SPEECH: Hon Dr Nick Smith - Valedictory
Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.
Last month I saw this quirky café sign that appealed to my nerdiness – that 31 years equates to a billion seconds. Bar a few thousand, it’s been a blast and an enormous privilege to be part of governing this amazing little country we share. My time here has had as many ups and downs as our Southern mountains that I studied in my PHD thesis.
I acknowledge you, Mr Speaker, past and present National leaders from Jim Bolger to Judith Collins, all my parliamentary colleagues, my family, and friends in the Gallery. I also want to acknowledge the many good MPs who post-Election 2020 did not have this opportunity.
I came to this Parliament 30 years ago with a passion for enterprise, science and for nature. I wanted New Zealand to be prosperous, where hard work was valued and where every Kiwi had the opportunity to succeed.
One of my first duties as a 25-year-old MP was attending the Waimea College prize-giving where I was dutifully asked to present the academic awards. All mic’d up, I made the standard congratulatory comments as each student crossed the stage: “well done, good effort.” It felt tedious so I started to vary my message: “what uni are you thinking of attending?” I asked an attractive young woman, “what are you doing after school?”
Quick as a flash, and loud enough for everyone to hear, she responded: “It depends what you had in mind, young man.” The assembly hall roared with laughter. In the 100 or so prize-givings since, I have kept my congrats to the safe and boring.
In my maiden speech I talked of a nation that had lost its confidence and its way. Our economy was a basket case with high unemployment, rampant inflation and high debt. Our best and brightest were leaving in droves. I do not wish to diminish the current challenges, but we are a much better country today.
I caution those in Government who wish to decry the reforms of that era when they have been the foundations for the more successful and resilient nation we are today. I worry that this year’s Budget has public debt ballooning out to $200 billion and back up near 50 per cent of GDP as it was when I was first elected. Imposing the workplace policies of the 1970s is not the answer to the challenges of the 2020s.
I came to Parliament when the seniors were David Lange and Rob Muldoon. I will never forget Sir Robert gruffing at me in the lift: “So you’re a doctor. Are you one of the ones that makes you well or one of the ones that make you sick?”
Sir Robert would be much happier with our deputy, Dr Shane.
The luckiest fortune of my first term was the friendship I forged with what began as the Under-30s Caucus, but got branded the Brat Pack. Roger and Shirley Sowry, Bill and Mary English, Tony and Kara Ryall have become the closest of friends.
Many wrongly assume the strong friendships between the four of us meant we agree politically. We have been on opposite sides of many of National’s policy, conscience and leadership debates. Our annual week-long shared holidays rotating between the upper and lower and North and South islands over 30 years have enabled us to enjoy watching our 16 children grow up together.
My first ministerial job was Conservation. I know all in this house would want to wish the current Minister, Kiri Allan, a full recovery. Conservation is the best job in the Cabinet room. To get it once is lucky; twice is to be truly blessed.
My appointment to the role was in the aftermath of the Cave Creek disaster. My job was to put the systems in place with Director-General Hugh Logan to ensure DOC’s thousands of structures and facilities would be safe. We also established in ‘99 the Conservation Rangers Programme that has trained over 600 since, to do the skilled DOC fieldwork professionally and safely.
My first big Nelson project was advocating for the Kahurangi National Park. We opened it in 1996 with Prime Minister Jim Bolger, Dennis Marshall, and I tramping the journey from Mt Arthur to the Cobb Valley. It was a joy to mark the 25th anniversary this Easter with Dennis and key DOC staff by retracing the same route.
The highlight was the noisy dawn chorus in the Cobb that was silent at the opening – a tribute to the pest control work of both DOC and volunteers. During my second stint as Minister we did the Great Walks Partnership with Air New Zealand then led by Chris Luxon that has helped enable Takahe to return to this park after an absence of over 100 years.
Another highlight in that portfolio was working with Lou Sanson to protect the Lords River on Stewart Island in ‘98, then initiating the process for establishing the Rakiura National Park in ’99.
