On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Helen Kelly
Youtube clips from the show are available here
Kelly hopes to use loophole to allow for legal importation of prescription medical marijuana
She believes Labour/Greens coalition will form next government because of issues such as housing and austerity measures
Agriculture is the next sector that needs to lift its game around worker safety, following a dramatic drop in forestry
Cancer diagnosis was a “huge interruption”, but she’s grateful she has had time to prepare
Former Council of Trade Unions President Helen Kelly has always been a fighter.
Whether it's the death rate in the forestry industry, or supporting the Pike River families, the 51-year-old has been at
the forefront of some of the country's biggest battles on workers' rights.
Since being diagnosed with cancer she's also become an advocate for legalising medical marijuana, so when I sat down
with her recently - it was the obvious question to start with...
Lisa Owen: Just wondering, have you got any marijuana cookies on you?
Helen Kelly: Not on me, but I have got marijuana on me. Not cookies. Would you like one?
What have you got?
What have I got? I’ve got some oil. I’ve got some balm, which is like a coconut oil mixed with cannabis, and I just rub
it on my spine where I’ve got a bad fracture and tumours, and it is sensational. And that is illegal to rub a balm on
Had you used dope before you were sick?
At teachers’ college I’d had a few evenings on marijuana, just smoking it, you know, as students do, but, actually, no,
not really. And I would say it’s probably been 10 years since I’ve even thought about it. It’s only since I’ve got sick
that people started giving it to me and I started trying it again and seeing how amazing it is.
So would legalising medical marijuana have been an issue that you would have taken on if it hadn’t affected you
It’s an issue that I raised with the CTU about marijuana being used to persecute workers, because it’s a legacy drug. It
stays in your system, even though it’s not impairing you, for quite a few weeks. And what we found was it was being used
as a moral punishment by companies who were actually testing their workers, and they weren’t impaired, they weren’t at
risk, they weren’t turning up to work drugged, but were using it to discipline them because of the legacy.
But in terms of medical marijuana, you talk about the cancer whisper. What do you mean by that?
Oh yeah, so we travel around these cancer wards when I’m having chemo or having radiation, and often you’re there day
after day. You know, you’re going in for the same treatment repeated, and we call it the cannabis whisper. We’ll be
sitting there. People just come and sit next to us, they’ll recognise us, and they’ll be desperate and they’ll say,
‘We’ve seen you on the TV saying you can get cannabis. My husband’s had his stomach removed, you know, and can’t really
take morphine. Have you got anything? You know, he’s so desperate.’ ‘My kid has lost half their body weight. They’ve got
leukaemia.’ You know, cannabis makes them eat. And we’ve had one mother whose kid’s put on 4 kilos just eating illegal
cannabis. You know, what’s that worth for an 8-year-old kid? And just conversations like that, ‘Can you…?’ You know,
desperate. My advice is always ask around; someone will get you some. Everybody’s got some, who knows how to get this
drug. It’s an incredibly wide—
And you’ve got no qualms about doing that?
No. If I thought it was going to hurt them, of course I would. You know, I’m not a person that’s out there promoting a
cure. I’m not saying cannabis is a cure to cancer. I’m saying it’s a very, very good pain relief.
Now, I know people can legally bring prescription medication into New Zealand from overseas, so if you have prescription
cannabis product, you can bring it in. Are you still planning to travel and to bring some product back?
That’s what we’d like to do, so if you have a legal prescription issued in a country for any drug that is recognised
there, you’re legally allowed to transfer it here. Obviously, if you’ve got HIV and you’re taking HIV drugs in the
States, you’re allowed to bring them back here if you come here as a tourist or whatever. So there’s this loophole. If
it’s a prescribed cannabis product by a doctor in a registered regime, you can bring it back in, and that’s what we are
going to do, and that makes it even more farcical. But what I would like is my doctor to be trained in cannabis
products, for him or her to actually understand each one and say, ‘This is the best one for you. This is one during the
day if you don’t want to get stoned,’ you know? Ideally, there’d be a market and I’d be able to get prescribed.
So you’d like doctors to have the power to prescribe this if they feel that their patient would benefit, not the
Associate Minister of Health?
No. I’m not quite at the point where I’m handing over my health prognosis to Peter Dunne. I’m sorry about that. I’m sure
it’s good advice, but, yeah.
At doctor level is where you think it should be?
Of course it should be, yeah. I mean, imagine if Peter Dunne was prescribing my chemotherapy or my morphine, even. It
would be crazy.
