Keep Our Assets Canterbury (KOA) recently announced the death of Steve Howard, one of their founders and key activists. Steve, who died on October 20, was 69. I gained permission to reprint their obituary for Steve.
Steve wrote his own death notice in the Press and in the first person. “After four months of pain and disability, I Stephen Howard decided to make use of the assisted death legislation”. Steve developed irreversible heart problems, compounded by other health issues, such as more than one stroke. It all happened shockingly fast.
In the first half of 2023, Steve was his usual highly active self. It was as recently as February that he and John Minto spoke at a Christchurch City Council meeting, on behalf of KOA, in opposition to the Council’s current proposal to “investigate” selling our assets.
KOA grew out of the National Keep Our Assets campaign, which was a response to the Key National government’s 2011 plan to partly sell the major State-owned electricity companies. The campaign successfully forced the Government to hold a citizens’ initiated referendum, which rejected the sale proposal. The Government ignored the referendum and went ahead with the sale. The national Keep Our Assets campaign folded up.
But not in Christchurch, where it has continued for more than a decade, focussing on the public assets owned by local government. Christchurch has more of those still in public ownership than other cities (who flogged theirs off years ago), so asset sales are still very much a live issue here. The first excuse to sell offered by the City Council was the cost of the earthquake rebuild – that attempt was defeated by public opposition, in which KOA played a leading role. The current excuse to sell is that the City Council is in too much debt (but not enough to have stopped it pouring hundreds of millions into the gold plated stadium. Indeed, those two things – the stadium and debt – are directly connected as cause and effect).
Steve was a KOA founder and very active, right from the outset. In the early years, he and I were the public face of KOA, until John Minto came along and took it to a whole other level with his 2016 and 2019 Mayoral campaigns on behalf of KOA. Steve did public speaking; he did the thankless but crucial work of writing (and speaking to) submissions to both the City Council and ECan. He regularly appeared before both. He took part in all KOA activities, particularly the successful campaign to stop the previous Dalziel City Council from selling Citycare. There were constant meetings, speaking engagements, lobbying, petitions, pickets (on the street and inside Council meetings). Steve was involved in all of that.
Throughout the whole period he was a key member of the KOA Committee, always attending our meetings. He was a KOA representative on the local Living Wage Movement. Until struck down this year by the health problems that were to so quickly kill him, Steve had every intention of being fully involved in KOA’s campaign to fend off the City Council’s current attempt to sell our assets
We had some creative fun. We had a white elephant made and took it to pickets to illustrate what we thought of “anchor projects” like the stadium. To dramatise our opposition to privatisation, we set up a toll booth at the bridge into Hanmer (where a National Party conference was being held) and leafleted and talked to the drivers who obligingly stopped.
Steve’s political activism was not confined to KOA. He was very active in the Green Party at grassroots level. He took part in all manner of other political protests and events. To give one example, and wearing one of my other hats – the Anti-Bases Campaign – he was one of the small but gallant band which picketed the first NZ Aerospace Summit, in Christchurch in 2022, focussing on Rocket Lab. He merrily went about chalking slogans on the steps of Te Pae (the convention centre), which resulted in a particularly obnoxious security guard standing on his hand. Steve was undeterred.
Economics was Steve’s passion. He’d studied it, he continued to read up on it, he loved discussing and debating it at KOA meetings. When he was actually in a rest home, receiving end of life care, he wrote and had published a letter to the Press about economics. I visited him several times when he was dying, including the day before his assisted death, and he was always keen – even when he had difficulty speaking and staying awake – to discuss all manner of political and philosophical subjects.
Throughout nearly his entire time of active involvement with KOA, he was the full time live-in caregiver for his terminally ill father (who died in 2022, in his 90s). That is hard, demanding and thankless work. He was a father and grandfather. He had two young boys from a second marriage (they’re only teenagers now) – sometimes he would bring them to KOA meetings with him. He owned a ten acre lifestyle block in Eyrewell, that he was planting in native trees and plants. He had only just had the chance to move back out there after his father’s death, and was starting to enjoy once again living out in the country. He greatly preferred rural life. If you didn’t know anything about him, you might have thought he had an academic or professional background (and, indeed, he did have a degree). But you would be wrong – Steve worked as a shearer for decades. His former shearing workmates were well represented at the commemorative gathering that was held at his Eyrewell home on Sunday. They spoke affectionately of a man who was nicknamed The Protester – “because he always argued about everything”.
Steve Howard was taken from us took young and shockingly fast. But his legacy is one of which he, his whanau and we, his KOA friends and colleagues, can be proud of. I made sure that I told him, before he died, that he is one of the reasons that Christchurch still has publicly-owned assets. We owe it to his memory to ensure that it stays that way.