Politics

On a new government, kindness and the (unfinished) legacy of my mother, Helen Kelly

Jacinda Ardern’s programme offers real hope for the issues Mum fought so passionately for, from labour law and cannabis reform to forestry and Pike River, writes Dylan Kelly

 A little over a year ago, my mother Helen Kelly passed away, aged 52. She’d been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer 18 months earlier, and had resigned as President of the Council of Trade Unions six months after that. She had spent most of the intervening time tweeting, Facebooking and otherwise campaigning hard for various issues from her cozy blue armchair in our lounge, our cat Tifa purring loudly in her lap.

I think Mum’s diagnosis led many people to take her causes more seriously. When somebody’s using their last few breaths to ask you to care about something, they probably don’t have any ulterior motives. It is therefore much harder to write them off as a socialist crackpot.

I’m wary of casting Mum as a cynical political operator, and of detracting from the incredible work she did when she was well. Many of her most significant and lasting victories, particularly in forestry, were won well before she got sick. Mum was simply a brilliant and savvy communicator, who saw the attention and goodwill her impending doom was generating as a spotlight to train on the issues she really cared about. She always looked on the bright side of death.

Mum cared deeply about many of New Zealand’s entrenched social and industrial issues – the low wage economy, the gender pay gap, the treatment of young people, you name it. But her career, and perhaps her life, would come to be defined by four major issues: the Hobbit dispute, the Pike River mine disaster, health and safety (particularly in the forestry sector), and access to medicinal cannabis.

These were the issues that she fought most passionately to resolve. During her lifetime, these battles were not always fruitful. But all four have been promptly addressed by the new government. It seemed like a good time to take a pass over Mum’s legacy, to see how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve got to go.

Hobbitses

Mum first broke into mainstream public consciousness during the unsuccessful fight against the Hobbit law, when thousands of film industry workers were stripped of their collective bargaining rights after Warner Bros threatened to take the Hobbit films offshore. The fallout from the Hobbit dispute led to Mum being described as “one of the most actively disliked women in the country” at the time. Calling St Peter Jackson a “spoilt brat” – a misfortune I endured throughout my childhood – was a measure of how strongly Mum felt about workers’ fundamental right to collectively bargain. She later apologised for the remark, but I don’t think she regretted it.

The law was eventually changed, even though the dispute had already been resolved without it. In reality, it was mostly a plum excuse for a National government to do what it loves most – bashing unions and disrupting employment relations to favour employers – while in effect paying Warner Bros taxpayer money (in the form of tax breaks) for the privilege of doing so. But after six years in breach of international labour laws, the new government is giving The Employment Relations (Film Production Workers) Amendment Act the boot. International union movement one, international film production company nil.

(Disclaimer: for those who think this move will kill the film industry, I work in the film industry. It won’t. Most overseas film industries are heavily unionised. The next 25 Avatar sequels will be just fine.)

Cannabis

Mum hated morphine. She said it made her “gluggy”. What was the point in spending your last days on Earth trapped in an opioid haze? A friend gave her a cap of cannabis oil, and it was a revelation; better pain relief, a bigger appetite and most importantly the ability to think and hold a conversation. It was basically the difference between her living her life and being confined to bed. Pretty soon Mum was openly admitting to regular use of medicinal cannabis, in an effort to make it easier for others to access. The popular consensus around cannabis use at the time seemed to be that so-called “medicinal” cannabis users were just potheads in disguise, trying to get the ball rolling down the slippery slope to full legalisation.

Mum was clearly not one of these people, and yet here she was – not arguing facts and figures and harm minimisation, but simply saying “I need this, because I’m dying and in pain and it’s the only thing that helps. I’m not hurting anyone. Why am I a criminal?” She knew that no one was going to tell a dying woman that she was making it all up to get high. She knew no one would arrest her, even though she was publicly tweeting the associate minister of health daily to tell him that she was breaking the law. She knew that this would highlight the hypocrisy of arresting others for the same harmless crime.

It worked. The emperor had no clothes. It was one of several watershed moments in a slow, seismic shift away from the hopeless war-on-drugs mentality. Ancient enemies Cameron Slater (who affectionately referred to Mum as “Comrade Kelly”) and Don Brash even got on board. Fast-forward to this year’s debate, and Jacinda Ardern’s rapid-fire declaration that legal medicinal cannabis was a no-brainer was considered the savvy political response.

Now medicinal cannabis will be made legal ASAP, with approximately zero controversy. That same (former) associate health minister who became the unfortunate victim of Mum’s Twitter campaign, the Honourable Peter Dunne, has since called for personal cannabis use to be fully legalised and regulated. The new government will go to the country in 2020 to ask us if we agree.

Pike River

It’s difficult for me to track Mum’s involvement with Pike River, as it’s such a long-running and torrid affair, and so many wonderful people have been involved in getting to where we are now. I only know that some of the “Pikies” came to visit Mum and the family regularly, especially in her final weeks, and that they loved her to bits and appreciated her public advocacy immensely. The affection was mutual. Like so many people Mum worked with, Anna and Sonya have become part of our extended whānau.

