Could Helen Kelly, the country’s first female head of the trade union movement, have become another charismatic New Zealand female prime minister?
Even as a young child, according to Rebecca Macfie in her biography of Kelly to be released on May 14, she fancied herself in the role. ‘Her high school friends saw her as so capable and reliable that this would likely come to pass,’ Macfie writes. So did her mother, Cath Kelly, who labelled Kelly’s towel rail in the family home ‘H.M. [Helen Margaret] Kelly, PM’.
However, in 2007 Kelly postponed her plan to enter parliament as MP for Wellington Central when she agreed to become head of the Council of Trade Unions, a job she had been encouraged to take on by then president Ross Wilson.
Grant Robertson, who coveted the Wellington Central Labour nomination, recalls nervously meeting Kelly for coffee. ‘I wasn’t a hundred percent certain that Helen wouldn’t say, “Actually I’m not going to be CTU president, I am going to go for Wellington Central.”’
Robertson won Wellington Central in the 2008 election and is today deputy prime minister. Kelly went on to become an energetic, controversial and courageous champion of workers’ rights, battling against some of the country’s toughest adversaries, from Talley’s to Ports of Auckland. However, since her death in 2016 at the age of 52 many have speculated that, had she lived, she would one day have entered parliament and even fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming prime minister.
Kelly was the daughter of Pat and Cath Kelly, long-time communists who in the 1970s switched their political loyalties to the Labour Party. Her father, Cleaners Union secretary Pat Kelly, in the 1970s mentored many young activists in the union movement. Her mother Cath Kelly was a Labour Party stalwart who became a tireless supporter of the people of Vietnam: both she and Pat fiercely opposed the Vietnam War.
In her role as CTU president, Helen Kelly believed all workers, whether in a union or not, deserved to be given a fair go. Her battles with famous people were the stuff of headlines. She took on Peter Jackson, the nation’s icon, when he opposed demands from Actors’ Equity for an agreement over pay and conditions for workers on The Hobbit. She was accused in parliament of doing ‘irreparable damage’ to the union movement and by employers of exploiting the bereaved families of dead workers when she exposed dangerous work practices in forestry companies. While many New Zealanders saw her as a hero, to others she was ‘that woman’, a bloody pain in the neck.
After being diagnosed with cancer in February 2015, Kelly fought for the legalisation of medicinal cannabis and jousted on social media with the associate minister of health, Peter Dunne, using the hashtag #apersoncoulddiewaiting.
Rebecca Macfie, whose previous book Tragedy at Pike River Mine won three major awards, weaves the story of Kelly’s life with the history of a defining period in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand, when old values were replaced by the individualism of neo-liberalism, and the wellbeing and livelihood of workers faced unremitting stress. Through it all, Helen Kelly stood as an electrifying figure.
Helen Kelly: Her Life by Rebecca Macfie, published by Awa Press.
Release date: May 15, 2021, RRP: $50
For a review copy, cover image, extracts, and/or interview with the author, contact Penny Hartill, firstname.lastname@example.org 021 721 424 Rebecca Macfie is a featured speaker at the 2021 Auckland Writers Festival on Saturday, May 15. Tickets at: tinyurl.com/4bmxw9dx