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Maryan Street - Maiden speech

16 November 2005, New Zealand Parliament, volume 628, p.187

Please always refer back to the Hansard original.

MARYAN STREET (Labour) : Te Rangatira o tenei Whare tena koe! Nga mema nei o teneiParemata, tena koutou. E nga iwi katoa, tena koutou, tena koutou, kia ora koutou katoa. [Greetings to you Madam Speaker. Greetings as well to members of this Parliament. And to everyone else, greetings, greetings, and greetings to you all.]

It is a privilege to stand and present my inaugural speech to this forty-eighth New Zealand Parliament. I begin by offering my congratulations to you, Madam Speaker, on your election to your position as Speaker of this House. I know that your training while chairing unruly annual conferences of the Labour Party in difficult times has stood you in fine stead for this position. I look forward to your continued management of this Chamber with the fairness, competence, and style with which I am so familiar from your previous role as president of the Labour Party. I wish also to recognise the Governor-General and the dignity, propriety, and calm that she brings to that office. I acknowledge the Speech from the Throne, and I celebrate the outline of this Labour-led Government’s intentions for its next historic term of office.

I stood in the last election in the constituency of Taranaki - King Country—that well-known bastion of Labour votes! I pay a tribute here to my National Party opponent, the sitting member for Taranaki - King Country, Shane Ardern. Although knowing I was never going to be a huge threat to his tenure in that seat, he engaged in the campaign with respect and decorum, knowing that the process we were engaged in was bigger than both of us. I appreciated his consistent courtesy and his firm commitment to playing the ball, not the player.

My congratulations go to him on his success in the election result, and my thanks go to the members of my campaign team, especially Andrew, Lesley, Shane, and Ingrid for all their support.

My political awakenings derive from that area. Two significant events in my teenage years impacted upon me permanently and fixed my political direction forever. The first was the Viet Nam War. My very first political action was to participate in a public march against the war organised by a well-known Quaker couple in my home town of New Plymouth in 1969.

The second event occurred over a longer period of time, but is set in my memory as a singular event. It was learning about Queen Elizabeth I from my extraordinary English and history teacher at New Plymouth Girls High School, Ida Gaskin. Apart from being a Shakespearian Mastermind twice, and the most outstanding of English teachers, Ida had the ability to bring history alive. In that seventh-form year when she asked me in class whether I thought I was a Whig or a Tory, she made me realise that knowledge was never neutral. Knowledge requires a response; one cannot know something and not be altered by it. In case members were wondering, I answered that I thought I was a Whig. Ida did not let on that she thought that that was the right answer.

My Presbyterian upbringing in New Plymouth left me with an enduring legacy, as well—a burning passion for social justice. That fundamental sense of fairness and equal treatment, which we pride ourselves on having as a national characteristic, drove me through all my previous working lives as a young secondary school teacher, a trade unionist, an academic, and an industrial relations practitioner. It is that continuing desire to see social justice manifest in New Zealand, through its human rights, its economic structures, its equal opportunities for all regardless of accidents of birth, and its legal system, that has driven me to this place.

My most recent working life has been in health, housing, and Treaty settlements, and, with apologies to St Paul, the greatest of these is Treaty settlements. Each of these areas is shot through with issues of social justice. I enter this Parliament as a list MP; I am proud and honoured to do so. List MPs in particular represent the change to our democratic processes that was ushered in by the electoral referendum of 1993. I supported MMP because I considered then, as I do now, that it had a better chance of delivering a fairer and more representative Parliament and decision-making structure than the previous first-past-the-post system.

Democratic participation has long been a subject of immense interest and passion for me. My never-to-be-finished doctoral thesis was about participation in the workplace and the resulting preparation of workers for full participation as citizens. The basic idea was that if one educates a worker in the ways of participation in workplace decision-making, one educates a citizen for participation in the wider polity.

I take this opportunity to dwell on the nature of democracy, because if it is not done in this place of all places, democracy will be at risk everywhere. At the core of democracy are human rights, which have, at least in our country, become inalienable. These are: the right to participate in elections—extended, uniquely, to women in New Zealand before any other self-governing nation in the world—the right to freedom of expression, the right to be treated equally before the law, and the right of the media to operate without interference and political coercion.

These are fundamental aspects of democracy that are by no means experienced universally. They are rights and also privileges for which wars have been fought and lives have been lost, and the fight continues. Just as we went to our polls in our free democratic elections in September of this year, the former president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel and the Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu were releasing their report to the UN Security Council entitled: Threat to the Peace: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in Burma. One of my political heroes isAung San SuuKyi, the leader of the democratic movement in Burma, and “the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate”, in the words of the report. She has consistently kept the flame of democracy alive, through the National League for Democracy, against extraordinary opposition. Having won the elections resoundingly in 1990 with 80 percent of the seats in Parliament, the National League for Democracy was never allowed to take up office, and Aung San SuuKyi has remained under house arrest in Burma since 1990, with occasional periods of release. Burma needs the international community’s attention and support if it is to become a free, independent, and productive nation. Burma is the new South Africa.