Mum was one of the earliest voices calling for foreman Peter Whittall to be held to account rather than mythologised, and immediately began asking inconvenient and pertinent questions about how these men were allowed to die in the first place. She also directed the CTU to challenge in court the decision to drop charges against Whittall. At the time of writing, the case against the case against Whittall is still in the Supreme Court.

Incredibly, unjustly, it may be that no one is found liable for the deaths of the Pike River 29. But Pike River stuck in the public consciousness long and distastefully enough for Winston Peters, and eventually Jacinda Ardern, to publicly commit to re-entry. Again, by the time this happened, it was seen as the rational political stance. A long-overdue re-entry to the mine, headed by a new minister for Pike River re-entry, should provide merciful closure for the families, and hopefully some clues about what really happened down there. Mum always held that Pike was a crime scene; hopefully it will be treated as such by the new government.

Health and safety

Following Mum and the CTU’s broadside on the atrocious rates of injury and death in the forestry industry, new health and safety regulations were introduced by Worksafe. Casualty rates in the sector declined dramatically after these changes, but they are already rising again. At least five people have died already this year in forestry; a rate of death already ten times higher (ten fucking times!) than comparably hazardous primary industries like agriculture, which already has worryingly high casualty rates. You have to be pretty bad to be ten times worse than crap.

The current CTU President, Richard Wagstaff, believes some forest owners are ignoring new regulations introduced after their 2013 campaign. But we do have a Minister of Forestry now. Shane Jones and Iain Lees-Galloway (our new Minister of Employment Relations) must ensure all forestry employers comply with improved Health and Safety codes. They should prosecute those who don’t with all the relentless zeal of a WINZ inspector who’s just caught a beneficiary borrowing money to pay their rent.

What now?

A law criminalising corporate manslaughter is essential to long-term worker safety in all hazardous industries. Such a law would go a long way towards preventing the next Pike River. If employers, directors and managers like Peter Whittall know that they personally could go to jail for failing to ensure their employees’ safety, they’re far less likely to ask them to work 12-hour days in windy forests, or send them down mines with no ventilation or escape route. What happened at Pike River could easily have been avoided, and is damning proof that nothing less than personal criminal liability will motivate some people to keep their employees safe.

NZ First may be skittish about cracking down on the primary industry employers whence much of their support – and donations – come. But donors be damned: human lives must be put first. Talley’s will not go bankrupt by ensuring the safety of its employees. On the contrary, the last death on a Talley’s boat cost the company close to $100,000 in fines and compensation. If Winston Peters is serious about restoring capitalism’s “responsible, human face”, he must take a principled stand against some of its ugliest beneficiaries. People over profits should be the guiding principle of our new government, from social development to sport and recreation (side note: pay the bloody Black Ferns already!). We should remind the government often and loudly that they were not elected by money – they were elected by us.

Legacy

Mum’s bugbears had a common denominator: imbalance of power. People were hurting and dying who shouldn’t be, usually because other, more powerful people – their bosses or the government – had been lazy, selfish, careless or just plain mean. Powerful people are hard to hold to account. Mum’s work must have sometimes felt like fighting a forest fire with a garden hose. But she never gave up, and now our shiny new government has put several of her dearest causes at the forefront of its 100-day plan. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Obviously, Mum deserves only a tiny sliver of the credit for this fresh approach to running the country. In each of her big fights, the heroes are the people that struggled through their personal suffering to fight for what they knew was right. Bernie Monk, Anna Osborne and Sonya Rockhouse, and all the other Pike River families. Alex Renton’s mother, Rose, who is currently in court for supplying cannabis to chronically ill patients like Mum. Maryanne Butler-Finlay, whose partner Charles died on a Tokoroa forestry block. Robyn Malcolm and the hard-working staff of Actors’ Equity.

Helen Kelly with John Campbell: Photo: RNZ

But voices like Mum’s – and the inimitable Metiria Turei’s – have turned out to be crucial in shifting the public discourse around poverty, health and safety, cannabis and other issues to discussions of kindness and empathy, not dollars and cents. Watching Winston Peters, ever the man with his finger on the pulse, deliver a moving, principled rant against the inequities of modern capitalism from the parliamentary podium, I couldn’t help but think that Mum or Metiria would have said much the same things.

I wish Mum had been alive to witness Jacindamania, and to bask in the ascension of a brilliant, passionate, caring young woman to the 9th floor. She’d have been so thrilled. But it was never about Mum. It was about everyone else.

Mum’s final public words were “I want people just to be kind. It would make a hell of a difference.” Jacinda Ardern, in her final interview before becoming prime minister, told John Campbell that her government was going to “bring kindness back”. That attitude shift should not be underestimated. It’s already informing government policy across the board; from halting the deportation of a disabled Fijian man, to a six-dollar raise on the minimum wage, to a billion-dollar regional development fund. This is just the beginning. Kindness is back, and it’s not fucking around.

We’ve got a lot of work to do. But with Prime Minister Ardern and co in charge, we can finally get started.

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