Metiria Turei's big plans

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 05:00 17/08/2014
Green Party leaders
DAVID WHITE/Fairfax NZ
GENERATION X: Green Party co-leaders Russel Norman and Metiria Turei.

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Twice, she lived in a car.

At 17, it was an adventure. A school leaver with no qualifications and no fixed abode, exploring Wellington from the back of an old Austin van.

She was a baby the first time.

"My parents had real difficulties in the 1970s, getting accommodation. My mother tells the story that she would be the one who went to look for a house and sign the agreements because my dad was Maori and very dark and they just wouldn't rent him a house."

Metiria Turei grew up in the Manawatu, exact location dictated, at any given time, by her dad Richard's work as a farm labourer and a deer hunter.

"I have fairly good memories of the instability. Dad got some secure work at a bread factory for a while, but in the late 70s early 80s, it got very precarious. I think I've been to something like nine, maybe 10 schools."

Turei was born in February, 1970. Count her incarnations: First daughter, elder sister, high school drop-out. Pot smoker, wannabe MP, activist, anthropology student, and almost a teacher. Mother, lawyer, wife, and, eventually, Member of Parliament. Co-leader of the Green Party.

"I'm in Wellington about two days a week. And in Auckland, and Christchurch and sometimes I'm in Dunedin - where I live."

Today, she's shaking hands at Wesley Primary, an Auckland decile-one school with 166 students (including one European).

"One of the things I have to do in my job as a Member of Parliament is read," she tells the straight-backed, cross-legged assembly. "Most of the things I have to read are very boring... 

"When I was very small, I read a lot of books. I climbed trees to read books. I read books under the desk in my classroom. Sometimes, I would read books in the toilet."

Her audience gives a collective, but suitably impressed, gasp. Every child will leave here with a new book. Ten will have been personally signed by Turei, the very important all-singing, all-ukulele playing person at this Duffy Books in Schools assembly.

All that moving around as a child, she says later, was quite socially isolating. "The thing about reading that you can't tell children is that it operates entirely as an escape... which it was for me."

Turei says she had trouble fitting in at high school. "It made me very aware of my lack of institutionalism . ."

Highlights? "I only went for a few things - debating, speech-making. I was a terrible wagger, I was a pot-smoker. Sixteen was fun."

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"It wasn't until I got my degree and actually graduated that there was any sense of, 'okay, I'm actually smart enough to engage with the world'. I've got the ticket that says 'has a brain can, you know, contribute'.

It took a long time. I was 29 when I finally graduated."

Post-school, Turei drifted through Wellington, volunteering for the Unemployed Rights Movement, and then headed north to Auckland, where according to her official Green Party profile, "she came into contact with three groups that would prove instrumental in developing her political conscience: the anarchist movement, NORML and the McGillicuddy Serious Party".

"One of the things I learned about working with anarchists is that, mostly, they were young Pakeha men and they were just as disenfranchised as anybody else; differently, but just as much as Maori, just as much as people living in severe poverty. They were young people who had a view about the world who had no place in mainstream society at all."

She stood for Parliament for both the McGillicuddys and the Legalise Cannabis Party.

"People shouldn't go to jail simply because they smoke pot," she says. "It's just not a justifiable reason.

"I smoked from when I was about 15, and I stopped when I was about 21. It stopped being enjoyable and it makes me feel nauseous, so it just became unpleasant. I will confess I still miss the way it made me feel. I know why people smoke dope. It calms everything down, and makes you slightly more agreeable."

A turning point, aged 22: the discovery that she was pregnant and the decision to begin a law degree.

"I was very focused on getting off the benefit. I wanted to be in control of our lives."

Today, her daughter Piupiu is studying international politics at Victoria University. "I'm both pleased and sad... she's such a creative person."

That too, runs in the family. Turei's Pinterest page includes a "crochet madness" gallery. "I've got my gear in the car. The last big project was trousers for my husband out of granny squares. He looks really good in them too.

"I have noticed that if I'm not doing something reasonably creative on a regular basis, I get really depressed. So I've been playing the ukulele and the bass, and when I'm on the road, having the crochet really helps with the thinking... I spend so much time in meetings or on planes, I find if I'm doing something fairly mundane, then I'm less likely to get distracted, to fiddle with my phone or look at my iPad."

She's actually in a band. This serious politician can also play bass. Kill, Martha! is a six-piece alt-rock ukulele group, whose members include her husband Warwick and her sister Tania. The set list runs from The Pixies, to PJ Harvey and The Kills.

