Speech: University of Otago Graduation, 19 May 2018

On 19 May 2018 I was honoured to give a graduation address at the University of Otago, my alma mater. The brief was wide, but I was encouraged to think about ‘one thing the graduates would remember for the rest of their lives.’ Daunting. Here is the speech I gave.

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei.

Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.

He mihi tēnei ki a koutou katoa kua tae mai nei ki raro i te tuanui o tēnei whare ataahua, kei te mihi, kei te mihi.

To everyone gathered here today in this special building, I give greetings.

E ngā tini mate, kua wheturangitia ki te kupenga wairua, haere, haere, haere. Rātou ki a rātou te hunga mate. Tātou ki a tātou te hunga ora.

To the many loved ones who have reassembled as stars in the heavens, farewell. The deceased to the deceased. The living to the living.

E mihi ana ki te rangi, e mihi ana ki te whenua, e mihi ana ki ngā maunga me nga wai hōrapa nei i tēnei rohe ataahua o Kai Tahu.

I acknowledge the sky, earth, mountains and waters of this beautiful place, and the mana whenua, Kai Tahu.

Ngā mihi nui ki te Tumuaki, te Pouwhakaārahi, ngā mema o te kaunihera, rau rakitira mā, ngā kaimahi, ngā whanau, ā, ngā mihi nui ake ki ngā paetahi o tēnei rā, ngā mihi mānawa ki a koutou.

To the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Council Members, distinguished guests, staff, family members, and most importantly those who are graduating today, my very warmest greetings.

Ko wai ahau?

Ko Pukeatua te maunga

Ko Te Awa Kairangi te awa

No Ingarangi me Kotirana oku Tipuna

No Pito-one ahau

Ko Holly Walker toku ingoa.

No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.


At her graduation from the University of Otago in 1897, Ethel Benjamin – the first woman lawyer in New Zealand – made an official reply on behalf of the graduands.

In doing so, she became not only the first woman to graduate with a law degree, but also the first woman to give any kind of official speech at the University.

And she was only asked to do it the day before. No pressure!

She was reported to have said:

“It was only yesterday that I was asked to undertake this pleasant task, and while deeply sensible to the compliment paid to me, I was somewhat diffident about taking so much upon myself at so short a notice. But I knew that little would be expected of me and even if I succeeded in talking nonsense, the charitable verdict would be, ‘Oh well, it is all that can be expected of a woman.”

Needless to say, she exceeded those expectations.

When Ethel Benjamin enrolled for her LLB in 1893, women were still not permitted to practice law, and even the right to vote was a few months off being granted, but she took a punt. She said:

“I had faith that a colony so liberal as our own would not long tolerate such purely artificial barriers. I therefore entered on my studies with a light heart, feeling sure that I should not long be debarred from the use of any degree I might obtain.”

And she wasn’t. The MPs and judges saw her coming and they knew what was good for them, so they changed the law to allow women to practice the year before she graduated.  On the tenth of May 1897, Ethel Benjamin was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand.

She set up a successful legal practice in Princes Street, and dealt mainly with cases of domestic violence, divorce, and adoption – filling an important gap that only a woman could.

Interestingly, although she was a trailblazer for women’s rights, she didn’t support the temperance movement that was so closely linked to the suffrage movement at the time. Instead, she acted on behalf of several hotels and publicans in opposition to prohibition.

I guess that makes her a true Dunedin student.

This year, as well celebrating 125 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, it’s 125 years since Ethel Benjamin enrolled at the University of Otago.

I think her story is as relevant as ever.

For me, what stands out is her cheerful optimism that artificial barriers will fall, and her determination to live her life as though they already had.

The trick, of course, is that by refusing to acknowledge those barriers, she played a huge part in ensuring that they came down.

As you take your degrees today, I hope you’ll follow Ethel’s example: don’t let artificial barriers get in your way. If they do, do your best to remove them.


There’s always a but, isn’t there?

Sometimes those artificial barriers can be tricky. They can even appear invisible.

Ethel Benjamin probably assumed that by now, 121 years after she became the first, there would be just as many women lawyers as men, just as many women judges and parliamentarians and business people and scientists and leaders of all kinds.

It’s true that women do outnumber and outperform men at University today. Sorry men who are graduating today!

All you fabulous women graduands – it would be easy to assume that all we need to do is send you out into the world and wait for you to take your rightful places.

I used to think that. I wrote an opinion piece for Critic in 2003 all about how we didn’t need feminism any more because all the bright, confident women at university with me would go out and close the gender gap simply by existing.

Man was I ever wrong!

The thing about those artificial barriers – whether they are barriers along lines of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, income, or a combination – is they can be extremely hard to break.

They might not be real, but when they have years of expectations and norms crusted onto them, they can still really hurt when you smash into them.

I was an MP when I had my first daughter. I knew it would be hard, but I thought the idea that a woman couldn’t have a baby and carry on being an MP was a totally artificial barrier. I wanted to show that with the right support women can do anything.

So I charged into new motherhood and into Parliament with a hiss and a roar. I smashed right into that barrier. And it REALLY hurt!

It hurt so much that after a few months, I stepped away from the career that I had always wanted. I couldn’t do it.

I’m not saying that it can’t be done. We’ve got a Prime Minister who’s about to do it and I wish her all the success in the world.

But I couldn’t do it. And that’s okay.

And that’s the second thing I hope you will take away from today. Sometimes we can’t break down those artificial barriers all at once. We have to do our bit to chip away at them, and then step away and let someone else take over.

I opened with a Maori proverb, a whakatauki: Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei.

It means Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.

So today, as you step out of this Town Hall and into the rest of your lives, set your sights high.

Decide what you want to achieve, and if there are artificial barriers in the way, try to behave as if they weren’t there. If you’re lucky, by the very act of trying, you’ll make them disappear. It worked for Ethel.

But if they don’t; if you smash up into them again and again until you’re red and raw and sore and tired, don’t despair.

If you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.

Climb down, dust yourself off, and find another way around. In my experience, there always is one.

Congratulations on your fantastic achievement today. Enjoy your celebrations – you’ve earned them.

Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou tēnā tātou kātoa.