So what would be the purpose of bringing in that prescription cannabis product? Would you just be making a statement, a
point, or are you bringing it in—?
It would be two things. One is I think I’d get a good choice of a product. So we’re talking about doing something more
permanent, where a group of people who are going to be taking these products for a long time get a proper prescription
and know what will help them and how to use it and all of that and allowing a proper supply to them through this.
So almost like a different kind of buyers’ club.
A drug-buyers’ club, yeah.
But for cannabis from overseas.
But for cannabis from overseas, yeah, non-profit, legal, sensible, mature, regulated system. Our big problem is finding
a place you could go and get it and bring it back into the country without getting arrested halfway. So if you go to
Europe, you could get arrested in Dubai or wherever, whichever way you come back. If you go to America, can you get it
out of the state and over here legally? Australia’s obviously the easiest one, but they at the moment don’t have the
But you would be doing that with the intention of distributing it to others?
Don’t know. Whatever the law allows. Don’t think so. I think each person has to have their own prescription and be
bringing it back in for their own personal use, which is possible, right?
Yeah, I want to talk to you also about other campaigns that you’ve been involved in – your work with the union and
workers’ rights. So what do you think that the minimum wage should be?
At the moment, I think it should be the living wage, which is, you know—
Yeah, which is a wage that people can actually have a decent life on, and it’s a wage that New Zealand can afford to pay
its workers and would benefit economically from a higher-wage economy on.
Do you think that is a realistic minimum wage, though? Because a lot of employers would say no.
Well, you have to get there over time, but what I say to employers is, ‘Well, what would it take for your business to
make it a genuine wage?’ and they can always tell you. They can always say, ‘Well, if we had a 15% increase in the
customer uptake, we’d be fine.’ And then you say, ‘Well, if you’re a living-wage employer and you had permanent staff
and you’re developing your products and you were advertising and we were promoting you as somebody who’s prepared to
invest in your staff, that is doable. But if all you want to do is compete on the minimum’—is actually the response.
When employers say, ‘We can’t afford it,’ they’re really saying, ‘We want to compete on the minimum,’ then it’s
unsustainable both for New Zealand families but also for the New Zealand business, because no one’s got any money. I
mean, you’re dealing with homeless people, right, who are working. That isn’t the equation. It’s not meant to be work
plus pay plus no house to live in at the end of that equals no house to live in, is it?
Well, why do you think it’s happening like that, then? Are people less caring these days about our fellow human beings?
Are we more individualistic? Or why aren’t we making changes that, in your view, would bring better lives for everybody?
Well, it’s by design. This industrial relations framework is by design to shift wealth from workers to business owners
and company directors and investors, and that’s the model. So we’ve just seen our government remove the obligation to
conclude a collective employment agreement. That’s why these Talley’s workers can’t achieve decent wages and conditions.
They’re changing the law in exactly the opposite direction. The Treasury Papers said to the Government if you change the
law in the way they did to the Talley’s workers, wages will go down. And the Government changed the law, so what were
they trying to achieve? Reduction in wages, and that’s what they have achieved. So this is by design to compete on low
wages in New Zealand and not to compete on the high road.
I suppose the thing with that is, though, it is a democratically elected government, so people have voted for that
government and therefore the choices arguably that that government makes, so why aren’t, then, more people making a
different choice if we care about whether people have a roof over their head, if we care about the minimum wage?
Well, I think people are unaware of the importance of a good industrial relations system and they’ve been trained in
that since the ‘90s. They’ve been told, you know, a company – Fisher & Paykel will move to China and Thailand, which is exactly what they’re doing. You need to have global standards, right,
if you’re going to compete at an international level. But the reality is that people are beginning to demand different
conditions of work. People are shocked by things like the zero hours or taking wages out of workers’ pay when the
service station client does a runner or whatever. So there is people now starting to say— Or homelessness for working
people. There are now people starting to say how sustainable is this model? But until there’s a national system of
industrial relations, stepping outside that model makes you uncompetitive. You know, stepping outside that model means
that you’ve got to have a different sort of economic model. That shouldn’t be the case. And even Australia still has
national agreements. The minimum wage for a forestry worker in Australia is $18. We’ve got workers here, 27 years in the
bush being killed on $16 an hour.
Well, talking about forestry workers, your work has helped make the forestry industry safer. So what do you think is the
next industry that needs to be targeted?
