New Labour MPs make maiden speeches in Parliament

Derek Cheng, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 1 Dec 2020, 9:29PM
Labour Party list MP Naisi Chen has given her maiden speech. Photo / Supplied
Labour Party list MP Naisi Chen has given her maiden speech. Photo / Supplied

New Labour MPs make maiden speeches in Parliament

Derek Cheng, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 1 Dec 2020, 9:29PM

Labour list MP Naisi Chen, the second youngest MP at 26, came to New Zealand from Beijing, China, when she was 5. Her father had arrived two years earlier with $200 in his pocket.

Her parents were only political in the sense that they were always looking after the needs of the neighbours above their own, she said.

"Often I'd wake up in the middle of the night to find that they've been called out to mediate a domestic dispute.

"Despite sometimes facing betrayal and disappointment, they have demonstrated to me how to persevere in hard times, how to hold on to integrity and stay true to the vision from above."

Chen is one of four Labour MPs giving their maiden speeches today.

A generation 1.5er, Chen said she grew up balancing "the stereotypical Asian piano practice and good maths grades against the really Kiwi side of always disappointing my mum when I came home barefoot and with no books in my bag".

She often had to translate for her parents, including in parent-teacher interviews where "the information they were getting was somewhat single-sided".

She said she only ever wanted to be a housewife, and was shoulder-tapped into politics at her high school Chinese committee, then with the NZ Chinese Students' Association as president, where she realised most Chinese students never integrated.

"They come to New Zealand but still hang out in their own groups, seeking employment from Chinese businesses which, I soon realised. reflected the wider Chinese community.

"I believe that every migrant needs to integrate into New Zealand by adopting Kiwi values. We shouldn't ever condone racism, but instead, be able to let each culture adapt to New Zealand so that it becomes a uniquely Kiwi-Chinese Kiwi-Korean Kiwi-Muslim culture.

"The harmonisation of New Zealand values and cultural heritage, that's what I see as the biggest challenge in our society during the years I will serve in this house."

Chen, who unsuccessfully stood in Botany, quipped that it was "borderline reckless" when former Labour MP Raymond Huo asked her to stand after seeing her do one speech.

She is now the only MP of Chinese ethnicity despite 5 per cent of the population being Chinese.

"I say that with regret. There are huge barriers for migrant communities in getting into politics. In the media, our stories are often not told by us. With my platform, I will fight to have our voices heard and fight against the racism we experience."

She also praised what she called Helen Clark's legacy to promote New Zealand's identity through music and the arts, and she grew up learning not only piano, but also flute, double bass and tuba.

"I hope to continue your legacy ... and thank you, for replying to my Instagram messages.

"Being a young person means being the recipient of decisions made today. I believe that high tech, but green tech will lead us into economic prosperity ... by attracting innovative firms to our shores and encouraging Kiwis to think outside of the box."

Labour and Northcote MP Shanan Halbert lost his father to cancer on the night before the election. Photo / Alex Burton

Labour and Northcote MP Shanan Halbert lost his father to cancer on the night before the election. Photo / Alex Burton

'I last spoke to Dad the night before the election'

Labour and Northcote MP Shanan Halbert gave an emotional tribute to his dad, who died of cancer the night before the election.

His Pakeha mother was a fruit picker, fish and chip shop worker, and a supermarket checkout operator, while his Māori father served with the Defence Force in Malaya and then worked at the freezing works.

His father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer last October, likely related to asbestos from his freezing works days.

"Dad was my biggest supporter and I dedicated my 2020 campaign to him. In return, he promised he'd fight the cancer to be with me until election day.

"I last spoke to Dad the night before the election. I was able to tell him again - I love you dad. Mum called me the next morning with the sad news that he had passed away in the night. But he had kept that promise.

"Even with the honour of being elected to Parliament- one is still human, I am still a son and grief impacts us all."

Halbert, who has worked in tertiary education roles for more than 15 years, spoke of the bridge - Te Arawhiti - in Crown-Māori relations.

"For the longest time Māori had to cross over that bridge just to talk to counterparts on the other side, just to justify our place and aspirations in modern New Zealand.

"But under this Government, the Crown is required to meet us on that bridge, we make steps to come together."

He said Northcote was the perfect example of New Zealand's future - diverse and multicultural, urban and green, a local economy tied to a larger market.

He had five priorities: multiple transport options, including a toll-free Skypath and an additional harbour crossing; healthcare, especially mental health support, noting New Zealand's high youth suicide rate; fighting inequality, including more social and affordable housing; bringing more tertiary education options to Northcote; and local jobs including apprentice training.

He also made special mention of the issue of meth addiction, something that "has had an impact on both my family and Northcote's community".

