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.
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  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.