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Gerry in the House

Gerry in the House

11 November 2005
In honour of those who've gone before

Last week's Parliament was a formal occasion and indeed, a very sombre one, marked by the passing of the well respected and well liked Rod Donald. Parliamentarians took the opportunity to honour Rod as well as David Lange, Jack Luxton and John Fallon who passed away during the hiatus before the 48th Parliament could begin. A lot of good speeches were heard in the House on Wednesday, as Parliament was at it's best. My own tribute to Rod was as follows:

I did not have the opportunity to serve in Parliament with Jack Luxton or John Falloon, but I am very much moved by the tributes paid to them today by colleagues from other parties. The fine qualities they have recognised in those gentlemen are very much part of the heritage of the National Party. We deeply appreciate those comments, and, on behalf of their families, thank you for them. I did not have the opportunity, either, to serve with the Rt Hon David Lange, but a couple of years ago I was invited by Bob Jones to say a few words on a tape that was being sent to David at a time when he was particularly unwell. I will not repeat those words now. I will simply say that the comments I made directly to him on that tape were heartfelt and genuinely meant. He was a great New Zealander, and his legacy will live long in this country.

I first met Rod Donald some 25 years ago, and we were friends. From his youngest days Rod was always a very colourful character. I can remember, when I was serving my time as a carpenter, one particular day taking a truckload of rubbish to the tip. I was accosted just inside the gate by Rod Donald, who was a similar age, asking me to stop and participate in a survey he was doing, trying to work out what on people's trucks or trailers could be recycled. I thought he was a bit of a sad character, hanging around at a rubbish dump, looking very much, as he did, like a hippy. I participated with some reluctance, and when we got to the end of it, I duly drove the truck on and tipped the lot into the landfill. So although Rod and I were as different as chalk and cheese, I think it is fair that we all recognise that he had a great warmth towards people and an empathy for people.

We spent many occasions together over a number of years, and typical of that warmth, I think, was that Rod was delighted to be able to say to people that we had a family connection. The truth of it is that my best mate's wife has a sister who is married to the brother of Rod's partner Nicola. For Rod, that was close enough for us to have a lot in common and for us to share many enjoyable occasions and conversations.

Rod and I were on opposite sides of the barricades when this country endured the turmoil of the 1981 Springbok tour. We both took part in a television documentary that looked at people from either side and followed us around for about four days before the Christchurch test. On the Sunday morning after the test they got us in to do an interview. I watched that test from the No. 4 stand; Rod invaded the pitch from the No. 5 stand. When we met the following day, I think the poignancy of the turmoil and trauma that that tour caused was made very real to us. There will be many friends in New Zealand who will understand just that same experience.

Jeanette Fitzsimons mentioned that Rod campaigned to save the trees on the West Coast. My family were sawmillers. We cut them down. So there were many, many differences. In 1996 we both entered Parliament. I came through a long series of selections in the National Party over a long number of years to finally get a seat that gave me a chance. Rod simply, as we all know, went out and changed the electoral system so he could simply walk in here! He is a guy who constantly looked to make a difference. If there were anything I could say to him now I would say: "Rod, we now sort our rubbish at home. I don't want to see the county go through the turmoil of 1981 again, and my family no longer cuts down trees."

It is always difficult in these circumstances to find words that adequately describe someone like Rod, but I would refer the House to the article written by Chris Trotter in today's Independent. Although Mr Trotter is definitely not someone who has similar political views to my own, his expressions of Rod's many qualities could not, I think, be more articulately described. Others have talked today about the changes Rod brought to New Zealand. I am sure that for any politician, the accolade of being a change-maker is a good one. I know that Rod only ever took up his many crusades, and to call him a crusader from Canterbury is an accolade. It was because he wanted things to be better for people in their lives as he saw them. We will miss him in Christchurch. We will miss him in this House. I will miss our all-too-infrequent discussions on what are important matters for this country.

I reflect on the last discussion I had with Rod. It was on the matter of seating in this House. Rod was concerned that New Zealand First members were wanting to sit where the Greens are now and wanted the Greens to sit roughly where United Future is now. Rod was not keen at all on that idea, and we indicated we would support him in whatever he chose to do by way of making a change there. His final comment to me was: "Oh, well, Gerry, this could be the start of a beautiful political friendship, as well." I doubt it, Rod, but I am sorry that we will never find out.

His greatest pride was his family. He spoke of them often, and, as others have said, he had a great love and commitment to them. So I offer to Nicola, Holly, Emma, and Zoe deepest sympathy from all of us in the National Party at your great loss. Rod was also a guy who I know had a great sense of humour. So I am sure he will not mind me offering this particular reflection. As I have said before, we were very different. He was very fit, and as for me-well, members can make up their own minds. But if I had been told on Sunday afternoon that a Christchurch MP in his late forties with three kids had died overnight, I would have had to pinch myself to make sure it was not me. Rather, when I heard it was Rod I received that news with the deepest of sadness that will not easily pass. May he rest in peace.

A Barrage of questions

The Clark/Peters Government will face a barrage of questions when the House resumes tomorrow. National will explore new arrangements that will permit two ministers to act outside the collective responsibility of Cabinet. Mr Peters has wittingly claimed that he's not part of the Government. Interestingly, he will represent the Government offshore next week for the annual Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting alongside Helen Clark and senior Ministers Sutton and Goff, but at home Mr Peters as Foreign Affairs Minister will not even sit on Cabinet's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee!

A precarious position

The allocation of Peter Dunne's and Winston Peters's ministerial posts have marked a significant constitutional change. The Cabinet Manual provides a set of rules by which the Executive and ministers must conduct themselves. It clearly states that ministers are responsible for all government policy. As a party, NZ First is well known for its opposition to primary Government iniatives, and under these rules Winston Peters would not be permitted to criticise other ministers. For the Prime Minister to then decree that Winston Peters and Peter Dunne will be responsible only for Government policy as it affects their specific portfolios rides roughshod over convention. On this morning's Breakfast show, TV One political reporter Guyon Espiner, said:

Helen Clark has said that she may need to rewrite the Cabinet Manual. Now a lot of people say that the Cabinet Manual is a significant constitutional document. New Zealand doesn't have a written constitution as such. It has a series of court rulings and documents which make up a loose constitution, and that is seen by some as a significant document that is just being changed to allow these parties to become part of the Government.

The role of the Governor-General is there to protect exactly that kind of thing. It is fascinating that the number of constitutional lawyers so quick to condemn my comments have now concluded that Helen Clark can do as she likes. It is Helen Clark who has placed the Governor-General in this precarious position.

Gerry Brownlee


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