New Zealand Labour Party

Dr Rajen Prasad's Valedictory Statement

Draft Hansard Parliamentary Record. Subject to correction.

Bula vinaka. Namaste, Mr Assistant Speaker. Thank you very much. Tēnā koe. I am a lucky migrant and am privileged to have received as much as I have from this country for over 50 years.

I received an excellent education in New Zealand and married a Kiwi, who has put up with me for 46 years now. She is in the gallery today with our daughter Indra, our son-in-law Raneel, our grandchildren Shalina and Shaan. Thank you Prem for these 46 years. Thank you Indra for the grandchildren. Thank you also Raneel. My son Preman and daughter-in-law Alini will be watching in New York.

My 96-year-old mother in Vancouver will be watching with the rest of my family. My 90-year-old mother-in-law is watching in Auckland. We are going international today. Over the years I have been very fortunate to have worked with so many New Zealand families and children, taught many university students, and travelled widely to make a contribution to the international community on New Zealand’s behalf. However, it almost did not happen. When I was being denied a visa, it was the advocacy of a number of prominent West Auckland educationalists and leaders that convinced Immigration New Zealand to changes it decision. The main person behind that advocacy was Nigel Langston, the principal of Freyberg Community School in West Auckland, where my wife was a teacher. Nigel has travelled down from Auckland today. I owe you an enormous sense of gratitude, Nigel. I cannot repay that. Thank you. I do know how a constituent feels when an adverse immigration decision is made and then when it is reversed. I have trained many of New Zealand’s now prominent social work practitioners, child and family advocates, and policy analysts over the years. I have been entrusted with the roles like New Zealand’s Race Relations Conciliator, Human Rights Commissioner, adjudicator in immigration cases, and * Chief Families Commissioner. But nothing prepares you for your life as a politician. In the eyes of many, I became useless, self-interested, untrustworthy, and just a bloody politician overnight. Such is the contempt in which we are held, but that reputation is neither accurate nor deserved. I have the utmost respect for all my parliamentary colleagues across the House. I have never worked with a more hard-working group of individuals dedicated to providing 24/7 for the nation and for their constituents. Yes, we are ambitious for what we believe in and we argue vigorously for our policies and programmes, but no one should ever underestimate or doubt the dedication to serve and the sheer determination to make a difference of members of Parliament, whatever their colour. I believe the media could do better to portray this more fairly. Instead, politicians are fair game and we dare not even reflexively pick our noses in public for fear that that might be reported in the wrong way as a negative action. I have been asked to speak directly to Mrs Macindoe of Hamilton, Tim’s mother, who wants to know why I am always mean towards her son when debating in the House. Tim has been unable to convince her otherwise. Mrs Macindoe, I am speaking to you. I count your son as a friend, and we have travelled together through China and Mongolia with our partners. Tim is a perfect gentleman and on every occasion outside this House we act as friends and we always inquire about each other’s health. It is the nature of life in this Chamber to debate vigorously when our values lead to different policy prescriptions, but we remain civil, we remain supportive, we remain friends, and I count you as one of them and, through you, everybody else. My time in Parliament has coincided with the Government’s welfare reform programme and Tim is a strong advocate of that programme. Along with my colleagues I am a strong critic of many parts of that reform agenda. My life’s work with many of these families tells me something different. Tim usually spoke before me in many of those debates and he always left himself open for a full frontal attack. I had to put him right, Mrs Macindoe. My good friend Melissa Lee—I could say the same things to Mrs Lee about Melissa. So this is what you saw, Mrs Macindoe, and other Mrs Macindoes around the country, not the many more occasions when we represent our country well and we do that with pride and we get on well. If anyone else has been offended in this House by my passionate debates, then I apologise. Report that! My time in Parliament has been taken up my portfolio responsibilities in ethnic affairs, social development, and immigration, and in my work on the * Social Services Committee, where we have enjoyed ourselves with members across the other side of the House. I want to make a few comments about ethnic affairs and immigration. But first I want to acknowledge the current ethnic members of this Parliament: Raymond Huo, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, Melissa Lee, and Jian Yang. Although we come from different sides of the House, we collectively understand ethnic issues and the demands of our communities. However, I wonder whether the nature of these demands is fully understood in the various courts of this Parliament. There are 500,000 members of ethnic communities in New Zealand, and this is our constituency. These communities have come to see ethnic MPs as their link to our formal systems. In addition, they have a not unreasonable expectation that we will be their advocates, their advisers, and their champions. We are required to be present at all their major events and functions, to speak at all of them, to act like their electorate MPs. So for ethnic MPs the country becomes our electorate and there is no end to the constituency matters that we have to deal with.

