The life path Keith Locke ended up taking was largely mapped out at birth. He was born into a family in which it was natural to be politically active. His parents were Elsie Locke – peace campaigner, environmentalist, novelist and historian – and Jack Locke, a leading member of the Communist Party in New Zealand. Keith, one of four children, grew up listening to and – as he grew older – taking part in, political discussions at the dinner table. Not surprisingly, he was well read. He remembers winning a current affairs test at Christchurch Boys High School at the age of 13 – an age-group not usually interested in what’s going on in the world. Clearer still is his memory of listening to Radio BBC with his mother as Soviet troops invaded Hungary in 1956, and seeing her devastated reaction. He dates his passion for human rights from this time. Change and new ideas were sweeping New Zealand in the 1960’s. Keith was involved right at the beginning of ‘movement politics’ – campaigning on issues – in New Zealand. He took part in the first anti-nuclear marches and anti-apartheid protests. He notes that these activist groups were, in contrast to much of the traditional labour movement, non-hierarchical and dynamic. In 1963, his second year at the University of Canterbury studying towards a BSc in Pschology Keith formed the ‘University of Canterbury New Left Club’ with fellow members Bruce Jesson (journalist and writer) and Neville Gibson (editor of the NBR). Michael Cullen (Minister of Finance) was also part of the left-wing student scene. Politically speaking, he hasn’t had a month off since. Primarily a movement activist, Keith was not a member of any political party at the time he went to Canada to study towards his Masters in Sociology at the University of Alberta. There, he joined a Trotskyist group, the League for Socialist Action – a group he describes, on reflection, as a ‘political sect’, even though it was engaged in many progressive campaigns, such as protesting against the Vietnam war. Following completion of his Masters degree, Keith studied towards a Ph.D in Sociology for one and a half years. However, he did not complete it and returned to New Zealand, becoming involved the newly emerged Socialist Action League.
Farewell to academia
Keith lectured in Sociology at Victoria University from 1970 – 1972. At first a Junior Lecturer and then promoted to Lecturer, he could comfortably have remained an academic for life. However, in 1972, the Socialist Action League put out an urgent call for an editor, and Keith left the ivory tower to edit the fortnightly Socialist Action newspaper. Some of his most dramatic political memories date from around this period: he recalls the crowds at the Wellington anti-SIS protests in 1977 and the huge demonstration against the Vietnam War on April 30 1971 which he helped to organise.
Welcome to the working class
At the time, in the Socialist Action League, it was not enough to declare yourself sympathetic to the working class – members were encouraged to join it. And that’s exactly what Keith did. First at the New Zealand Motor Corporation, then at meatworks in Petone, then railway workshops. In every location he was active in the union, usually as delegate or organiser. The academic-turned-meatworker found valuable new experiences in these new environments. He experienced the ‘marae feel’ of the meatworks which had a large Māori workforce – the friendships, the workplace Te Reo lessons. Most of all, his experiences affirmed his ‘confidence in ordinary people’ who, for example, voted to continue with protests for better pay and conditions, despite personal hardship. During this time, Keith saw that, given an opportunity, people will get involved in politics. During this period Keith continued to be active on international social justice issues, acting as secretary of the Nicaragua Support Committee (which later broadened into the Wellington Latin America Committee), from 1980 to 1985. In the mid-1980s the Socialist Action League asked Keith to shift to an Auckland meatworks and he began work at the Auckland City Council abattoir. Auckland became his new home. A year and a half later he left the Socialist Action League, and in 1986 became the National Co-ordinator of the Philippines Solidarity Network. Keith found himself facilitating contacts between a range of New Zealand groups (union, student, women’s, peace, church and Māori) and their counterparts in the Philippines. He organised exchange trips as well as doing educational work on peace and social justice issues in the Philippines. He also continued his association with domestic peace issues, as a spokesperson for People Against Frigates. The Philippines Solidarity Network office was a hub of activism. CORSO, HART and CND all held meetings or had offices in the same location. In this central point, from 1990, Keith developed an existing development resource centre into One World Books, a broad-ranging progressive bookshop which, from 1993, was moved to Karangahape Road. This proved to be a natural meeting point for people interested in a wide range of political issues.
