Community, Politics · 28 Mar 2021

Watch: Invercargill MP Penny Simmons Maiden Speech

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Penny Simmonds – Maiden Speech
Wednesday, 24 March 2021, 5:46 pm
Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Oku Rangatira
Nga mihi nui
Ki a koutou katoa
Karanga mai karanga mai

Mr Speaker and parliamentary colleagues, I proudly represent the people of the Invercargill electorate, which takes in the communities of Invercargill, Bluff, Stewart Island, Riverton, Tuatapere, Otautau, Wyndham and Edendale. Its boundary to the east is the Catlins Conservation Park, to the west it extends into Fiordland National Park and to the south it takes in Rakiura National Park.

It is a region of stunning rugged beauty, important rural and manufacturing industries and innovative, hardworking people.

It is a region that produces its wealth from farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, tourism and aluminium smelting. Much of this wealth comes from the consistency of our rainfall, which, despite the often unflattering comments by the misinformed about our climate, is the lifeblood of our industries. As our famous Mayor, Sir Tim Shadbolt prophesized many years ago, water will one day be more valuable than oil!

My foray into politics has perhaps been more of a surprise to me than to many of my supporters. After several decades of involvement in the communities of Invercargill, and Southland, many saw my move into politics as logical or even inevitable, however it was anything but for me.

I loved my work at the Southern Institute of Technology, SIT, and in various community organisations such as the Community Trust, Hockey Southland and in the implementation of the Southland Regional Development Strategy.

However the foundation industries of our Southern community are coming to critical junctions, where decisions will be made that will impact on several generations of Southerners, and I want to be part of that decision-making, not just subjected to them.

I would, however, Mr Speaker, like to first refer to the influences of my early years growing up on a farm in Riversdale in Northern Southland. Ours was not a traditional farming family with land passed down through generations. My parents’ first farm was a returned serviceman’s settlement block, acquired after my father served in the Army in World War II and after many years of working as a shearer.

My father was the oldest of five siblings and when his own father died at a young age, my father, at the age of only 14 years, became the family breadwinner. This experience, and the kindness shown to him and opportunities given to him by many people in the Northern Southland rural communities, shaped the values of his and our lives. He carried a deep sense of fairness and looking out for others, until his own relatively early death.

My mother came from a large farming family of, well to be blunt, fairly stroppy, high achieving females. She, like her sisters excelled in many sports, with three of her sisters playing hockey for New Zealand, two of them captaining the New Zealand team. My father, and indeed most of the male in-laws in our extended family had to quickly adapt to being regularly thrashed at tennis, golf, bowls or any other sport they might have the misfortune to compete against their wives in. This laid the foundation for a highly competitive spirit and instilled the notion of “girls can do anything” long before it became a popular slogan. It also supported a number of us in subsequent generations to achieve national honours in hockey.

My mother was also a skilled pianist. She had to turn down a scholarship to study beyond her teaching letters at Trinity College in London. Due to her family’s financial circumstances they couldn’t afford it, and her mother was in a wheelchair. So her duty was to help the household. She did continue to use her skills as a music teacher and in local choirs and both she and my father, who also played several instruments instilled in us a love of music.

The one element that stood us apart from most of the community was our oldest sibling being intellectually handicapped as a result of decisions made during a difficult birth. This extended our world into the families, institutions and bureaucracy of dealing with disabilities. This has continued for our family with the birth of our youngest daughter, Briony, who has Down’s Syndrome.

Apart from that, my upbringing was pretty standard fare in a Southland rural community. We were neither wealthy, nor poor. We understood the need to work hard but also to support those who needed it. We immersed ourselves in the community through school, sport, music, church and social activities. We learnt the value of family and community engagement and support.

It was that understanding of the value of interconnectivity with community which drove me in my 30 year career at the Southern Institute of Technology.

I started as Chief Executive when the then Southland Polytechnic, although financially stable, had experienced two consecutive years of declining student numbers. With only 1400 equivalent fulltime students it didn’t have far to fall to reach an unsustainable level and risk closure.

Our SIT team, over the 23 years I was Chief Executive, secured the support of our local community to implement a number of innovative schemes and initiatives which impacted positively on individuals, their families, local industries and organisations as well as the community itself.

Our Zero Fees Scheme, supported by Community funders, Local Authorities and many individual businesses, and championed by my good friend and mentor, His Worship, Sir Tim, was a pivotal community initiative. Mayor Tim’s account of my devising the scheme in the shower, has an element of truth to it. I did after all, at that time, have a very young family of three daughters and uninterrupted time to think and plan was a rarity, although I can assure you, Mayor Tim was not privy to my daily ablutions.

Our Zero Fees scheme was not a lone initiative. It was part of an overall strategy to rejuvenate the economic, social and cultural elements of our community after the devastation of the 1980s which we were still suffering the effects of.

The establishment of a strategic partnership with Te Wānanga O Aotearoa in 2001 through the assistance of two other people pivotal in my career, the late Koro Riki Cherrington and Ngāi Tahu kaumātua Michael Skerrett enabled a raising of awareness, knowledge and capability in tikanga and te reo Māori in our communities. The Wānanga gained many friends when they were large, wealthy and influential. However, the founding members, Rongo Wetere and his family, and other early managers of the Wānanga never forgot that we worked with and supported the Wānanga when they were small and struggling.

A Woolf Fisher fellowship enabled me to visit a number of innovative educational institutions in various parts of the world, including the Canadian distance tertiary education delivery in Nova Scotia, using technology to overcome the tyranny of geographic isolation. Modelling this lead to SIT developing its own distance learning delivery faculty, SIT2LRN, which has proven to be invaluable, enabling SIT to deliver cost-effective, quality tertiary education and training throughout New Zealand and across the world, as well as blended on-site delivery and seamless delivery for SIT students during the 2020 Covid lockdown.