Agriculture. I mean, we’ve just got this blip. Actually, they’ve identified six of the most dangerous industries. We
know what they are – construction, farming, forestry – and all of those other industries actually have started to make
an effort. So you have a look at construction in Christchurch. They’ve absolutely set about having no deaths and a safe
system, and they’ve put huge amounts of energy into it, led by Fletcher’s, and it’s worked. Forestry – huge effort, even
by the forest owners now. The employers have got this standing committee they’re going through. They’ve made the effort,
pushed by us, huge reduction in accidents in forestry. Farming – nah, doing nothing, no problem here, got the minister
saying they’re safe, and you’ve got a blip now. There’s more accidents this year in farming than there were last year.
Why don’t they want to acknowledge that, then?
Because culturally they’ve accepted accidents on agriculture, in my view, and poor working conditions. If you have a
look at what’s happened with farming wages over the last 10 years, if you look at what’s happened with farming hours of
work, it’s like 60% of farmers spent nothing on training last year and they’ve got this huge turnover. It’s almost 80%
in five years. You know, this is our premium industry. Apart from the fact that these workers are being killed and paid
crap and terrible hours and all of that high turnover, how are we going to develop a clean, efficient agricultural
sector if we don’t have any expertise and encourage people?
In an environment where poverty and homelessness are front and centre in the media, and these are the people that Labour
has traditionally represented, so why aren’t they gaining any ground when these issues are so prominent at the moment?
Well, I think they’re gaining ground. I don’t think it’s true that they’re not gaining any ground. On the issues, they
are gaining ground. What they’ve got to come up with, I think, is loud, red meat solutions that actually tackle… that
people can say, ‘Actually, I know that’s going to resolve the issue.’ So, for example, we need a really decent age-care
policy in this country, which means you just don’t have to move into a rest home. You could have decent home care, the
home care workers are really well done, supported. The assets that old people live in are useful. You could have a
policy like that. It’s a bold, red meat policy. It would challenge the whole rest home sector now, but they should be
doing it, and I think they will. The housing policy — they should basically say, they’re almost there, everyone who
qualifies for a state house should be able to get one. If you qualify, you must be at the bottom of the heap. You must
have children, you must have housing crisis, you must be in a place where housing… you know, when you look at the
criteria. So real things that listen to people.
Those things cost money, though, which brings us back to the sharing thing. Are people not prepared to share? Are we
less willing to give up something for the greater good?
No, I think people have less. I mean, 62 people have more than half the world’s wealth. So, you know, people have less,
and then so they hang on to what they’ve got. When you’ve secure and you’ve got a decent job and you know it’s going to
stick around and you’re making progress, people are more willing to have decent tax systems and good education systems.
But when they feel under threat all the time and they see these industrial relations systems that just every year cuts
their pensions, cuts their holidays, cuts their wages, they hold on to them and they start looking around for people to
blame who threaten them. And I think for the poor, they don’t necessarily look to the rich. You know, they look at each
other, or they look sideways, or they look one generation up.
So do you think there’ll be a fourth-term National government?
No, I don’t. I think Labour will win the next election. It’ll be a Labour-Green—
I do. I think Labour-Green will win the next election. You know, some sort of coalition of those parties. I think
there’s a change on, yeah.
People would say you’re an optimistic person.
What have I got to be optimistic about? I won’t even see it, right? I won’t be here to vote for it. But that’s what I
believe. I’m just as guessing as anyone else, but my feeling is that people are beginning to see the hard side of these
austerity measures, of these cuts, of these housing issues.
Would you be standing at the next election if you weren’t sick?
Yes, I would. I was going to stand at the last election. Thank goodness I didn’t.
So that’s unfinished business for you?
Well, it’s not going to be finished. It’s not my be all and end all political ambition. I’m not dying as a tragic figure
who never go to run the country.
What would you have made your priority, though?
If I’d been in Parliament?
The topics I’m really interested in are education and labour rights, so I guess that’s what I would’ve gone into.
So, fighting for all these causes, arguably you’ve got to get a bit angry, you’ve got to work yourself up to fight for
other people and you need to be invested enough. Doesn’t that take a hell of a lot of energy?
Yeah, but this is a movement. You know, social movements that have got strong values are not dependent on individuals.
Like, you couldn’t tell me… Or you might be able to, but who’s the head of Greenpeace International, who’s the head of
Amnesty? Maybe you couldn’t tell me that, but you could tell me what their values are, what they’re standing for, what
they’re fighting for. Every family could repeat those values, and that’s what we want for the union movement. We don’t
need to be obsessed with who’s leading it, who’s the party leader, who’s this, who’s that. We need strong valued
propositions that workers identify with and see us representing them, and that’s been my goal always.
