent supporters, survival of Scoop's mission was and remains of importance because of Scoop's social mission and capacity. Scoop's open door and great reach provide a voice to everybody who wants to participate in NZ's national debate.
From 1999 till now we have done this for the union movement and its workers. And we have also provided a voice to employers and their agents. We have provided a voice to welfare lobbying organisations and libertarians, Justice campaigners and the Sensible Sentencing trust.
By letting people be heard Scoop provides everybody with the ability to be listened to. And being listened to is probably the most common way that we experience the kindness of others.
Scoop also provides all New Zealanders with the ability to knock on the doors that they are seeking to open, as well as to research and find the doors they need to knock on.
As Helen's kindness to Scoop was a key component in Scoop's survival, she is also partly responsible for the benefit that we provide to the community as a whole. And this is how solidarity works.
Life is a networked activity. Metcalf's law teaches us the value and strength of a network is the square of the number of its nodes. Given that these days we have hundreds of network contacts on Facebook and LinkedIn our life networks ought to be massively valuable and strong. And yet for many people in New Zealand at the moment they are not.
So clearly it's not just the number of relationships we have that matters, especially if we consider our friends as competitors, it’s the quality of those relationships.
Are we being kind to each other, are we holding hands and being there?
Helen Kelly, the best of us.
Turning Helen's example into action
In recent weeks Helen's efforts to fight on behalf of New Zealand's workers have been canvassed in numerous obituaries. But how do we turn that example into meaningful change.
Helen's news obits often focussed on her work with Pike River, Ports of Auckland, worker health and safety generally, precarious employment – including zero hours contracts, the obscene levels of fatalities among forestry contractors, the bitter AFFCO Talley's dispute, and most recently her efforts to highlight the needless suffering of terminally ill cancer patients. Helen's victories in many of these battles proved she was phenomenally effective as a campaigner as well as courageous.
We can also probably easily agree that Helen wouldn't want the legacy of her passing to be award for her personally, but rather for us to stand up for what is right.
But for me the question is how do we do so?
How best do we stand up for what is right, in a systemic and effective (as opposed to a tactical) manner?
Step one may be to define the problem we are seeking to address.
Darren Watson's "Planet Key" video, made by Jeremy Jones, was banned during the 2014 election
Ours is not a New Zealand that Helen Kelly was happy with
There is so much that is wrong with New Zealand today.
Why is it that we are so powerless in New Zealand to address the growing surplus of unfairness which we see all around us? Aren't we a democracy of free, generous and noble people?
How did we get to a point where one third of New Zealand children live in poverty?
Where thousands of families live in garages and cars?
Where third world diseases like rickets, rheumatic fever and tuberculosis have returned and taken root in our communities?
Where 60% of our rivers are too polluted to swim in?
Where sub-minimum wages are paid to rural workers in our multi-billion dollar dairy industry?
Where workers are eight times more likely to die on the job than they are in the UK?
Where mental health service provision is manifestly inadequate and we experience one of the highest rates of suicide in the world?
Where for two decades instead of facing our responsibility to address our climate change emissions we have taken advantages of loopholes in international treaties paid money to scam-artists rather than take meaningful action to address or greenhouse gas emissions?
Where the prospect of home ownership is now out of the reach of an entire generation?
Helen's answer to these questions would be I think that we lack solidarity.
That we are a nation divided that has forgotten how to work together. That we do not follow our values and maintain focussed engagement in the difficult policy problems until we find and implement just and fair solutions – that instead we simply move on to the next shiny issue that pops up on Facebook.
There are few New Zealanders who represent the human condition as well as Helen Kelly did and none moreso than in the short time left her after her terminal diagnosis. Interestingly those who might come close are also IMHO, women. Dignified, courageous, principled almost beyond comprehension, it will be a tragedy not just to her memory, but to every surviving New Zealander, should her qualities not be recognised for their true worth to all." - Shelley Te Waiariki H
If some one is nominated for an award and then, unfortunately, dies, the award should still be given posthumously." - Pauline M
Helen's response to public reaction to the Hobbit Dispute – show don't tell
The Hobbit dispute was a significant turning point for Helen's work.
Richard Wagstaff talked at her memorial of the shock Helen felt when she realised during the dispute that the Union movement that she had spent her life working in had lost the support of so many of the common people.
But for Helen as Erin Polaczuk told her memorial meeting," 'no' was never the end of the conversation, and there is opportunity in every setback."
After the Hobbit dispute Helen set in train a plan to restore public support for the Trade Union movement. Her solution was to focus her attention on illustrating the value of solidarity by helping those who had no union protections – and who were suffering grievously because of it.
Helen campaigned for un-unionised and exploited dairy workers – many of whom are immigrants - for people in precarious work, minimum wage workers in the cleaning and caring industries and other contracting occupations, and for forestry workers who were dying in criminally large numbers.
