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Maiden Speech Of Hon Margaret Wilson

15 FEBRUARY 2000

Mr Speaker

I want to commence by acknowledging you and your office as the peacekeeper of Parliament. In my short time here, I recognise the skill required to exercise order, judgment, fairness and humour to ensure all voices are heard and not only the loudest. I acknowledge, through you also, the privilege accorded to new Members of Parliament of presenting ourselves to the House. To speak for one's self is a right many have fought for over a long period of time. It is also a right that lies at the heart of our democracy.

For those of us however whose memory and imagination of maidenhood is somehow stretched, may I commend to you, Mr Speaker, instituting an inquiry in search of a more gender neutral term.

I understand it is traditional to acknowledge His Excellency the Governor-General who represents the Crown within our constitutional arrangements. As a matter of courtesy, I make this formal acknowledgment. I must state however that I hope before I leave this role, I see the oath to the Queen replaced with a pledge to the people of New Zealand to serve them faithfully, with integrity and courage. I am one who believes the time has come to bring our constitutional arrangements into line with our growing sense of identity as a people who owe much to many cultures, but who are forging an unique culture that can stand proudly alone. I hope I can contribute to that debate and encourage others to do also.

Constitutions are normally changed only in times of crisis. There is no such crisis in New Zealand at this time. There is however a growing sense that maybe it is time for us as a people to emerge from adolescence and take responsibility for ourselves. A defining characteristic of maturity and adulthood is a capacity to commit. Maybe the time has come for us to commit to each other as one nation representing many people and cultures without relying on the forms and symbols of a country that is associated with a colonial past, that some of us struggle to move beyond.

With these comments, I mean no disrespect to those whose bonds with England are meaningful. However, as the daughter of families who came to New Zealand in the 1860s to escape the poverty, hardships and inequality of a class system, I feel a sense of obligation to carry on my ancestors' dream of creating a new society founded on the principles of equality, independence, social, economic and cultural justice.

I also want to acknowledge the members of this House of Representatives who have preceded us, and who each in their own unique way contributed to the tradition and practice of representative democratic government that stands at the heart of our constitution. Amongst those members to whom I wish to pay particular tribute is my great grandfather, Henry James Greenslade, who served in this House as the Liberal member for Waikato from 1905 to 1911.
At this point I thank my parents who have travelled here today to provide a bridge between generations and a reminder that public service is an essential element of our family life.

I also want to pay special tribute to those women who since colonisation have worked tirelessly to ensure that women could speak for themselves. The strength and commitment of those early pioneering women, together with their fine sense of political opportunism, made New Zealand the first country to give women the right to vote. It was not until 1919 however that we could stand for Parliament, and not until Elizabeth McCombs was elected to Parliament as a Labour Member in 1933, those women's voices were heard in the Chamber. Although women's voices have continued to be heard since that time, women Members of Parliament have been few until the advent of MMP.

One of the benefits of the increasing number of women in Parliament has been that the diversity of women's experience can now be represented. The struggle of women for equality has frequently been misinterpreted as women wanting to be the same as men. This has never been our objective as many of us have felt that the male experience needed to be transcended and not replicated. Central to the feminist argument however has been the principle of equality, because it was assumed that this was a fundamental principle of our society. However the increasing social and economic disparity that has accompanied the policies of structural adjustment has raised serious questions as to whether equality was still valued by policy makers. This development created serious concern amongst those of us who continued to struggle for women. We saw the increasing powerlessness of women trapped inside relationships of dependency, with no route out except through the policies of workfare that denied the reality of women's obligation and value to their families. The voice of women during this period became muted by the politics of backlash that denied women experienced any inequality.

Although women's struggle for equality has made much progress over the past 100 years, it is also obvious that that struggle is far from over. The evidence for this is found in the incidence of violence against women, the continuing disparity in rates of pay and opportunity for women, and in the barriers that persist in women's access to justice, which were graphically outlined in Joanne Morris's report for the Law Commission. There is still much work to be done for the equality of women. The programme of reconstruction as laid down in the speech from the throne acknowledges this and expresses the commitment by this Government to continue that work. As a Member of the Government, I consider myself honoured to carry on that struggle in this place.

For me, it is important never to forget that achievement in politics arrives through the efforts of the collective. As President of the Labour Party, I came to realise how little understanding or appreciation there was of the role of the political party within our democracy. As one who had the privilege to work with these unsung heroes of our political process, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge their contribution. It is the political party that provides the structure within which our system of representative democracy is organised. Like all organisations however, political parties need to reinvent themselves if they are to remain relevant and provide that essential link between the member and the electorate.

Finally, I pay tribute to Mita Ririnui and Willie Jackson who moved and seconded this debate. They personified the seachange that is underway in this country. They opened the debate that centres on the Speech from the Throne, in which the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Helen Clark, laid out a programme that firmly sets New Zealand's path for this new millennium. It is a path I want to explore in this speech because it defines the role of government as one of leadership and responsibility for the well being of all New Zealanders, and not just a privileged few. In this sense it clearly signals we intend to carry the best of our past into our future.