In 1989 Keith joined NewLabour, became its foreign affairs spokesperson and ran as its Eden candidate. By 1991, NewLabour was part of the Alliance political party. For Keith, this was a very active and fruitful time, with the Alliance growing in public support. He was the Alliance candidate in Eden (1993) and Owairaka (1996). However, Keith chose to go with the Green Party when the Alliance divided in 1997. His history working in social movements had given him a preference for a non-hierarchical approach and he wanted to move away from the Alliance’s more controlling top-down culture. The Green Party was attractive because its working style had a dynamic “movement” flavour; it was open to new ideas, and not socially conservative. Keith was able to maintain his long-term interest in global issues and his concern for human rights (both domestic and international) as a Green Party Member of Parliament from 1999 – 2011.
An ‘unofficial civil liberties watchdog’
Keith was presented with a number of awards for his work in Parliament, including the 2001 Civil Society awards and the ‘Courage Under Fire’ award (Dominion Post, 2002). In 2002, the NZ Herald named Keith ‘Backbencher of the year’, with the following comment: “As a committed leftie, he has an agenda. But he kept his head as others got swept up with gung-ho backing of the so-called war on terrorism. Locke became the unofficial civil liberties watchdog, exposing the Government’s shoddy attempt to rewrite New Zealand’s counter-terrorism laws in secret. He also shed light on SAS operations in Afghanistan, making a mockery of the Government’s blanket ‘no comment’. Quite simply doing the job an Opposition MP should do.” Jane Clifton on December 21 of the same year called him ‘the bravest person in Parliament’. In 2003, Keith was named ‘Politician of the Year’ (Chris Trotter on Radio New Zealand), and the following year the Scoop Awards labelled Keith “Conscience of the Year”. In May 2005, Metro magazine noted that Keith is ‘respected across party lines for his consistency and willingness to speak against the tide of popular opinion.’ In 2010, Keith was awarded the Fairfax Media ‘Back Bencher of the Year’ award, with the following description: “Green MP Keith Locke, who has plugged away for years on issues as diverse as human rights, spy agencies, republicanism, immigration, refugees, civil liberties and defence and would be the go-to Opposition man for the media on them all if it wasn’t for the fact he calls or emails them first. He’s the MP that has shown the most energy, and is forever challenging the Government – exactly what an Opposition backbencher should be doing. The Greens will find it hard to fill his shoes when he goes.” In December of 2010, in the Fairfax ‘Rating the lawmakers’ Keith Locke was described as: “A veteran MP and the voice of liberals everywhere. Where some MPs gasp for media exposure, Locke sucks it in in long breaths. He has become the front person for civil liberties, republicanism, foreign affairs, US foreign policy, intelligence, and law and order and despite being one of the oldest MPs, has more energy than most half his age. The sort of back bencher other parties would love to have.” During his time in parliament, Keith found it difficult to find the time for all the issues which came to his attention, noting “you can’t do as much as you would like”. On the other hand, he has tackled issues he would not otherwise have been able to – the resources and visibility of his position have made that possible.
Life after parliament
Keith hasn’t stopped working for postive change since his days as an MP. After he left parliament in 2011 he joined the boards of the Auckland Refugee Council (2012-2017) and the New Zealand Peace and Conflict Studies Centre Trust (2012-2019). Still with plenty to say, Keith continues to write on political issues for New Zealand newspapers, the Daily Blog and here on his own blog. He also acts as a spokesperson and commentator on intelligence issues, and presents to community groups on related areas. When subjects before select committee overlap with his various areas of expertise, Keith makes submissions to parliament. He also provides advice to current Green MPs. Of course things are not as busy as when Keith was an elected official. He is now able to enjoy spending time with friends – who are more often than not politically minded. He visits his nieces, nephews, grandnieces and nephews in Auckland and elsewhere, and still follows athletics and rugby league.