Whanganui MP and Parliament’s Deputy Speaker announced this week he won’t be seeking re-election next year. The former police officer, who will next year face trial on a careless driving charge, has previously been a Minister for Courts but never got the Cabinet position he coveted.

Zaryd Wilson talks to Chester Borrows about his time in Parliament, his changing politics, youth justice, prisons, marriage equality and Whanganui’s changing fortunes.

You’re stepping down after 12 years as Whanganui’s MP – why now?

I was selected as a candidate over 18 years ago so I’ve either been trying to get elected or re-elected for 18 years which is quite a big chunk out of your life. And also, it’s a very intense job. When we went into it, my wife and I went in with our eyes opened, it took us three elections to have a win and we decided four terms would probably be enough.

It leaves me the chance to have another career, which is what I want to do.

Thankfully we’re pretty strong, you know, we’ve got 59 MPs, soon to have 60. The party’s in good heart. The National Party is experiencing a real purple patch in Government. I feel happy enough to do something else.

I feel young. I’m as old as I’ve ever been, I suppose, and I’ll be 60 next year but I wanna do some stuff. I want to carry on doing things that I’ve continued in Parliament but at the moment in this role as Deputy Speaker you don’t get a chance to work in the portfolios you’d really like to. So, I’d like to have the freedom to go out and do that and I guess the freedom not to have to toe the party line.

I sense you’ve had a few frustrations over the years in politics, in Parliamentary politics?

Everyone who goes into Parliament wants to be a minister and wants to be able to work in an area that they love and actually get some stuff done. I had a chance to do that as a minister outside of Cabinet and then I was given this role as Deputy Speaker because I can work well across the Parliament and apparently regarded well by all parties. But it means that I can’t then have a ministerial role and that’s the kind of work that I wanted to do. So if I can’t do it by banging on that door, I’ll go around the back and kick my way in through some other door.

Would you have carried on if you’d been in Cabinet now?

I think if I’d been a Cabinet minister I’d have been stepping down anyway because it would’ve been timely. But I would’ve preferred to be going out as a Cabinet minister than as the Deputy Speaker.

Have you always been political? Were you into politics as a teenager?

As a high school student I was very political. Very much a Labour Party person, very strongly, and always thinking politically. Then I guess I sort of joined the Police and was still thinking politically – maybe not as intensely – until I was a sole charge cop in Patea in 1987.

That’s when my party, the Labour Party had gone hugely to right, and the National Party had gone hugely to the left, funnily enough. They just kicked the hell out of a little country town like Patea and it was hugely affecting my work and what I was seeing as a local cop. In a little town like that your sort or intimately involved in people’s families. You become a go-to-guy for everybody.

What I found is you have 80 per cent of the town on Government support, getting a benefit or superannuation or something like that. A lot of real poverty, high levels of crime in response to that and, yeah, it was a tough time and my party of choice was defecating all over my town where I was the cop.

It was their economic policy, their employment policy. I mean, they had everybody on what we used to call a PEP scheme where if you were unemployed you had to turn up for work every day and you went and did something and then you got paid for it at the end of the day. We got a helluva lot done around the town and we got people engaged and we taught them some skills.

Richard Prebble who was the Minister of Labour decided this was all too hard, cheaper to just pay people the dole and tell them to stay home than supervise and administer a scheme that actually engaged people.

I just thought that was absolute rubbish. They gave up on these people and told them they weren’t worth it, pretty much, and that really angered me. So I joined National to teach the Labour Party a lesson but I don’t think anyone noticed.

So it was more to teach them as lesson than because you supported National?

I didn’t buy into National’s philosophy at all.

Even when you joined?

Even when I joined and funnily enough it took me two elections to vote for them. I’m not saying that my actions made any sense at the time but it was more about being pissed off and wanting to respond.

Obviously by ’99 you’d come around?

Well yeah I voted National in ’93 and ’96 and then obviously after that. But in ’87 I got into the polling booth and couldn’t make my pen tick the box. 1990 was the same. It was an interesting place to be and an interesting way of searching your soul and finding out what you really believe in.

