20 Mar 2024

Watch: Labour's Grant Robertson farewells Parliament with tearful, humorous valedictory speech

8:31 pm on 20 March 2024

Outgoing MP and former Finance Minister Grant Robertson gave his valedictory speech to Parliament on Wednesday, mixing jokes and anecdotes, his voice breaking at times.

Robertson, who entered Parliament in 2008 and spent "nine long years" on the opposition benches, announced his retirement in February, after his time in control of the country's finances was ended last year when Labour was voted out of office.

He began with a story from his years as a student activist, saying then-Education Minister Dr Lockwood Smith had to "climb out a window at Canterbury University" to escape him and fellow future Labour MP Megan Woods.

Fifteen years later, Smith was Speaker of the House when Robertson was first elected.

"Lockwood was an excellent speaker, who… had the occasional lapse with names," he told MPs in the House, including former Labour MPs Maryann Street, Aupito William Sio, Clare Curran, Kris Faafoi, David Clark and Ibrahim Omer, and New Zealand First's Tracey Martin.

"He tried hard. He memorably prepared himself for one of his first calls for my friend and colleague Carmel Sepuloni. She duly rose to take the call, and Lockwood proudly announced, 'I call the member Sepul Carmeloni'."

By then, Robertson had already spent five years working in and around Parliament for the Fifth Labour government, including for then-Prime Minister Helen Clark's chief of staff Heather Simpson.

"She set incredibly high standards and is the best political operator I have seen in this building."

Thanking the women in his life, personal and political, was a big theme of Robertson's speech. Marian Hobbs, who held the Wellington Central seat for the 12 years prior to 2008, was described as his "political conscience".

"She is principled, intelligent, and empathetic. These are the qualities of a great politician, not being able to pull off a one liner or find the right words for a witty repost. Marian, you are a tower of strength to the Labour movement."

Robertson also praised Clark, who "managed to make tremendous progressive change while maintaining an attachment to a coalition of voters from across the political spectrum".

"She is ultimately the reason I joined the Labour Party, and for your leadership and courage, and insatiable love of gossip Helen, I thank you. "

Most of all however, Robertson wanted to thank his own Mum.

"It's your values, your love, and your spirit that I have spent a lifetime trying to match. I am not sure what we will talk about each week without me being here, but at least we can both complain about the government now. Thank you for everything, I love you with all my heart."

Robertson also spoke highly of Michael Cullen, who was finance minister during Clark's time as prime minister.

"Michael was a visionary, his legacy as a finance minister is enormous. He was a terrific mentor to several of us who entered Parliament in 2008, especially for me once I took on the finance role. I miss him dearly."

Grant Robertson delivers his final speech to Parliament.

Grant Robertson delivers his final speech to Parliament. Photo: Parliament TV


Robertson said the speech he was most proudest to have given in the House was the night Parliament voted to legalise same-sex marriage, less then a decade after civil unions were formalised.

"I was involved in the campaign to get civil union legislation passed. We were never totally confident that we had the votes on that one. In the end we got there 65-55. To see how far we had come less than 10 years later was remarkable, and to win the marriage equality vote 77-44 was a strong vindication.

"In my time as an MP we have added marriage equality, the expungement of convictions pre law reform and the banning of conversion therapy. I was proud to play a role in all of those."

But there was still progress to be made, Robertson said, singling out the "increasing hatred, bigotry and lies" directed at the trans community.

"I saw this especially in the sports portfolio. People with absolutely no care for women's sport, suddenly became warriors for safety in pursuit of an imagined enemy. The 'othering' of trans people is despicable. We have to support people to live the lives they want to live and to show some respect."

Robertson said he only took the finance role if he could also look after sports.

"When Jacinda asked me to be the minister of finance, I told her it was on one condition - that I was minister of sport and recreation as well. She said a few people had expressed interest in that role. I asked her how many of them she had asked to be minister of finance?"

Never much of a sportsman himself, Robertson said his career peaked when he was a ball-boy at a rain-soaked All Blacks vs British Lions game at Carisbrook in 1983, where he looked like a "rotund, bespectacled, drenched ewok. It was only ever going to be downhill from there."

Again touching on his theme of female empowerment, Robertson said he was proud to work with Sport NZ and "wahine across the country" to put together a "comprehensive strategy for women and girls in sport".

"The results were obvious. Bidding for and hosting three exceptional World Cups for cricket, rugby and football… But much more than that is the increased participation of girls and women across many sports that I am proud of."

He was also pleased with the creation of Integrity Sport NZ.

"There have been far too many examples of abuse, bullying and undue pressure being placed on athletes. The death of Olivia Podmore while a resident in the HPNZ Cycling programme was tragic, and I think of her family today. Integrity Sport NZ is an independent body to uphold safe, fair, drug free sport, assess complaints, and undertake investigations that can give athletes and their families confidence."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson speak to media during a press conference at Parliament on April 02, 2020.

Robertson and Ardern in April 2020. Photo: 2020 Getty Images

'I was completely alone'

A big part of Robertson's legacy will be the handling of financial impacts of the pandemic in 2020, and beyond. He left it until quite late in his speech to discuss in detail, again starting with praise for Ardern, saying he was "not sure New Zealanders appreciate just how fortunate we were to have someone of Jacinda's intellect, compassion and practicality leading us through some of our most difficult times as a nation".