And Helen didn't simply use the stories of these vulnerable workers to warn workers about why they ought to join unions.
Instead she focussed Union resources and energy on actually fixing the problems these workers faced, because that is the right thing to do.
If someone is thirsty you should give them a drink, and if a group of people are dying because their employer, their industry and the Government regulator is failing them, then you ought to try to stop the deaths. In this respect Helen's values were very similar to those of the respected Campbell Live show, don't just talk about the problem, try to fix it. Follow up. And be there for them, with kindness, until they are relieved.
From a neo-liberal perspective Helen's approach might be seen as rewarding those who are making a choice not to be in a union. The so-called moral hazard argument. By providing a safety net for people who have not contributed to it – people have no reason to join a union. But the reality in New Zealand today is that many, many people have no choice but to accept any work they can get, even if it means working outside the union, as a contractor with no safety standards, no pension, no sick leave and no holiday pay.
And counter-intuitively for the neo-liberal game theorists, by showing how unions can help people, Helen turned around the perception of unions as being Hobbit hating economic vandals, and set it on a path towards recovery.
Among the many approaches Helen used in her campaigns for the most vulnerable was the high risk and high cost use of private prosecutions against employers that the Department of Labour had elected not to pursue. These actions sought justice for the families of victims of Pike River and for the families of those killed by an unsafe industry structure in the forestry sector. These prosecutions should have been pursued by the Government. Her tactic proved rules can work, if enforced, and noticeably brought down fatalities. And they demonstrated this in an unmissable fashion to both industry and Government – bringing about systemic change.
The court cases were not a public relations effort, indeed at times the public relations effort around them wasn't particularly flashy – but that wasn't the primary objective. Doing what is right was – and achieving justice – and fixing what was wrong.
And then the media accolades followed. The public noticed and applauded.
Helen Kelly, the best of us.
It's time for all of us to take more responsibility
In her final TV interview with TVNZ's Ryan Boswell Helen talks about how she thinks a New Zealand obsession with leadership is part of the problem.
She's right, our focus on leadership implies that we as citizens can abdicate our responsibility to act honourably in favour of submitting to being part of hierarchical structures, doing what we are told – and pursuing self-interest while obeying the letter law. This could be deemed the neo-liberal prescription for society.
But it is becoming all too obvious that it is this kind of thinking that has led us to the mess we are in.
Of course leadership and rules alone cannot fix complex systemic issues. Ethics and social responsibility are needed for a society to function. Back in the 1990s Tax lawyer Anthony Molloy pointed out that in the field of tax law, unless practitioners embraced their ethics, the rising tide of tax avoidance would never be addressed.
And the tragedy in recent years is that the ethical standards of our politicians – which John Key famously promised to uphold when first elected – are now plumbing new depths.
To my mind, the challenge of leadership is made doubly hard when so many of those charged with implementation - i.e. our public service, business and civil society leaders - are focussed on what is in it for them and their organisations, whether that be funding, promotion, credit, glory or money.
If we are to solve the serious challenges ahead of us –and the even more challenging ones are heading down the road towards us – then we need to learn to cooperate, to co-create our future, to face the challenges together and resolve them collectively acting in good faith and with good will.
We now know for certain that Helen's intention, had she not died, had been to step into the national political arena. Maybe it is worth asking the question, what would she have done?
It would be easy to say – as no doubt the increasingly shrill right-wing in NZ will – that Helen Kelly failed in her efforts to reverse the decline in the Trade Union Movement , so what can we learn from her?
But that would be to make the mistake of assuming that because she was fighting on an overall losing front – as everybody is - that it was her tactics that were failing.
I would strongly argue that Helen's personal legacy of political campaigning is one of many successes, achieved against a backdrop of working against impossible odds. Her "show don't tell", goal driven, inclusive coalition building campaigns delivered real results as discussed above in the section about the Hobbit Dispute.
And she also made significant political progress, she rehabilitated respect for unions in the public's eyes and she has begun a fightback for the Trade Union movement which could bear bountiful fruit in the years ahead.
So what would Helen have done at a national political level?
From listening to her final words and based on her record we can perhaps answer this by saying that she would have continued to be kind, she would have continued to act based on her values and her ethics, and she would have made sure she was there for people in need, holding hands.
And she would have tried to rebalance the economic levers of our society to encourage and enable others to do the same.
Helen Kelly is among the most inspiring New Zealanders I can think of. Selfless, always working for others - I cannot think of anyone more deserving of the title New Zealander of the Year." - Lorraine G
The New Zealander of the Year Awards celebrate those people who use their passion for New Zealand to make our country a better place.-didn't Helen Kelly do this for most of her tragically 'cut short' life. These rules need to be changed-had she lived, Helen would still be fighting to make NZ a better place for others." - Gabrielle M
Never giving up – reversing the decline of trade unions
At the heart of Helen's belief system was the sector that she spent her entire life working in – Trade Unions. Helen very strongly believed, as an increasing number of people do these days, that unionisation is a massively important requirement for a flourishing society.