SIT’s international strategy, brought to our local communities international graduates with diversity, vibrancy and skills to address industry skills shortages. Again working with the community, SIT brought the international students into Invercargill to study, not Auckland as many other institutions did, simply clipping the financial ticket. The need to work for and integrate with the local community was always top-of-mind.

I am extremely proud of what SIT has been able to achieve for Invercargill and Southland over the two decades and more I was Chief Executive, and my reason for recalling these achievements today is to underpin why I made a decision to stand for the Invercargill MP role.

I believe in the value and importance of our communities in the south and I have unashamedly fought to strengthen and support our people, industries, organisations and communities in my various positions at SIT, and in other community leadership roles I have held.

At times my parochialism and intransient attitude to changes imposed from Wellington may have been interpreted as disruptive or even cantankerous. But I learnt many years ago how important it is to push back against “Wellington knows best”.

I looked back to the development of the Tiwai Aluminium Smelter in 1971, the economic development brainchild of long-serving Invercargill Mayor Neil Watson and then MP Ralph Hanan, set up in conjunction with the Manapouri power station, and currently under threat, and with it the jobs and livelihoods of several thousand Southlanders and their families.

I also looked to our Southland rural sector, the economic bedrock of Invercargill and Southland’s wealth and prosperity, which survived the reforms of the 1980s and pulled itself back to a powerhouse once more, ensuring that Southland punches well above its weight consistently contributing around 15 per cent to NZ’s GDP with less than 1.2 per cent of New Zealand’s population.

The South’s rural sector is justifiably proud of its long history of economic success. But our rural sector is facing significant threats that seem to ignore, or not understand, the unique climatic and geographic challenges of the southern farmer, and give no credit to the incredible progress already being made by farmers working together with scientists to improve environmental outcomes.

And I look to the threat of SIT, the organisation I had the privilege to lead for over 23 years, losing its autonomy and innovation, being swallowed up in the ideological mega-merger of institutes of technology and polytechnics.

While there may be better alternatives to the status quo in each of these industries, I know that the decisions must be driven by Southlanders to ensure the benefits stay in the south. The decisions must also be pragmatic, science, technology and engineering based, not reacting to emotive sound bites from people who don’t understand either economics or science.

Ngai Tāhu’s Murihiku regeneration project provides the opportunity for a partnership to drive our future from the south. As Tā Tipene O’Regan said recently: “we are facing a once-in-many-generations opportunity to reset the way we manage energy”.

We need to ensure that the clean energy from Manapouri and the abundance of freshwater in the south is harnessed to provide jobs and prosperity for the south. However, the Crown’s plans to spend over half a billion dollars on upgrading transmission lines to take power north does not fill me with confidence that they share our vision for the south’s clean energy and freshwater.

It is these important local issues and pending decisions that led me to stand for the Invercargill electorate at a time when my role at SIT could no longer achieve the things that I considered important to Invercargill. I saw an opportunity to further our community’s needs and support our farmers and industries as the local MP.

In securing the role of MP for Invercargill, I extend my thanks and gratitude to the Invercargill National Party executive, my campaign team, the regional chair and the hundreds of members and volunteers whose hard work made this transition possible for me, and I thank my caucus colleagues, and in particular our leader, the Honourable Judith Collins, who have helped ease my way into the intriguing world of politics.

I also acknowledge my long suffering family, who for years have put up with me being away on business for significant family events like birthdays and anniversaries, and despite this have encouraged me in my new endeavour. My thanks to my husband Marty, twin daughters Alex and Whitney, their spouses Kurt and Rowan, our little mokopuna Flynn, Lily and Harrison, and of course our very special youngest daughter Briony. Briony’s support person, Jicinta Veale, must also be acknowledged as playing a large part in enabling me to do what I do.

A career politician has never been my aim, but then a career chief executive wasn’t my aim either, and I lasted 23 years in that role. In both instances I have been driven by what the roles enable me to do, rather than the role being an end in itself.

The position of Chief Executive of SIT enabled me to do what I loved – contribute to the economic, social and cultural development and wellbeing of our southern region through the benefits SIT provided for our students, their families, our industries and our community.

It was an honour and a privilege to work in tandem, with the community to implement many innovative initiatives and I acknowledge all my SIT senior management colleagues who were instrumental in these achievements. In particular I thank those in the gallery here today still supporting me, Bharat Guha, and Teri McClelland, as well as my good friend and colleague Patsy Eade and the many supportive SIT Council members I had over the years.

I will always be indebted to our famous Mayor, Sir Tim Shadbolt, who was with me through these golden years at SIT as well as the very influential Ngai Tāhu and SIT kaumātua Michael Skerrett.

I will be driven in this new role as Member of Parliament for Invercargill to continue my advocacy for the people, industries, organisations and communities of the Invercargill electorate.

I come to the role with the experiences of a farmer’s daughter and a farmer’s wife, a mother and a grandmother, an educationalist and a soldier for several years in the Territorials, a businesswoman, a community leader, and a sportsperson.

But most of all, I come as a passionate Southlander who will not stand by and allow the place that I proudly call my home to be adversely impacted upon by poor political decisions. Our farmers, rural communities, SIT, our productive land, fresh water and clean energy are worth standing up for.

In concluding, I will chant a waiata written for me by the late Koro Riki Cherrington. It refers to the people and rivers of the south and the pathway of the whales. Murihiku, the southern region is of course the important and powerful tail of the whale of Aotearoa. Something best not to get in the way of.

Kia Ora. Thank you.