Roy of the Rovers

Eric Roy
Eric Roy

Invercargill MP Eric Roy is retiring this election. A yarn or two would seem to be in order, then. Michael Fallow reports.

It's Eric Roy's gift to the nation - the 1kg oyster.

Don't get your hopes up. They don't exist in life.

ERIC AND ELIZABETH ROY: "Some people say she would make a better MP than I did. They may well have been right."
ERIC AND ELIZABETH ROY: "Some people say she would make a better MP than I did. They may well have been right."

But they do, just quietly, exist in law.

Millions of them. Usefully, too.

And it's all Roy's doing.

Back in the 1990s, it became a big issue how oysters were to be counted for the sorely needed new quota management system. They had to be recorded by weight, by the kilogram, the fisheries bureaucracy insisted. Because, by golly, that was how the record-keeping systems were set up. Don't be stupid, retorted Roy, chairing Parliament's primary production committee. Real people count them by numbers. How hard could it be to accommodate this into the system? Plenty hard, apparently. Enough to stall things. He was still feeling the frustrations when he had his little epiphany during a Christmas break at Te Anau. Did he really need to change that system, if it was going to be such a bureaucratic nightmare?

He did not. Instead, at his behest, a little annotation was passed into the law books explaining that, purely for recording purposes, each oyster taken would be deemed to weigh a kilogram.

Strictly speaking they don't. Not out there in the real world. This is both a) a fact and b) neither here nor there.

Roy likes to think of his solution as homespun farmer-style thinking.

"What's wrong with it?" the farmer- politician say, laughing. "Never mind whether it works in theory. It works in practice."

Speaking of which, the way that Roy's committee worked in practice during the 1990s was, in Parliamentary terms, something of a marvel.

This is perhaps his single most substantive legacy as a lawmaker.

When it came time to rewrite the Fisheries Act Roy, though not its architect, found himself chairing a cross- party committee charged with bringing democratic process to an issue that had already polarised the parties - a bill of great complexity and significance that had provoked a blizzard of submissions from eco groups, commercial fishing interests, Maori customary-rights proponents and recreational groups.

And he was the sole National MP, along with Labour's Jim Sutton and Graham Kelly.

As they waded into the task, it's not surprising that Roy invoked Chatham House Rules while sharing position papers. What is surprising is that they all stuck to those rules, in spirit and letter.

Full credit to the participants, but let's not pretend it was sweetness and light.

In his recent valedictory address to Parliament, Roy put it this way: the threatened consequences of breaking ranks involved penalties that went beyond anything envisaged in Standing Orders.

And then "on the basis of equal screaming, we made some decisions".

It proved the sort of collaboration that former Labour Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer has cited as an example of how things ought to work.

For his part, Roy says: "If I have a skill, it's being able to get people to make decisions." What followed proved his point. Taking up his Whip hand, he contrived to guide that monumental fisheries bill through the House with what could have been criticised as indecent speed.

Here they were, among other things giving away a few billion dollars of property rights, yet he persuaded the House, on the very brink of closing up for 1996, that the 550-page bill could have its second reading in just 15 minutes and the third reading in just 20 minutes after that.

Yet, not only has the legislation served for 18 years so far without requiring substantive change, Roy can cite an audit of fishing systems worldwide that recently ranked New Zealand's as the most managed and most sustainable.

Such achievements do tend to fly under the radar in terms of flash headlines. And you couldn't call Roy an ardent political self-publicist.

It turns out that in his electorate work, he long ago quietly assured the Government agencies in town - health, Inland Revenue, DOC and so on - that he wasn't, ever, going to bag them in public. But if he did decide there was an issue, he wanted it to be taken seriously and given attention. Worked well, he reckons.

OK, he did once envisage a pretty flash piece of self promotion.

A man came in with a complaint and Roy sensed a rat. So much so that he felt impelled to call Sergeant Dave Raynes and supply the name and birth date. After maybe 15 seconds research, the cop phoned back. They'd been after this guy for two years since he'd escaped custody in Huntly.

Right, Roy decided. I'll set up a sting. And he invited the fugitive back to his office.

The thought struck him that when the police came in to make the arrest, their man would probably bolt out the back door, which was right behind his desk.

More strapping than your standard MP, he decided would bring him down in one of those heroic tackles from his footy days. Oh, he could just see that tackle in his head.

Back the guy came, in the police strode, and as soon as he saw them the wanted man burst " into tears! So much for my big moment in sport."

A farmer before he was a politician, Roy believes managing the environment will be the biggest land-use issue for Southland, particularly if the returns continue to "prejudice pastoral farming towards dairying".

In the early 1990s the concern had been good pastoral farmland in western and southern Southland being gobbled up by forest merchants. His suggestion at the time was to find a better land use to put the value of land back ahead of the trees. Why not get some people doing dairying in your patches?

Ah well.

"The interesting thing about life and politics is the constant evolution of things happening that need to be solved. Nothing stays the same. If you believe evolution theory, it's not the strongest that survive, but those able to adapt.

Roy hesitates not a moment before choosing his single most challenging electorate issue. Disposing of the Haysoms dross, which the Times was fond of calling his Kryptonite.

Ten years it took to get rid of that stuff, about 16,000 tonnes left homeless and unwanted after the company controversially processing the Tiwai Smelter byproduct had gone belly-up.

Chemically speaking it wasn't all that nasty but politically it was radioactive. Every time a solution seemed near, Roy found his efforts thwarted. The attentions of Citizens Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa didn't help him. It struck him that group didn't want a solution because it felt the dross was one of the suppurating sores that should stand testimony to what an abomination a foreign-owned smelter was.

