Grant Robertson Valedictory Statement

Published: Wed 20 Mar 2024 06:30 PM
Mr Speaker,
When I arrived here in 2008 the Speaker was Dr the Hon Lockwood Smith. We had a bit of history. He had been Education Minister when I was the student President at Otago. We pursued him around the South Island. He didn’t seem keen to talk. At one point he had to climb out a window at Canterbury University to get away from Megan Woods – and some other students as well.
I need not have had any concerns. Lockwood was an excellent speaker, who like you had the occasional lapse with names. He tried hard. He memorably prepared himself for one of his first calls for my friend and colleague Carmel Sepuloni. She duly rose to take the call, and Lockwood proudly announced “I call the member Sepul Carmeloni.”
Lockwood also diligently read the prayer each day off a card. At that time it began “Humbly acknowledging our need for Thy guidance in all things, and laying aside all private and personal interests, we beseech Thee to grant.” And strangely each day Lockwood would pause each day at that point. And I felt very much at home.
Of course Mr Speaker I did know the place pretty well already. I had worked for the 5th Labour Government in various guises for five years prior to becoming an MP. In doing so I worked for two, well actually three, remarkable women.
Firstly, my dear friend the Hon Marian Hobbs. Now I have made a lot of Marian’s memorable quotes over the years – and there certainly have been a few. Like the time she was impressing on the executives at TVNZ the importance of the film and television industry to Wellington and she so wanted to say it was the city’s bread and butter, but instead told them in no uncertain terms it was the city’s “bed and breakfast”. We laughed until we cried.
But today what I want to do is thank Marian for being my political conscience. She is principled, intelligent, and empathetic. These are the qualities of a great politician, not being able to pull off a one liner or find the right words for a witty repost. Marian, you are a tower of strength to the Labour movement.
I was poached from Marian’s office by Heather Simpson to come and work for Helen Clark. My job was to count to 61 – the number of votes we needed to pass legislation.
In the five years I worked with Heather I received four emails. Take that Mr Ombudsmen. She set incredibly high standards and is the best political operator I have seen in this building. She had a Southland sense of humour I appreciated. One day a mysterious stain appeared on the carpet immediately outside her office door. Her EA Stephen Woodhouse and I were staring at it when Heather appeared, grunted and said “well I guess now you know where the bodies are buried.” I have always presumed that was a joke.
Helen Clark was extraordinary. She managed to make tremendous progressive change while maintaining an attachment to a coalition of voters from across the political spectrum. She is ultimately the reason I joined the Labour Party, and for your leadership and courage, and insatiable love of gossip Helen, I thank you.
Those times working in the fifth Labour government were formative. It’s also where I got to know Sir Michael Cullen. Michael was a visionary, his legacy as a Finance Minister is enormous. He was a terrific mentor to several of us who entered Parliament in 2008, especially for me once I took on the finance role. I miss him dearly.
Mr Speaker our nine long years in Opposition when I first arrived was the time I really settled into being Wellington Central MP.
Among many, a true highlight was sponsoring and passing the Wellington Town Belt Act. The only protection that the Town Belt had was the Trust Deed signed in 1874 that was, depending on the whim of the Council at the time, honoured in the breech, with some interesting developments taking place. I worked with the Council to produce a piece of legislation that not only protected the land currently in the Town Belt, but has allowed us to add land to it.
Another highlight has been the work to create social housing in the city. The development at Rolleston St is a partnership with the Wellington City Mission to provide housing and wrap around services. I want to acknowledge Murray Edridge and his team for their work. Along with Stephanie McIntyre when she was at Downtown Community Ministry, they and their teams were my heroes. And Steph, we finally got a Wet House!
In my electorate office our philosophy was that our door was always open.
I am so incredibly grateful for the team that I had with me over the 15 years. Anna, Sheila, Sophia, Beth, Kurt, Reed, Kasey, Alka, Seamus and Thomas, thank you for being the front line. You literally saved lives, gave hope and made people feel that there was someone in their corner.
