Practically Living; a tribute to Helen Kelly

Helen Kelly was diagnosed with lung cancer on February 18th. Bad genes. Bad luck. She’s a non-smoker. Her ‘metastatic’ cancer is incurable, and successive rounds of chemo are aimed at prolonging life by months, not years.  Kelly might be described by the inarticulate as being a ‘fighter’, to use the cancer cliché. Sure enough, four rounds of chemo have run off her back leaving her a touch fatigued, but not in any way compromised in her efforts to improve the lot of working people. She won’t be standing for re-election as President of the Council of Trade Unions in October, but until then will continue to put everything she has into the job she’s performed since 2007.

I’ve never met her. Helen Kelly first became known to me when she was the face of efforts to fully unionize the New Zealand film industry by triggering an international actors blacklist of The Hobbit. I was angry and disgusted with her. Not that her objective was bad — it was absolutely good and right — but she picked a fight she was sure to lose. The CTU was fighting on too many fronts. Against Warner Bros. Against the government. Against Sir Peter Jackson. The PR battle was over before it began. This is the chronic problem with the left, that they think it is enough to be right, and the public will follow. But you can’t stop at the right idea.  You have to win.

All Warner Bros had to do was signal that they might take the movies offshore and it was checkmate. A centre-right government was never going to call their bluff. And at the end of it all John Key was furnished with a nice cudgel to bash the unions. What a blunder, I find such tactical stupidity hard to forgive. However, I think it speaks to her character that she fought at full intensity even when it was hopeless. That takes guts, a commitment to principle, and a humility immune to humiliation. When the smoke cleared there was a Helen Kelly shaped hole in the wall and she was off to fight for her cause elsewhere.

As I have said, I do not know Helen Kelly. Therefore my observations are not sharpened by a personal connection. She is handling her malady with a practicality I find almost intoxicating. You simply cannot control life, but you can keep from losing control. A self described atheist and fatalist, Kelly is not unsentimental. She got married last month and celebrated with hundreds of friends. In facing death Helen Kelly is living life.

This is not an obituary. Kelly is not dead. I hope to meet her at some stage and discuss the great questions, the vital struggles of our time, and come to a fuller understanding of her. Then, perhaps I will manage to enhance these lines. I hope not to write that obituary for a long time yet.

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