The MP with just one lung: More MPs deliver their maiden speeches

Amelia Wade, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 3 Dec 2020, 1:45PM
New Labour MP Dr Neru Leavasa. Photo / Supplied
New Labour MP Dr Neru Leavasa. Photo / Supplied

The MP with just one lung: More MPs deliver their maiden speeches

Amelia Wade, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 3 Dec 2020, 1:45PM

Six new Labour MPs are giving their maiden speeches in Parliament this evening. They are Angela Roberts, Vanushi Walters, Tangi Utikere, Terisa Ngobi, Neru Leavasa and Barbara Edmonds.

I stand on the shoulders of those before me

Barbara Edmond's great grandfather was a tama uli (black bird) - a slave abducted from the Solomon Islands or New Guinea to work in the copra fields of Samoa.

Her great grandmother, Feti, was a midwife and nurse who helped her village through the 1918 influenza pandemic which decimated the island nation's population.

They had 19 children - among them was Edmonds' father Selani who was the only child to go past fourth form and receive a tertiary education.

In 1976, he crossed the Pacific Ocean to come to the land of milk and honey to give his family a better life.

Labour Party MP for Mana Barbara Edmonds. Photo / Supplied

Labour Party MP for Mana Barbara Edmonds. Photo / Supplied

They initially lived in a rat-infested house in Ponsonby but wanted better for their family so put all their savings and Family Benefit into a deposit on Auckland's North Shore.

Two years later, her father was a widower with four children under 11 and was living on a benefit. They buried her mother on Edmonds' 5th birthday.

"Our family was never alone though. Like many Pacific migrant families, our house was the transit lounge for scores of family members as they arrived from Samoa, worked, saved money and moved on to set up their own houses.

"We had 24 people living in our house at one time. But there were always beds, because as the night shift went out, the day shift came home.

"Most of my family worked at the plastics factory or the local hospital where they did the laundry, were the kitchen hands, cooks, cleaners or orderlies. While they were in the bowels of the kitchen, they sent me and my older two sisters to the decile 10 school right next door."

"I am the fruit of their struggle."

Edmonds said her upbringing was a classic Labour story which was where she learned her Labour values.

"If a government could support low-income parents, who worked hard so their children could have a better and more secure life, it was alright by me."

Her father went back to school at the age of 48 to become a social worker and used the training incentive allowance to pay for his petrol to get to his lectures.

Edmonds herself would later go to university to get law and arts degrees. By the time she graduated 5.5 years later, she had four children with her husband Chris and she was pregnant with their fifth.

She said they planned to only have seven but possibly as a tribute to the Chinese side of her family, they rounded it off at eight - the luckiest number.

"Like my father, my family depended on me.

"Failure was not an option.

"It was tough.

"Self-inflicted of course, but still tough.

"We only had $8 in our hand at the end of the week as Chris worked as a low paid timber machinist.

"That meant we had no cushion if our car broke down or if it failed its' warrant or if I needed an additional textbook."

It wasn't until 2006 that her family's financial situation improved with an increase to the Working for Families benefit from Helen Clark's government.

"It made a real difference to our family.

"And now, here I am, moulded and shaped by quintessential Labour values, saved from falling through the cracks as a child through the Labour policies of Michael Joseph Savage, Walter Nash, Norman Kirk and Helen Clark.

"At every difficult point in mine or my family's life it has been a Labour government that has been our safety net.

"I stand on the shoulders of those before me."

Edmonds said it was her turn to serve her community, the Mana electorate and ensure the safety nets were there for others.

She became Inland Revenue's first Pasifika tax policy analyst then later worked for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as a staffer in the Beehive.

Edmonds said she believes in a "fair, efficient, and cohesive tax system that has a broad base with low rates".

After thanking her family and her campaign team, she thanked those who worked within the walls of Parliament - a thank you usually reserved for valedictory speeches.

"This is a unique workplace, where we see the best of people and, in rare occasions, the worst of people. Where a 40 hour week is a luxury.

"Staffers do not do their jobs for the money or work-life balance, but because we know that change can be effected within these walls."

I used to hate my name

Tangi Utikere still has the ticket his grandmother bought to sail to New Zealand from the Cook Islands in 1962 in search of a better future.

"In addition to this ticket, she also took with her the hopes, dreams and aspirations of her family," Utikere said in his maiden speech to Parliament.

"She arrived in this country, worked hard by cooking and cleaning at the hospital, and every week she would put some money aside to send back to her family."

