New Zealand Labour Party

Darien Fenton's Valedictory Statement

Nga mihi nui - kia koutou.

I acknowledge all Members of Parliament I have served with and I do so without rancour or criticism. Over nearly nine years in parliament I’ve found that despite furious debate about political difference, most MPs come here with sincere intent.

Since I was elected in 2005, five of my much-loved whānau have died.  I mourn them all.

Five children have been born in my close family – sadly all in other countries.

My kids Aish and Anna have moved to San Francisco where they are now doing awesome IT things with Netflix and Apple - proud of them both – but wish they were here.

Back in 2005 Twitter had not been invented  - nor had ipads and iphones.

Maurice Williamson jumped the queue for an iphone, creating great envy, though it took years for Parliamentary Service to allow Apple to enter the building. 

Parliament has been opened up with digital TV and on-line streaming. 

I’ve enjoyed hearing from Parliament viewers over the years – even the man who often wrote to tell me I needed a good haircut to stop my hair hanging in my face –

or the former MP who told me he’d been watching my parts and it was important to get them straight……….

Took me a while to figure that one out.

But the extraordinary events that shook the parliament and our country to the core in recent years will always be with me.

- the shattering Christchurch earthquakes, with the shocking and tragic death toll. 

For too many, life continues to be a struggle.

- The needless loss of 29 men killed at Pike River Mine will go down in our history as a disgraceful failure of deregulation.

There has been no closure or justice for their families – that’s wrong too.

And then there’s the  families who have lost loved ones in the forestry industry, who grieve still, but have bravely come forward to tell their stories, I stand with you. 

The death of more than one worker and countless injuries in our workplaces every week shames us all, but shames this parliament most.

Every life lost is a family destroyed. It has to stop.

I know some people think I was born a devil beast trade unionist - but my apprenticeship to the labour movement and this parliament was forged in many different experiences, and some very tough jobs. 

I grew up in a family where war and politics cast a long shadow. My grandfather Frederick Frost fought and was injured at the Somme in the First World War. 

That man started his working life as a pit boy at age 12 in a Northumberland Mine -  so if I’m a bit rough around the edges, you might get it now.

He was elected Labour MP for New Plymouth in the wartime Labour government led by Michael Joseph Savage and then Peter Fraser.

My Dad, Verdun Frost was a Navigator in WW2 and patrolled the pacific.  Like his father, he was a declared socialist.

My mother, the very Catholic Patricia Mary Te Rata Mahuta Kerr came from an ancestry of staunch Irish rebels.  She was stroppy. Tau Henare descends from that line so you know what I mean.

My parents instilled in their two sons and two daughters the hope of a better and fairer life for all in New Zealand.

My generation profited from their sacrifice and hard work.  Early Labour Governments meant that I, along with John Key, grew up in a State House and benefitted from state funded health and education.

That gave me choices that younger people don’t have today.  I had the freedom and security to be different and to challenge. 

With my trouble making ancestry, it was inevitable that I would be drawn to the anti-war and nuclear movements and the remote influence of the hippie generation. 

It led me on a journey that was both good and bad. I dropped out of education, I had a range of interesting and boring jobs, I travelled to dangerous countries and did some silly things.

Some will have read the story of my drug addiction when I was a young person.  Despite treatment and recovery years ago, I reluctantly agreed for my story to be published this year.

It is still such a taboo topic, it was one of the hardest things I’ve done. 

I blame no-one for my mistakes but myself.  Drug taking was a means of defiance against the establishment and seemed cool at the time.

I know that the threat of law breaking or addiction didn’t stop me; and the opprobrium of society made no difference.

Smoking a joint did not lead me to other drugs.  Criminals selling illegal drugs did.

And that’s why I believe the war on drugs has been a total failure.

It is time for this parliament to treat drug abuse as a health problem, not a criminal offence.

That means properly funded addiction treatment.

And I believe it’s time for politicians in this house to decriminalise personal marijuana use and take the crooks out of the business.

For me, the difference was treatment, a loving partner and the birth of our quite exceptional son Aish.

I also found inspiration in the union movement where my rebellious heart could be turned towards something real and meaningful. I owe the labour movement everything.  They made room for me in a cause that has never been more important than it is today.

I thank my comrades and in particular, my union, the wonderful Service & Food Workers Union Nga Ringa Tota.

One of my proudest achievements is to be a Life Member of a union that seeks to build, not destroy, that draws its strength from the real experiences of workers at the hard end of the labour market and society and who gives them the courage to speak out.

When I came to parliament in 2005, I claimed as my constituents the service workers of New Zealand – who clean, cook and care for others. I came with only one ambition and that was to for them to be heard in this house and to help make life better for them.

In my first term I was part of a Labour government that made a difference for those workers.

Hospital cleaners, food service workers and orderlies gained their first-ever national agreement and millions of dollars in extra funding to rectify the damage done to their wages during the 1990s.  School cleaners followed close behind. Aged Care workers were funded a $1 an hour increase.  Protection for vulnerable workers was strengthened, as was collective bargaining. 

I won’t claim sole credit for those achievements, but I will admit to quite a lot of badgering of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen.   To be fair, those amazing Labour leaders didn’t need a lot of persuasion to do the right thing.

While I’ve always considered myself working class, my mother was very class conscious, frequently claiming we were either upper middle class or lower upper class.  And there we were living in a State House.  Bless.

