Mem­o­ries of a Labour man

For­mer Porirua and Mana MP Graham Kelly talks to Kris Dando about life in re­tire­ment, the Labour Party’s fu­ture and cricket in the Car­ribean.

Kapi-Mana News - - FEATURE -

How’s life mo­ment? I’m keep­ing busy, but there’s not the ten­sion I had in the past. A lot of the things I’m in­volved in now [ e- learn­ing Porirua, Probus, As­so­ci­a­tion of For­mer Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment] are very en­joy­able and keep me go­ing.

The elec­tion re­sult must have been hard to take.

It wasn’t easy to watch and from the out­side it doesn’t look good. I’m en­joy­ing this new sys­tem for elect­ing a leader – it’s far more demo­cratic. What wor­ried me most from elec­tion night was the 960,000 peo­ple who didn’t vote. It’s an in­cred­i­bly dis­turb­ing trend, not healthy for a democ­racy. More young peo­ple need to be en­gaged in gov­ern­ment poli­cies and how the coun­try is run.

What does Labour have to do to turn things around?

It’s about get­ting back to ba­sics. I hope the re­view [on Labour’s fail­ure] will ad­dress all these is­sues. All po­lit­i­cal par­ties go through this from time to time. Na­tional had it for a while. It’s not just about the party, but en­gage­ment with the pub­lic. Labour’s poli­cies need to be clear and straight­for­ward.

What are some of the key po­lit­i­cal is­sues for you now?

I had a union back­ground be­fore re­luc­tantly en­ter­ing pol­i­tics, so to see unions be­ing de­stroyed by this Na­tional Gov­ern­ment makes me an­gry. Work­ers and their wages need pro­tec­tion, more than ever. This tea break leg­is­la­tion and other things that are hap­pen­ing are not cre­at­ing a fairer so­ci­ety. We all want peo­ple to get ahead, but we have a smil­ing Prime Min­is­ter pass­ing leg­is­la­tion to kneecap the unions and cre­ate big gaps in in­come. Wages are go­ing down while those at the top are cream­ing it.

Are in­equal­ity and poverty worse than when you were an MP?

Yes. There might be money thrown around, but what is be­ing achieved? As each decade goes by, poverty gets harder to fix. It was in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult in Op­po­si­tion for all those years be­cause I could see it hap­pen­ing and I made noise, but I couldn’t change any­thing. It was frus­trat­ing.

Can the sit­u­a­tion be turned around?

I think it can. There is a sense of de­cency in New Zealan­ders and that gives me faith that change can hap­pen.

What spurred you to en­ter pol­i­tics and stand in the Porirua elec­torate in 1987?

It was the un­fair­ness I saw of peo­ple in the work­force. In­comes were not suf­fi­cient and I wanted to make changes. Labour started be­cause of a strug­gle with em­ploy­ers and I had 25 years in the trade unions, al­ways rep­re­sent­ing low- paid work­ers. Women and part-time work­ers were ap­pallingly treated and I


the was al­ways as­tounded how the play­ing field for em­ploy­ers and work­ers was never level.

You had six terms as an MP, the last as a List MP. Do you look back on that time fondly?

Be­cause of some of my more out­spo­ken views, es­pe­cially on the econ­omy and wages, I was in the op­po­si­tion even when Labour got into gov­ern­ment. By the end, I was burnt out, hat­ing ev­ery minute of ev­ery day. I got high blood pres­sure and the work I was do­ing as an MP and for the party got too much. But I have no re­grets about do­ing what I did. MPs work bloody hard — it’s early starts, work­ing late, read­ing doc­u­ments and mail, and re­turn­ing mes­sages. I used to get five de­liv­er­ies of mail ev­ery day.

What were some of the things you were proud­est of as an MP?

In my time we were able to abol­ish mar­ket rent for Hous­ing New Zealand ten­ants and make them in­come-re­lated. That was huge for peo­ple in Porirua. We got rid of puni­tive so­cial wel­fare leg­is­la­tion and I chaired a select com­mit­tee to rein­tro­duce the ACC scheme af­ter Na­tional was look­ing to privatise it. I was also proud to be in­volved in the abol­ish­ing of the Em­ploy­ment Con­tracts Act and felt I had a key role as chair­man of the For­eign Af­fairs, De­fence and Trade Com­mit­tee.

