Bill’s valedictory

A bit late covering this (toddlers and blogging do not always co-exist) but wanted to as it was such a great speech. The full speech is here.

Of course, where we come from is principally our families. My background, which I brought to politics, was rural and Catholic, and, in some respects, was an interesting mix that gave me as much familiarity with binder twine as with the beatitudes, and a love of shearing as well as a love of Latin. And then I married into the Scanlon family. Well, we had some things in common—faith and family—but they have a completely different tradition of New Zealand. Migrants from Samoa and Italy—theirs was a totally different world in which they lived, which we just called “town”, which was a generic word for anything bigger than Dipton.

But there’s not much that happened in these two families that didn’t happen to every New Zealander, because Mervyn and Norah English, who have passed away, and George and Jean Scanlon, who are here today, between them raised 25 children. Can I say, I am pleased you did not all accept the invitation. My children have 66 cousins, so far.

I remember the discussion with the officials when we were arranging the swearing-in when I became Prime Minister. They said, “Well, you can have the large one with the officials and the important people, and we’ll put out a whole lot of chairs and fill the room, or you can have the small family one.” I said, “Well, I think we’ll have the large family one, thank you.”, and 80 of them showed up on the day.

There has never been any doubt the vast importance of family to Bill. Despite having the heaviest workload of any Minister, he never ate dinner at Parliament. He always made time to get home to have dinner with his family.

I’ve been fortunate to have had some real friends who’ve come through with me—that is, Nick Smith, Roger Sowry, and Tony Ryall. We all started together as part of an intake of 37—a colourful bunch, I have to say. We were kind of the secondary school students, I suppose, or certainly regarded that way. The four of us have had opposing views on everything, from conscience issues to leadership coups. The real test, though, has been 27 years of family holidays together, where we’ve managed to create a tradition for ourselves and our families that keeps us bound, whatever our political views.

Rare to have such strong and enduring friendships in politics.

Hospitals were a big issue—small, rural hospitals, which, in the early 1990s, still had surgeons in them. Some of you may remember the Hands Around Our Hospitals protests in Balclutha—a town of 5,000 to 7,000 people marched against the closure of the hospital. I recall being under a bit of pressure in a Grey Power meeting in Gore, and I lost my cool and said, “We should bulldoze the bloody thing and build a new one.”, and, actually, that’s what we did. I’m proud to say that in the South, all of the small health services outside of Dunedin and Invercargill hospitals are in community ownership, and I have to say they’ve never been better run, more stable, and more secure for their communities.

The idea that Government has to run everything to make it work is simply wrong, and, in small communities, it is almost certainly not the answer to have third-level managers running your services for you. If I had one shortfall on that, it’s that I didn’t manage to get the Queenstown hospital into that structure, because it would be a much better facility than it is today if it wasn’t in public ownership.

Ownership is not the same as funding. You will often get better results with community ownership but public funding.

In fact, when you look at events around the world, I’m increasingly of the view that New Zealand’s ability to deal with cultural difference is going to become a strategic advantage, not just to us but relative to the rest of the world. We see deep, sophisticated cultures such as Europe struggling with issues that we have grappled with intensively for 30 years. I want to acknowledge the work of Sir Doug Graham and Chris Finlayson and Jim Bolger—in particular, those three—around the settlements, and Chris’s extraordinary effort in recent years.

We are indeed but better positioned that most of Europe.

You know, at the core of my belief—and it comes from Catholic theology and, to some extent, National Party principles—is the utter integrity of the individual person, their importance, and our obligation to them to ensure that they can realise their aspirations and their full humanity, and much of what Government does does not do that. That’s a shame, because I’ve never met a person, in 27 years, who had no hope—never, not one—including the worst of our offenders, and I’ve met them. There’s always some hope. In fact, often that’s all they have.

Bill’s compassion is what defines him.

You know, that’s telling, and if there’s anything I want to leave as a lesson here, it is the dangerous complacency of good intentions. There’s too much of it in New Zealand—that, somehow, if you say you mean well, that’s going to make a difference. Well, actually, it can cause damage, because you’re not actually talking about what actually happened. The services we provide are not about us; they’re about those people. The only measure of it is whether it changes their lives—whether we reduce the misery—but we have a system still built too much on servicing that misery.

Virtue signalling is the easy part. Actually making change that works is far harder.

I want to just finish with a quote from James K. Baxter that I’ve always liked. It’s from his poem called “New Zealand”, where the first line is

These unshaped islands, on the sawyer’s bench,

Wait for the chisel of the mind,

On March 13, when I officially resign—it feels like you leave the building about six times when you’re going; six last times—it will be 10,000 days since I was elected, and I want to acknowledge my brother Conor, who pointed that out to me. Ten thousand days since I was elected, and I’m satisfied that, every day, I took my turn at the chisel.

Bill English leaves behind a huge legacy. He will be missed.

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