"I remember vividly the day we shut the borders. We did it on a teleconference of Cabinet. I was in Jacinda's electorate office with her. When the call ended, we looked at each other and recognised the enormity of what we had done. It felt very heavy. I tried to lighten the moment by noting that I knew when we went into coalition with New Zealand First our immigration policies might change, but I didn't think it would go quite this far. Jacinda didn't laugh."

Treasury was forecasting double-digit unemployment, he said, and mass business failures. But the hastily arranged Wage Subsidy Scheme he said kept unemployment to 5.4 percent, and saw fewer businesses fail that year than normal.

But even he was not immune to the unique perils of lockdown.

"There were only seven staff actually working in the Beehive. I was completely alone on the 7th floor. Of course, no shops were open and at the beginning we hadn't been to the supermarket.

"Like some kind of latter-day Bruno Lawrence in the movie The Quiet Earth, I roamed offices in search of food, eventually stealing the bread from Kelvin Davis's freezer."

The Wage Subsidy Scheme combined with other packages paid out $19 billion and saved 1.8 million jobs, Robertson said.

"New Zealand was one of only a handful of countries to have its credit rating upgraded during the pandemic by the international ratings agencies. And it is worth noting… that those credit ratings have been maintained throughout our time in government and my time as minister of finance.

"These great results of course pale into insignificance in the face of the one statistic that matters - the number of lives saved. On that measure New Zealand stood head and shoulders above others, with lower death rates than in normal years… savings those lives trumps any statistics or any hate on social media."

The future of tax

Robertson said the number one thing he wished Labour had got to was tax reform.

"New Zealand's tax system is unfair and unbalanced. We are almost alone in the OECD in terms of not properly taxing assets and wealth in some form. Our current system entrenches inequality.

"It is not my place any longer to say specifically what the answer is here, but I do know that the answers are out there. And this is not a message for my party alone. The truth is that we need some political consensus about this to ensure we get it right and it sticks."

"I don't want to spend too long giving my reckons on all the things you need to do - after all I am the one leaving."

Robertson said when Labour and New Zealand First took office in 2017, government spending of GDP was 27 percent.

"That's not enough. It's the reason why we had [sewage running down the walls of hospitals], its why nurses and doctors were so underpaid, it's why we saw a growth in homelessness and more kids in poverty."

He said it peaked at 34 percent during Covid-19, and has come down slightly since then.

"The long run average is a bit over 30 percent. Anything less is in my mind austerity. We are still dealing with the intergenerational damage from that approach in previous decades. We must not repeat the same mistakes."

The financial policy he said received the most praise from the public was the Winter Energy Payment, developed with the Council of Trade Unions economist Craig Renney.

"Being the minister of finance is an extraordinary privilege. It gave me the unparalleled opportunity to spend time with my colleagues when they were at their most stressed and anxious.

"I want to particularly thank Willie Jackson for his patient and calm advocacy. I genuinely felt his aroha when he said, "Why do you hate the Māoris?' when I had just given him $1 billion of funding.

"I also want to thank Chippy for not following through on his annual threat to resign during the education Budget process."

He said if he asked the Parliamentary Library to calculate how many times he had used the word 'balance' in his tenure, the "computer server would explode".

Speaking at Parliament on purchase of Ihumātao

Grant Robertson and Willie Jackson in 2020. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Te ao Māori

Towards the end of his speech, Robertson said he had enjoyed "connecting more closely to te ao Māori, in large part through (partner) Alf, his whānau and the mighty Ngati Porou iwi".

He took a thinly veiled shot at the coalition government's policies towards Māori.

"If Māori are doing well, if Māori are supported and enabled, if Māori are given their rangatiranga, we are all better off.

"Te Tiriti has been dishonoured by Pākehā settlers and it has been contentious. It has also been remarkable. It has given our country so much, it is the framework through which we have sought to right wrongs, to give hope, to come together. It's an imperfect partnership. But it is one that sets us apart from many other nations in giving place and voice to indigenous people.

"It sickens me when people use our journey as a nation, and the role and place of Māori as a political punching bag.

"My message to rangatahi and tamaraki is that what we are seeing now is but a blip. A small ugly footnote to the progress we have made, and that you will make in the future. Kia kaha."

Final words

Robertson closed out his speech thanking various people he had worked with over the years, including drivers, cleaning staff ("I was so proud when you were finally paid the living wage. You deserve more,") his staff and public servants, partner Alf, his wider family, and late father Doug (I am pleased that you got to see your son enter this place. I know it made you proud because you told everyone, all the time,") and the Labour team.

"You are a terrific team, and Chippy you are doing a great job in leading them. I endorse Chippy's view that you cannot be the dog that barks at every car. It can be tough if there is a convoy of stupidity going by, but it's still the right strategy."

He closed with a reflection on a quote from gay US politician Harvey Milk, who was assassinated while in office.

"Harvey Milk once said, 'I know that you cannot live on hope alone. But without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you - you gotta give em hope.'

"... That is our job in this place. To give people hope. To give hope to those who seek a better tomorrow for their families and communities, to give hope to everyone that they can be who they are and live free of discrimination, and to give hope to those who have none.

"So… that is my final, simple message today to you all. Hoatu he tumanako ki a rātou, you gotta give em hope."

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