One of the people who walked through the electorate office door in about 2010 was Keith Whiffen. Keith wanted my support with his case arising from abuse in care at the Epuni Boys Home. What has followed is a 13 year journey and friendship. Previous governments had said no to the establishment of a Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care. In 2017 myself, Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern met with Keith and gave him our assurance that we would establish a Commission if elected. And we did it. In our first 100 days.
I would ask every New Zealander to pay attention to the report of the Commission when it is shortly released. The abuse, bullying and cruelty experienced by young people who were supposed to be cared for by the state and churches is horrific beyond any measure. It casts a dark shadow over our history.
I am proud that we stepped forward to tackle this, but that pales in comparison to my pride in the courage of Keith and other survivors. We owe it to them to get our response fair, timely and long-lasting.
In Parliament there were a couple of highlights in the “nine long years”. One of those was the passing of a Bill I drafted with the help of staff member Marcus Ganley to ensure that Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day were given full recognition, and “Mondayised” – Chris Finlayson hated that word – when they fell on a weekend. We had the numbers because Peter Dunne supported it. But the Bill lay in the members ballot for several years and eventually I gave it away first to Darien Fenton then to Dr David Clark, who of course had it chosen immediately. In an interesting twist of fate Dr Clark was “unavailable” on the day of the Third Reading of the Bill and so I got to move it as it passed. I am pretty sure David was ok with me locking him in his office for a few hours.
The Mondayisation Bill passed on the same day that we had the final debate of the Marriage Equality Legislation. The speech I gave that night, actually from this seat, remains the one I am the proudest of in this House. I was involved in the campaign to get Civil Union legislation passed. We were never totally confident that we had the votes on that one. In the end we got there 65-55. To see how far we had come less than 10 years later was remarkable and to win the marriage equality vote 77-44 was a strong vindication.
Colleagues, the next time you have a visitor in the building take them to the Rainbow Room – also known as Select Committee Room 11, not such a great title. It is a humbling experience to see the wall with the front page of the laws that this House has passed to address discrimination against Rainbow communities. In my time as an MP we have added Marriage Equality, the expungement of convictions pre law reform and the banning of conversion therapy. I was proud to play a role in all of those.
We still have some way to go to ensure people can grow up to be who they are, and supported to live fulfilling lives.
I am particularly concerned at the way our trans community have been the subject of increasing hatred, bigotry and lies as part of the on-going culture wars. I saw this especially in the Sports portfolio. People with absolutely no care for women’s sport, suddenly became warriors for safety in pursuit of an imagined enemy. The “othering” of trans people is despicable. We have to support people to live the lives they want to live and to show some respect.
Mr Speaker, today is not the day to go through the ups and downs of what happened to the Labour Party before we eventually got into government in 2017. It’s a bit like the 1960s, if you recall it you weren’t really there.
Nor sadly is there time today to discuss every portfolio or role I had. But there are two I will focus on.
When Jacinda asked me to be the Minister of Finance, I told her it was on one condition – that I was Minister of Sport and Recreation as well. She said a few people had expressed interest in that role. I asked her how many of them she had asked to be Minister of Finance?
Mr Speaker, I have loved sport for as long as I can remember. I was never very good at it. My own personal sporting peak was being the ballboy for the All Blacks vs British Lions test at Carisbrook in Dunedin in 1983, running along beside Matt Doocey’s father who was the touch judge (assistant referee) that day. It rained, sleeted and huge pools of water appeared on the field. We were given giant oil skin parkas to wear. I looked like a rotund, bespectacled, drenched ewok. It was only ever going to be downhill from there, but I believe in sport as a way to strengthen our communities and our wellbeing.
New Zealand never had a comprehensive strategy for women and girls in sport before we came into government. Thanks to the hard work of the team at Sport NZ, and wahine across the country we were able to pull together a plan. It had a clear vision and priorities: increased participation, improved leadership opportunities, greater valuing and visibility.
The results were obvious. Bidding for and hosting three exceptional World Cups for cricket, rugby and football. Each of them special in their own way – cricket delivered in the shadow of COVID, but ending with a full house at Hagley Oval. Rugby with the extraordinary run of the Black Ferns, and a final that ranks up there as my favourite ever sporting moment. And then the incredible, commercially successful FIFA World Cup. I want to thank the amazing teams who ran those events, some of whom who are here today.