What convinced you become a full-on National Party backer and then a candidate?  

I could see that what National was doing through the early part of the 90’s, although it was incredibly hard, was beginning to work. They were starting to lift employment, they were starting to grow jobs. I mean, the National Party got caned for the Mother of All Budgets but that was only written about five months after we got elected. We weren’t trying to recover what National had done to the economy, we were trying to recover what Labour had done to the economy. National had a landslide victory in 1990. Labour had campaigned on a budget that was going to have a surplus, the first time Government was going to be in the black in 15 years. And then we got in there and found out it was all rubbish. That was the bomb that was dropped on the incoming Government. What it meant was National had to renege on just about every promise they’d made through the campaign.

But those mid-eighties Labour Party economic policies have been continued through by successive Governments.

They absolutely have. We’ve gone to a much lower tax economy, we’ve lifted GST. So it was a really fluid and mercurial time for politics, although it was incredibly harsh. I mean overnight they cancelled all subsidies. Overnight they did away with tariffs. What that meant was we – and we pretty much are now – the only country in the world that operates with no economic protections by way of subsides and is completely tariff free and open bordered. No other country does that. When you talk to people in Europe, they’re absolutely petrified of doing anything like that and  as much as they like to think of themselves as free market, they aren’t. It’s been the saving grace of our economy. We’ve got to export 85 per cent of everything we produce or we can’t pay our bills. The Americans export about five per cent and don’t care if they do or don’t.

Then what’s the difference between the Government you’re a part of and the ‘80s Labour Government you turned your back on?

We’re a lot softer. They Government now is sitting firmly in the middle of New Zealand politics, and to the right.

The reason Labour can’t win at the moment is that they can’t get into the centre because we’re pretty firmly camped there. What that means is, we’re a lot softer on people than what we were in the ‘90s and what Labour was in the ‘80s.

Doing things like raising benefits for the first time in 40 years, continuing with policies like Working for Families, raising the minimum wage at least every year, offering nine-day fortnight to struggling businesses during the GFC, keeping business open by guaranteeing wages during the earthquakes – all of those things have been huge.

The fact that a solo mother under-20 now not only gets all the benefit paid on a card and her rent and her power paid centrally – every one of those women has got a budget advisor or mentor placed with her to make sure that they know how to make good decisions around budgeting an all those sorts of things.

It’s huge, and no one ever saw us doing that, they always thought that would be a left-leaning Labour Government doing that. It’s moved hugely to the left compared to where it was in the 90s. That’s why Andrew Little and his team can’t get anywhere because until they get into the middle they won’t win. You’re never going to win if all you do is consolidate your core vote.

But to move the middle that you talk about, they’d have to offer similar things to National and then where’s the choice for people? 

They would have to adopt all the polices they opposed over the years. Everyone knows that if they elect a Labour Government their taxes are going up. It’s going to cost them more just to exist and they don’t want to do that. Everyone aspires to have more wealth not less wealth.

But a tax increase just means there’s an increase in the amount Government can spend on the people. Do you think those days are gone?

Most people feel that they can spend their own money better than the Government. And most people feel that if they work hard they should be able to keep the money they earn, although the agree with paying tax. You get the left saying tax cuts only benefitted the wealthy. Well, they will because they actually earn the most money. If you’re a working family earning pretty much minimum wages, you pay almost zero net tax. Yes, you’ll have PAYE go out of your wages but you’ll get more than that back in family tax credits and Working for Families.

New Zealand looks after its poor pretty well actually. If you’re in a state house they’re only paying a quarter of their income. You can get an accommodation allowance even if you’re not in a state house. There are a number of things that are good. People are still struggling and I accept that. We can always do better. But you want to stack us up with any country in the world? I’d rather be poor living in New Zealand than poor living anywhere else.

But you must concede that poverty and inequality is getting worse?

I concede that it is. I think that we need to investigate the reasons for those things. What bothers me is a lot of the children in this country living in poverty are there because of decisions made by other people. And I’m not saying that people choose to live in poverty, but people make choices they wouldn’t necessarily make in other circumstances. Some people are driven to that. Maybe they’re driven to that by, again, decisions made by other people. Maybe their parents.

