Opinion: Helen Kelly my New Zealander of the year

Helen Kelly speaking at the Talley's Affco Rangiuru meat workers' march in Te Puke (Simon Oosterman Beckers / Facebook)
Helen Kelly speaking at the Talley's Affco Rangiuru meat workers' march in Te Puke (Simon Oosterman Beckers / Facebook)

I got to know Helen Kelly pretty well as a journo working in Wellington for a pile of years.

I always knew her to be a staunch advocate for workers' rights, pay and conditions. 

She called out the bosses and stuck to her guns. She never flinched. Ever. She took on industry, politicians and particularly the Prime Minister. 

So it was with enormous sadness I heard of her passing this morning. She fought so bloody hard to beat lung cancer.

But I'll never forget her campaign on forestry. 

I'd just started as the host at RadioLIVE Drive when she really highlighted and targeted the industry. My mates up north are in forestry so I took a particular interest. 

Her campaign changed the industry. When she started, 11 hard-working men had died in the forests in just 12 months. By the time she'd finished it was just one.

I think it's fair to say she overhauled the industry and changed it for good. That is a remarkable legacy. She has saved lives, potentially dozens.

I'll never forget the death of Charles Finlay in the forests. I spoke many times with his widow Maryanne Butler-Finlay. She was devastated and wanted justice. Helen Kelly stepped up. It was the trigger to tip the industry on its head. 

Charles was 45. He'd worked in the industry for 27 years and was still paid not much more than $16 an hour. That's a bloody disgrace. 

He worked for a company with $11.5 billion worth of global assets. 

He died on the forest floor just after 5am when a 55kg bit of wood hit him in back of the head. The forest was dark. There were no lights. He needed better working conditions, and health and safety was poor as it was across the entire industry. 

He left home at 3:30am and returned home at 7pm most nights. He was knackered. And he died under-paid and unprotected. 

Helen Kelly comforted Maryanne and turned the industry on its head. She named and shamed until the industry listened and acted. 

She's a hero to those grieving families. And she's my New Zealander of the year. Rest in peace Helen, you deserve it.