Conserving a good chunk of our land mass for nature was the challenge of last century. The focus needs to shift seaward. I am a strong supporter of New Zealand’s sustainable fishing industry and do not support the Greens’ call for a blanket ban on bottom trawling. It is no more practical than prohibiting ploughing.
But just as on land, we need to set aside marine protected areas. The Marine Reserves Act was passed by National in 1971 but only one reserve had been created when I came to Parliament in 1990. This was at Leigh and opened by then-Fisheries Minister Jim Bolger in 1977. I’ve worked hard all over New Zealand to expand the network.
Making the Poor Knights a no-take marine reserve in ‘98 was very controversial. When visiting the site near Tutukaka I faced a barrage of protest from recreational fishers. I required a police escort after a death threat was made. I was confronted only a few years ago at Whangarei Airport by this cheeky local who introduced himself rather unnervingly as the guy who had made the threat. He jokingly told me not to worry as he now thought it was such a great idea that he would shoot anyone who dare undo the reserve.
I have subsequently been involved in creating 17 marine reserves around New Zealand in special places like Kaikōura, Akaroa, Punakaiki and the sub Antarctics. I am disappointed the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, covering an area twice the land mass of New Zealand and 10 per cent of our ocean, has not progressed. The commercial fishing there is negligible. The history of customary fishing is minimal. This is about New Zealand – Māori and Pakeha, stepping up and doing our bit globally to better care for the world’s oceans.
My original government bill got through to second reading stage then post-Election 2017 transferred to Minister Parker, but it has since gone nowhere. I created a further Members’ Bill for the sanctuary that I will pass on to Scott Simpson. I urge progress on either or both bills.
Prime Minister Jenny Shipley added Corrections to my Conservation portfolio in ’98. I remember the Opposition interjecting that my only qualification for the job was being descended from convict stock compulsorily deported to Australia. My 86-year-old father in Cairns would want the record put straight. Our ancestor, Jeremiah Smith, migrated to Australia in 1791 by choice. It was seven years in Australia or hanging. The Kiwi contingent of the family still think it would be a difficult choice.
Initiatives I took in Corrections were: separate youth prisons, the introduction of random drug testing and expanding drug and alcohol treatment. I remain, unapologetically, an arch-conservative on drugs and alcohol. Substance abuse and addiction is at the heart of so much crime, hurt and tragedy. I do not buy the line that going soft and being more permissive will see less use and less harm. It is not a choice of enforcement or treatment. We need to do more of both.
I am also counting on my colleagues Simon Bridges and Michael Woodhouse to continue the campaign started with the Matthew Dow petition in Nelson, to get on with random roadside drug testing. Every month of delay costs another six lives.
I am so relieved New Zealand rejected the legalisation and commercialisation of cannabis. Anybody who believes that age limits work has not parented teenagers. There is a scourge of vaping sweeping through our intermediate and secondary schools that makes a joke of the regulated age limit. I also fear we’ve been sold a pup on vaping, with the claim it is just a healthier replacement for smoking. We are actually allowing another generation to become addicted to nicotine.
The 90s were ground-breaking for Treaty settlements when I was associate to Sir Douglas Graham for the historic Ngāi Tahu settlement. What was then considered radical became standard as Chris Finlayson supercharged settlements during the Key years. My involvement was in the natural resource elements. It was particularly satisfying settling the eight Te Tau Ihu claims covering Nelson and Marlborough, thus completing the South Island.
I have introduced 50 bills to this Parliament and 45 have passed. Two Members’ Bills I am particularly proud of are the Royal Society of New Zealand Act and the Chartered Professional Engineers Act.
Science and technology are key to improving productivity and our environment. I commend the Government and the country in the way we have embraced the science associated with the Covid pandemic. The cuts to science funds in Budget 2021 are short-sighted. I strongly endorse the ambitious plans Judith Collins and Andrew Bayly have for our tech sector.
