Audrey Young: Nick Smith’s career bedevilled by passion


When Nick Smith made his first speech in Parliament as a 25-year-old in 1990, he showed much of the passion that has bedevilled his political career, for better or for worse.

That career comes to an end on Thursday when the “father of the House” makes his final speech at 4.30pm – a year earlier than planned.

In Smith’s first speech, after the ousting of the Fourth Labour Government, he talked about the late 1980s which had seen “irresponsible corporates rape New Zealand of its investment capital for non-productive purposes” in cities full of BMWs, expensive housing and corporate jets, while factories and farms went bust.

He railed against the “shameful charade” of MPs having improved their own superannuation scheme when it had reduced the real level of the pension for the average citizen.

He spoke passionately about the need for electoral reform and the need to honour the promise to have a referendum on the voting system, and hoped for MMP.

And, of course, he talked passionately about conservation, specifically an area in the northwest of his then Tasman electorate that contained exceptional geological features and rare species such as grey spotted kiwi, kaka, rock wren and giant carnivorous snail.

It was his hope that before he left Parliament it would become a national park. It took less than six years.

In 1996 the Kahurangi National Park was opened by then conservation minister Denis Marshall, prime minister Jim Bolger and Smith, the local MP, who tramped the area (the long drop in the Balloon Hut is still named after Bolger).

And six months after the park was opened, Smith became conservation minister, the job for which he is best remembered. And within that portfolio, his role in the establishment of 17 marine reserves is his most permanent legacy.

Had it not been for a botched process, it might have been the declaration of the 200 EEZ around the Kermadec Islands 1000km north of New Zealand as an enormous ocean sanctuary in 2015.

But the secrecy surrounding the announcement by John Key at the United Nations leaders’ week meant that what should have been proper consultation with affected parties, specifically Te Ohu Kai Moana which manages Māori fishing quota, did not occur.

Legal action was taken though it has stalled, as is the legislation creating the sanctuary of 620,000sq km, comprising 15 per cent of New Zealand’s EEZ.

Smith is still passionate about the Kermadecs sanctuary but has never properly acknowledged the poor process or the fact that removal of a property right would usually attract compensation.

The other big misjudgment occurred when as ACC minister he signed a letter of support for a friend, Bronwyn Pullar, who was having problems pursuing her own ACC case.

He resigned from cabinet in 2012 when the Herald revealed the conflict of interest but was reinstated by Key 10 months later as housing minister but no level of progress in that portfolio was going to keep pace with demand.

Smith’s has been a career dogged by controversy, not least because when he gets stuck into something, he sometimes becomes not just passionate but impatient, rude and obsessive.

Standards have changed. If Smith were at the start of his career and not the end of it, he would either be offered professional help or be managed out of the job.

He became involved in a defamation case and a contempt of court case after advocating for constituents.

He has been “named” four times by the Speaker – the most serious penalty within the debating chamber. It is a modern record matched only by Winston Peters. He has been escorted out of the chamber by the Sergeant at Arms.

He was back in the House today, the first time since announcing his retirement nine days ago, and looking subdued. He was there to witness the defeat at second reading of his private member’s bill repealing the so-called “waka-jumping bill.”

Smith is retiring a year earlier than planned because he was led to believe – wrongly as it happens -the employment inquiry into a verbal altercation he had with a former staffer was about to become public.

Having returned to Parliament in 2020 as a list MP, and having lost his Nelson seat, he had planned to go this time next year by which time the National Party would have selected a local candidate and would have had a continuous presence in the city.

Nick Smith started the Blue-Greens group within National at a time when environmental activism lay strongly with the left. He has held the portfolios of Conservation, Climate Change, Environment, ACC, Building and Housing and Education.

He and three other promising MPs, Bill English, Roger Sowry and Tony Ryall were all elected in 1990 and stuck together so closely, including during summer holidays, they were known variously as the Brat Pack, the Young Turks and the Young Fogeys.

Smith is the last of them to retire and between them, they have amassed almost a century of parliamentary experience – 97 years.

They will be there to support Smith when he makes his valedictory statement, as will at least three former prime ministers.

Like the rest of the House, they will be aware that Smith’s passion has been his greatest liability as well as his strength but an MP with conviction is always better by far.

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