House: Valedictory of Rt. Hon. Sir William Birch
Valedictory Speech To House Of Representatives
Rt Hon Sir William Birch, MP For Port Waikato
The two most challenging speeches for an MP are the Maiden Speech and this, the Valedictory Speech in Parliament. In my case 27 years separate the two. In between, there have been an extraordinary range of human experiences, challenges, 9 elections, constituency issues, various portfolios, battles in the House, Points of Order, media controversies, and Cabinet, Cabinet committee and caucus debates. But it is in the role of a representative of the people that this job brings its deep rewards and its magnetic attraction.
The 27 years have sped by and I enjoy it today as much as I first did when I entered Parliament. But there are some things I will not miss. For instance, leaving my family, my home and my electorate at just after 6 am every Monday morning and catching the red-eye flight to Wellington. This separation from my family, whom I love very much, is the biggest sacrifice in politics. To be separated from my wife Rosa, and my daughter Roanne, and my sons and their families for most of the week for most weeks of the year for 27 years, or well over half of my married life, is asking more of my wife and family than is reasonable for them to give – I thank them sincerely for their support and for their understanding.
When I was elected to Parliament on the 25th of November 1972 with Jim Bolger, Ken Comber, Keith Allen and Gavin Downie, the National Party had just concluded the 12 years of the Holyoake Government. The National Party caucus was still comprised mostly of distinguished returned Second World War soldiers – Frank Gill, Duncan MacIntyre, Jack Marshall, David Thomson, Dick Harrison, Rob Muldoon, Brian Talboys, Peter Gordon and Harry Lapwood.
They were a tough and disciplined group of parliamentarians and it was a daunting experience to be appointed a Whip with Dick Harrison in my second year in Parliament.
This was an apprenticeship under Rob Muldoon which served me well in terms of understanding parliamentary procedures, being impeccably correct with my facts, and providing tactical support for the parliamentary leadership of the party.
I have had the privilege of working closely with Party Leaders Sir John Marshall, Rob Muldoon, Jim McLay, Jim Bolger and the current Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley.
What a marvellous experience to be at the top level of decision-making during such an eventful period of New Zealand history. Since 1982 when I became number 4 in Cabinet ranking, I have had the privilege of being in the tight five of decision-making. This experience extends from Holyoake to Shipley and I leave with a high regard for them all as outstanding New Zealanders and as close colleagues and friends.
The common and enduring theme that stands out through all of my experience is the strength of our democratic institutions in New Zealand and the role of elected representatives determining the rules by which New Zealanders live their lives.
Whether it is the decision-making process in Parliament, in Caucus, Cabinet Committee or Cabinet, it is the decision of the majority which prevails.
It is the power of the logic, the strength of the argument, which finally carries the day in caucus or Cabinet debates. Whilst today in New Zealand there is a lot of cynicism about politics and politicians, my own view is that decision makers are motivated by wanting to achieve better outcomes for all New Zealanders. It’s been a matter of getting the policy right and then managing the politics.
Our decision-making process in New Zealand is broad-based. I have experienced many occasions when decisions have gone against the wishes of the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet Ministers. Testy though those debates may be, the great test of character then for Ministers and Members of Parliament is to accept the decisions of their peers and argue the merits of the decision to the wider public audience.
Apart from a few exceptions, my colleagues have been team players and it has been a great privilege to be part of the team. I have always believed that justice is of laws rather than of men and women. Being a member of a parliamentary caucus is being a key player in a larger political family.
The political family for a constituency MP centres first on the electorate. For me the pivotal community in my electorate has always been Pukekohe. It has been a wonderful and loyal community to represent. The electorate boundaries have moved around significantly over the years. On four occasions I have been the member for Franklin, twice the MP for Rangiriri, twice the MP for Maramarua and now the MP for Port Waikato. Those electorate boundaries, mostly centred on Franklin, have moved from as far north as Beachlands in Manukau City to Pirongia Mountain south-west of Hamilton and as far east as Thames.
The key organiser at my electorate level has always been my electorate chairperson and I have been exceptionally well looked after with what is recognised as the best organised electorate in the Northern Division. Peter Skelton from Maramarua, Pat Baker from Runciman, Don Cameron from Rangiriri, Bob Arvidson from Pukekohe, Keith Hamilton from Awhitu, Doug Payton from Te Kauwhata and Ian McDougall from Pukekohe – thank you all for building a successful and supportive organisation.
I have immensely enjoyed the electorate work. Constituency clinics most weekends somewhere in the electorate have kept me sane and in touch with the people.