I also want to challenge this Parliament, and particularly the Greens, on their aversion to biotechnology. The GE Free campaign was a con. None of the scary scenarios predicted 20 years ago have occurred. Our outdated laws are holding back opportunities for innovation on climate change, pest and weed control and health treatment.
The most satisfying chapter of my career was being part of the Key/English Government. We shared a vision of where we wanted to take New Zealand and we had built the strong relationships and policies in Opposition to work as a team. My work involved creating the Environment Protection Authority and a fast-track but robust consenting process. This enabled us to get on and build projects like Waterview in Auckland, Transmission Gully in Wellington and Christchurch’s Southern Motorway.
I disagree with the Government’s aversion to building roads on the basis of climate change. The answer lies in changing what we drive on the roads, as well as investing in public transport.
Practical laws I am particularly proud of are those requiring all rental homes to be insulated and to have working smoke alarms. The ACC portfolio was financially challenging but our reforms got the scheme to being fully funded for the first time in its history.
The work of the Land and Water Forum enabled significant strides in improving water management, including the first legally binding national policy. We do need to lift our game on freshwater but doing it with farmers and not to farmers will achieve more. Water storage is part of the solution and I am proud of the role I played in enabling the central plains scheme in Canterbury and the Waimea Community Dam in Nelson.
The last issue from the Key era I wish to note with a word of caution is on the Pike River Mine. John Key’s commitment in the days following the tragedy to do everything possible to recover those 29 brave men was genuine and compassionate. We were as gutted as the families and the nation to be told in 2016 that it could not be done. It was wrong in 2017 for Labour to promise to recover the men when, by then, 800 pages of technical reports said it was not possible.
I am proud to have delivered on my commitment to Bernie Monk of the Paparoa Track and Pike 29 Memorial Walk. I hope we can find a way in future to avoid national tragedies becoming political footballs.
There is an issue I got wrong. In 2013 I voted against gay marriage. The error is all the more personal with my 20-year-old son being gay. I wish to put on record today my apology to New Zealand’s LGBT+ community. I pay tribute to Louisa Wall, Fran Wilde and Amy Adams for their leadership that has improved the lives of my son and thousands of other New Zealanders. I also acknowledge Jenny Shipley’s courage as the first PM to attend a Gay Pride parade in ‘99.
My greatest thank you this evening is to my wife Linley. She is my rock, soulmate and best friend. I also want to acknowledge my first wife, Cyndy who supported me through six elections. She jokes that Linley got off lightly at five. Linley and I are very proud of our blended family of Hazel, Logan, Samantha and Alex, who are all in the Gallery. I thank them as this job has sometimes had negative impacts on them. I also thank my wider family, including brother Albert and sister Margo who have travelled from overseas.
I got good training for Parliament as a child. Each dinnertime our Dad would sit up like Mr Speaker and ask each of us eight children to give a report on our day. I am sure this, and my Mum’s passion for education, influenced my three sisters, all of whom have made great contributions as teachers and principals.
In later years, when retired, Dad campaigned full time for weeks for each of my ten successful campaigns. Covid proved a bad omen and kept him away in 2020. The year I was born he founded a small construction company. Learning to drive trucks, bulldozers and cranes was part of teenage life.
I am proud of the nationwide contribution my siblings have made to our nation’s infrastructure in each of their businesses, with projects like the wind turbines at Scott Base, the Arthur’s Pass viaduct, the Waikato water pipe to Auckland and dozens of bridges and wharves around New Zealand.
My brother Tim did not sleep for three days in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake to ensure every one of his cranes were assisting the rescue effort. He had booked to join us today but cancelled due to doing emergency bridge repairs in Temuka.
It will be good to re-join the family business, doing more and talking less. I am looking forward to projects like the Turitea wind farm that will help meet our Paris Climate Change commitments.
I must secondly thank the National Party, its board and volunteers. My Nelson electorate chairs from Dan Strong, Dan Dolejs, John Sandstone, Russell Wilson, and Graeme Sutton to John Wares. My campaign chairs, Max Spence, Bill Dahlberg, Paul Matheson, Gary Stocker, Trevor Cameron and an army of volunteers too many to name.