But much more than that is the increased participation of girls and women across many sports that I am proud of. The enormous increase in visibility and the improved roles for women in governance with all NSOs now compliant with the policy to have at least 40% of women on boards.
There is still a long way to go to achieve the equity that women in sport deserve. But I am very proud of what we achieved. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the wahine toa who have promoted women’s sport over generations, against the odds and the prejudices they faced. We owe it to them and generations to come to keep the momentum going over the coming decades.
The second achievement in the sport portfolio that I am particularly proud of is the establishment of Integrity Sport NZ. There have been far too many examples of abuse, bullying and undue pressure being placed on athletes. The death of Olivia Podmore while a resident in the HPNZ Cycling programme was tragic, and I think of her family today. Integrity Sport NZ is an independent body to uphold safe, fair, drug free sport, assess complaints, and undertake investigations that can give athletes and their families confidence.
Mr Speaker, being the Minister of Finance is an extraordinary privilege. It gave me the unparalleled opportunity to spend time with my colleagues when they were at their most stressed and anxious. I want to particularly thank Willie Jackson for his patient and calm advocacy. I genuinely felt his aroha when he said “why do you hate the Māori’s” when I had just given him a $1 billion of funding. I also want to thank Chippy for not following through on his annual threat to resign during the Education Budget process, and others who responded so well to the limited funding we had available.
I was going to ask the Parliamentary Library to calculate how many times I used the word “balance” as Minister. But I feared the computer server would explode. But that balance was what I was trying strike. Between the careful approach to managing the country’s finances and the pressing needs that exist in our country.
In my first two Budgets we posted a surplus and kept net debt below our self-imposed limit of 20% of GDP.
Our first Budget paid for our 100 day plan commitments. Craig Renney and I dreamed up the Winter Energy Payment one day in Opposition, with a nod to the work of the UK Labour Government. It remains the policy that I think I got the most positive correspondence about. That 100 Day Plan also included Fees Free, the Best Start Payment, the broader Families Package that lifted Working for Families and the Accommodation Supplement. It was a positive and constructive start to our time in government.
Budget 2019 was our first ever Wellbeing Budget. This approach to creating a Budget and measuring our success as a country with indicators beyond GDP is world leading. This approach means that Budget initiatives must show value for money, but in all senses of that word, for people, for our environment, for our communities, and for our finances.
We now report at each Budget on indicators of Child Poverty, Climate Change and overall wellbeing. We continue to report on how we are tracking fiscally but to do so myopically risks forgetting the very reason we are here. The economy is not an end in itself it is a means to an end.
We moved to multi-year capital allowances to give significantly more room to plan properly. We have brought together agencies with a common purpose to agree on priorities and then to be funded for three years, not just one, so they can get on with the jobs we need them to do.
These approaches are the way of the future. The public that we serve do not care which agency funding comes from. They just want to know we are getting on with addressing the challenges and creating opportunities for the future.
Mr Speaker, we often measure government activity as a percentage of GDP. It allows comparisons over time and borders rather than dollar figures which lack context.
When we entered government in 2017, government spending was 27% of GDP. That’s not enough. It’s the reason why we had sewerage running down the walls of hospitals, its why nurses and doctors were so underpaid, its why we saw a growth in homelessness and more kids in poverty. It is vital that we are careful with the money we spend on behalf of New Zealanders, but the public services that they want and need will not be provided without sufficient investment.
Our level of spending peaked at about 34% of GDP during the COVID period, and is coming down. The long run average is a bit over 30%. Anything less is in my mind austerity. We are still dealing with the intergenerational damage from that approach in previous decades. We must not repeat the same mistakes.
Mr Speaker, Budget in 2021 was a personal highlight. It was 30 years on from the mother of all Budgets. And finally, 30 years on, we restored all main benefits back to the value they had been before that awful event.