There is a growing poverty gap but I don’t necessarily believe there are more and more and more people living in poverty. I think that if you look at what that measure is and if the measure is going to be living on less than 60 per cent of the average income then obviously as that average income grows, more people are going to be living in poverty. But a person living in poverty in the 1930s had a helluva lot less to play with that a person living in poverty now. And so they should because we’re growing and things are far more available and the conditions of the what the world has to offer is getting better.

We do need to do something about it but I guess what I’m worried about is not the lack of income in poverty but the lack of opportunity. The fact is that people who live in poverty have a lot more to deal with than a low income. Frequently they have dysfunctional relationships, they have an over representation of drug and alcohol issues, they have a lack of ability to be able to change their position by being able to move somewhere else or take another job. They’ve frequently got a poverty of skills and qualifications and it’s really hard to get out of that if you’re stuck with no dough. That’s the whole problem.

So what is your answer to that then?

The answer is to provide opportunities. It’s not about the positions you find yourself in. It’s like the rest of life, it’s what you do with that. I don’t believe that I’m harsh on people who find themselves in poverty. I understand that very well. But I also understand that life is about how you respond to the crap that hits you, not necessarily that the crap hits you.

Your own personal politics interest me, I’ve always found it hard to place you on a spectrum. You’re quite liberal and progressive on things like justice and youth justice. But conservative on things like marriage equality. You voted against marriage equality.

I guess I’m conservative on a lot of those moral things because I have a fairly active Christian faith. I voted against gay marriage but since then I’ve actually officiated at a gay wedding. So, you know, sometimes you change your mind.

You’d change your vote now?

Yeah, I would. If a vote came up now in Parliament next week I’d vote for it.

What changed there? That’s a short timeframe.

My reason for voting against it was fairly legalistic. But the reason why I voted against it was for two reasons. The first was, marriage across ethnicities and cultures has always been a heterosexual institution and that hasn’t changed, in my view.

The other thing is I think the debate was about gay adoption and I think adoption should be about placing kids in the best place for them, regardless of the relationship. So if it was about gay adoption I would’ve voted for that. But they were trying to get there by the back door and I disagree with that. I think people should be open and frank enough to have the debate they’re really trying to have.

Now I just sort of think it really doesn’t matter. It’s really about the quality of the relationship and that’s that. Sometimes you have to realise that you’ve lost and argument and then just get with the programme.

I was contacted by a young guy who grew up in Hawera… and he asked me if I would be his marriage celebrant and I said yes. Obviously, I had thought about it because I wouldn’t have agreed to be the celebrant if I’d continued to disagree with gay marriage. In the end, I think as a society sometimes you need to grow up a bit. That fact that (they) love each other, want to commit to each other and what to spend their lives together; is that good for society or is that bad for society? Actually, it’s a good thing. So c’mon Chester, get with the programme.

You’ve been vocal on youth justice issues. Where does that passion come from?

Well, I spent 24 years as a cop and then three years as a lawyer and since I’ve been in Parliament I’ve been working in those portfolios.

I think New Zealand does a helluva lot right in youth justice. Internationally we lead the world in many regards. We’ve since had a good look at it and found we weren’t as good as we thought we were but we’re still better than most of the rest. Other countries are copying us and they’re catching up real quick and they’ve got some good ideas too.

It really made me look at the way I’d responded to youth offending as a policeman and made me think we’ve got to be able to do it a whole lot better. So going into the 2008 election Anne Tolley and I wrote a whole new policy on youth justice and we sold that to the Caucus.

We’ve changed significantly how we do youth justice and its had immediate effect. There’s only half the young people going before the court than in 2008. Recidivism has dropped. Every measure you can look at in youth justice is better than it was when we came into Government.

Do you support raising the adult court age to 18?

Yeah, very much so. I’m sure it will happen. I think it’s been an embarrassment to New Zealand that it hasn’t been 18 like the rest of the world. We’ve been having these excellent results with kids under-17, why wouldn’t you extend that to over-17?

