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From Journalism To Politics

From Journalism To Politics

Thursday 6 May 2004

Deborah Coddington Speeches

Speech to members of the Gisborne Business & Professional Women, Gisborne Club, Gisborne, Monday May 3, 2004.

Gisborne has a reputation for strong women MPs. I think of National's Esme Tombleson. Now you have Janet Mackey who, even though she is on the other side of the political fence from me, I respect for her sense of humour and her hard work for such a difficult and large electorate.

My decision to go from journalism to politics wasn't taken lightly. I had a great career, I'd worked my way to the top, but I don't look back.

I also think that in the light of recurring debate on MPs' salaries and expenses, it's important that New Zealanders think very hard, and debate openly, what sort of people, from what sort of backgrounds, they want representing them in Parliament.

So I'll tell you a bit about myself.

When I decided to stand for Parliament there was one question that without fail I was always asked by journalists: why do you want to be a politician - surely it's even lower on the respected careers scale than journalism, and about the same level as used car salesmen?

When ACT President Catherine Judd asked me to stand on the list I ruled it out completely. It took me six months to say yes and now I have to say I'm very pleased I did. I love my new career. However, there is a cost. Political life places an enormous strain on families, as I have learned to my regret.

I was born in Waipukurau and grew up on a small farm in Central Hawke's Bay, near Porangahau. In those days, you were considered mad to try and make a living out of what was considered little more than a lifestyle block. My father was mad - highly intelligent, but given to terrifying outbursts of rage. He was known in the district - as I latter found in adulthood - as mad Herbie.

But he'd spent three and a half years away fighting in the Second World War with the first echelon of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He fought at El Alamien, then returned home on furlough and rebelled against being sent back. As a result, he was not given a ballot farm. He had run a men's clothing shop before the war. So he and Mum - they'd gotten married in 1939 when he was on final leave - worked on farms around Te Puke, before purchasing their little farm up Ugly Hill Road, halfway between Waipukurau and Porangahau.

When they went there they had three boys and five pounds cash. The house was so decrepit they never admitted to the neighbours that they were living in it. Instead, they kept a tent pitched in the orchard and pretended they lived there instead.

I tell you this not because I believe I had a hard life. On the contrary, I believe I had a privileged upbringing. Privileged for a start, because unlike one-third of New Zealand children today, I was brought up by two parents - a mum and a dad. They might have fought too much, and I probably got too many hidings - but at least they stuck it out for their kids' sake. I have absolutely no doubt that if they hadn't, I would be a totally different person today.

Privileged also because despite the fact that they both had to leave school early because of the Napier earthquake, they sacrificed everything to give their own children a good education.

I didn't learn about the Treaty of Waitangi, or how the Europeans colonised Maori - and how we should feel guilty for this, or that Western culture is no better than any other culture. Nor did I learn that nobody fails and what's more important is to feel good about yourself - no matter how many times you flunk a standards-based assessment.

On the contrary, I learned the beauty of language, the indescribable joy of reading books written by white men who probably were sexist. But that was irrelevant, compared with how they described the world. I experienced the tremendous highs and lows of competing fiercely against my classmates. The satisfaction of beating them when School Certificate results were announced, and the disappointment of being beaten by someone you considered dumber than you and vowing to get the better of them next time.

At my schools - primary and secondary - people were judged by what was in their heads and their hearts, not according to the colour of their skin or their whakapapa. Call me old fashioned, but I still think that is the most tolerant, compassionate and fairest way to judge people.

I learned to have the attitude that you can turn the worst of times into the best of times, and that while you may lose all your material possessions, if you still have family and friends, you can truly claim a place on the Rich List.

But when I was little, my mad eccentric father - when he wasn't yelling at me - was urging me to become a journalist. It is to my eternal regret that he died 18 years ago without my ever thanking him for this advice. Because journalism for me hasn't been an end in itself, it has allowed me to try and be an agent for change.

And it has changed me. I have not always been an ACT supporter. When I was 18 and 19 I marched against New Zealand's involvement in the Vietnam War, and I ran away to live for a short time at Jerusalem, James K. Baxter's commune up the Whanganui River.

I was one of those who thought it was the end of civilisation as we know it when Richard Prebble closed down all those post offices. To me the post office was the centre of a community - it just had to be there.

It wasn't until I went back into journalism in 1990, and started to do some solid research for stories I was writing, that I realised how taxpayers had been bled dry to prop up ailing commercial ventures that the Government should never have been trying to run. We talk about sale of state assets - they were liabilities in most cases.

Looking back, you could say that I started to turn into a crusading journalist at that stage. I'd never really made a conscious choice to do this. As I told Jane Clifton - in a Listener interview late last year - it was just in me, like a curse.

Then in 1999 I was diagnosed with melanoma and I really started to focus. After some major surgery, I was pronounced fine, but there's nothing like a cancer scare to remind you how short life really is.

At the time I was writing a cover story for North & South on the death of James Whakaruru in Hawke's Bay. Killed by his mother's boyfriend - already jailed for beating James. She lied to the Family Court and CYFS - when her boyfriend got out of jail - so that she could keep James. She went back to live with him and continued to live a life of cannabis, welfare, intermittent work and violence - no intervention from whanau, despite James' mistreatment. It is an awful story. James didn't have to die.