In the interests of not seeing history re-written, here are some facts. We built more state houses than any government since the 1970s. We built more school classrooms than any previous government, we supported thousands of apprentices, we lifted the pay of nurses by more than 20%, the pay of teachers by a similar amount.
But numbers don’t tell the full story.
I think of the young woman in Kawakawa who came through our Mana in Mahi programme. By the time I caught up with her she was running the team on the building site.
I think of the social worker who burst into tears when I knocked on her door in the last election campaign, because she was so overcome by the difference their pay equity deal had made.
I think of the family I met in Christchurch who had their first home of their own with Kainga Ora. The love and respect they had for their modest home was humbling to witness.
I think of the parent who wrote to me to say how the apprenticeship their son had undertaken, had transformed him from heading to a life of crime to wanting to run his own business.
I think of Jim Kelly, rest his soul and the workers at Hillside in Dunedin, a few hundred metres from where I grew up, beaming from ear to ear when we brought back manufacturing to South Dunedin.
Mr Speaker, I am proud of the necessary first steps we took on climate action. I want to acknowledge my friend and colleague James Shaw in this regard. He was tireless and dedicated to making progress. His patience is extraordinary. I still think he and Damien O’Connor should go on the road together to talk to NZers about climate. Damien would be meaner to the farmers, but they both know we need to do more.
Our modernisation of the Reserve Bank was a massive undertaking with three pieces of legislation that led to more open and transparent decision making as well as the expanded objectives for the Bank.
A less commented on element of our reforms is the creation of a Depositor Compensation Scheme. New Zealand has been a an outlier with not having a formal protection scheme for depositors when a financial institution goes belly up. Our strong prudential framework makes this a rare occurrence, but the worst can happen (think South Canterbury Finance) we need to give account holders and investors confidence that their money is safe. The scheme will be fully operational next year, funded via industry levies. It will protect the first $100,000 of a deposit. It is a landmark achievement and I thank the incredibly dedicated officials who worked on this with us. And a particular thank you from me to Governor Adrian Orr and his team for their hard mahi in challenging times.
Mr Speaker, working with Jacinda Ardern as PM was the greatest joy and privilege. I am not sure New Zealanders appreciate just how fortunate we were to have someone of Jacinda’s intellect, compassion and practicality leading us through some of our most difficult times as a nation. Jacinda got the balance between head and heart so well. She knew how much it mattered to the children who wrote to her that she replied, often with personal handwritten messages. But at the same time she was equally clear on how important it was that she spoke clearly to leaders around the world to uphold our independent foreign policy. I was so very honoured to serve alongside you my friend.
I remember vividly the day we shut the borders. We did it on a teleconference of Cabinet. I was in Jacinda’s electorate office with her. When the call ended, we looked at each other and recognised the enormity of what we had done. It felt very heavy. I tried to lighten the moment by noting that I knew when we went into coalition with New Zealand First our immigration policies might change, but I didn’t think it would go quite this far. Jacinda didn’t laugh.
As Finance Minister I was looking at some dire forecasts. Globally financial markets were in freefall. We were told that bond markets could dry up. Treasury were forecasting 13.5% unemployment and mass business failures.
We were heading into unknown territory at every turn. Early on we knew Air New Zealand was in trouble. The border closures here and overseas were cutting their revenue to next to nothing over night. We pulled together the $900 million loan package in a few short days. When it came time to announce it, it coincided with the directive for Beehive staff to work from home. We scrambled out a media release, I hand wrote some talking points, and headed down on my own to the Theatrette to announce it. A small number of journalists were sitting there. After I had finished speaking one of them said “why have you done this?”. I said because Air NZ would be insolvent in months if I didn’t. Everyone just nodded. As I walked out, Pattrick Smellie said to me “on any other day, that would have been the biggest financial story of the year.” I agreed as we stood in the Beehive foyer with staff hurrying by carrying screens and printers wondering when and if they would be back.