His longtime Labour opponent, Mark Peck, was among those hectoring him for lack of progress on the issue. As Roy tells it, Peck particularly stirred up locals when a Nightcaps mine was looking like the answer. Ultimately the smelter took it back but "at one stage I was that frustrated I even thought about making my farm available".

But logic prevailed. That idea proved just a tad too homespun. The smelter no longer produces the dross, mercifully.

It's fair to say that when Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics came out, not too many people tore into to see if Eric Roy featured.

He doesn't. And no, he hasn't read it.

Roy's honest-broker status around Parliament is reflected in his roles as Deputy Speaker and Assistant Speaker. He accepts confrontation isn't particularly his style, but wouldn't have us overplay that benign impression.

"I'm never one to back down. I've played too much first-class rugby for that to be the case."

By his own account he developed a "pretty vicious counter-hook" and without being too pugilistic about politics, he volunteers that people tackling him on the hustings during the previous election were at times rendered to tears. Not that this was his intention.

Right from the early days, though, he determined that he wouldn't have people being able to go down to the pub after an encounter and boast to their mates that they'd just read him his pedigree. Not honestly, anyway.

He's very much the roving outdoorsman and Jane Clifton once noted that "he fills a kilt well". That was at a charity debate during which The Southland Times snagged a photo of her and Kerre Woodham, on the floor, each grasping one of his trunk-like legs, like James Bond poster girls. We can't find the photo, sadly. There's another one out there somewhere of our MP cavorting bare-ass naked in public.

The sort of thing that might normally be good for a bit of controversy. But no, he was just joining others in some middle-aged skinny-dipping in Antarctica. Pretty much compulsory down there, he explains.

It wasn't just his hunting background that had him go a bit crook when SAFE campaigner Hans Kriek was lobbying Parliament over the unkindness of it all.

Roy wanted to know how, exactly, anyone was going to be able to hunt wild pigs without a dog.

When no clear alternative was presented, he was openly irritated And here's the thing. Though he was always one of Parliament's most conspicuously Christian MPs, he does seem to harbour an acute unease about zealotry -- or at least the sort he calls "principle without substance". He's wary of ideas so passionately embraced that they are no longer, if ever they were, subject to proper testing. These are just mantras, he says. Those religious groups who approached him unhappy about the membership and deeds of Parliament were liable to find themselves invited to consider how effectively their church had been doing its job. Because the House of Representatives isn't meant to be a faith promoter, but a microcosm of the greater community, he says.

That said, society used to be solidly grounded in Judaeo-Christian values and that kind of worked for us, he says. We have never had the debate about what we put in their place if we actually want to move away from that.

"We need some reference points, otherwise the danger is Parliament makes decisions on popularity or convenience.

"We need to anchor stuff back to some solid principles.

The very last story Roy told Parliament in his valedictory harked back to his work as a young man, doing volunteer service in Vanuatu. That's where he'd learned something about pidgin english and the cargo cults that arose from the locals' first contact with colonising societies. They came to believe ritualistic acts would lead to the bestowing of material wealth (cargo really translates into possessions).

"We laugh and think that this is kind of quaint," Roy told his colleagues, "but in reality the biggest lesson for me is that cargo cults are very much a part of every part of society." Back in his Invercargill office, he elaborates. "You see people with exactly the same mentality, as if there's some kind of magic way possessions can be delivered without people getting an education, getting the work habit, and holding down a job." Politicians aren't immune to cargo thinking either. He gently cautioned his fellow MPs not to use the equity of the country for the illusory benefits of cargo.

Nothing tests the solidity of someone's faith and principles quite like serious illness. Roy developed cancer during his time in Parliament and at one stage was given a 20 per cent chance of survival.

Sure, he has funny stories about that time. Like how he was trying to handle the news when Murray McCully phoned. For starters, he foolishly assumed the all- knowing black knight had heard of his predicament and had called to be supportive.


McCully had a speech to deliver in Invercargill but he'd developed this rotten cold and didn't think he should be heading to Invercargill in July. So would Eric fill in?

"Sorry to hear about your cold," Roy replied, bleakly "but I'm dying of cancer" After a long pause the reply came.

"Ha ha! I'll send you the notes." To this day, Roy doesn't think McCully understands he really was sick.

Did his cancer change him as a politician, or a man?

Like many other serious illnesses, it does rewire you emotionally, he says. You know he cried when Nemo got lost. It also made him more reflective over a spectrum of things. Like how he got through it when people much better than him didn't. People like his sister Lois, who died in 1991.

"There's no fairness about that .You kind of ponder that stuff a bit." Ardent self-assessment too, about how he had, and should be, using his time. It's not conducive to a good night's sleep, this process, but at least you don't kid yourself.

And having asked himself some basic questions about his past, present and future, it says something that he chose to continue in politics.

Nowadays he's quietly proactive about contacting others who have been struck seriously ill. Right now he's mentoring a couple of people in Invercargill and one or two further afield.

Of course he has mixed feelings about the end of his time as an MP. But it does seem like the right call. The National team needs rejuvenation, and although the party's new Invercargill candidate Sarah Dowie isn't being handed victory - it always takes work to get there, he says - she's not being handed a defeat either. For his part, Roy is seized with the number of options he now has, and one project already begun is a book, Notes to the Grandchildren.

"I feel I'm in a great position to choose how to use my time. This is a great time of life."

The Southland Times