Rub­bing shoul­ders with the likes of David Lange and Roger Dou­glas would not have had many dull mo­ments.

When we were in op­po­si­tion, my pol­i­tics of­ten didn’t line up with my col­leagues’. But David was an amaz­ing politi­cian and speaker. I re­mem­ber when we opened the new Ti­tahi Bay sewage treat­ment plant [ in 1989]. He, my­self, [Porirua mayor] John Burke and [Porirua City Coun­cil chief ex­ec­u­tive] John Sed­don had to walk out on this plat­form, over this treat­ment pond, while ev­ery­one else got seats well away from it. The stench was just ter­ri­ble and I was nearly dry retch­ing. David had a speech pre­pared, but he didn’t even bother, say­ing some­thing up­lift­ing and bril­liant off the cuff.

Were you in favour of the MMP vot­ing sys­tem?

You couldn’t have the old first past the post sys­tem — it doesn’t cap­ture democ­racy prop­erly when you have 11 mem­bers of cau­cus mak­ing all the de­ci­sions. In my opin­ion MMP changed the na­ture of so­ci­ety a lot. I voted for the sup­ple­men­tary mem­ber sys­tem, which called for a quar­ter of MPs on the List and the rest con­stituent MPs.

Be­ing High Com­mis­sioner to Canada from 2003-06 must have been in­ter­est­ing.

It was. Their elec­toral sys­tem is so dif­fer­ent to ours, with two par­lia­men­tary houses and they use first past the post. The Cana­dian High Com­mis­sioner is also ac­cred­ited to Bar­ba­dos, Guyana, Ja­maica and Trinidad and Tobago. My trips to the West Indies for work of­ten co­in­cided with cricket tours — there would be seven or eight feet of snow in Ot­tawa and 30 de­grees heat in the Car­ribean. I could see the [2007] Cricket World Cup was go­ing to go badly well be­fore it be­gan, be­cause some of the or­gan­i­sa­tion and in­fra­struc­ture just wasn’t there.

So you’re a bit of cricket tragic?

I do watch New Zealand play in test matches late at night, yes. I re­ally think we have a chance to win the World Cup next year. I have tick­ets to the West Indies/ Ire­land game in Nel­son — I’ll be wear­ing my West Indies hat and my Ire­land jersey, so I can’t lose. Are you from Porirua? I was born in Welling­ton, but my un­cle lived in a state house in McKil­lop St. I lived in Ti­tahi Bay for many years be­fore go­ing to Canada and then Whitby when we re­turned. I’ve al­ways loved liv­ing here.

Are you still in­volved in the Labour Party?

I’ll al­ways be a mem­ber. I write the oc­ca­sional sub­mis­sion and con­trib­ute where I can. But with [suc­ces­sors] Win­nie [La­ban] and Kris [Faafoi], I just let them get on with it. I’m a past pres­i­dent of the for­mer mem­bers of Par­lia­ment as­so­ci­a­tion and we’re run­ning a pro­gramme for new MPs in the Pa­cific.

Found­ing e- Learn­ing Porirua in 2001 and help­ing hun­dreds of fam­i­lies get com­puter skills must be a legacy for you.

The Com­put­ers in Homes in Porirua helped its 1500th fam­ily this year. Some of the sto­ries are mind-blow­ing, es­pe­cially for the low- in­come fam­i­lies. See­ing peo­ple get jobs and kids do­ing bet­ter in school is in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing and very hum­bling. What else keeps you busy? I’m on the ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee of the Welling­ton Jazz Club and have been ap­pointed to the Nor­man Kirk Memo­rial Trust, which pro­vides sec­ond-chance ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties in New Zealand and the Pa­cific Is­lands. See­ing peo­ple go­ing from hav­ing no hope to earn­ing a de­gree is mar­vel­lous.

What do you think about the Canopies com­ing down?

I come into the city cen­tre all the time. I hope the coun­cil cre­ates a bet­ter at­mos­phere and doesn’t leave the re­tail­ers in the lurch.


Ac­tive: Re­tire­ment has not slowed down for­mer MP Graham Kelly.

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