As we got into lockdown we settled into routines. There were only seven staff actually working in the Beehive. I was completely alone on the 7th floor. Of course, no shops were open and at the beginning we hadn’t been to the supermarket. Like some kind of latter-day Bruno Lawerence in the movie The Quiet Earth I roamed offices in search of food, eventually stealing the bread from Kelvin Davis’s freezer. Things improved dramatically on the catering front when Leroy Taylor began his daily sausage roll baking.
Mr Speaker, the government’s approach to the virus was to go hard and early. In the finance space this translated to focusing on cashflow and confidence. The wage subsidy was the centrepiece of this support. We wanted a scheme that would keep people in their jobs and save businesses at the same time. We also knew that it needed to be available quickly and for long enough to give confidence. The work done by MSD in particular to make this happen was positively heroic. At one point they were processing 21 applications a minute.
In the 2020 election campaign I remember being in Featherston one day waiting outside the community centre for an announcement. A filthy ute came past and my first thought was that Kieran McAnulty had arrived. But it wasn’t. It was a builder who had pulled over to talk to us. He walked over to me and shook my hand. He told the story of telling his employees as various contracts were cancelled that he would probably have to let them go. He and his wife sat down one night to look into the wage subsidy. They filled out the forms and were gobsmacked when the money was in their account the next day. Every single one of those staff had their job kept. In the end across the lockdowns the Wage Subsidy paid out $19 billion and protected more than 1.8 million jobs.
There were many other schemes we developed fast. The Small Business Cashflow Loan Scheme, the Business Finance Guarantee Scheme, COVID-19 Income Relief Payment, the Leave Support Payment. The combined result of this and the hard mahi of New Zealanders was that unemployment never went above 5.4%, and it actually fell to record lows and business failures was actually lower than in a normal year.
And you don’t need to take my word for it. New Zealand was one of only a handful of countries to have its credit rating upgraded during the pandemic by the international ratings agencies. And it is worth noting Mr Speaker that those credit ratings have been maintained throughout our time in government and my time as Minister of Finance.
These great results of course pale into insignificance in the face of the one statistic that matters – the number of lives saved. On that measure New Zealand stood head and shoulders above others, with lower death rates than in normal years. Those statistics are real people. We know exactly who they were if we look around the rest of the world. They were our grandparents, neighbours, kaumatua and kuia. To coin a phrase, they are us. Savings those lives trumps any statistics or any hate on social media.
Alongside the things we did that I am proud of, there are of course things I could talk about that we didn’t get to do. I want to just talk about one, and it’s one that won’t surprise my colleagues.
New Zealand’s tax system is unfair and unbalanced. We are almost alone in the OECD in terms of not properly taxing assets and wealth in some form. Our current system entrenches inequality. It is not my place any longer to say specifically what the answer is here, but I do know that the answers are out there. And this is not a message for my party alone. The truth is that we need some political consensus about this to ensure we get it right and it sticks.
I don’t want to spend too long giving my reckons on all the things you need to do – after all I am the one leaving. But there is one other area that I have to talk about.
One of the greatest joys of my life has been connecting more closely to Te Ao Māori. In large part through Alf, his whanau and the mighty Ngati Porou iwi. They have welcomed me more than could ever be expected. No trip to Ruatoria is complete without being spotted at the Four Square, and the steady stream of visitors to wherever we are staying to share the unrivalled subtle and quiet East Coast wisdom.
But one thing I have learned from my contact with hapu and iwi across the motu: if Māori are doing well, if Māori are supported and enabled, if Māori are given their rangatiranga, we are all better off.
Te Tiriti has been dishonoured by Pakeha settlers and it has been contentious. It has also been remarkable. It has given our country so much, it is the framework through which we have sought to right wrongs, to give hope, to come together. It’s an imperfect partnership. But it is one that sets us apart from many other nations in giving place and voice to indigenous people.
It sickens me when people use our journey as a nation, and the role and place of Māori as a political punching bag.
My message to rangatahi and tamaraki is that what we are seeing now is but a blip. A small ugly footnote to the progress we have made, and that you will make in the future. Kia kaha.
Mr Speaker, it’s the people you meet on the way. The extraordinary people of the Wellington Central Labour Party. I am proud that we had the largest membership in the country and that we brought by far the largest number of remits to conference. May you always push the boundaries.
