Waikato politicians pitch for Labour's top jobs

WORKING MUM: Nanaia Mahuta MP, Labour leadership candidate, enjoys the calm of her green Ngaruawahia backyard
WORKING MUM: Nanaia Mahuta MP, Labour leadership candidate, enjoys the calm of her green Ngaruawahia backyard

Denise Irvine talks to leadership candidate Nanaia Mahuta, and Aimie Cronin to Jacinda Ardern, who wants to be a deputy. 

Nanaia Mahuta's got a packed day ahead, but it doesn't show. She sits in the comfortable window-seat of her Ngaruawahia home, she's thoughtful, considered, seems like she's got all the time in the world to talk politics.

It's early on Tuesday morning, she's just taken her son, Waiwaia, to school. Now there's this Waikato Times interview, a radio interview to follow, then she's out to Hamilton Airport by midday. Tonight she'll be on the hustings in Nelson where she and three others are contesting the Labour Party leadership.

Mahuta, 44, is the Labour MP for Hauraki-Waikato, she's an 18-year Parliamentary veteran, running against fellow MPs Grant Robertson, David Parker and Andrew Little for the top job.

Mahuta's a working mother; she and husband Gannin Ormsby are the proud parents of Waiwaia and daughter Niua-Cybele, 22 months. Waiwaia turns 5 on November 8, and he's in transition between his kohanga reo and new primary school. On his birthday, his mum has hustings commitments in Whangarei, but there are plans for something special for the birthday boy. Mahuta says there could be a superhero theme, because everyone in their household has unique superhero powers.

"Like most families with children under 5, life is chaotic, but we make it work. I'm told it gets easier as they get older. We've got good support around us, a very supportive whanau."

Mahuta says her mother, Raiha, always worked, and she observed through her how you can give service and lead a productive life.

Mahuta announced her leadership candidacy on October 14, half an hour before the 5pm deadline. Her decision was not arrived at easily, she says, it came after former leader David Cunliffe (who Mahuta had backed) declared he would not be in the race. She says Labour needs to make changes, she's up for driving those. She supported Cunliffe - "absolutely" - and she does not resile from this, despite the pummelling he took at the polls in September, and from some of his colleagues, and party members. She backed his vision of hope and better opportunities for New Zealanders who want a better life. "I still hold that vision."

Along with the positives about Mahuta having a tilt at the top job, there have been the negatives from social media commentators who've said they've never heard of her, and she hasn't got a show of pulling it off. Someone comments that they've never seen her smile.

Mahuta laughs at the last one. She says that to keep her sense of self intact she doesn't read stuff like this; she participates in social media, but doesn't indulge, it doesn't rule her life. "I never lose sleep over comments by people who don't know me. But I listen to constructive criticism from people who do know

me." A couple of other things to clear up: if anyone thinks her running for leadership is some kind of flippant thing, then they are "delusional". And, no, she definitely won't be doing deputy deals with the candidates (as has been suggested).

She also wants to debunk the myth that someone from a Maori electorate couldn't be a party leader. She's frustrated by this; says people who think that those in Maori electorates are only interested in Maori are wrong. "All my constituents interact in society in the fullest, we don't operate in a vacuum, we're not just talking to ourselves. Maori has moved on, the world has moved on. Post-settlement tribes have a real contribution to make. If we do well, the region and community do well. The people I represent want to work, they want their kids to do well."

Mahuta will spend the next couple of weeks on the campaign trail, canvassing for votes. This comes quickly on the back of the general election where Labour suffered a shocking defeat, drawing only 25 per cent of the vote compared with National's 48 per cent. The result is now the subject of a major review by the party.

Labour's Maori MPs scored well, though, winning six of the seven Maori roll seats in a successful run against the tide. Mahuta doesn't want to lose sight of this.

But she says Labour can't keep doing things the way it's done in the past. She says she brings a different perspective, she's come from the grassroots, she has a bicultural, broader world view. Her skills are honed by her heritage, and by her 18 years in Parliament, starting in the days of First Past the Post politics, when it was "survival of the fittest", and no active mentors.

She was educated at Waikato Diocesan School for Girls in Hamilton, has an MA in social anthropology from Auckland University. She's had five elections, three boundary changes in her electorate, consolidated her support. She's been a cabinet minister for a term, holds a number of spokesperson roles, works alongside her community as an advocate, continues with senior Tainui responsibilities, and says she's not afraid to stand up against the odds.