By your own admission, you’re probably not going to be here to vote in the next election, but you’ve taken on
euthanasia, you’re now medical cannabis, you continue to fight for workers’ rights. Do you ever feel that actually,
‘Nah, I just want to lounge around, want to lounge around and spend some time with my family’?
You’re a long time dead, right? I don’t want to lounge around. That’s the last thing I want to do. I want energy and to
do the stuff I care about. And I spend a lot of time with my family. Honestly, my family’s just come from around the
world, they’ve been available. I’ve had a wonderful year. This is a crazy thing to say because I’m dying and I’m sick,
but I’ve caught up with people, old school mates, you know, we got married, blah blah blah. So it’s a real mixed time,
actually. And so it’s not like I’m sacrificing anything to do this work. This is work I do.
Because a lot of people would say to themselves or they think, ‘If I found out that my life was going to end in the next
couple of months, I’d pack up, I’d buy an overseas ticket, off I go.’ But you’ve kept doing what you’ve always been
Yeah, but people don’t do that. And I think it’s all these films and expectations about people dying. Have a bucket
list, you know. Tick it off. Jump out of a helicopter. Well, you know, who wants to do that? Actually, when you ask
people what they want to do, they want to be comfortable. That’s the biggest thing. They want to spend time with people
they love. They want to get their life in order. They want to keep working, you know. And so I’m no different. I’m not
going to transform into some bucket list girl because that’s what the expectations of me are.
And then the other thing on that is that you’ve known since February…
Over a year.
Over a year. Is it a burden to know that you have a limited amount of time left, or is it a blessing to know that?
It’s nice to have time before you die. That’s a blessing. You imagine just getting hit by a bus and everything’s
chaotic, right. Apart from the trauma of that, you don’t get to say goodbye to anyone, you don’t get to organise
anything. And so it is lovely to be able to think about things and connect with people and all of that. But it’s also a
huge interruption, right. I hate to say it, it’s not how I depict it, really, but it’s a huge interruption in your life
to suddenly have a limited period and to have to fit treatment and fit illness into that busy, busy life. I mean, I’ve
said it a lot of times, but I feel like I’m living, and at some point that will change and I’ll feel like I’m dying. And
at that point I’ll reassess how I live that period of my life. But at the moment I want to do what I want to do, and I
can do what I want to do.
What do you mean by reassess? Because you’ve spoken out about people’s rights to use euthanasia.
Yeah. I’m interested in euthanasia not really for myself. I don’t know whether I would… I might. Who knows what’s going
to happen to me. I haven’t even really looked at how I’m going to die. And if I was really sick enough and I had such a
poor quality of life, why not? But I’d like it available, and a lot of people make it available and then don’t use it.
But I can’t imagine myself at night one night thinking, ‘Well, tonight’s the night. I’m going to do it.’ But I want it
as an option, and I know that for some people, their life, they are dying; they’re not living. And why do we keep them
alive if they don’t want to be?
So for you it’s about choice.
It’s about choice, it’s about humanity.
Even if it’s not a choice that you would want?
Yeah. And honestly, every choice we make like that is tough, tough as hell. Whether we give kids a heart transplant,
whether we… They’re all ethical choices, and they’re all about priorities and what’s viable and feasible. Euthanasia’s
no different. There’s some risks with it, big risks with it, some huge benefits with it, and we just have to manage it.
It’s like cannabis.
If there’s one bit of business that you’re not going to get to finish yourself that you want someone else to finish,
what is that business?
The health and safety stuff. So that’s a project I want to set up so that it continues on with the same intensity around
helping families who have lost someone at work, because that’s the gap. We can deal with the accidents, the
investigations, the prosecutions, but, actually, how families get involved in that is very, very important. So what I’d
like to see is a standing group set up by those families that have got active, and every time there is a death, they
contact the family, they give them information, they help them through all that process, and they would keep the
lobbying going on health and safety. And farm safety is the area I’d like to crack. You know, if I could see that
accident rate coming down on a sensible trajectory, I know that’s the beginning of a real change. That’s the first
symptom. And in forestry, the accident rate’s decreased by 60% in about three years. So, you know, that’s 60% of people
who didn’t need to be hurt in forestry three years ago, as far as I’m concerned.
You are one persistent woman.
I try to be. Persistence is the key.
Yeah. Hey, it’s been a pleasure, as always. Thank you.
You’re welcome. Nice to talk to you.
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