But for me it was good, because what this little boy went through in the two days it took for Haerewa to beat him to death, made my surgery that I was waiting for look like removing a splinter. And I decided, from that point on, that I would write every story as if it were my last. I would make every story count.

I'm sure it was that attitude that led me to win last year's supreme journalism award for four of my features - the Qantas Wolfson Fellowship to Cambridge University - that I took up last year for three months.

But more gratifying for me than actually winning this award, was the fact that I won it for stories that had attracted a lot of flack and personal attack.

The story about the vilification of Dr Graeme Parry, a Whangarei gynaecologist, and what this meant for the future of medical professionals in this country.

The story about Lauren Gawith, a young Maori woman from Taumarunui with a tremendous future ahead of her, who'd been shot dead in her bed by her former boyfriend. Her family had treasured her - he on the other hand had been discarded by his whanau like a parcel lost in the post. He sent himself crazy abusing cannabis then, after being released from the Henry Bennet psychiatric unit - despite his foster family pleading with authorities not to release him - broke into Lauren's house while she was asleep and shot her at point blank range with a .303 rifle and an exploding bullet.

A cover story about the appalling results of an international literacy survey that showed that one million New Zealanders lack the basic literacy skills to get by on a daily basis. A staggering 18 percent of young people leave school illiterate and - no surprise - more than 75 percent of the unemployed are illiterate. Literacy was measured across three areas - prose reading, as in novels or newspapers; descriptive reading, as in instructions or maps; and numeracy skills - basic percentages, addition, etc. for example calculating GST.

I looked at the quality of teacher training in this country - mainly primary teacher training - and found the most shonky, politically correct garbage is being fed to teacher trainees, and that colleges of education have so dumbed down their standards that almost anyone is accepted in the training courses. This story was sparked by a comment by a friend of my daughters who was at Auckland's teacher training college - she'd wanted to be a teacher all her life and I have absolutely no doubt she'll be a brilliant teacher. But when I asked her what she thought of training college she said: "I just put up with all the PC crap to get my qualification. We're fed all this anti-pakeha, pro-Maori stuff, but I just teach according to what's inside children's heads, not according to what colour their skin is".

The fourth story was about New Zealand's bad record of teenage pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases, and the role of the Government-funded Family Planning Association, which has given up on recommending abstinence as an option. I argued, and still strongly believe, that children are a gift. Having a child is the single most important thing two people will do together in their lives. Children don't ask to be born, and they are entitled to two parents who, even if they don't live together - which I believe is the optimum - are committed to the intellectual, emotional and financial raising of that child. That's not the case now in this country. We have embarked on a social experiment that I believe will have disastrous consequences. We now believe fathers don't matter; that one parent can raise a child and the state - taxpayers - must be forced to financially support those who choose to raise children on their own.

The first piece of legislation that was passed when I went into Parliament was the curiously named Social Welfare (Working Towards Personal Development) Bill, which removed work testing for beneficiaries. It means now that a person can go on the DBP when he or she is 18 and stay on it until his or her youngest child is 18 and never have to work. Further, that beneficiary can go overseas for four weeks holiday without losing the benefit. This an insult to all those people like my mother and father, who worked so hard and sacrificed so much, to raise five children who all contribute to this country.

Feminism for me never meant going from being dependent on a man, to being dependent on the state. And these stories - the "not right" factor behind my urge to write them - are what made me decide to try fighting from the inside. For despite winning awards, I don't believe my stories made a blind bit of difference.

I hope to make a difference. I believe I'm not really much different from most New Zealanders. I do believe that I can help make this country happier. By that I mean turning the culture around again so people do stick at things, they do accept challenges and take responsibility for their lives. They don't just give up when the going gets a bit tough.

Underlying this, of course, should be a benign and secure welfare system - a last port of call when all other avenues for help have failed. I accept we will always have a few people totally unable to fend for themselves. But the current situation, with around two-thirds of Government spending going to social services, is acceptable.

Thirty years ago there were 28 workers in New Zealand for every one person on welfare. Today there are three workers for every one person on welfare. And that's not counting civil servants, teachers, academics and the health sector. How long will it take for that to overbalance? Then what will happen?

Why shouldn't parents choose which school to send their children to? Why do politicians think they know better? Why shouldn't people just get their hip replacement surgery, or their breast cancer radiation, at a hospital nearest to them and quickly, rather than being told to wait by politicians until their name reaches the top of the list at the hospital the politician chooses should have the money?

If you asked me what I want to achieve as a politician I would answer: I hope when I leave Parliament there will be no more journalists winning awards for writing stories about little children being killed by their families, dangerous mental health patients being given the "right" to discharge themselves into the community; a dumbed down education system that allows children to graduate who can't read, write or add up; and an unacceptably high number of children being raised by the taxpayer.

This to me is what freedom means. New Zealand could become a beacon for the rest of the world - with only 4 million people it's not utopia, but an achievable task.


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