Labour's Utikere was elected as the Palmerston North MP after his predecessor Iain Lees-Galloway stood down before the election.

Utikere said when his father was 8 years old, he came to New Zealand to join his mother - Utikere's grandmother.

"My father arrived and attended primary school in New Zealand where he spoke little to no English. Every time he opened his mouth to speak, he was punished."

Throughout his own school experience, Utikere said he also suffered because at the time he hated his name which means "funeral" in Māori and he had to explain the Cook Islands translation is "beautiful".

"I have come a long way since then; and now consider it an honour to carry the name that has been gifted to me."

New Labour MP for Palmerston North Tangi Utikere. Photo / Supplied

New Labour MP for Palmerston North Tangi Utikere. Photo / Supplied

Utikere said as a teenager he was taken to his first Labour Party event by his uncle and was attracted to its principles of "equal access and opportunity, fairness, social justice, inclusiveness and kindness".

He later became a teacher, a city councillor, a deputy mayor and then a judicial Justice of the Peace and a visiting Justice where he sat on panels in the racing industry for the Judicial Control Authority.

"It's through some of these roles and experiences, that I've seen just how inflexible the criminal justice system can be; particularly for our Māori, Pasifika and new migrant communities.

"An ability to access the system is important, but so too is the ability to be an active participant in proceedings; to be aware of what is happening, and to understand the process and the options available to those involved."

Prior to his election, Utikere was about to take up a Commissioner role in the newly-established Criminal Cases Review Commission which he said was a potential safeguard against miscarriages of justice.

Utikere said he would also stand for local government which faced many challenges and believed it was the role of the state to work in partnership with the sector.

Palmerston North - or "Palmy" - has a reputation for innovation, science and technology with a diversified private sector and strong agri-business and primary industries, he said.

"I'm excited by the desire for this Government to be one for all New Zealanders; and I am committed to working across the Parliament to achieve that."

Human rights belong to all

Labour MP Vanushi Walters spoke of that special cloak and feeling of electricity that wrap around an individual on the morning after a significant event.

Sometimes there's "an inch of taonga after waking before the cloak of your new identity washes back".

The morning after the election, after she had turned Upper Harbour from a strongly blue seat to a 2392 red majority, she felt the cloak "with warp speed-like force".

New Labour MP Vanushi Walters. Photo / Supplied

New Labour MP Vanushi Walters. Photo / Supplied

She felt a similar rush as a 6-year-old waking up in New Zealand for the first time after her family moved here from Sri Lanka in 1987.

She felt it again hearing the story of a murder of journalist Richard de Zoysa for his courageous criticism of the government there.

"The cloak that morning arrived like a wave of outrage. The cloak demanded I do something about it."

That was the catalyst that led her on a 27-year journey of human rights advocacy, including stints at Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission.

"The rush of the cloak was there when I first nervously woke up as a qualified lawyer."

It was also there when she had each of her three children, as well as when her father suffered several strokes - "It didn't rush that morning but arrived in slow motion."

She has also tried to see other people's cloaks in her roles in community law and human rights roles, such as those who "wake and take on the cloak of parenting and advocating for children with special needs", or those who "wake and connect with the prison walls around them".

She spoke of the "electricity" of music or movies that "rise to capture your heart", as well as when she witnesses mothers watching their daughters speak out against discrimination in human rights marches in Nepal or Manila.

"The electricity danced across the room in Johannesburg, as young activists talked and cried and shared visions of hope about the future of human rights."

She said it's a feeling that we should all strive for in the work we do, and the relationships we hold - especially when times are tough.

"Much still needs to be done to continue to address racism and discrimination."

For voices that are not represented at decision-making tables, "we have an obligation to shape the tables" so that voices on the periphery are heard as much as the loudest ones in the room.

She finished with a friendly warning to those in Upper Harbour, in case they see her walking around barefoot.

She did this at the start of 2017, but with a pair of heels in her bag in case she had to explain the foot fashion choices of the general manager of Youth Law Aotearoa.

"I wanted to connect more meaningfully to where I was - land, building, community, and I noticed things on walks I never would have [otherwise].

"You may see me doing the same in coming years - don't worry, there's a method to the madness."

Thanks to the nannies who made the best sausage rolls

Otaki MP Terisa Ngobi said she would use her voice to help the most vulnerable, some of whom she has seen through her work as a manager for WINZ and Oranga Tamariki.

