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Speech to NZ Labour Women’s Conference

Hon Lianne Dalziel
MP for Christchurch East


Speech to NZ Labour Women’s Conference

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight.

I am never going to be able to say everything I want to say in my valedictory speech, so I’m taking every speaking opportunity I can.

I was sad that the government wouldn’t allow me 15 minutes of government time so I could give my valedictory speech on Women’s Suffrage Day, exactly 23 years after I was first selected to run for Parliament. But I suppose I ought not be surprised – the lack of respect for Members of Parliament is in many respects a self-inflicted would.

But at least the 18th September is the anniversary of when the selection meeting started. I could not have predicted what would follow back then.

The Canterbury earthquakes have taught me new words – like liquefaction and lateral spread – but they have enabled me to understand words I thought I understood well, but didn’t, like community, resilience and leadership.

Community is not the co-location of houses; that’s a suburb. It is the relationship between people in those houses and their connection with decision-makers, be that central or local government. The social capital within communities is not measured by socio-economic status; it is measured by those relationships.

Resilience is not about being strong in the face of adversity – that’s stoicism. It’s the capacity to prepare and plan for an adverse event, and to absorb, to respond, to recover, to adapt and where necessary to co-create a new kind of normal. Resilient communities have plenty of pre-existing social capital.

This is why I have been saying that we need to honour the legacy of the first Labour government – the Welfare State – but use it as a platform for another legacy – the Resilient Nation.

When we have cannot possibly predict with accuracy what we will have to respond to at any time in the future – the effects of climate change, a disaster triggered by a natural event or a crisis triggered by our own doing. Communities need to be prepared to respond themselves. The government cannot be everywhere and cannot do everything. If we have left communities unable to fend for themselves then recovery will be very challenging indeed.

And then we come to leadership. Leadership is not a position – it is a characteristic based on certain qualities. Sometimes people who are described as leaders do not have these qualities and are not true leaders. And sometimes those qualities are evident in people who do not hold leadership positions, but are true leaders in every sense of the word.

I remember going to a forum where young people were asked to describe leadership and the usual words were offered: strong, decisive, committed, authoritative, inspiring, responsible. Any textbook would associate those words with what it takes to be a leader. But this is what is described as a heroic model of leadership – someone who comes in and takes charge – such leaders issue orders and are obeyed.

In the emergency response period following a disaster, people often look for this form of leadership – it’s command and control and it can be comforting, someone else taking charge, knowing what to do.

But there is another way to define leadership and this definition ties in with my experience once the crisis is over and we begin the process of recovery.

What marks a true leader is trust. And these are some of the qualities that engender trust: wisdom, courage, faith, moderation and justice. If it sounds like a set of virtues then you are not mistaken. A virtuous leader is able to build trust and thus mobilise the leader in others. And that is the distinction between the heroic leader and the true leader – it is not about taking charge; it is about engaging others in a way that enables them to lead in their own right.

This is the kind of leader we need in a post disaster recovery environment – three years means it’s getting very hard for a lot of people. And it doesn’t help that people think the rest of New Zealand has forgotten them.

I opened an exhibition on Thursday called Thx 4 the Memories – a photo essay accompanied by the stories of the people of a community called Avonside that was red-zoned by the government. The government has told everyone that they have helped the people in the worst affected areas to move on. I am hoping the exhibition will travel so the rest of the country can see the damage that is done to the human spirit when people are left out of the equation.

I heard a psychologist recently who described the expression “running on empty” – by reference to the separate tank you could flick over to in order to get you to the nearest pump. His point was this tank is separate and doesn’t automatically refill when you fill your tank with petrol. We have a lot of people in Christchurch running on empty right now and there are not necessarily outward signs for us to notice.

Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser, prepared a report for the government 3 months after the February earthquake. He said the potential exists for the emotional effects of disaster to cause as great a degree of suffering as do the physical effects such as injury and loss of property or income. He said:

“The earthquake was a disempowering event – an event that individuals had no control over and leaves them essentially with no control over how they live.
The need to regain some sense of control over one’s life is central to the recovery process. Disempowerment essentially reinforces the initial trauma.”

I know from my own personal experience that as soon as I knew what had happened in a physical sense – liquefaction, lateral spread – then I felt I could cope. Maybe it’s a variation on knowledge is power – knowledge is empowerment.

The kind of leader that emerges in this environment is one that is respectful, engaging, empathetic, inclusive and intuitive.

Why do we think of women when we hear those words and yet we don’t necessarily think of women when we look for a leader?

Have we had the image of the heroic leader drummed into us to the extent that we don’t see that these are the qualities that build trust?

Leadership requires humility and courage.

I remember someone sending me JK Rowling's speech on the occasion of Harvard University's 357th Commencement. I was blown away.

She talked about failure – not to glamorise the experience of finding herself at the end of a broken marriage as a solo parent with a classics degree and not much else. In fact there was nothing glamorous about her experience of poverty and despair. But she said this:

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learnt no other way.
I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.

Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

This quote has come to mean so much more to me over the past couple of years. The knowledge I have gained is a true gift.

And although the experience of the past three years is not one that represents failure, I too have discovered what truly matters. I too have stripped away the inessential.

I have been set free.

Judith Tizard will happily regale people of my fear of earthquakes located as it was in Wellington where we shared an apartment.

I have faced my fear and I am alive and I am standing for a leadership position in the only place that really matters to me right now.

I regret having to leave parliament but I am needed in Christchurch.

I don’t say this with any sense of ego, but I say this as someone confident that I understand what needs to be done.

Whether I acieve that remains to be seen, but I will never have to look back and wonder ‘what if…’

And that’s what I hope each one of you takes from this weekend.

A commitment that when you want to see something done –
…whether it’s a policy change…
…whether it’s a project in your neighbourhood…
…whether it’s as an elected representative…
you will never allow yourself to wonder ‘what if…’

Whether you succeed in your endeavour or not, you will have shown that you too understand what truly matters and that you are prepared to stand up and be counted.

That’s what leadership is.

ends

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