The Veteran: Ruth Dyson stands again for the Left

ALDEN WILLIAMS/Stuff.co.nz

Christchurch Labour MP Ruth Dyson.

Many might have forgotten that Ruth Dyson was elected president of the Labour Party at the tender age of 31.

It was 1988 and the Fourth Labour Government was dominated by right-wingers such as Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and David Caygill.

"It was a terrible time," she recalls over coffee recently.

The coalition put together by the Labour Party to defeat Robert Muldoon in 1984 was falling apart under the antagonistic forces of Rogernomics and Labour's progressive instincts.

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During Dyson's time as president, Douglas and allies departed the party, heading right. Jim Anderton and allies departed the party, heading left.

The leadership changed too. David Lange resigned and was replaced by Geoffrey Palmer and then Mike Moore.

Dyson now claims she wasn't entranced by politics, but she nonetheless got elected to Parliament as the member for Lyttelton in 1993. She's represented south and east Christchurch – under various boundary changes and for a time as a List MP – for almost 25 years. She was a cabinet minister for more than eight years under Helen Clark.

Labour MP Ruth Dyson wants to be deputy speaker.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

Labour MP Ruth Dyson wants to be deputy speaker.

And now she's standing for re-election again. Isn't it time to make way for a younger person, a refresh?

"There will always be people who want me to stand aside, most of them National Party people I imagine," she says.

"In our next caucus, we'll have – I think – five people who have served in cabinet before," she says. "That's not very many. You need that mix of experience and new people."

"We've gone through a huge refreshment process."

The new caucus hasn't been elected yet and there's some Plan A thinking going on here.

All going well, she'll become a deputy speaker.

"I haven't done that role before. I'm really interested in how the house operates. I could bring a sense of respect to the role. It's really important that people in those roles get the best out of people in debates."

If this sounds like a modest ambition, perhaps it's because Dyson has lost rank within the Labour Party over the years and played a minor role in Canterbury's biggest issue this decade – the rebuild.

Asked if she's frustrated by the rebuild, Dyson says "Yep".

"I share the frustration of most Cantabrians. I think it could have been done differently and better."

Dyson, then president of the Labour Party, in 1990. "It was a terrible time."

Dyson, then president of the Labour Party, in 1990. "It was a terrible time."

She is calm, measured and perhaps wary. She's not prepared to blame anyone.

"They were all good people but had the wrong skill sets," she says of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority.

She's more animated on the Earthquake Commission: "It's slow and dysfunctional and frustrating".

Dyson and Canterbury president Greg Pateman open the new Deaf Society of Canterbury clubrooms in 2015. She has long ...

Dyson and Canterbury president Greg Pateman open the new Deaf Society of Canterbury clubrooms in 2015. She has long advocated for the deaf and disabled.

It's inconceivable to her that insurance companies are still getting over-cap claims from EQC in June 2017. "Insurers are tearing their hair out ," she says.

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Without blaming anyone, "the board and chief executive needed to front up and say this isn't working."

She won't utter Gerry Brownlee's name.

The former minister of earthquake recovery thought that "taking people with him would slow things down but it's not true". Delays have meant there was plenty of time to consult the public. Share an Idea – the successful public consultation led by city council – should have been just a start.

It's fair to say the Labour Party has been ineffective in challenging the Government and Brownlee on the rebuild. There may have been individual victories but Cantabrians voted strongly for National and Brownlee in the 2011 and 2014 elections.

It's also fair to say that demolishing a city centre, red-zoning suburbs, master planning a rebuild, anchor projects and seeing it through aren't among Dyson's strengths or interests.

★★★

Dyson was born in Lower Hutt in 1957 and moved often as a child because her father served in the military.

She wound up on the West Coast and in an abusive relationship. She's always been open about this, speaking about it in her 1994 maiden speech to Parliament. "I know the confusion of emotions that are linked with women involved in domestic violence," she said then.

"You live in hope that things will get better," she recalls now. Women think if they do everything right, the abuse will stop. "It's always your fault."

"It's not until you realise that it's not your fault – you're not doing anything wrong – that it's his fault. Then you go, 'Holy moly, I'm out of here'."

She sees this man "quite a lot now". He's different now, she says.

"We talk like people who knew each other once."

"We've both moved on. He's changed dramatically."

These days, Dyson has the "best husband", two stepchildren, and five grandchildren.

She lives on the hill in Redcliffs, with a view over the Estuary and Pegasus Bay. She a keen gardener, has a forest of fruit trees and keeps honey bees. It's comfortable.

Dyson hasn't lost interest in the disadvantaged, the poor, the disabled. She's happily on the Left of the Labour Party. Her cabinet roles under Clark included associate minister of social services and employment, associate minister for accident insurance, associate minister of health, and minister for disability issues.

One of her proudest achievements as an MP is challenging how the disabled are treated. She became the first disability issues spokesperson and later minister.

"We had a minister for [horse] racing but we didn't have anyone sitting around the cabinet table advocating for disabled people. For me that was a big gap."

She's also proud of introducing and passing the law that made NZ Sign Language an official language alongside English and te reo.

She's also proud of improving rehabilitation opportunities for injured people under ACC.

But this is tempered by one of her biggest disappointments – not getting the ill properly covered by ACC.

She gives an example of serious brain injury caused by a car smash compared to a similar injury caused by haemorrhage. "They get quite different opportunities."

After Clark left office, Dyson's fortunes looked up. Under leader Phil Goff, Dyson was ranked fifth on the Labour list for the 2011 election. High office beckoned. Instead she was returned to opposition.

Three years later, under new leader David Cunliffe, she was off the Labour list entirely.

Now, under new leader Andrew Little, she's back on the list but ranked 23.

She's been eclipsed by fellow Christchurch Labour MP Megan Woods, who sits fifth on the list and would apparently get a high cabinet job if Labour returns to power later this year.

Dyson insists being a backbench MP – and potentially a deputy speaker – is reward enough.

"I love my job," she says. "It's a real privilege being elected as a Member of Parliament. I have lots of energy. I love my communities and want to continue to represent them. I'd stop ... if I didn't feel passionate about these places and people."

Meanwhile she's listening to constituents' issues in the Port Hills electorate.

Her voters complain often about water quality, perhaps because so many live near the Heathcote River, the Estuary or Lyttelton Harbour. They have an affinity for water that stretches to irrigating the Canterbury Plains and bottling water. "People are angry that the Government has set such low standards," she says.

She's dismayed that the recent Ministry of Education apology for closing and merging schools wasn't fronted by a minister. "They were the minister's decisions, not the ministry's decisions," she says.

Some of the merged schools in Port Hills are bursting at the seams and creating enrolment zones. It tells her the math behind the mergers was flawed.

She strongly supports "a school in Redcliffs" regardless of location. "It's time to get those kids back home," she says.

 - Stuff

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