These clinics have been organised very efficiently by my electorate secretaries of whom Barbara Knowles (who is present today) has been with me now for 16 years and has become an icon in the electorate. Thank you Barbara for your sterling and dedicated service.
One of the great privileges of being a constituency MP is the trust and faith extended by constituents. One of the greatest rewards is being able to help resolve individual and family issues. My weekend clinics explore issues of extraordinary human experiences – matrimonial disputes, tax disputes with the IRD, health, education, housing, immigration – what a wonderful insight these give me for policy formulation and improving public administration. How great it is to be able to cut through the bureaucratic red tape - not always with success - and how grateful people are for the least little help.
Sometimes the media say MPs are out of touch. Constituency clinics are the greatest means of keeping in touch with the everyday issues of my local people. On the basis of an average of one clinic a week for 27 years, I have dealt with about 20,000 local issues in my time as a local MP.
In a wider sense, travelling as a Minister and MP has taken me to almost every nook and cranny in New Zealand. I doubt whether there is a community in mainland New Zealand that I have not visited in some capacity or another. Opening conferences, visiting schools, campaigning in local halls, and staying in the homes of local party members, all of whom have treated Rosa and me as part of the family, has been a truly wonderful experience and I thank them all.
What is it about this place that has such an attraction? In addition to the representative role, for me it has been the involvement in the formation of public policy and that is true for most of us.
I recall the longest serving member of the House, the Rt Hon Jonathan Hunt, saying to me on the tarmac of Wellington Airport in December 1972 as I arrived to attend my first caucus, “if Labour had not have won this election, I doubt that I would have stayed in Parliament”. Well 27 years later and for Jonathan 18 of those in Opposition, he is still here – I wouldn’t be as unkind to say it is the access to Bellamys’ wine and cheese. Jonathan has always been a student of public policy and I expect it is that attraction which has kept him here as well.
And it has been a fascinating 27 years in a public policy sense. In my maiden speech, trade was the big issue – Britain had just joined the EEC with its protectionist policies. Still today trade is the big global issue and focus of public policy work as New Zealand reaches out to enter into Free Trade Agreements with APEC countries.
Two former MPs who entered Parliament with me in 1972 are investing their considerable talents in reducing those trade barriers particularly in agriculture – Jim Bolger in Washington and Mike Moore in the WTO. There is no more immediate challenge to the developed world than to open their markets to the developing economies to allow them to grow their way out of poverty by exporting their food crops to the wealthy markets of the United States, Japan and Europe. It is totally unacceptable in terms of fairness and equity for those economies to refuse to accept agricultural products when manufactured goods from the wealthy nations such as motor cars from Japan can now be traded without hindrance.
I have taken the opportunity in my visits to the IMF and in forums of the international financial markets to demonstrate that the 100 percent tariff that the New Zealand farmers face in dairy products to the United States or the 500 to 600 percent tariff into Japan cannot remain and must disappear under the APEC commitment to free trade to the Asia Pacific countries by 2010 and 2020.
But public policy is not only about trade. Over the past 9 years the building of a coherent and robust economic policy framework has involved endless debate and consultation. New Zealand is applauded internationally as a world leader in its promotion of good standards of governance and transparency.
I make no secret of the satisfaction I have gained in participating in and, in some areas, driving reforms in areas such as labour markets ECA, immigration, and fiscal and tax reform.
It has been equally satisfying to have achieved as Minister of Finance the first fiscal surplus in 1994 after 17 years of deficits. The last 6 Budgets have all had surpluses and there are strong forecasts for growth as we look ahead to the next millennium.
It was those growing surpluses that allowed us to reward taxpayers in 1996 and 1998 with substantial tax cuts and these were highlight years for me. After many years of needing to treat deficit and debt reduction as an imperative, for the first time for a generation we were in a position to be able to make the big picture trade-off between tax reductions, expenditure and debt reduction.
I am not one that spends a lot of time praising the officials and bureaucrats who serve the public but I want to recognise today that many work extremely hard and bring a high level of competence and dedication to their tasks. I want to pay a particular tribute to several departmental chief executives with whom I have worked closely over recent years: Secretaries to the Treasury, Dr Murray Horn and Dr Alan Bollard; Commissioner of Inland Revenue Graham Holland; Chief Executives of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Simon Murdoch and Dr Mark Prebble; and State Services Commissioners, Don Hunn and Michael Wintringham.
The running of a ministerial office is a demanding task. I have not made it easy by insisting on very high standards, insisting that the Office of the Minister of Finance should be the best performer in the Beehive. I have been very ably assisted by all my senior private secretaries from Vergne Quinn in my first period as a Minister to Ross Tanner, Brendan Quirk, Geoff Wilson, David Tripp, Chris Pinfield, Paul Stocks and currently Peter Lorimer.
