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Commonsense - An Endangered Species?

Commonsense - An Endangered Species?

Tuesday 27 Apr 2004 Deborah Coddington Speeches -- Other

Speech to Wellington Rotary Club, Monday April 26, 2004.

I was asked to choose a topic for my speech today and as usual, I left it until the last minute to provide Hewitt Humphrey with the title. Deadline came when I was reading the latest piece of bureaucratic nonsense to cross my desk.

As a journalist I thought I'd seen my full quota of stupidity, but as a politician what you see is mind-boggling. You're bombarded on all sides. The public draw your attention to the latest stupidity put out by bureaucrats, and bureaucrats keep pumping out more stupidity that fills your in-tray.

So I think I said to Janice, my assistant, "Why doesn't anyone use their commonsense any more?" And therein was the genesis of today's talk with you.

I can't now remember exactly what the latest piece of stupidity - or common non-sense - was. Possibly it was the Waitakere City Council declaring that from now on pool owners would not be allowed to have furniture around their swimming pools.

Or maybe it was an email from a grandmother asking why her taxes go to paying adults in the Education Ministry to issue directives to teachers on how they must not allow children to print capital letters in a certain way.

But when I started writing this speech, I thought, well, what exactly do we mean by common sense?

I had it shouted at me enough when I was growing up on a farm in Hawke's Bay - a tomboy among four brothers. I got whacked for not using my commonsense. For example if I asked if I could stay with my city friends in the school holidays the short answer was "use your commonsense".

That meant, "No - it's lambing/docking time".

How about the Christmas holidays then? "No, it's shearing time."

Well, May? But by then my friends had given up on me. Although I only recently found out that they loved coming to stay with me because I was allowed to shoot guns - a .22 rifle - build rafts for dams, trolleys for the road and huts in trees. Things that are probably against the law these days for 13 and 14-year-olds.

But to sort out this commonsense I headed for the dictionary.

According to Websters, the definition of commonsense is `sound, practical judgment'. So what does `sound' mean? `Founded in truth, valid'.

What about `practical'? `Capable of reducing theories to actual use'. And judgment? `Discernment, decision making.'

So I deduce its formal definition is doing things, going about your life, choosing what you do, in a manner that's sensible, reasonably wise, and doesn't make you look foolish.

In other words, my parents were right all along. Don't be stupid.

So is commonsense, as I posed, an endangered species?

New Zealanders are an extraordinary people living in a country that is indeed very special. It is breathtakingly beautiful. It is also a country where, if you put your mind to it, you can be anything you want.

I look at myself now. I always wanted to be a journalist from the age of about seven when my father told me it involved talking to people and writing stories. In Hastings on shopping trips I would gaze at the building housing the Hawke's Bay Herald Tribune and picture myself typing away into the night, green shaded lamp and bottle of Bourbon to guide me. I went off to Wellington Polytechnic, got my first job at Eve magazine, fell in love, had children and an interrupted career.

My partner went bankrupt and we moved to Russell where I waitressed, took in ironing, cooked, and thought I'd never get back to professional writing again. I thought I was a failure. I used to read Metro magazine and get cross because I knew I could write those stories. I never imagined I'd swap my food processor for a word processor but after six years of extremely hard work we'd recapitalised and I was back in Auckland working full time at North & South magazine.

Only 20 years ago when I was ironing the seams flat in newly sewn dresses for a Russell fashion designer I never imagined I'd one day be a Member of Parliament.

Actually I've recently had to sell up everything again so who knows, after the next election if I don't get back in to Parliament I might well be pressing the dresses instead of the fleshes again. Reminds me of the old saying, be nice to those you meet on the way up, you'll meet them again on the way down.

I think of my brother, a leading veterinarian, who got polio in 1956 and spent eight years in and out of hospital - a wonderful place called the Duncan Home in Wanganui where families like ours, parents who could never have afforded the medical fees, were given free health care, operations, physiotherapy etc. All because the Duncan family set up a trust fund on a farm to help polio victims.

When my brother went back to school my mother went to the teachers and told them they were not to treat him any differently from any other child. He was to do sport, high jump, long jump.

To her, that was commonsense. I might have sounded hard but she exercised sound practical judgment. She told my brother, and anyone else who doubted him, that there was no reason why he couldn't continue with his lifelong dream to be a vet. His brain was completely unaffected. His determination to be a vet hadn't weakened. So what if one leg had no muscles? That was a minor obstruction, a challenge rather than a problem.

