Former Sports Minister Grant Robertson blasts mistreatment of transgender athletes in farewell speech

Former Sport Minister Grant Robertson has used his final Parliamentary speech to defend the rights of transgender athletes and the protection of athlete rights in general.

Robertson, 52, has retired from politics afer 16 years as a Member of Parliament, including six years as Minister for Sport and Recreation.

As New Zealand's first openly gay deputy prime minister, he used his final address to express his pride at the progress made in upholding the rights of the Rainbow Community under the Labour Government - with one glaring exception.

Former Sports Minister Grant Robertson and weightlifter Laurel Hubbard.
Former Sports Minister Grant Robertson and weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. Photo credit: Getty Images

"We still have some way to go to ensure people can grow up to be who they are and are supported to live fulfilling lives," he told Parliament. "I am particularly concerted with the way our trans community have been the subject of increasing hatred, bigotry and lies, as part of the ongoing culture wars.

"I saw this especially in the sports portfolio. People with absolutely no care for women's sport suddenly became warriors for safety and pursuit of an imagined enemy.

"The 'othering' of transpeople is dispicable. We have to support people to live their lives they want to live and we have to show them some respect."

Under Robertson's watch, sport has struggled to find a place for transgender athletes in its traditional community and elite structures, a dilemma illustrated by Kiwi Laurel Hubbard's emergence as one of the world's top female weightlifters. 

Hubbard's presence at the Tokyo Olympics brough the debate to a head, dividing opinion both in New Zealand and around the world, but she won hearts with her spirit, despite failing three snatch attempts.

Athlete rights in general came under the spotlight during Robertson's term and he has expressed his regret over the death of track cyclist Olivia Podmore, who qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, but was not selected and died in a suspected suicide soon after. 

Robertson oversaw the creation of Integrity Sport NZ to help prevent future casualties of the system.

"There have been far too many examples of abuse, bullying and undue pressure being placed on athletes," he said. "The death of Olivia Podmore, while resident in the high-performance cycling programme was tragic and I think of her family today.

"Integrity Sport NZ is an independent body that upholds safe, fair, drugfree sport, asseses complaints and undertakes investigations that can give athletes and their families confidence."

Robertson reflects on the strides made in women's sport in recent years, culminating in New Zealand's hosting of three World Cup in cricket, rugby and football during his two terms.

"There is still a long way to go to achieve the equity that women in sport deserve, but I am proud of what we achieved," he said. "I want to take time to acknowledge the wahine toa that have promoted women's sport over generations agains the odds and the prejudices they faced.

"We owe it to them and generations to come to keep the momentum going over coming decades."

He has revealed his own claim to sporting fame came as a ballboy at the 1983 All Blacks v British Lions rugby test at Dunedin's Carisbrook.

Grant Robertson and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern celebrate with Football Ferns star CJ Bott.
Grant Robertson and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern celebrate with Football Ferns star CJ Bott. Photo credit: Getty Images

"It rained, sleeted and huge pools of water appeared on the field," he recalled. "We were given giant oilskin parkas to wear and I looked like a rotund, bespectacled, drenched Ewok."

Robertson also admits he used a form of blackmail to secure the sports portfolio, when Labour took power in 2017.

"When [Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern] asked me to be the Minister of Finance, I said it was on one condition," he recalled. "I wanted to be Minister of Sport and Recreation as well.

"She said a few people had expressed interest in that role, but I asked her how many she had asked to be Minister of Finance.

"I have loved sport for as long as I can remember. I was never very good at it... but I believe in sport as a way to strengthen our communities and our wellbeing."