I came to serve in the Parliament as a List member. As such I am part of an electoral development to ensure Parliament is more representative of the community. If one looks at the composition of this House, then you must say that development is achieving success. It is also apparent however, that the people are not only interested in constitutional experiments for their own sake, despite what colleagues from my former occupation may think. The people want a government that works. This means a government that makes decisions, that gets on with the job, and concentrates on the ball and not the player. The task of melding the diversity amongst us into a programme for action is a challenge that faces the Government. The task we undertake in Parliament is similar to that undertaken within the community, as we all struggle to learn to live and work with difference. I believe the reconciliation of difference is best achieved through a commitment to peaceful co-existence, and a willingness to learn the techniques of accommodation that make it a reality. It is our task as representatives of our communities to show leadership in how we respect and accommodate difference while getting on finding practical solutions to real problems.

Although I entered Parliament as a List member, I contributed to my Party's vote through a hard fought election campaign in Tauranga. For those of you who have not visited Tauranga recently, it remains not only New Zealand's most beautiful city, but it is also a city in transition experiencing enormous growth that has placed strains on its infrastructure, especially its roading system, as well as its community relations. Tauranga is not only God's most beautiful waiting room; it is a vibrant city struggling with the social and economic problems that face all cities. As such it is looking for direction from Government to create the environment for it to get on and resolve the challenges facing it.

During my campaign I held over twenty community meetings at which it was possible to talk directly to those people who were concerned about the direction of the country. Their concerns were not expressed in ideological terms of a contractual society governed by the market principles founded on a neo-liberal conception of relations between individuals and the state.

No -
· they talked of denial of access to health care when it was needed most, before the near death crisis;
· of children and grandchildren being burdened with student loans and giving up tertiary education;
· of over crowding in houses, and too little emergency housing to cope with the summer housing crisis where tenants were evicted to enable owners to take advantage of the high rents paid by holiday makers;
· of having to drive their children across the city to attend school before they go to work because the school next door had no room for them;
· of a lack of respect for elders who had contributed to the growth of New Zealand in the past but were now being denied an adequate income they thought had been part of their contract with the state;
· of the anxiety and the stress associated with no security of employment and the lack of dignity they felt in the take or leave, pick them up throw them away labour market that was created under the Employment Contracts Act;
· and associated with this, a real concern that we had de-skilled as a country and the only hope for the young was to leave before it was too late;
· and many expressed a concern at the growing division in our society between the rich and poor, the urban and the rural, Maori and Pakeha/Europeans, and attributed this to a failure of all politicians to give leadership in resolving these divisions.

I am aware that the restructuring that has taken place over the past fifteen years has reaped benefits for some. I am also aware that change was necessary after the denial of governments in the 1970s and early 1980s that globalisation was a reality that not even New Zealand could avoid.

I was equally aware however that the solutions chosen to reposition New Zealand to cope with these challenges created as many problems as they purported to solve. The reason for this was simple. The policy instruments of contractualism, individualism, and competitive markets were implemented in a way that denied their cultural context. They ignored the commitment of previous generations to a sense of fairness expressed in a commitment to the right of people to be treated equally. They ignored the belief of New Zealanders that everyone has the right to the basics of life - food, housing, health and education. And perhaps most importantly, those policies ignored the defining characteristic of New Zealanders, our pragmatism and abhorrence of ideology.

I see the task of this Government to hear the concerns of the electorate and seek to restore a sense of balance in government decision making. I see the guiding principle of this Government to be that of principled pragmatism. This means listening to and accommodating differing viewpoints with the purpose of finding practical solutions to real problems. It means facing the hard question of redressing the inequalities between Maori and Pakeha/Europeans through the settlement of past grievances and the development of ways to support cultural autonomy. It also means an overdue recognition that New Zealand is a multi-cultural society. This means addressing the real concerns of recent immigrants and not ignoring them in the hope they will adjust or leave.

In a sense we are all immigrants to this new land, that is as yet unformed as the frequent earth tremors remind us. As such we need to affirm and reinforce the obligation to help each other in time of need and to be all part of the creation of a society that is truly unique. Without the capacity to show compassion and generosity, this country could never have developed the way it has. I like to believe that those qualities remain among our defining characteristics and will enable us to rebuild our country to face the challenges of globalisation.

An example of the application of a policy of principled pragmatism will be found in finding ways to include those with disability in the decisions that affect them. It is time the disabled communities spoke for themselves. It is difficult to describe the feeling of powerlessness and exclusion one can feel when denied access through some impairment or disability. As one who has struggled to live a 'normal' life in what I often consider an 'abnormal' world, I cannot explain the relief it is to be part of a government that is prepared to assign Ministerial responsibility to the question of inclusion of disability in decision making.

I want to conclude my speech with a few comments on what I see as one of the primary tasks of this Government. It is the reconstruction of the public sector and the rehabilitation of the whole notion of politics and government. For me politics has always been the art of reconciliation of differing points of view in such a way as to find a practical solution to a problem. Government is the authority the people assign the task of finding those solutions, and the public service is the instrument for implementing those solutions. I know these definitions will be too simplistic for some, but I argue it is time to return to basics to re-establish the legitimacy of government.

Mr Speaker, I feel privileged to be part of a government that has accepted the challenge of reconstruction. I hope I can contribute my skills to that task.

On a personal level, I hope I can contribute to the strengthening of our constitutional arrangements because I believe it is through our constitution that the reality of our democratic rights are preserved and advanced, including the right to have a say in the decisions that affect us, and the right to speak of one's self, which this maiden speech has accorded.


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