Helen like many political thinkers these days ( See former US Labour Secretary Robert Reich's documentary "Inequality for All" (password >> Bernie 2016 ) - attributes the destruction of collective thinking - exemplified by the attacks on unionism - as the inflection point that led to the destruction of so much of security and prosperity all around the world, including in New Zealand.
Here in France where I am now living it is vividly apparent what a society which has not abandoned collective thinking – or fraternité, the care one provides to a sibling, as it is enshrined in the French constitution - looks like.
Yes of course there are problems in France. But many of the things that have been lost in New Zealand (and the UK and the US) over the past 25 years since the Employment Contracts Act came into force remain alive and well in France. Free quality education and childcare, comprehensive and accessible health care, affordable housing, secure employment, liveable pensions, well maintained public infrastructure including great public transport and liveable cities.
Unions in France remain very potent political forces and they have undoubtedly been instrumental in shaping the France that exists today.
Helen's work over the eight years she spent as CTU President was focussed on trying to reverse the pendulum on unions in New Zealand.
When the Employment Contracts Act was passed in 1991 the level of unionisation of the NZ work force plummeted from 85% to 17% in the space of a few short years – and this decline has continued ever since with the main remaining area of unionism concentrated around public sector jobs.
For Helen this meant that at the CTU she was working with ever shrinking resources to seek to achieve change in the face of increasingly difficult odds. And towards the end of this period, notably during the Hobbit Dispute, she also found herself being looked upon as a dissenter, a trouble-maker.
One of the other things I also love about France is that here dissent is considered a civic duty. In the New Zealand I left a year ago it felt as if being a critic of the Government was foolhardy, bad for your career and life prospects.
Helen Kelly, the best of us.
So what would embracing values look like in politics?
Too often these days the most common approach to political strategy – and particularly political media strategy - is to constantly calculate the importance of issues based on the amount of media and public attention they receive. I.E. If this or that issue isn't getting much public traction at the moment – then let's move on to something that's of greater public interest and see if we can find more media attention there.
This approach to politics is encouraged by the success of our present Prime Minister, who is prone to answering questions with statements of political calculus. Whatever the issue of the moment is, both he and most people are fairly relaxed about it, and therefore his plan is to continue to do what he is doing already.
It is remarkably common in media these days to similarly be told that the significant issue of injustice that is of concern to you isn't worth your time and effort because "nobody cares about that" or "nobody will read about that."
But just because many people appear to have the attention spans of goldfish, it doesn't mean they don't care about the results of politicians’ decisions or for that matter whether stories about matters of significant public interest are covered in the media.
Public concern about the issues facing NZ is very real and mounting, and survey after survey finds people want to see more substance in both politics and media. And the annual research into trusted professions shows politicians at historically low levels occupying the bottom of the table alongside journalists and used-car salesmen.
We tend to laugh at these numbers, but what do they say about the health of our civil society? And should we be trying to do anything about it?
If we – and this collective applies particularly to both media and politicians - simply surrender to the age of stupid then the inevitable end point is the sort of politics and media that leads to the rise of Donald Trump. Democracy will cease to function. The centre will not hold. Chaos will be loosed upon us all.
NZers pride themselves on being part of an egalitarian society. No one encapsulates those values more than Helen Kelly. She should be nominated for NZer of the year as she fought for the needs of the many, especially those less able." - Melanie W
It makes total sense. Rules are not rules just for their own sake. Rules, like international law, have to be adapted to take cognisance of changed circumstances. Helen Kelly was exceptional. Make an exception for her." - Kate O
**** REASONS TO CARE ****
The challenge that comes from our sorrow
I know there are many live heroes in NZ's political activism world. Some of whom I have the privilege of knowing personally. But looking from afar I can also see that the most of them are bogged down in the trenches, isolated and fighting uphill battles.
Those who are making progress - Jane Kelsey's super-human efforts against the TPP, and Greenpeace's current work on fishing and water quality - are succeeding because they are built around broad coalitions of support, are persistent and ongoing, and grounded. [I would also note the Trade Union movement has probably been the leading institutional participant in the anti-TPP coalition.]
In the context of the mounting collective challenges the hope of the progressive left is that a change in Government can change all this. But will it? It seems to me that we need to also begin to change ourselves.
In the process of writing this reflection I have realised that one of the key reasons Helen's death brought me to tears is my fear that without her acting as role-model, traffic warden and champion for the power of kindness and selflessness, New Zealand may surrender entirely to selfishness.
