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Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle July 02 2004

Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle July 02 2004

Stars, a kind adult once told me when I was a little girl, are the souls of those who've died, twinkling down at us, reminding us that life does, indeed, matter.

It's an irrational, unscientific message but comforting nonetheless. Since then, gazing at the stars has always been a soothing exercise for me. Night skies above my current home down south are a vast curved dome of extraordinary clarity. There's The Pot. Further down, the Southern Cross and the Milky Way, strewn across the heavens by a fleeing robber giant who dropped his bag of diamonds. On cold, fresh nights, well wrapped and insulated, I lie on my back and wait for shooting stars.

Perhaps our reassurance from stars stems from their age-old use as navigating lights. This week I've been reading more about Frederick Douglass, one of America's greatest men (1817 to 1895), the first black to hold high rank in the US government, and advisor to several presidents.

Douglass was born into slavery - his mother a black slave and his father an unknown white. After escaping from the South he worked for the rest of his life to free others from this dreadful bondage. More than anything, however, Douglass knew that the key to freedom was education - he could read and write and urged others to do the same so they could free themselves: "I wished to learn to write before going, as I might have occasion to write my own pass".

I used the example of Frederick Douglass last Sunday in my speech to ACT Wellington. I'd been questioned about ACT's education policy, allowing all parents the freedom to choose the schools they want for their children.

"Surely," an ACT supporter remonstrated, "this would never work for the high percentage of parents who are unable to make the right choice?"

And I thought of Douglass, when asked what would happen to slaves if they were given freedom. After all, many of them were illiterate, robbed of their savings, and dependent on their masters. "Free the slaves then leave them alone," he said in 1862. "If we can't stand on our own feet, then let us fall.

"Freedom is more important than pragmatism or efficiency."

Sure, school choice is not going to save every child from the tyranny of illiteracy. But think again on Douglass' words when asked about his experience as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, helping smuggle blacks to freedom:

"True, as a means of destroying slavery, it was like an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon, but the thought that there was one less slave, and one more freeman - having myself been a slave, and a fugitive slave - brought to my heart unspeakable joy."

And what does this have to do with stars? Well Douglass, when he finally returned to the US, published his own newspaper dedicated to freedom, entitled 'The North Star'.

He chose that name because when slaves escaped, they followed the North Star (or the Pole Star) all the way to freedom.

Last year, when my life was in tatters, both personally and politically, I sent a text message to ACT's then leader, Richard Prebble, away from Parliament in America. It was late at night. I was in the House enduring yet another onslaught from Labour's henchmen. It all seemed too hard. "Does it get any easier?" I asked The Preb.

He phoned me. "Keep on message," he said, and further explained: "You will feel like you're stumbling around in a blizzard but if you keep marching in the direction of the Pole Star, when the mists clear - and they will - you will find you have been heading in the right direction. You haven't been going around in circles."

Poetic advice which I followed. Now the mists have cleared and the stars are shining brightly, telling me that life, indeed, matters.

yours in Liberty Deborah Coddington


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