Speech – New Zealand Government
I have been surprised by some of the reaction I have had to my decision to retire. All sorts of motivations have been ascribed to my decision One of my cabinet colleagues – who is always concerned about how these sorts of things look for the Government …Hon Simon Power
Minister of Justice
Minister of Commerce
Minister of Consumer Affairs
MP for Rangitikei
5 October 2011
I have been surprised by some of the reaction I have had to my decision to retire. All sorts of motivations have been ascribed to my decision
One of my cabinet colleagues – who is always concerned about how these sorts of things look for the Government – was keen to spread the rumour that the real reason could be traced to the existence of a series of incriminating photographs.
I was alarmed at the speed at which Murray McCully was able to invent such a scenario.
Some think it’s unnatural that a politician might choose to leave politics well before they absolutely had to. As recently as last month, a constituent wrote to me angrily demanding my resignation. He may get pretty excited when he catches up with the news.
Although I prefer to focus on the past three years, there’s no escaping the fact that I have been here for 12.
I was elected to Parliament in late 1999 as a 28-year-old, following a very narrow victory in the great seat of Rangitikei by 289 votes.
When I first came to this House, I was encouraged to be partisan, an aggressive contributor to the debate, and told that the most important thing in Opposition was to hold the Government to account. That was a view I passed on to others who came after me, and it remains, on one level, fundamentally correct.
I am not one of those who yearn for a Question Time devoid of robust exchanges, where members might acknowledge points made by their opposite number with a genteel “well played, Sir”. Question Time is, for those who know how to use it, still the best opportunity to fulfil one of Parliament’s primary functions: scrutiny of the executive.
But my perspective on politics changed dramatically in my third term in Opposition, when I nearly went around the bend with the grinding negativity and lack of progress that can become so entrenched on the Opposition benches.
So I began to plan for Government – not knowing whether we would win or not – as a means of doing something constructive. With a few close colleagues, I started to piece together what a Justice and Commerce agenda might look like.
Politicians must have a plan. A plan that is in place early, and one they are prepared to lead.
I believe that politics is 90% preparation and 10% execution. At a day-to-day level, politics, particularly at a ministerial level, can quickly deteriorate to the daily management of tasks – dealing with papers, the media, OIA requests, Question Time, Written Questions, expectations from colleagues and your Party; tasks that become all consuming, and tasks that in the end do not improve the lives of New Zealanders at all.
That’s not why we run for Parliament. We run to lead agendas, improve the lot of our countrymen, to push change, and to execute ideas. People don’t spend years getting elected, more years waiting to get into Cabinet, to then say “Well, I managed that week well, I minimised risk, had no view, took no decisions, stayed out of trouble: well done me.”
Once in office, you’ve got to do something. That is why having a plan matters. Ideas also matter. In politics, ideas matter more than the political players themselves, because those people will come and go, but ideas endure
Politicians should manage less and lead more. I love the quote from influential Republican media adviser Roger Ailes, who was moved to quip: “When I die, I want to come back with real power. I want to come back as a member of a focus group.”
Actually, taking a position and selling it, persuading and debating, is what politics is all about. Yes, it sounds idealistic, and maybe it is. But I always told myself I would leave politics before the idealism left me. That doesn’t mean we should not be open to compromise, where it improves the eventual decision in a more democratic way.
A formative experience in my last year in Opposition triggered a fundamental shift in the way I viewed politics.
As Chair of the Privileges Committee in the last term of Parliament, I had to chair the inquiry into the matter of certain donations to the New Zealand First Party. My view of politics, and how best to participate in it, was altered from that point on This was a highly partisan issue in front of a parliamentary committee which had a history of being above politics.
I realised then that working with other political parties to reach consensus, where possible, was a legitimate way to advance legislation and to progress an agenda. Not everyone agrees with me on this approach, but I know I’m right.
My experience has been that expanding the decision-making mandate, without sacrificing the kernel of the idea, has improved the quality of the legislative product immeasurably. That means not being afraid to back down, not being afraid to reconsider a position after listening to an alternative view, and, in at least one case, not being afraid to amend a bill on the floor of the House in response to a high-quality debate.
It may not have been understood by all, and you have to grit your teeth through the inevitable “Government Backdown” headlines, but with the support of the Prime Minister and the freedom he gave me to operate in that manner, on many bills it worked.
So much of Parliament’s time is spent attacking each other, trying to out-manoeuvre each other, and just plain loathing each other. It’s an incredible waste of energy and time.
I was always reminded in cross-party discussions, or in the House during a particularly rough debate, of Michael Corleone’s edict: “Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”
Good and meaningful policy is also informed and shaped by personal interactions.
To the day I die, I will never forget sitting in the lounge of Gil and Lesley Elliott in Dunedin, listening to them describe their experiences of the justice system. It had a profound effect on me and the way I viewed our legal system. Good, decent, kind people, whose lives were destroyed by tragedy deserve our help, not a slow-motion replay of the horror they went through.
My interactions with the communities that deal with victims of sexual violence have similarly affected my view on how our justice system should operate.
Likewise, the way our court system deals with children is unacceptable – long delays, barbaric practices – all in the name of tradition and precedent. All abject nonsense.
There is still so much for others to do, and many problems remain deeply embedded in our country’s culture.