I mean, the fact is, most of the kids who fall foul of the law we’ve already had quite a lot to do with – most of the kids who fall really foul of the law. Anyone can do a bit of shop-lifting, get caught, get pinged and they’re never going to go to court. They’re going to get a warning, they’re going to feel like an idiot and they’ll never do it again.

But those kids that commit heinous crimes and go on to become career criminals generally have been in state care, foster care and they’ve been our responsibility as a community and they turn out worse than if we left them alone in the dysfunctional families they grew up in. Which is a disgusting indictment.

If you look at this guy the other day who got seven years imprisonment for pinching the bum of a prison officer who was a worldly, wise and well-trained prison officer – seven years imprisonment? It’s just ridiculous.

And then if you look at his background, he grew up in foster home, he grew up in CYF care, he was in court and offending from an early age. The State has had the opportunity to do all sorts of good things with that kid and they didn’t. They made him worse and now they’re going to ping him for another seven years for a ridiculous incident.

Do you think across all ages we put too many people in prison?

Yep. People should be in prison because they represent a physical danger to the public.

Not as a punitive measure?

Well, you know, you go to prison as punishment not for punishment. You should come out of prison better than when you went in. Unfortunately, although we’ve got less people committing crime and less crime being committed we’ve got more people in prison than we ever have because this country has got a fascination with locking people up.

We’ve made it harder for people to get bail so there’s a whole lot of people in remand. And we’ve demanded longer sentences. We’ve introduced a ridiculous three strikes policy and that’s just locking people up. It’s not working.

We should be putting a lot more emphasis on restorative justice. And thankfully this Government, we’re doing far more than we ever have before and we’re funding more. But sometimes it can be hard to access. Especially in prison.

People who go to jail should be those people who present a physical danger to people. Those who commit other crimes, like crimes of dishonesty, we should be dealing with them in a different way with more creative sentencing. And that could be temporary or partial detention so we can get some work out of them or some rehabilitation, some seriously supervised probation, alcohol and drug treatment – those sorts of things.

You’ve got to show people how they can live a crime free life, right?

I remember I client I worked for who had beaten up his wife. He was born into a Mongrel Mob house and as a three-year-old, he was forced to fight other three-year-old kids. And his Mongrel Mob parents and friends of the family were gambling on the outcome of a fight between three-year-old kids. So he grew up to be an assailant and an arsehole. What a surprise.

At the end of the day everyone’s got to carry the can for who you are regardless of their upbringing. I’m 60 years old. I’m a product of my upbringing. I don’t run around hurting people. If I did, I’d have to carry the can for that. You couldn’t just pat me on the head and say you had a poor upbringing. If you represent a danger to society then, yep, unfortunately you’re going to have to be locked up.

But society needs to step up and take responsibility for its cock-ups as well as its achievements and successes. And it doesn’t want to do that.

You’d be out of step with some of your constituents there.

Yep. But I’m happy to defend that in front of anybody.

You’ve also been a big supporter of treaty settlements. Why is it so important to this country and what is it that some people don’t get about that?

Well some of them don’t want to get it and they’ve been raised in a little utopia where they think race relations in New Zealand is just absolutely brilliant. But they do that from a pakeha majority point of view. They don’t understand what it’s like to live in a situation where your history is retold by somebody else and ignored and the colour of your skin is the reason there is prejudice against you.

We live in an interesting situation. My wife is part Samoan and I’ve got three children and two of them are brown-faced kids and the other ones is blonde-haired and blue-eyed. It’s interesting, their stories are different.

But it’s interesting, you’re sitting in a smoko room in a Police station and cops are talking about effing coconuts and this sort of stuff. When you the take them on a say, well your talking about my family, they get all belligerent and upset. That’s pretty much the way a lot of older pakeha view race relations in New Zealand.

Now, it’s very difficult then to get past the complete unfairness of things like theft of land a culture and we do need to deal with that. If that’s what your growing up with and you’re basically having to walk past, every day, the land that belonged to your great grandparents, and you’re now seeing it covered in dairy farms making a truckload of money, then that’s pretty rough.