There are other just as significant yardsticks of a democratic society. One is the existence of strong trade unions, independent of employer or political patronage, and free to affiliate with political allies or not, as they see fit. Another is the existence of political parties, without which political organisation and expression are unfocused and disparate at best, and chaotic at worst. Some might consider that unfocused political chaos happens anyway, but I am sure from my own experience as the president of the Labour Party, that having political parties that come from strong philosophical and political traditions, such as the Labour Party does, provides citizens with something to vote for, or against, as they choose. Having such an organised expression of political commitment enhances the political process and allows citizens to participate intelligently and meaningfully in it.

Another yardstick of democratic society is its treatment of minorities. This is not a new thought; it is a truism. But in recent times it has taken on a new relevance in New Zealand. The shabby, slovenly thinking behind the detractors of what is pejoratively termed “political correctness” must be seen for the crass political opportunism that it is. Pushing people to the margins of our society and then despising them for being there—purportedly in the interests of the great, ill-defined “mainstream”—serves our democracy badly. All New Zealanders would be much better served if mainstream society was seen for what it is: a loose conglomeration of varying interests, all seeking to move forward peacefully and profitably within the laws of the land, to improve their lot and the lot of others.

The true measure of the democratic State, however, is not in its treatment of the majority, but in the respect, rights, and opportunities it affords its minorities. If any are barred from opportunities by virtue of their gender, colour, race, religious tradition, sexuality, disability, trade union affiliation, or political beliefs, then we are not a true democracy. If any are allowed to be excluded or despised by virtue of any of the characteristics I have just listed, then our democracy is less than it should be. This is not about a Government telling people what to think. It is not about saying which jokes are permissible and which are not. This is about basic respect for others who may be different in some identifiable respect but who seek the same law-abiding, improving quality of life in this country that most people seek.

A strong, self-confident democracy is one that recognises, embraces, and values diversity. Only a cringing, unassertive democracy retains its power by excluding others and stripping them of their place in it. As a lesbian, I have often been the subject of other people’s efforts to push me to the margins, to erode my legitimacy as a citizen, and to belittle my efforts and achievements. I have never accepted marginalisation; it is a construct of others who wish me to be marginalised. It is not where I see myself or the many others like me. But it has always required courage, and I have not come into this House to be less than brave about the human rights of those whom some would seek to marginalise.

I seek an inclusive, just, and tolerant society as one that is more likely to be peaceful, productive, and safe for our children to grow up in. A pluralist society is stable because of its differences, not despite them. It is the very differences between people, working together peacefully and with respect for each other, that allow a society to remain strong and cohesive. The hallmarks of a society that excludes and marginalises people for whatever reason are instability, disharmony, intolerance, and violence—and that is not the society I seek for our children. Those who would dismiss these sentiments as political correctness need to rethink their reasons for doing so, because their aim can only be to create a fragmented, divisive, and hateful society. The reason for doing that escapes me completely.

I want every child to have the opportunity to be what they can most fully be. Sometimes that means that we have to apply resources inequitably in order to bring young people up to the same starting line. I do not resile from that. I do not call it preferential treatment, and I do not call it political correctness. I call it fairness or social justice. I want women and children to be able to live, move, work, and play safely in our communities. I do not resile from that. I do not call it feminist extremism, and I do not call it political correctness. I call it fairness or social justice. I want a growing productive economy that can lift the living standards of all people in New Zealand so that there is no child in desperate need, no substandard housing, and no illnesses of poverty. That is social justice, too.

Finally, I want to pay a few personal tributes. First, I acknowledge the presence in this Parliament of my predecessors in the Labour Party presidency: the Hon Jim Anderton, yourself, Madam Speaker, and the Hon Ruth Dyson. I have learnt a great deal from each of these people and celebrate all their past and ongoing contributions to making this country a fairer and more compassionate place. I hope I can maintain that tradition worthily.

I also pay a tribute to Helen Duncan whose position on the Labour Party list I took. I hope I will carry on the work she did and the values she reflected in this place. She has been a battler with me on common issues for a very long time. I pay tribute to her for her work for women, for workers, and for trade unionists. To my daughter, who is a case study on her own for lowering the voting age to 14, I say thank you for supporting me in being here today. I fail if I do not help Aotearoa New Zealand to become a better place for you to live in.

It is a privilege to be here. My fervent hope is that I use whatever time I have here usefully to further social justice for all, for which the Labour Party stands. Kia ora koutou katoa.