He noted several Government projects already announced for Northcote that he would see through.

"I have always felt a sense of urgency to seek new pathways and to get things done, and my time in Parliament will be no different."

Labour's Steph Lewis won the Whanganui seat. Photo / Bevan Conley

Labour's Steph Lewis won the Whanganui seat. Photo / Bevan Conley

'The sound of the prisoners jumping the fence'

Whanganui MP Steph Lewis' earliest memory is of prisoners escaping Kaitoke Prison, where her Dad worked.

"We lived in the village next door. Dad woke me in the middle of the night and took me into our lounge where our neighbours were huddled together.

"I recall the sound of the prisoners jumping the fence into our backyard and the thud of their footsteps as they ran. They didn't get far as they tried to swim across a lake and had to be fished out."

When she was 4, her parents bought a farm in Waverley, but their savings to build their dream home ended up going to lawyers in an effort to get the road fixed.

"I believed if I became a lawyer, I could fix the farm road and dad could live his dream. Sadly he passed away before I finished. I was 21 and my youngest sister just 5."

He was 54, having worked as a prison officer for 32 years.

"It takes a toll physically, and mentally. Many of dad's workmates died before they were old enough to retire.

"That's why it's important that we provide universal super at 65."

She grew up in a house full of love but where salaries didn't keep up with the rising cost of living.

"I was bullied at school for wearing hand-me-down clothes, and dreaded mufti days. I was a child of the 90s who bore the brunt of the austerity of the time."

She was told by a teacher that she wasn't good enough for scholarship exams, but worked hard and finished dux of Whanganui City College. With the help of scholarships, she did an arts and a law degree at Victoria University.

She struggled to find work in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, picking up casual work in a dairy before volunteering at Community Legal Advice Whanganui.

"Since then, I've been a lawyer, an investigator, privacy advisor, and resolved disputes between individuals and large agencies.

"I haven't shared my story to seek pity. I'm not claiming to have grown up in severe poverty.

"I've shared my story so those listening today, who are struggling, know that I understand what it means to have to choose between paying for power, or food, or petrol to get to work. It's exhausting fighting every day to survive."

She was in Parliament to fight for the regions, and for those swimming against the tide.

"Like the 3-year-old boy I saw at a kindy in Whanganui, whose teacher told me he had been sleeping in the car with his mum and dad at the local cemetery.

"For the Year 9s I met in a maths class ... they looked like they believed they were already failures at 13 years old because they'd heard again and again that they hadn't achieved, or hadn't met the standard."

She said she was in Parliament to advocate for everyone in her electorate.

"To help them achieve their potential, so hopefully they get a better ending to their story than my dad got to his.

"It's hard to believe that as of Saturday we've been without dad for 11 years. I'd love to know what a National-voting farmer would make of his daughter being elected as a Labour MP. "

Labour list MP Helen White wants affordable housing in Auckland, which she says is the bedrock of a cohesive community. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Labour list MP Helen White wants affordable housing in Auckland, which she says is the bedrock of a cohesive community. Photo / Brett Phibbs

'Affordable housing a major building block'

Labour list MP Helen White saw her Auckland community become fractured when families had to move away because they couldn't afford to live there anymore.

Affordable housing is the bedrock of community cohesion, she said in her maiden speech - the first of four Labour MPs today - to Parliament.

White's grandparents spent a summer camping on a Gisborne beach because they had too many children for anyone to rent them a house.

Both of her parents worked, she said, but they had to pour everything into their Auckland mortgage.

"I remember the constant anxiety about whether we would be able to keep our house."

But as house prices rose, poorer families left the area, many of them Pasifika and working class families.

"My experience is that affordable housing is a major building block of healthy relationships with each other because it means we really know each other, as neighbours and equals.

"When there is an increasing gap between rich and poor it is very possible for people on different incomes to live in a physically separated world and they quickly lose empathy with each other."

She wanted to see affordable housing in Auckland Central, including on Waiheke Island - the electorate where she unsuccessfully stood.

During her 27 years as an employment lawyer, she said justice had too high a price.

Blue collar workers couldn't afford to undertake a personal grievance process that was meant to protect them; workers seeking reinstatement ended up trading their jobs for whatever compensation they could get to pay their lawyers; vulnerable workers were exploited by contractors.

She wanted to see "more certain and concrete prohibition of restraints of trade" in the employment agreements of low paid workers.

Poor workers were unlikely to challenge such clauses in their work agreements.

"This means low paid workers are afraid to go set up their own cafe, or move to the competition who might offer them a pay rise. It stifles their capacity to move from $20 to $25 per hour.

"It means their employer has no incentive to pay them more, because they do not fear losing them to a competitor."