The other thing is, the justice doesn’t change over time. If you look at the story of Parihaka, where peaceful people were ransacked by Government troops using what would be illegal legislation these days, and their people were picked up and locked in caves in Dunedin where many of them died because they were completely exposed and then forced to build infrastructure for pakeha – you can’t change that story just because it’s decades old.

So settling those things and saying okay, we can’t repay you for that but what will it take? And sorting that out so people have got the ability to move on. If you just look at an example; Tainui had a million acres confiscated from them. They got paid $170million. So that’s $170 an acre. You show me what land you can buy for $170 an acre. And they settled for that. And some people call that a gravy train? It’s just rubbish.

You know, we are fortunate that these people are prepared to get past a tragic history for so little.

And what about the economic boost for the region as a whole?

Well in the Whanganui electorate, with three treaty settlements, $270million is coming into this electorate. That’s $270million that wasn’t there the day before. That is significant wealth. And thankfully they’re not just dividing that money up by the number of people who whakapapa back to those iwi and giving them X number of dollars each. The fact is that iwi are getting involved in significant commercial ventures, most of which succeed vastly. They’re providing things like scholarships and work opportunities and people are moving on a doing incredibly well as the result of settlements.

So it’s about replacing the economic base that Maori lost.

Absolutely it is. If you look at Whanganui in the mid-1800s. There were 55 ships in excess of 100 tonnes operating around the New Zealand coast, owned by Maori and shipping to Australia, to Auckland and to the Otago gold fields. They were huge entrepreneurs and we came along and stuffed it up. And we’re just saying it was a long time ago, get over it?

Quite honestly if any pakeha had had the same thing happen to them, and they had a course of action through the courts to be able to recover that, they would, eh?

Whanganui’s an interesting electorate. It covers Whanganui and Taranaki, two very different communities, with different fortunes. How do you represent both?

I usually start every day by driving for an hour down here because Whanganui is where the votes are and it’s where the vast majority of people are in the electorate.

The interesting thing is I won this seat off a Labour party MP who lived in Victoria Avenue. And I won because I turned up more than she did, so it’s not about where you live.

They’ve got quite a lot of similarities and a whole lot of differences. Taranaki is based on dairy farming and energy but it’s still pastural farming. Dairy farming has had better success over the last few decades than what dry stock sheep and beef have. Whanganui’s based on sheep and beef and it’s had some good seasons. But quite a lot of bad seasons. And it’s got different land forms as well so it suffers from heavy rain and land slippages. It’s also got industry which is partial farming aligned. It’s also got some niche industries as well, it’s got Pacific Helmets,  the Suzuki dealership, the Ali Arcs and those sorts of things doing specific, niche and clever things. So, it’s got a very skilled but not particularly well-paid labour workforce.

In Taranaki it’s a different mix. Taranaki has always been a bit in your face. They’re more isolated than Whanganui and they sort of do it their way and they tell the rest of the country to get stuffed. That’s the way they play their rugby, the way they run their businesses and their farming operations.

Whanganui had huge opportunities early in the piece. Before when had the main trunk line and before we had State Highway 1, the Whanganui River was the main access point. And in the depression in the ‘30s the locals squandered it and they stopped investing locally and they started investing in other places.

It had the opportunity to do great things but it turned down Massey University for instance because it didn’t want its town full of university students and it sort of blew a hole in its own foot and it’s been a bit snotty with the world since then. Except that, from about the 2000s onwards its really got its chin up. When I started campaigning in 1998 it was only eight years or so since the Eastown Railway Workshop was closed, a helluva lot of Government services had been taken out, heaps of empty buildings and it was sort of four or five years after [the occupation of Pakaitore]. Everyone was pretty dejected and that was the way it was for a long time. Actually, what we’ve seen in the last ten years has been a vast improvement in outlook. And now Whanganui’s starting to get a bit of niggle and it’s really good.

The attitude has changed but do you think the fortunes have really changed?