I fear that if we forget the ideals of fair go, mate-ship and equality of opportunity we will turn into a country of deeply entrenched privilege living off the backs of an underclass. Right now we are well on the way to becoming that dystopia. And in a sense when I cry for Helen I cry for the future of New Zealand.
Politically the challenge of superdiversity in Auckland and the arrival of 10s of thousands of new New Zealanders each year – who are by their nature likely to put a great deal of store in self-reliance - makes the task of reversing this trend doubly difficult.
And then I remember what Robyn Malcolm said at Helen's memorial: when she was listening to the speeches who came before her it seemed as if there must have been 10 Helen Kelly's to have touched so many people's lives so directly.
Over the past year, Helen accepted her death in a manner that was so dignified it's almost impossible to fathom.
Whenever she was asked about her suffering she would refer to the suffering of others, "it's not so bad" she would say, looking instead on the bright side that it meant lots of lovely people were coming to bid her farewell. I also feel great sorrow for her son Dylan partner Steve and brother Max. While I have not yet met them I can only imagine how big a hole she is leaving in their lives.
For me the challenge that comes from this sorrow is to try to be more like Helen was. To focus on building my own capacity for trust and cooperation through being principled and kind.
Join the call to celebrate Helen Kelly as the #BestOfUs
Why we should remember our Helen
And it's because of all of this that I think it is worth trying to fight for Helen to be remembered forever as the New Zealander of the Year of 2016. And in fighting for her recognition we can celebrate the things she stood for. Plus we can honour her spirit of never giving up and fighting for what we believe in.
And if we fail to win the day and get her reinstated, then as she would say, "No is not the end of the conversation."
In fighting to have Helen honoured we are in fact honouring her.
Join the call to celebrate Helen Kelly as the #BestOfUs
**** AN ALTERNATE PROPOSAL ****
What if "No" is the answer to Helen's award?
So I think mounting a sustained effort to get Helen included in the New Zealander of the Year awards is worth doing. But I am also pretty sure Helen would want a plan mounted in her honour - to be done with an achievable objective in sight.
We need to ensure that the enthusiasm and passion that has already gathered around Helen's passing achieves change, or at the very least some progress, otherwise we are just adding to the noise.
From this I have deduced that we need to have a Plan B, a practical alternative to Helen being New Zealander of the Year 2016, worth putting a bunch of our energy into and which can serve as a fitting memorial for her whether or not the Award organisers come around.
At the same time if New Zealand is to avoid evolving from Gordon McLauchlan's "Passionless People" into a "Compassionless People" then we are sorely in need of a political intervention.
Our politics like that of most of the Anglosphere has become sclerotic ["rigid and unresponsive; losing the ability to adapt"]. Too many of our politicians have decided that achieving meaningful change is impossible and have resigned to playing a game of politics rather than pursuing the real deal.
In the wider body-politic the political consensus around neo-liberal ideas about fiscal and economic policy has infected our social and work interactions also. The political policy options we are presented with too often look like four or five shades of the same grey. Yet the debate among those arguing in the corners is often more and more incandescent.
Deaths of great people often lead to deep reflection. They provide us with a human mirror in which we can see our society – and it looks like us.
Many New Zealanders, including me, believed Helen Kelly might have become a great Prime Minister had she not been taken so young. And while agreeing that we should not be obsessed with leadership, we do still need leaders, and we need our existing leaders to be better than they presently are.
In this context Helen's style of principled, enlightened, and selfless political activism serves as a wonderful example to future generations of activists and politicians.
Political activism in New Zealand in my view needs celebrating. Standing up for what is right against powerful interest ought to be something that we collectively applaud. Activism has taken quite a beating in recent years. As has a life in politics, unsurprisingly few young people (even those who are deeply politically engaged) or indeed people at all are willing to consider a move into representative politics – the nastiness and apparent futility makes it appear to be a frightening path to pursue.
But it is one which we need to encourage people to consider, and indeed to choose to pursue.
With that in mind the solution for honouring Helen Kelly becomes obvious.
It is an idea that is not original – it has been proposed elsewhere. It is also an idea that I very much support and one which I would be willing to volunteer time and effort into putting into action.
Let's create a new award - bearing Helen's name (with her family's permission) - to celebrate selflessness, achievement and courage in political service – either as activist or politician, to be awarded annually to someone who truly represents the best of us, as Helen undoubtedly did.
If you would like to help put together some kind of meaningful memorial for Helen Kelly – either this idea or another - then please email me here. It is going to take a coalition to get something like this flying.
And/or if you simply think Helen should be honoured,
please also sign the twin petitions to Kiwibank and to the award organisers for Helen Kelly to be
reinstated into the New Zealander of the Year awards.
- Alastair Thompson, 7th November 2016, Bretagne, France.
Helen Kelly is bid fare well at the Michael Fowler Centre with a rendition of "Bread and Roses."