"We're world famous in Waitati, but we haven't done a proper tour. We did go to Oamaru... we were in the foyer of the town hall, but people don't think ukulele bands are electric or have a full drum set or play punk music, so it was possibly a little bit of a shock."

Turei laughs. She giggles easily; scrapes her nail over the gouges in a café table where we've decamped for lunch (nicoise salad and a cup of tea). The body language is more distracted teen than seasoned three-term MP.

"I was petrified I would be a one-term wonder. That I couldn't hack it, or that I wasn't good enough for people to continue to support me to do the job."

She joined the Greens in 2000, encouraged by the success of fellow activist Nandor Tanczos. Newly married, newly graduated, with three children (her own, and two stepchildren), she had in 1999 been working in resource-management law at Simpson Grierson. By 2002 she was a Green MP.

 "I'd given myself this year to focus on family and work. By the time I got to the end of the 12 months, I was desperate to do something. People have told me I'm very ambitious, and I never believed it, until I got this job."

Raise an eyebrow, because in 2009, when Jeanette Fitzsimons stepped down as party co-leader, it became very clear Turei was very ambitious. She stood for the top job, beating Sue Bradford, the activist MP who had, among other achievements, successfully pushed through anti-smacking legislation and achieved the adult minimum wage for 16 and 17 year olds.

"I'm not sure that she would have made the transition that I was talking about at the time in the campaign, which was to a more professionalised caucus," says Turei. "It was about treating the job not just like an opportunity to be activists and campaigners like we all were for those first two tranches, but actually to be professional politicians.

"She was an excellent politician, and she should have stayed on, but that's not the same thing as leading the party and the organisation to the next stage. Russel [Norman] and I are the first Generation-X leaders of political parties and I think that matters to the next lot of voters."

Turei will be 45 next birthday. The most fun she's ever had, she says, was being a mother. She wanted more kids.

"It really was the best thing I've done. I didn't do it for long enough.

"My husband and I - I've never told anyone this - did fertility treatment a few years ago. We put ourselves on the waiting list, but it took six or seven years, by which point I was 38 when we started, so I was right at the end of the age range of it being genuinely viable.

"It's very traumatic. But at the same time, the consequences for us are not anywhere near as dire as they are for others. We've both got kids. We end up being a happily married middle-aged couple with a dog and the prospect of grandkids. At the end of the day, we're still in pretty good shape, but these things are always very stressful, because you really want it, and you can't have it."

Would a pregnancy have curtailed her leadership bid? "I was intending to stand whether we got pregnant or not and we had talked about that at some length... we had a plan."

Turei is big on plans. What would she change in the next political term? "The first would be a clearer plan, with targets, around child poverty. What you have to take seriously is benefits. They're just too low, and it's hard - people don't want to deal with it, because politically, it's too hot."

In 2011, Turei made the political speech she's most proud of. It was called 'For My Father', the man who was her family support for her interview for law school, who died just before she began studying.

"My father was an ordinary man from Palmerston North who wanted an ordinary life... What he got was a lifetime of hardships and he died of a stroke at the age of 48."

Turei says she's been told she has an unhealthy fear of failure. But: "The consequences of politician's failures are played out in people's lives every day in ways that we don't see.

"If I don't get a chance to really make a change to help people take back control of their lives, there are people who will genuinely suffer. The stakes are very, very high and they're borne by people other than me. They're borne by their kids."

She remains close to her family. Her younger sister Tania says it's still weird hearing the woman she calls "Met" on the radio. She describes her as "incredibly genuine and focused... she's always been the rock, the person who is quite solid and dependable."

A family memory: "She had this horrible dog. This heinous dog that was called Dog. If you held this dog, she would start growling at whoever was next to you, and if you moved the dog over to that person, she would bite them.

"She lived until she lost all her fur and she was just this scabrous old disgusting creature, and it was gross, but Met kept her until she kicked the bucket. She got it when she was about 10, and it lived until she was 25ish."

Moral of the story - Turei sticks with the things she cares about.

"She's got these aims, especially ending child poverty, and I think she'll fight all the way for them."

On the day Sunday interviewed Turei, she was wearing New Zealand designers (Moa top, Obi pants), and a tiny ceramic-teapot necklace that was a gift from her sister.

Teapots, explains Tania, are the unofficial flag of Waitati, the settlement just outside of Dunedin that the Turei family now calls home.

"You drive along the road, and you'll see them on people's fences, nailed to things. If I see a teapot, I get it for her. I'm like, 'remember where you live...'"

- Sunday Magazine

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