A special thank you to those who helped found the Bluegreens in ‘98, Guy Salmon and the late Sir Rob Fenwick. Enterprise and the environment must work together. I also acknowledge my Bluegreen buddies in the Caucus like Maggie Barry, Nicky Wagner, Jacqui Dean, Stuart Smith, Erica Stanford and Nicola Willis.
Nelson has been a very special place to represent and I congratulate my successor, Rachel Boyack. It is the only seat in this Parliament that has retained the same name since 1854. I love Nelson’s entrepreneurial businesses, stunning environment, creative arts sector, rich heritage and caring community.
My greatest concern for Nelson’s future is the centralisation of core services like education and health with the loss of local control of our Polytechnic and Heath Board. My experience as Education Minister was that the closer funding decisions were made to the children, the more likely they were in their best interests. If more central Government was the answer, KiwiBuild would be a roaring success.
I have enjoyed the constituency role of getting to know thousands of Nelsonians, often over difficult situations. It has been a pleasure to help many but also a disappointment when I could not. This grassroots work was invaluable in exposing the parts of Government that were not working and advocating reform.
Throughout these three decades, I have been supported by numerous talented staff, many of whom have become lifelong friends. Cheryl Hill, who gave 26 years, and Nan Ward. It’s wonderful to see more than 20 former staff in the Gallery. I sincerely thank every one of them alongside all the backup staff in the Clerk’s Office, Select Committee, Library, Travel Office, café and security teams who make this place work.
The Speaker and I have had our moments but the worst thing he has ever inflicted on me was when he was actually trying to be kind. We were in Turkey on the Speaker’s Tour, returning from the Gallipoli Peninsular, back to Istanbul. The motorcade consisted of a car for the Speaker, as head of the delegation, a van for MPs and partners, and motorbikes back and front.
Linley and I got a bad tummy bug and the Speaker took pity on us, offering us the flash merc for the 400 kilometre journey. It got complicated when the interpreter also switched to the van, leaving Linley and I with a driver who did not understand a word of English. My plight was trying to explain to a driver doing 130kmh in an escorted motorcade that I was desperate to go to the loo. It was an excruciating three hours. When we finally arrived at Istanbul Airport I tore out of the car so quickly for the toilet that I caused a security furore.
The thing that struck me most from that Speaker’s trip to Rwanda, Ethiopia and Turkey is how well-intentioned governments over time, get tired and arrogant. Regular changes of government are essential for a healthy democracy.
Nor should we ever take for granted the importance of free speech and a politically neutral public service. I thank the press gallery, you can be a pain but our democracy would be limp without you.
I pay a final thank you to the hundreds of dedicated public servants who have helped me in my work. My favourite are those hardy DOC field staff out in the wet and cold in the most rugged corners of New Zealand, repairing tracks, killing pests, and protecting nests.
I want to conclude on four observations about how Parliament has changed over three decades. Firstly, it is much more diverse by age, gender and ethnicity and that is a good thing. My hope for the future is that we also diversify the skills mix in this House.
The second change for the better is that Parliament is a healthier place where you are more likely to see colleagues in the gym than the bar.
The most notable change for the worse is the lameness of select committees today. They have become perfunctory rubber stamps. Worthwhile inquiries are blocked. It has got worse with the distraction of iPhones and laptops. Select Committees need revamping to be more collegial with Government and Opposition MPs genuinely holding departments to account for their spending and performance.
There is one last difference I celebrate in signing off from this 53rd Parliament. This morning I woke to the birdsong of tui from my Hill Street flat, and on my walk here, I saw a beautiful kererū in Parliament’s trees – something you wouldn’t have seen nor heard 30 years ago. It is this stunning wildlife, whether you are Māori, European, Pasifika, Asian or whatever, that helps define us as New Zealanders.
May their birdsong forever be heard here at Parliament and across our land to remind us how blessed we are to call these islands home.