Lockwood’s valedictory

Lockwood Smith gave his valedictory statement to Parliament yesterday, and it was a very interesting speech covering his time in Parliament. Very little was about his high profile role as Speaker – a lot was on policies and portfolios. The speech is in the draft Hansard. Some extracts:

By 1984 the economy was in a mess, and I hope history will record more positively the decisive actions of both the Lange-Douglas Labour Government and the Bolger-Richardson National Government that followed. The resilience of the New Zealand economy during the recent global downturn owes much to the courage of those Cabinets, at least in their early years, putting New Zealand’s very real needs ahead of political considerations in pursuing necessary reform.

I agree. Without those reforms, we would be truly stuffed.

Twenty-eight and a half years is quite a long time—long enough for me to see 288 members arrive in this place and 263 leave. So many things we rely on today did not even exist then. It is not just the iPads and smartphones; personal computers were in their infancy, as were, I must say, some of our current colleagues.

I think Jami-Lee wasn’t even born then!

Regrets that have lingered include my voting against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in 1986. I faced the classic dilemma of voting according to my own judgment, or the opinion of those I had been elected to represent. As a new member I opted for the latter and I have always regretted it. Edmund Burke was right.

Edmund Burke’s quote on this issue  is one of my favourites.

Science and technology have been so crucial to the advancement of human well-being, yet scientists are a rare breed in politics. Internationally, there is something of a disconnect between the two. In politics, for example, green is the claimed colour of sustainability. Yet in science the very reason we perceive plants to be green is that they reflect green light. They cannot use it. It is red and blue light that sustain most of our living world. [Interruption] It is true!


In 1987 my life was to change for ever. Jim Bolger appointed me National’s spokesperson on education, and the Minister was none other than Prime Minister David Lange. He was a formidable parliamentarian with a great sense of humour. I still remember the Tuesday when I came into this House after tripping and landing on my face when vaulting over a gate on the farm. Lots of skin was missing. David Lange called out across the House in his booming voice: “Huh! He’s been visiting kindergartens again.”

I can almost hear Lange’s tone saying it.

And, yes, I confess to being the architect of both the student loans scheme and means-tested student allowances. While the former, I would argue, was good policy—made less good by some later changes—the latter I was never happy with. It was so transparently unfair where students whose parents were unable to, shall we say, camouflage their incomes were pinged and all were means-tested up to an age when young people simply are not dependent on their parents at all.

Great to hear Lockwood say this because I agree. I have never supported means testing students based on parental income up to the age of 25.

I dreamed of a seamless education system where students could pursue their learning via a multitude of pathways, their hunger for greater theoretical knowledge driven from the challenges experienced in developing their skills in practical areas of interest. I think it is fair to say that the qualifications framework is now well embedded into our senior secondary, tertiary, and industry training systems. But to me it is only starting to deliver its full potential. With the explosion in knowledge I wanted to see motivated students well into their first tertiary qualification or part way through an apprenticeship-type programme before they completed their secondary years. And it is great that is starting to happen.

The qualifications framework is on of his biggest legacies.

Not many would know I put 7 years’ work into a project to redevelop New Zealand’s income tax, benefit, and tax credit systems. The work started on trying to find a way round the massive churning involved in employers deducting PAYE only for the Government to pay it all back to some employees in family tax credits.

I did some of this work with Lockwood, when I was an opposition staffer. We tried to find parabolic equations which could deliver a fair tax rate based on someone’s income and number of children, and not change net incomes greatly. Economically we were able to do so, but politically having a parabolic equation as the tax rate would have been rather difficult 🙂

My research unravelling that interface soon got into the challenging area of effective marginal tax rates. At the time a single parent with three dependent children seeking to work their way off the domestic purposes benefit and trying to get from $10,000 of earned income a year to $25,000 would have had to work an extra 20 hours a week at $15 an hour say. The problem was the effective tax on that extra $15,000 of earned income was about $13,300, meaning that even though the parent was paid $15 an hour, their take-home pay would have been little over $1.50 an hour. Things have improved somewhat since then, but high effective marginal tax rates still remain a significant disincentive for many people.

They do. I’d like to see lower or no tax rates on the first $10,000 or so of income, in return for lower welfare payments and hence less steep abatement rates.

Some commentators assess members on how successfully they play the political game. But to me what sets a member of Parliament apart is how much they care about the impact of the State on an ordinary person, and how far they are prepared to go in representing people whose lives can be so knocked around by the actions of the State.

This is a core role of an MP, in my opinion.

As I look to the future, this is something that troubles me. The introduction of MMP in 1996 changed this place. Some of it is for the better. There is no doubt we have a broader face of representation, and that is good. But like so many policy changes, it is the unexpected outcomes that need to be watched, and one of those outcomes has been a significant shift in the accountability of members. Obviously, list members are very much accountable to their political parties, as they owe their place on the list to their party. But the pervasive power of the party vote has meant that all members are now totally accountable to their parties. This House, in so many ways, has become a place of political parties rather than a House of Representatives. I am not for one moment trying to make a case for the old system, but I do believe there will come a time when we will need to re-examine that balance of accountabilities. Representation is enhanced when members have to help ordinary people in their local communities, many of whom may never have voted for them.

Well put, and it is an issue. The protection of the party list has insulated many MPs. This is one reason why I do not support dual candidacies.  Electorate MPs should stand or fall with their electorates.

But standing head and shoulders above them all despite her shortish stature is Beryl Bright. I stole Beryl from Merv Wellington almost 27 years ago—I am not sure he ever forgave me.

Merv often carried a grudge – including against me.

She was my executive assistant in the early years, my senior parliamentary secretary in my 9 years as Minister, and loyally stayed with me despite losing almost half her salary when I was back in Opposition, and has continued to look after me in my time as Speaker. Perhaps most special of all, though, Beryl helped shape the lives of so many young people who worked with me as a Minister. Young people like Simon Tucker, newly appointed High Commissioner designate to Canada; Ben King, now foreign affairs adviser to the Prime Minister, and Matthew Hooton, commentator and founder of Exceltium. For all Beryl did, thank you seems such an inadequate word, but I say it from the bottom of my heart. She was wise, witty, loyal, and tough. Even my wife, Alexandra, quickly realised she first had to win over Beryl.


 And so, Alexandra, I likewise say thank you for sharing me with this place. Alexandra gave up so much of her own professional career that we might be together again. As a professional counsellor she taught me to find the good in all people. She made me a better person, which in turn enabled me to be a better Speaker. In recent years I have felt so guilty that she gave up her wonderful counselling job at King’s College to be with me and yet has had me only part time. From now on it is full time, I promise.

There are few other jobs that require so much from spouses.

I will miss having Lockwood as an MP. He is to some degree the reason I ended up involved in the National Party. In 1986 I was a first year at Otago University and I saw a poster advertising that he was speaking on campus. I was interested to hear and meet him, so went along. He gave a great speech and I joined the National Party that day.

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