What the hell is it about the psyche of this country that we feel the need to go home and hit someone, be it a partner, a child, or another family member? This is totally unjustifiable, wrong, and an indictment on us as a society. Our legal system needs to protect these people and I hope I have made a small contribution to remedying these despicable acts of injustice and cowardice.
The decisions we face are often difficult, but that’s why we are here.
I was surprised to learn, when I became the Minister of Justice, that many of my predecessors had delegated the Royal Prerogative of Mercy applications to an Associate Minister. I have found this to be some of the most interesting and challenging work I have done as a Minister. However, I remain troubled by a number of these cases.
Though I do not criticise those involved in the process at all, I think there is merit in reinforcing the independence of the advice from the Ministry of Justice and moving decision making to a separate independent body. Although the Peter Ellis matter was straightforward in the end – because appeal rights had not yet been exhausted (a basic requirement of the exercise of the Prerogative of Mercy) – the wider case worried me and continues to worry me.
It’s our job to tackle the tough issues, the issues the public pays us to front up to, and come to a view on.
There are many debates that Parliament does not want to have for fear of losing votes or not staying on message: abortion, adoption law, children’s rights, and sexual violence issues. I don’t share this timid view.
The truth is, if we don’t have those debates here, where will we have them? Surely people don’t run for Parliament claiming they want to “make a difference”, only to vote for the status quo, otherwise presumably they would be so satisfied with the way the country was running that they wouldn’t feel the drive to seek public office in the first place.
Phrases such as “It wasn’t like that in my day”, “Precedent and tradition matter”, or my personal favourite, “It never did me any harm” – to justify no change, simply don’t reflect the new reality of a fast-moving, modern, adaptive paradigm.
I have a great deal of confidence in the public’s high level of intelligence and engagement in discussing those issues at some point, whenever that may be. But I also have confidence that Parliament is capable of rising to the challenge and dealing with those issues with dignity and distinction.
Mr Speaker, I have been privileged to serve with some wonderful people. Some have said I’m going too early. Some have not. But I have loved every minute of it and that is exactly the right time to go.
A few specific thanks are in order.
The PM, whose confidence I have enjoyed and who gave me plenty of rope, some of which I have used. But of the 462 papers I have taken to Cabinet as a Minister, on only one did he phone to say “I can’t support this one.” Thanks for everything, John, you have been great to work with.
My friend Bill English. Loyalty in politics is sadly a rare commodity, but it matters in this game. Thanks. Your depth and breadth on policy matters and personal grit I greatly admire, even for a dour South Island social conservative.
My benchmate Gerry. The best instincts in the game, often ahead of the pack and a wonderful self-deprecating humour. I have really enjoyed your company, Gerry.
Nothing sums up Gerry more acutely than the time we got fish and chips for the caucus during urgency in the early hours of the morning in 2000. He stormed into the fish and chip shop at 4am, with me trailing behind, and said to the owner: “42 pieces of fish, 40 scoops of chips and 31 hotdogs.” Then he looked at me and said: “And what do you want?”
To the Class of 99 – Tolley, Tisch, Heatley and Hutch – we still have a drink every Tuesday the House sits. You have provided me with a wealth of grounded opinions and reflection.
To Chester Borrows, for your gentle common sense.
My old political friend Katherine Rich – a great source of advice and wisdom. The ‘dark years’, as we called them, were better for a whiskey and a chat about the day’s events. You would have been a stunning Minister.
To my team in the Rangitikei – Bruce, Norma, Suze, Jacky, Sonia, Christine, Viv, Stuart, John O, Merv, Marion, Helen, Di and so many more – thank you for everything.
To the people of Rangitikei – I will always be grateful for your confidence in me.
GJ. I wouldn’t be here if not for your help in 1999. Thanks mate. And, of course, the Mole. A plan conceived in a pub in Auckland in 1997 was executed. Thanks, Mole.
To Professor Margaret Clark, for first turning my mind to a political career, and for keeping me on my toes since then.
Thanks to my seconded departmental private secretaries who bought into the cause, and to Sarah for keeping my whereabouts orderly.
To my Ministerial staff – the best in the Beehive The Pit: Stephen, Kate, Brent and Rachael. Simply the cleverest, hardest working, fairest people I know in politics. Utterly objective, scrupulously honest. You are all stars.
Jemma, my SPS, who has been with me for 7 years. Referred to by my office as “the left side”, as in “the left side of his brain”. Jemma, you have run my life for so long you’ll be ready for something new outside Parliament. I have never met anyone or worked with anyone as professionally competent as you are. Thank you for everything. You can now feel free to roll your eyes behind my back.
Finally, my friends and family.
Friends put up with so much when you are in politics. As my close friend James said when I told him I was retiring: “Thank God. You’ve become such a pain in the backside.” Well, I’m keen to make up for it. Thanks for your patience, brothers.
To my family – Mum and my late Dad for your unstinting support when I decided to get in, then out of politics
Lisa, Sam and Harry. I think some of the best advice I got as a Minister was on the sports field sidelines on Saturday mornings, watching the boys’ sport, and that’s where I intend to spend more time. Each day while I was shaving, I would look in the mirror and ask myself the same question: will my boys be proud of what I do today? I hope you will be. Lisa, thank you for everything. Private life awaits. It will be fun. I guarantee it.
So, Mr Speaker, I bid you farewell, and leave you with one thought: We all know that it is a privilege being a Member of Parliament. But the most satisfaction should come from doing rather than being.