So many people have contributed in such a consistently dedicated way – Ina de Polo, Katy Greco and my media advisers whom I call on at all hours of the day and night, Richard Ninness and Bevan Burgess.
Ministerial office staff can work in mysterious ways. I learned for the first time this week, at a farewell to Anna McKinnon in Wyatt Creech’s office, of the role that Anna played in the presentation of the 1994 Budget. Anna, who was then working in my office, was not well on the night of that Budget. While watching it on TV at home, she was astonished to see that a Minister sitting directly behind me was chewing furiously on gum. Anna, posing as a crank caller, rang Brad Tattersfield in my office. She complained to him how terrible it was that this gum chewing was distracting viewers’ attention away from my reading of the Budget. Shortly after, while continuing to watch the televised presentation of the Budget, Anna was intrigued to see Mr Creech receive a note from his left and almost immediately stop chewing. What had happened was that Brad had rung down to the Government whips who had told Mr Creech that his chewing was featuring on TV. Mr Creech recalls being told to stop chewing, says he was chewing peppermints not gum, and like me was unaware until this week of Anna’s involvement.
Mike Moore referred to me in a debate in 1979, at the time of the second oil crisis, as a part time Minister in charge of an important portfolio – then Energy. That was a bit unkind. I have been called many things but part time doesn’t fit - as Ministers and officials who have been invited to late evening meetings in my office will testify. Minister of most things might be nearer the mark.
In my 15 years as a Minister I have been appointed to 17 portfolios. During the course of those years I have answered (impeccably) 5259 parliamentary questions and asked, mainly in my years in Opposition, 1531 penetrating parliamentary questions. In between times I introduced 80 mostly public Bills and no doubt repealed many more. Even more staggering, during the course of the past 6 years as Minister of Finance I have read, ticked or rejected some 14,050 Treasury reports.
The statistics of course are not important; it is the end result, or what we now refer to as outcomes, that is important.
In recent months I have been the lead Minister on Dairy Industry Reform and as I leave this place I want to say that I do not believe that there is anything more important for the future of our rural communities and our farming industry than to continue with that work – and I pay tribute to the Dairy Industry leaders including Graham Calvert for their vision of a more prosperous future for their industry and their hard work to begin achieving this.
And these reforms have continued despite MMP and the fragmentation of Parliament. Parliamentary reform I expect to continue for some years to come. The present system, although making it possible for wider ethnic representation - and we are very much richer for the presence of Pansy Wong, Georgina te Heuheu and Arthur Anae, for example – has a degree of instability which is unsustainable in my view. The Margaret Robertson referendum to reduce the number of MPs to 99 is bound to be carried and will provide the opportunity to further refine the MMP system by moving closer to the Supplementary Member system.
One of my responsibilities as a Minister has been to maintain a close liaison with the Mauri Pacific Party and the independent MPs supporting the Government. I have enjoyed working closely with them and have respected their integrity as they have provided support for the Government on confidence and supply. Their presentation to me yesterday afternoon in my office of this greenstone mere is greatly appreciated and I will always treasure it as a taonga.
I must candidly confess never thinking when I entered Parliament that I would stay for 27 years. Whilst I was always determined to give parliamentary life my best shot and to make a contribution, it was a shock to my system on returning from overseas a few months ago to receive a letter offering me the Royal honour of GNZM. Since then I have received much mail addressed in all sorts of quaint ways. But the most regular address I receive from the many school children who write to me is now Dear Sir William Bill Birch.
As I now leave this place I want to say how pleased I was that the leadership transfer from Jim Bolger to Jenny Shipley was managed without bitterness or resentment. I want to say thank you to my fellow parliamentarians for their support and friendship or, if that is not appropriate, for the robust debate and the healthy competition. Also to the Clerk of the House, the Cabinet Office, the staff of Parliament, Ministerial Services, and Bellamys, thank you all for your services. A special thank you to the Ministerial Drivers who have shown unfailing courtesy to Rosa and myself. I include in that particularly Jimmy Anderson who for the past 9 years has waited patiently in the Beehive basement for me to finish work and go home in the early hours of the morning.
A special word to the Press Gallery. I have always understood they had a task to do. It’s taken 27 years to get a positive editorial from the New Zealand Herald and that occurred yesterday.
I am equally pleased, as I turn for home, at the thought of spending more time at home with my family and community as I return to the private sector where I really belong and again take up a real job.