To the NZLP leadership and wider membership. As an MP we are nothing without the party we represent. I owe you all so much more than you could ever owe me.
I want to make a special mention of the crew who helped me during my early election and leadership campaigns. You were Young Labour then, now you on your way to being middle aged Labour now. You know who you are. You have been my support and my inspiration. And now I am asking you to stay in the fight. Because it matters.
A huge thank you to everyone who supports us to do our work in this building.
It’s hard to single folks out, but I do want to specifically mention two groups.
Our VIP drivers as Ministers were without exception, superb. And to Malcolm who snuck his retirement in just before mine – thanks mate for always going above and beyond.
And to the cleaning staff of this building. It has been a humbling experience getting to know you over the last couple of decades. I was so proud when you were finally paid the living wage. You deserve more.
To Angela Bray my SPS for the six years I was a Minister. You were unflappable Ange, thank you so much. And the late Jen Toogood, my EA for the whole nine years of Opposition. Thank you Jen, I learned so much from you and I miss you very much. Thanks to Janine Tapelu for helping pull today together.
To the political staff of my Ministerial office, thank you so much. We did good and we had fun.
To the exceptional public servants who worked as seconded staff in the office I say a heartfelt thank you. I think it is very easy to forget that the public servants who work for us are just people. They do not possess superhuman powers. They do not possess an endless supply of time and knowledge. What they are a group of people who work extraordinarily hard to support the government of the day, whoever they are, and whatever they are doing. I thank them all.
To my darling Alf. You have always kept it real and kept me grounded. Having a partner who actively dislikes politics has a lot to be said for it. But you have always supported me. We celebrated 25 years together last year and I love you more every day.
I also love the family you have given to me. Especially to Hayley, Abe, Keira, Khloe, Miley and Kenny, and the Nolans thank you for all the love and hugs. I never ever thought I would be a GG – that stands for Grandad Grant, and you have made my life a joy.
To Stephen, Delwyn, Cleo, Craig, Erin, Felix, Lisa, Campbell and the wider family. Thank you for your support from near and far. And to my late father Doug, I am pleased that you got to see your son enter this place. I know it made you proud because you told everyone, all the time. You were taken from us too soon.
And to my Mum. Weaved through this speech has been my admiration for strong women. The strongest of them all is my Mum. It’s your values, your love, and your spirit that I have spent a lifetime trying to match. I am not sure what we will talk about each week without me being here, but at least we can both complain about the government now. Thank you for everything, I love you with all my heart.
I remember Steve Maharey saying that politicians make rubbish friends and he was right. I have been blessed with friends who have accepted that, and always been there when I needed them. I look forward to a beer with you all sometime soon.
To the Labour team. Nga mihi nui ki koutou. It has been an absolute privilege to serve alongside colleagues over the last fifteen years. You are a terrific team, and Chippy you are doing a great job in leading them. I endorse Chippy’s view that you cannot be the dog that barks at every car. It can be tough if there is a convoy of stupidity going by, but it’s still the right strategy. A special thanks to my friend and benchmate Megan Woods for letting at least 40% of our conversations be about me.
Mr Speaker to every member of this House I wish you well. I continue to regard it as an absolute privilege to have had the opportunity to serve as a Member of Parliament.
What we do in this place, and out in our communities really matters. It can change lives and the course of history. You will not get everything right when you are here. You will not be able to achieve everything that you set out to do. There are days when its hard and when you think no one cares. But they do, and they need you too.
l said earlier that the speech I was the proudest of was the one I gave on marriage equality. In it I quoted Harvey Milk, the gay US politician tragically assassinated in office. Harvey Milk once said “I know that you cannot live on hope alone. But without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you – you gotta give em hope.”
Mr Speaker that is our job in this place. To give people hope. To give hope to those who seek a better tomorrow for their families and communities, to give hope to everyone that they can be who they are and live free of discrimination, and to give hope to those who have none.
So, Mr Speaker, that is my final, simple message today to you all. Hoatu he tumanako ki a rātou, you gotta give em hope.

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