Class mattered then. However we describe it today, it still does.  Because the fundamental hopes of ordinary working people for a decent job on fair pay remain elusive for many.

The 40-hour week 8 hour day is a joke. Hundreds of thousands of NZ workers are now affected by insecure work with more casual, part time, temporary, contracted or fixed term work and there is a growing number of workers outside the protection of employment and minimum wage legislation.

During my time in this parliament I promoted several members bills to guarantee basic protections for all New Zealand workers and deal with the new reality of work in the 21st century. 

These included minimum wages for contractors, Temporary / labour hire workers receiving the same pay as their workmates, providing child workers under 16 with protection by requiring them to be employed, not contracted and ensuring those laid off through no fault of their own would get basic redundancy pay.

All of these were ridiculed by the National Party, discharged, or voted down.

I leave these bills as a legacy to the incoming Labour led government to pursue, because this is real life for so many NZ workers.

No-one will believe it, but my grandfather was much more radical than me.  He called for compulsory unionism for all workers throughout the world. 

But I could have written his address in reply in 1943.  He told the House that the view of what he called “Old Toryism” was the more workers got, the more they wanted….. and any agitation for more rights was seen as an interference in natural economic laws.

What’s really so different today?  

Work is the foundation of the economy yet we still treat workers like commodities who should just be grateful to have a job. We talk a lot about child poverty, yet what about the poverty of their parents – many of them in low paid jobs?

Risk and uncertainty has been transferred to individual workers who can’t afford it.  The notion of a social wage has been weakened. We blame people when they can’t find jobs, we despise them when they join unions to try to get ahead and our safety net is now seen as a form of failure and punishment. 

This will continue as long as we let it.

The old fights, now rebadged, perhaps no longer couched in the language of socialism or class still exist.

The gap between the haves and the have-nots has not disappeared.  We just call it the 1% vs the rest.

My working experience is probably unique in this house. I worked as an extra in Bollywood films in Mumbai and for the Master of Armouries at the Tower of London : but I’ve done some very unsafe and challenging work as well.

I don’t have a completed tertiary qualification, except in music. I celebrate our amazing musicians, our extraordinary artists and the talent that makes us unique in the world.  But I was dismayed when film and video workers dared to call for recognition and rights other workers have, they were pilloried, and still are to this day. 

This parliament cannot be representative if it is peopled only by the privileged. 

When I chose my Youth MP last year, I didn’t go for the prominent academic achievers or the prefects. I chose Peniata Endemann.  I asked Peniata because I knew he wouldn’t dream of volunteering as a youth MP.

He is smart and talented, but will struggle to pursue a university education, because he supports his mum and sisters by cleaning at night. I chose Peniata, and he rocked this parliament when he called for a Living Wage for his mum and all cleaners.

I hope this parliament and my party will make room for working people like Peniata.

Labour must not get too far from its roots and who it represents.  After all, two of our most celebrated Labour Prime Ministers were a miner and a train driver and look at their achievements in changing the world.

This House must lead the way by becoming a Living Wage Parliament.  It’s not hard or expensive. 

MPs talk in this House about wages and poverty and people’s lives, yet the current majority seem content to let many workers in this place earn hardly more than minimum wage.  Surely, we, the privileged and well paid elect, of all people, should set an example?

Some will say a Living wage will ruin us.   Those in charge of the wealth and the market worshippers always do.  Their handiwork has resulted in New Zealand being one of the most unequal societies in the world. 

That’s not what my grandfather imagined, and it’s not I want for our country and our children.

But there is change afoot.  Inequality in this country is causing unease, and the neoliberal dominance of the last three decades is being questioned in a way that I hope will lead to real debate and change.

I owe thanks to my party and all my colleagues.  I start with a big shout-out to the people of Labour Auckland North for their support, hard work and dedication.

To our leader, David Cunliffe, the hopes and dreams of our people are with you to lead a way to a better New Zealand and you have my support. 

I thank previous Labour leaders Phil Goff, Annette King, David Shearer and Grant Robertson who trusted a diehard trade unionist like me to take the labour portfolio and develop Labour’s policies. 

I know it gave Phil O’Reilly conniptions, but that’s no reason not to implement the fundamental changes needed to bring better wages and fairer work for all New Zealanders. 

To my special colleagues – both MPs and staff -  you know who you are : thanks for your friendship, solidarity and laughs in this sometimes lonely place. 

Gina and Jess  - my awesome workers - stick with the cause – the movement needs you.  

I owe my family much, but especially my sisters Linda and Joyce, and my simply brilliant kids Aish and Anna.  

My deepest love and thanks to the wonderful, loyal and loving John, my life partner– you inspire me and always have.  Looking forward to sharing the music.

To my friends the parliamentary cleaners and all staff who have made my job in this place just that little bit more bearable – thank you.  I won’t ever forget you.

I brought to this parliament the experience of working in manual, low paid jobs and the privilege of representing workers on the margins. 

I brought values to parliament that I have never denied or turned my back on, and never will. 

I leave this parliament content with that. 

My grandfather returned to work in the Huntly mine when he lost his seat of New Plymouth. 

I won’t be doing that, but I will be returning to the coalface. 

There’s much to be done, and I’ve never sat back and left the hard struggles to others. 

I wish you all solidarity.

Good night and good luck.