I have already acknowledged the huge demand on all MPs in this House. For ethnic MPs this is something else. Family life for us is even more non-existent. We upset as many of our constituents as we satisfy by not being able to be at all their major events, because we just simply find it impossible to service their needs adequately. This is neither any criticism implied here of ethnic communities, nor any complaints about the demands on us. But what I want to register is that the standards by which we are judged do not make any allowances for our pattern of work. It is different for our other colleagues and in some ways closer to what Māori and Pasifika MPs experience. The frame that is applied to ethnic MPs is the same as that that is applied to other MPs, and yet the nature of our work is different. We all also come from cultures where promoting yourself is frowned upon and where obligation has a particular meaning. I have seen a suggestion that all MPs should prepare an individual annual report on what work we have done as a way of informing our people. This is a sensible idea and could be useful in reaching over the media to inform people more widely. Instead, what is reported is how many press statements we put out, how many Official Information Act requests we lodge, or how many questions for written answer we ask. These have become the measuring stick, never mind the fact that most of them are never published, and that many are binned immediately after they have been received. Our Parliament is largely monocultural, notwithstanding the fact that there are some concessions to tangata whenua.  Pasifika MPs would have similar demands put on them and their frustrations are probably akin to those of ethnic MPs. It is noteworthy that all the ethnic MPs in this Parliament are backbenchers with fairly low conventional profiles. Those who report on us and judge us are never present where we do the bulk of our work, and all they rely on is what is in the mainstream media or this House. I say this not with any acrimony towards those who make these judgments, but more with a sense of sadness. In my 6 years, I cannot recall a substantive debate in this Parliament on a significant issue that was particular to ethnic New Zealanders. Here, we ethnic MPs play a mainstream role, which is not why we came into Parliament. I believe it is time for political parties to reflect in the business of the House the importance they place on ethnic communities outside. Other than the celebration of Diwali, Chinese New Year, and Eid, with invited members of the public, there is nothing that this Parliament does that reflects our growing ethnic diversity and the political challenges that entails. If Parliament could consider how that diversity might reflected in the business of the House, I am certain our ethnic members of Parliament would be able to add greater value to the business of this House, and thereby involve their constituencies in the political life of the nation a lot more directly. I believe New Zealand has to deal more effectively with our growing diversity. We have an immigration programme that increases our diversity almost daily. We have no long-term plans for how we will grow the population base of country. The impact of this policy on everyday communities is inexorable, but they are never involved in any discourse about those policies, their impact, or how they might adapt to them. We take diversity to be inherently good, but we do not know its full impact or how to manage it in a positive way. Diversity is more than food, music, and art. It is about how we live and adjust to our new homes. It is about how New Zealanders adjust to us as well. I believe the time has come for a proper conversation about our growing diversity: how big we want to grow to and how that should be determined, how do we manage its implications, and how do we engage with the communities that are affected. Currently, our approach to diversity is ad hoc. Our immigration policy and diversity management are not dovetailed into a powerful strategy. We do not involve New Zealanders in its design, and it has unintended consequences. For me, it all starts with understanding our diverse communities, and our ethnic MPs should play a central role and thus become an integral part of this Parliament. At the moment, although MPs carry that label and have been placed on party lists for their ethnicity, they do not have any strategic impact on this Parliament and probably not even in some caucuses. Our communities expect more from us, and political parties should think this through in more detail. My journey through the 50 years of service and public life has an uncanny symmetry. My experiences with immigration helped me understand the needs of migrants. In the Race Relations Office, I kept an eye on our country’s overall interests and those of our ethnic communities while we were diversifying at a rate of knots. As an adjudicator, I got to understand the gaps in the immigration system. As an MP, I have had my share of immigration cases. Thus when I was given the immigration portfolio, I focused on a future-looking policy in which New Zealanders were also involved because they are the most affected. In our policy, we will not leave applicants in suspense for long periods, and world-leading settlement programmes would be the order of the day. We have to find a better way of meeting the immigration implications for cultural marriages rather than the current approach to forensic interviewing about the genuineness of their marriage. My life with children and families over many years has got me to question why is it that we are so unsuccessful at devising a system that really places children at the centre of everything we do. Why is it that despite knowing about cases early, we are unable to avoid the disaster that was predicted, but are happy to pick up the pieces? Why is that we have not managed to change vulnerable communities for more 40 years in some cases? Why is the real potential of the school site not used to develop them into hubs of our communities? I am pleased that some of these policies I have worked on reflect those sentiments. I had an opportunity to participate in one of the most stable democracies in the world. Our systems, structures, and checks and balances—our transparency is the envy of the world. This Parliament has given me the opportunity to assist the little South African kingdom of Lesotho, which has an MMP system like ours bequeathed to it but with little expertise on how to run it effectively.

This has led to my appointment a few days ago as a special envoy for the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth to the Kingdom of Lesotho. I very much look forward to that role. The sense of purpose that I came with to Parliament will now transfer to the sense of mission I feel about my next role. I have a number of people to thank. I want to acknowledge the privilege it has been to be a member of Parliament. I want to say a special thank you to Nina Sudiono-Price, who is a legend in these parts. We have worked together for 6 years and she has not only taken care of my office but also my interests. Nina has a special ability to solve problems, maintain calm, and carry on as normal, and that I have appreciated. Thanks, Nina. I want to acknowledge all of our executive assistants and thank them for their support over the 6 years. Our parliamentary staff are very special. They ensure all our systems are run well and that MPs are able to do their work efficiently. Our messengers work imperceptibly behind the scenes, and in the Chamber they get to know us well and to keep up a healthy banter with us, although I am still waiting for that supply of gin and tonic rather than water. They have promised they will deliver. To my caucus colleagues, I have enjoyed working with you. I shall watch your fortunes because they will be mine as well. To you, Mr Speaker, and the Clerk, and your whole team—thanks, and my special appreciation for the recent hosting of the Lesotho delegation. I want to especially acknowledge the superb quality of the work of our Parliamentary Library. They are truly the unsung heroes in this place. To my wife Prem, my daughter Indra, and my two little darlings—hi, Shalina; she has gone to sleep, hi—Shaan, and my son-in-law Raneel, who has scrubbed up well today, my special thanks for your support and patience over 6 years. See, these are the bookends. You have a go at your son-in-law at the front, and you have a go at the back, at the end. That is how we do it. I learnt this from the Pākehā world. I have many friends and family in the gallery. They have travelled a long way. I thank them all for coming, and I thank you all for being here. Nō reira, tēnā koutou katoa.