In today's victim culture he probably would be living on an invalid's benefit, living off the taxpayer. Instead he's contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the consolidated fund, raised a wonderful family, given to his community in the Manawatu.

I thought I was going to listen to a good dose of commonsense yesterday morning at the dawn parade at Ohinemutu, in Rotorua. Judge Ken Hingston, a recently retired Maori Land Court Judge, was the guest speaker. He started well, talking about an Anzac day in 1959 in Malaya when his contingent consisted of pakeha, Maori, a Guernsey Islander and a Malayan. Despite their cultural differences, he said, they got on well because they were united for a common purpose.

What's changed, I thought. This is commonsense.

But no. The speech deteriorated into an extreme political speech, blasting the Government for legalising prostitution, legitimising homosexual relationships, and aggravating race relations. Judge Hingston likened the foreshore and seabed legislation to Robert Mugabe's regime, which stripped people of their land without compensation.

Whether you agree or not with these words, does this do anything to help race relations? Was this good judgment on Anzac Day? Was this exercising commonsense - when the lone protestor who was there whooped at Hingston's closing words? He quoted Rewi Maniopoto who defiantly called to Major Gilbert Mair, "We will fight you for ever, and ever."

My heart sank. I thought this signals the beginning of the end of Anzac Day as a non-political day. A day of remembrance for what it is to be a New Zealander. How we retained a liberal democracy. Is Anzac Day to be hijacked by the political activists too?

Isn't commonsense by implication thinking ahead to what effect your actions will have on others?

The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing. I know for a fact those who signed in the DPD in the 1970s as temporary relief and help for mothers and children in violent relationships never envisaged a day when 17,000 children have no father recorded on their birth certificate.

A time when solo parenthood has become an acceptable way of life. We have embarked on a social experiment in this country where we think children can be raised without fathers and this will have no effect. That's rubbish. There is no substitute for a father.

We have to get tough on welfare. Having a child is the most important thing two people will ever do in their lives. Children are entitled to two parents who, even if they don't live together, are financially, emotionally and intellectually committed to the raising of that child. The state should be the last port of call for help. Not the first.

Was it good judgement to marginalise Plunket into today's system where Plunket nurses are like warrant of fitness issuers, ticking the box? Where mothers who live in `high decile' areas are considered less needing of a Plunket visit than mothers in `low decile' areas?

We pour millions of dollars into illiterate school leavers who go on the dole, or into crime. Not to mention the social costs. Why don't we put money in at the other end and get children ready for school. Have parents as first teachers who can cope and teach their children to read.

Was it good judgment to dump exams, especially the gold-plated Bursary that was internationally recognised, and bring in the NCEA and force it on to schools and parents?

Why did we get rid of traditional apprenticeships, and bring in the so-called `modern' apprenticeships which are capped, when any number of school leavers can go off to a tertiary provider and get funded for a qualification in canoe prow carving?

So is commonsense endangered?

250 years ago Voltaire said "commonsense is not so common".

You could ask, `what has changed'?

I think it's worse now because we ignore Voltaire's more famous quote: "I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it."

When you are accused of being a beneficiary basher for saying you believe the worst thing you can do to people is condemn them to a life of state dependency, you have to wonder if we are, indeed, living in an Orwellian world.

I get accused by teacher unions of privatising education for saying that if parents are capable of choosing their own car, house, and doctor - Member of Parliament - then it's patronising to suggest they are incapable of choosing the school for their own children.

When Dr Brash is called a racist and likened to Pauline Hanson for pointing out the unfairness of race-based policies and funding, you have to wonder if 1984 arrived in New Zealand 20 years too late.

New Zealanders are not racist, they're just sick of being told how to think.

But I'm optimistic. No amount of political correctness will crush the New Zealand can do attitude which was founded on commonsense.

The number eight wire mentality, if you like.

The attitude that saw my father come back from the war in 1943 and leave retailing to build a farm. But first we need a bonfire of restrictive regulations starting with the Resource Management Act. Just watch the kiwi battler start winning again when government gets out of his way.

Is commonsense endangered? No.

It's rarely sighted on the Terrace. Never in Auckland if you look at the mess of traffic problems that can't be solved.

But out in the heartland it's alive and well.

Just waiting for politicians to get out of its way.


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