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Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle


Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle.


Liberty Belle this week is my speech to the Milford Ladies' Probus Club, on the topic, 'The Role of a Mother in Parliament'.

Last week the Otago Daily Times published an editorial on the topic 'Women in Politics' which quoted the former National MP, Marilyn Waring. She said, in a book published a decade ago called Making Policy Not Tea - Women in Parliament:

"The only reason for women to be in institutions such as Parliament and the bureaucracy is to transform them. If we're not transforming them, we're not making any progress."

The editorial went on to criticize Dr Don Brash for voicing his opinion that the country no longer needed a Ministry of Women's Affairs. The ODT accused Brash of devaluing "in the eyes of many women the notion that there are issues particularly applying to women".

There are many issues particularly applying to men too but the ODT did not call for a Ministry of Men's Affairs to be established.

I'm not about to make a political speech about the pros and cons of a Ministry of Women's Affairs. You've asked me to talk about the role of a mother in Parliament.

I began with the Marilyn Waring observation because I totally disagree with it. In fact, I think it's an insult to women.

Why should I be so arrogant as to presume that a) women whom I represent need transforming and b) that I should be the one to do it.

I'm no role model. I'm no different really from most New Zealand mothers. I was born and raised on a farm in Hawke's Bay. I grew up with four brothers, and was treated like a boy until my mother decided it was time I behaved like a young lady and sent me off to board at Chilton St James School in Lower Hutt.

I married young. The first time was 31 years ago, and we had one child. Then I had three more children with my next partner, so I have four children, all grown up now - aged 29, 25, 24 and 18.

I've been an employee and an employer. I've run businesses. I've worked on farms, in shearing sheds, restaurants and bars. I've taken in ironing, cleaned houses and motels, and written for the most prestigious publications in New Zealand. I've won a Fellowship to Cambridge University in England for my work. I've done quite a lot in my 51 years.

But my greatest accomplishment, by far, to date, is the fact that I've managed to help raise four happy, independent, hardworking, boisterous, robust, moody, bad-tempered, naughty, outrageous, loving and enormously loved children.

I've finished with the food business; I won't be an MP forever; I'll be overtaken by younger journalists and pushed off the scene.

But I'll be a mother forever. Until the day I die. I will never stop being a mother.

So part of my role as a mother in Parliament is to represent Mums in Parliament.

This is a huge electorate. It's not a trendy electorate. It's still not cool to be a Mum. I've been there. I've been through the pilled tracksuit phase where you crawl out of bed in the morning and pull on whatever's closest, even if it's got sick all over the shoulder and down the back. I've crouched in the hallway at 4am, crying, wondering what else I can do to stop this baby screaming. And yes, I've felt like throwing this monster against the wall.

And what got me through that? What stopped me from crossing that line of abuse?

The Plunket nurse. I would never have coped, and learned to be a confident mother without those Plunket nurses who came and visited me every week until I got on my feet. Who checked the other children while they were there, Made sure the kids were reaching their milestones. Reassured me that yes, I was doing okay, and no, there's no such thing as the perfect mother.

If I could achieve just one thing as a politician it would be to bring back Plunket so we have Plunket nurses going into the homes of every mother who goes home from hospital with her baby. And visiting for as long as it takes until mother and baby are bonded. Checking for early warnings of abuse. Educating Mums on the right food so the children don't become obese.

We pour millions of dollars into contractors, or bounty hunters, who "enroll" preschoolers at any sort of early education center but we don't check what quality education - if any - they're getting.

Parents are the best first teachers, and Plunket used to do a huge job in helping parents be good first teachers. Why did we throw it all away?

Mothers are undervalued, under-rated. Dismissed. Next time you're at a dinner party and the conversation turns to the latest trend in architecture; Lloyd Jones' latest novel; what shares are worth investing in, or will Metro magazine survive, try throwing in a line about your daughter's cute essay or baby's first words and see what a conversation killer that will be.

But mothers have built New Zealand and will continue to do so for the next 1000 years. Pioneer mothers, like the 15-year-old English wife of Wharekauri Tahuna who sailed out from London with her 60-year-old Maori chief husband, settled up the Kaipara Harbour and didn't see another white woman for 12 years.

My own mother who was married on final leave in 1939 then waved her husband off to war. By 1950 they had three boys under the age of five and were working on farms around the North Island. In today's dollars their family net income was $16,000. Today a beneficiary family with three young children has a net income of around $25,000. But they'll also have, as of 'right', a computer with Internet, Sky TV, stereo, washing machine and drier.

I got the Parliamentary Library to do this comparison for me after Coral Burrows was killed and there were cries for benefits to be increased. Well poor parents aren't automatically bad parents.

There are bad parents - bad Mums and good Mums and unfortunately the good Mums get ignored.

But we've also gone soft on bad parenting. We've gone soft on those solo mothers who allow their itinerant boyfriends to drift in and out of their lives, sharing their houses and their beds; beating, sexually abusing and sometimes killing their children.

I don't even honour these lowlife with the description of 'stepfather'. That's an insult to all the men who do take on the upbringing and love of other men's children, when they marry or commit to a long-term relationship with a women who already has kids. Those men are stepfathers. Not mongrels like the ones who killed James Whakaruru and Coral Burrows.

But as usual, when these awful crimes occur, we blame everyone except those responsible. We blame the drug P. We blame society in general. We move to punish all parents by banning smacking.

I haven't talked about Dads today because I wasn't asked to, but I do have strong feelings on that too. My children are successful because they've been lucky enough to have wonderful fathers. But we've embarked on a social experiment in New Zealand where we think Dads don't matter. They do.

And so do Mums. That's why I'm proud to represent them in Parliament. Without Mums the world wouldn't go round.

Unlike Marilyn Waring, I don't want to transform them. I love them just the way they are.

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