She is the first Labour MP to win the seat since 2008, beating National candidate Tim Costley by 3000 votes.

Her grandparents arrived from Glasgow on the Captain Hobson in 1956 "with £60 in their pocket, two weans, and the promise of a job".

New Labour MP Terisa Ngobi. Photo / Supplied

New Labour MP Terisa Ngobi. Photo / Supplied

Her mum, who spent evenings "sewing clothing from factory offcuts" for those in need in the community, left Samoa for New Zealand 1975.

Her dad was vice president of the Service Workers Union and could often be found on the end of a picket line.

"Regardless of the colour of our skin, our gender, our age, who we love, how much money we may or may not have or our level of education – in our household we knew we had a voice, that it was valid and that we were worthy too."

As a Pasifika/Scots woman, she didn't fit neatly into the palagi world or the Samoan world.

"I first noticed this at about age 9 when the kids at school started to call me bounty bar – which is one of my favourite chocolates by the way – because they said I was brown on the outside and white on the inside."

Except for a short stint in the UK, she has been in Levin - and its best bacon and egg pies and orange chocolate chip ice cream.

She returned for the community, many of whom helped with her campaign including the "nannies who made some of the best sausage rolls I've ever tasted – and you can see I've tasted loads".

She said she would fight for her election promises, including a four-lane highway to Levin - which the National Party has also pushed for.

"The Otaki electorate has the oldest population in New Zealand, [but] there is no hospital in this electorate nor is there public transport to get to either Palmerston North or Wellington Hospitals as our regular rail stops at Waikanae.

"From Waikanae North, we have one train that does one trip once a day except for the weekends. It is also set at around $30 per round trip. This is unaffordable for many students, low-income families and seniors."

There were also pockets of poverty, a lack of affordable housing, and high rates of family violence.

"Much more still needs to be done to ensure the wellbeing and living standards of all New Zealanders are raised. I will be working tirelessly progress this mahi."

Every day is a bonus for me

Neru Leavasa once wanted to be an All Black but a teenage cancer diagnosis in his left knee dashed his dreams.

But at the time, he didn't really understand what cancer was and didn't realise he could lose his whole leg.

"All I could think about was that my sporting hopes were dashed."

New Labour MP Dr Neru Leavasa. Photo / Supplied

New Labour MP Dr Neru Leavasa. Photo / Supplied

When he woke up and could still touch his leg, he was "so grateful". His cancer spread to his left lung twice and it was eventually removed.

"So I stand here with one lung and a metal leg."

He said it had been an "incredible journey" to become the Takanini MP which he won by a margin of 7,724 votes.

Leavasa's parents migrated from Samoa in the early 1980s to seek more opportunities and were "very hard working" who struggled early on so their children could flourish.

Leavasa said he never thought he'd be a politician - especially because he thought becoming a doctor had sealed his fate for life. He worked as a GP in Mangere for 12 years before running for Parliament.

He said he wanted to make a difference which would lead to better health outcomes for all New Zealanders and to work hard for the Takanini electorate that he loved.

Leavasa hoped when the time comes when he gives his valedictory that he can say he fought the good fight.

"Every day is a bonus for me."

An ode to artists

For more than 20 years Angela Roberts was an arts teacher and every day she was reminded it was artists who hold a mirror up to society.

"They bring us joy. They bring us tears. They expose us to our own ugly underbelly and they bring us hope.

New Labour MP Angela Roberts. Photo / Supplied

New Labour MP Angela Roberts. Photo / Supplied

"They give a voice to the voiceless. They send us away with another perspective. But it isn't the artists who can change the world. Only we, the people can."

Roberts, a Labour list MP, grew up in Taranaki where she said colonisation and land confiscations had left scars and austerity measures for rural communities had been "brutal".

"Austerity, to rural communities means death by a thousand cuts. Rebuilding our rural infrastructure has started but we must do more to ensure access to quality healthcare and education, modern infrastructure, decent jobs, and healthy homes.

"Our nation thrives when our farming communities are flourishing.

"It is for our rural communities that I stand."

Roberts said she was also standing for climate justice and the team of five million, her students, teachers, the progressive thinkers and those fighting for social justice.

Roberts said she was born into a family of workers but married into a family of unionists.

And she credited her children, James and Sarah, for filling her with hope for the future.

"They are smart. They have huge hearts. They are impatient for true social and climate justice. And they fill our house with music. Thank you for bringing me such joy every day.

"It is my family that gives me courage."