Fran O'Sullivan: Message on resilience a pointed one for Labour

It is now up to the new generation of female Labour MPs to take up the challenge Lianne Dalziel issued on Women's Suffrage Day.
It is now up to the new generation of female Labour MPs to take up the challenge Lianne Dalziel issued on Women's Suffrage Day.

I celebrated the 120th anniversary of women's suffrage by going down to Parliament to stand in the public galleries while Labour MP Lianne Dalziel made her valedictory speech.

It was an insightful speech from a courageous parliamentarian who this week found it within herself to speak truth to a political party which desperately wants to become the Government at next year's election.

But I fear Dalziel's Labour colleagues would not have soaked up the underlying message that she was aiming at them: that turning the clock back and placing huge faith in the welfare state which Labour founded to "do the job" would not provide the real answers to the issues facing our unpredictable times. It was a message for those within the party who swept David Cunliffe to power last weekend on the back of their votes in Labour's leadership election.

It was notable that the long-serving Labour MP, who had herself been absurdly relegated to the back benches by David Shearer, chose her final speech to make public her own journey of discovery since the first major earthquake rocked her hometown of Christchurch on September 4, 2010.

"From welfare state to resilient nation" were the words Dalziel used to mark her journey. In her valedictory she recalled cutting her political teeth when National's Ruth Richardson introduced her Mother of All Budgets - which Dalziel described at that time as the "dismantling of the very foundations of the welfare state".

"Although I began my time here when the Government was dismantling the underpinnings of the welfare state, I leave here in the firm belief that the answer to that is not to continue to reinstate what cannot survive the turning of a political tide.

"It is debilitating to any Government to have to spend its first term in office fixing what has been done. The solution is to build a resilient nation. A nation of communities that are resilient to the ebb and flow of political change by becoming more self-reliant and self-sufficient, but also resilient to the emergent challenges we can no longer predict with any certainty."

I had known for some time that Dalziel was wrestling with making such a statement and thinking about developing her own stance into a full-blown policy speech.

But she was also concerned that it would be quickly blown up by more juvenile media jocks into evidence of a rift with Labour. Which is a pity as Parliament would benefit if more MPs followed their own journeys of philosophical discovery and brought new thinking to politics.

When I headed for the public galleries late on Wednesday afternoon, one of the personable female security staff who had herself dropped in to "hear Lianne's farewell" suggested I move to the press gallery directly above Mr Speaker.

But I really wanted to be among the public who were there to mark Dalziel's rite of passage to become the prospective Mayor of Christchurch, where she will be able to make a contribution again and put into practice the lessons she has learned from observing how the people of Christchurch have worked through the post-earthquake difficulties.

Most present were Labour Party colleagues, including former president Mike Williams and his successor, Moira Coatsworth.

But there was also a smattering of business people such as investment banker Rob Cameron, whom Dalziel had appointed to chair the Capital Market Investment Taskforce in mid-2008 to bring rigour to our markets, which had suffered from a Wild West reputation since the heady mid-80s boom-times. The Auckland Chamber of Commerce's Michael Barnett, who worked with Dalziel on smaller business initiatives and in international forums, was theretoo.

Dalziel was a stroppy trade union lawyer when she came into Parliament in 1990 after having been effectively gifted a safe seat through former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer's decision to retire at that election.

During her 23 years in Parliament she held some significant responsibilities, most notably as Immigration Minister and as Commerce Minister in Helen Clark's Government.

She was confirmed as Labour's Christchurch Central candidate on Women's Suffrage Day. Listening to Dalziel, I found myself wishing she had stayed on in Parliament and given it another whirl and pushed for new thinking within Labour which put self-reliance and resilience to the fore.

It's now up to a later generation of female Labour MPs such as Sue Moroney and Louisa Wall to take up that challenge.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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