Stepping back with no regrets

Retiring Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean and Jimmy. PHOTO: FACEBOOK
Retiring Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean and Jimmy. PHOTO: FACEBOOK
There are many ways you can measure a political career.

For retiring Waitaki National MP Jacqui Dean, one way is dog years.

Her much-beloved Jimmy was a puppy about when she started in Parliament, barked at her for years when she finally came home from Wellington at the end of the week, and barked his last shortly before Mrs Dean put the finishing touches on her 18 years in Parliament.

"When I came home at the end of the week I’m sure he was saying to himself ‘I’m sure I know this woman, I’m just not sure from where, but I know she comes here every now and again’.

"I got the impression that I became a visitor, to some degree, in my own home."

Mrs Dean was not entirely a novice when she was first elected MP for Otago (now Waitaki) in 2005, having served on Waitaki District Council previously.

She reclaimed what had previously been a safe National seat from David Parker, and at the height of the John Key era was able to build up a 16,668 majority.

When Mr Key retired, Mrs Dean was elevated to ministerial level.

Although given an almighty scare in 2020, like many of her National colleagues, Mrs Dean held Waitaki and during her last term in Parliament has relished a new role, as assistant Speaker.

It is not inconceivable that if National were to win on October 14 and Mrs Dean had not decided more than a year ago that it was time to retire, that she could have become Speaker.

While acknowledging that she would have loved the job, she has no regrets about her decision.

"I’ll be happily handing over the keys and saying ‘it’s yours’ to whoever follows me," she said.

"I am ready for it. I decided a long time ago and announced it a year ago, that after 18 years and six years in local government and community fundraising before that, because I felt that I had done my bit, so there are no regrets.

"Yes, I would have loved to have been Speaker and would have absolutely done my best to uphold what we now have in our current Speaker, he has restored the mana of Parliament ... but I had made my decision and I have more important things to do, like grandchildren and a husband."

Being the MP for Waitaki is no easy gig.

It covers one of the largest geographic areas of any electorate, and on any given weekend Mrs Dean could be travelling from her Oamaru base to Geraldine or Wanaka or all points in between.

It is hard yakka but she was also well aware of that when she took the job on, Mrs Dean said.

"Even now, 18 years later, we have an electorate map on the coffee table with which I can plan when and where I need to be, what I needed to do and how I was going to get there and get home again. It is hard, and I have spent a lot of years leaving early in the morning and driving for three hours or more, doing whatever I had to do, and then either driving back again or staying over somewhere and repeating the next day.

"It is exhausting and you have to be prepared to give everything to it ... you have to go where you are wanted and needed and there is no system that you can apply to that."

There have been plenty of wins for Waitaki while it has been under Mrs Dean’s wing: she cites a plethora of new cycle trails and irrigation schemes as examples of things she is most proud of.

But on the other hand, there are many obstacles within the electorate — some dating back before her time — which remain unsurmountable.

"Maternity services — we are still waiting for a birthing unit all these years later, and this is over successive governments, we have not installed a good system for midwives to operate within, let alone the mums and bubs that need safety," she said.

"And Oamaru Hospital, honestly, I’m heartbroken with what is happening with A&E having to close at certain times: that’s not what we fought for."

While Waitaki has been a priority and a passion for Mrs Dean, in her role as a presiding officer she has played a part in the commissioning, reporting back and now the implementation of the Francis review of Parliament’s workplace culture.

Having seen and heard plenty of things she was not impressed with during her 18 years, Mrs Dean knows that there have been problems, but says that like any workplace there will always be problems.

"I think there is a greater appreciation now of the power imbalance inherent in Parliament and I think that MPs have been put on notice that there are consequences for behaviour that is not acceptable."

Mrs Dean gives her valedictory speech next week, and is looking forward to stepping back from the hustings, and being a wife and grandmother.

She will still watch the election night returns on October 14 closely, but not with her heart in her mouth quite as much as before.

"I’ve always taken the view that there is no point complaining about the travel, the disruption to sleep, all those things, because people have voted me in and supported me to do a job for them and that’s what I’m there do, and I’ve always done it very happily."

And it’s goodbye from him

Dunedin Labour MP David Clark gave his valedictory on Thursday night (see yesterday’s ODT for full coverage of that).

Among many funny moments was this cracker about how he got hired to work in the office of former Otago MP David Parker.

"Over a beer at the Occidental, Grant Robertson told me my complete lack of political experience and my background as a Treasury official would not count against me. Two days later I met David at another bar, disagreed with him about just about everything ... and was offered the job."

Stuck in the middle with you

Dunedin National list MP Michael Woodhouse had a range of appointments on Wednesday afternoon but had to forgo them after he got stuck in a lift with only National colleague Paul Goldsmith for company.

Social media offered little sympathy for their plight which, going by photographic evidence, they seemed to be enjoying immensely.