Oh, I think they will. If you own a house in Whanagnui now it’s probably worth 25 per cent more than it was a few years ago. The prospect of selling it is probably about 100 per cent better than it was. Sixty per cent of people who fly out of Whanganui are traveling for business so what that says is there’s a helluva lot going on here and people are choosing to live here and work in other places and the connectivity allows them to do that.

If you look up the hill at the Sarjeant Gallery it’s got the biggest collection of art work outside of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and that’s huge. If you look at what’s happened to the arts community – this is just arts, without business – it’s really built into a place where you can take your art somewhere. You can look at flash paintings in the Auckland Art Gallery if you want to, you can do the same thing in Wellington – all that stuff’s fine – but if you want to take your art somewhere, you’ve got more opportunity to do that in Whanganui than anywhere else. We’ve got a huge opportunity there and people are taking advantage of it so it’s cool.

There’s been a bit of Government cash announced recently too for the Sarjeant, the museum and the port.

All those things are looking absolutely fantastic and promising so I think that prosperity is going to keep on growing.

You said the other day you’d wish you been more outspoken?

Keith Holyoake said if you can agree with what 80 per cent of your party is saying you’re in a pretty good space. So that means that I don’t agree with everything the National Party does and funnily enough National wouldn’t agree with everything I think and I probably sit as far left on the spectrum of our party as anybody does. What that means is that I’m going to disagree with things that happen from time to time and I wish in a way that I’d had a few more fights. What I was doing I suppose is what we all do in life – whether it’s talking to our boss or to our neighbour or to our wife – and that’s that if I shut up about this am I going to be in a better pace or not? If you’re fighting with everyone all the time, especially in a big party, you’re going to be too hot to handle and you’re not going to get those opportunities.

What I’ve seen – and no, I’m not going to name them – is some people who have been badly behaved, looked after their own interests, not done what was in the best interests of the party and  haven’t shown a degree of loyalty – so we’re off message defending them – have been promoted and that really hacks me off.

But I would have said you have been outspoken at times. You defended volunteer prison worker Ngapari Nui – against the views of your colleagues – after he was stood down by Corrections when his Black Power connections were revealed.

The fact is that he was doing a fantastic job. Corrections knew he was a gang member. If he had left the gang, then by the gang’s own codes, they wouldn’t deal with him. Isn’t it better to have someone who’s actually a good influence rather than someone who’s been rejected by the gangs and who they won’t listen to. It’s just stupid to make the comments that were made I think shows a lack of understanding how prisons work.

Do you think the Whanganui electorate is wide open now that there will be two new candidates for Labour and National?

No I don’t think it’s wide open at all. I think if you look at successive elections National has won he party vote in 2005 and that’s the way the country’s going. The other thing is a think the Labour party is in complete disarray.

I’ve seen some of the people who are putting their hands up to be the next National party candidate and they would all turn the heads of Whanganui people and say ‘far out I’d be happy with anyone of those being our MP’.

Can you name names?

No I won’t. And I won’t back any one them in particular either. The other things is I’ve been watching the Labour Party here for years and I could name heaps of them and now I can’t because they’re just not around. Unless they can convince somebody else to step up and take on their mantle, that’s pretty tough. You have to find somebody who’s prepared to campaign knowing they’re going to be in opposition. You wouldn’t find a single person in New Zealand that would put $100 on them being in Government after the election. There’ll be people who do it for show but those old, long-in-the-tooth Labour MPs know they’re not going to win and so does everybody else.

That isn’t a sort if arrogant position. Any student of politics would be the same regardless of who they wanted to win and regardless of who they’ll vote for.

What’s next for you now?

There’ll be no break. I hope to have a job nailed down in the next few months so I know where I’m going after I leave Parliament. I don’t quite know where that will be. I’m happy to stick around in New Zealand, I’m happy to go overseas. I’m looking at some opportunities that have arisen in some other countries and I know that there are people in New Zealand who are interested in employing me. It’s about deciding between Ella and I what’s best for us.

I don’t really know here that’s going to take me but I’ll enjoy the ride.

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