Her adolescent years were shaped by her late parents' contribution and commitment to Tainui, and its ultimately successful Treaty of Waitangi claims. The style of her father, Sir Robert Mahuta (adopted brother of late Maori Queen Te Atairangikaahu), was to lead from the front, take people with you. Her mother, Raiha, Lady Mahuta, was more about empowering others.

Their daughter was opposed to Labour's controversial Foreshore and Seabed Act, of November 2004. Unlike her then Labour colleague Tariana Turia, Mahuta didn't see the solution as being to leave the party. Instead, she worked from within, and says can point to every part of that act (later replaced) and know where she effected change.

At the following election, in 2005, Mahuta released herself from the safety valve of the party list, said to her electorate: "You decide if I have done a good enough job."

Mahuta believes Labour's support base is still out there. But there is a changing expectation within that base. Labour must understand those expectations, be up for change. "In an MMP environment, and a changing political landscape, Labour needs to work differently, and with a coalition partner." The Greens are her coalition choice.

Mahuta has been meeting Labour grassroots people who've told stories of how their children have done well, got a good education, and now their grandchildren are asking "how do I vote?" "Labour needs to understand what the aspirations and opportunities look like for a new generation of voters."

Mahuta says when she first started in politics it was all about people getting a good education in order to get a job. Now, young people see their "good education" as the springboard to owning their own business, so they are in control of their destiny. "Labour has to understand this, and the changing nature of its community. It has to remain relevant."

She says it's been a challenging time in the Labour caucus, post-election. She hesitates, doesn't go any further on this, says diplomatically: "We've got a big job to do as a party, not just over the leadership, but on how we regroup."

Some items on her agenda for change:

Build consensus between the parliamentary and party wings, they need to be more integrated, and on the same page.

Be consistent in action, values, and messaging.

There needs to be higher levels of accountability on the roles of MPs within a changing environment, particularly around how they contribute to building networks and cementing relationships in their regions, positioning for a strong Labour bid at the next election.

Bad behaviour by MPs, and speaking anonymously, would not be tolerated. "I put my name to comments in the media, I've never hidden in the shadows. I come from a real community, it gives perspective."

She adds: "We need to be more interested in people out there, not ourselves, lifting the lives of the people we represent. We need to differentiate ourselves [from National], and build a coalition that moves in the same direction. It is a three-year project, and we need to earn the confidence of voters. Tell them: this is where Labour will take it."

The devastating party vote from September can be turned around; the no-nonsense message for the next election is already clear in Mahuta's head: "Party vote Labour to change the government."

She repeats it. You can almost see it inscribed on red and white billboards. In the meantime, there's a plane to catch, work to be done, people to woo. "Change will be tough, but it will happen."


NICE GIRL: Jacinda Ardern is often told she’s too nice for politics.

Jacinda Ardern's first job was after school at Golden Kiwi fish 'n' chip shop in Thames St, Morrinsville. She was 14. She remembers it fondly: Her mum using a cabbage to teach her how to wrap food in newspaper, taking orders, yarning with customers, and the smell of chips on her skin after each shift.

She remembers a man coming in one day and flogging the till. She and her boss ran down the street after him, but he got away.

Later that night, he turned up to the party she was at - "there's no escaping when you live in Morrinsville" - and she convinced her friend to commandeer his name and number "in a friendly fashion". It worked and Jacinda Ardern took his details to the cops.

She graduated from Golden Kiwi to work part-time at The Warehouse and Countdown while schooling and studying at Waikato University, where she got a degree in communications. She belonged to a heap of human rights groups at school and had her eye on politics. She joined Labour at 17, "because I wanted to feel like I was making a meaningful difference", and by the time she was in her late 20s she had an impressive CV: vice president of Young Labour, president of the International Union of Socialist Youth and and, at 28, she became the country's youngest sitting MP in Parliament.

People have said former Labour leader David Shearer is too nice for politics and Jacinda Ardern has heard it said of her, too. She exudes warmth.

She thinks there's such a thing as nice politicians and finds it a bit sad when people mean it as a compliment by telling her she doesn't seem like a politician. "I do hope we can get to a place where people feel positive about the people that represent them."

That could be taken as a swipe at John Key, but she doesn't shirk from giving credit where credit's due. "I think [John Key] is a formidable politician. I don't like his politics, but he's had broad appeal - you can't deny that."

What's to know about Jacinda Ardern beside the fact that she's nice?

Her favourite politicians ever are Norman Kirk and Michael Joseph Savage. When she's not working, she likes to do "normal things". She reads, "but that usually gets held off till summer", goes to live music gigs, DJs a bit herself, goes to the movies, watches rugby (yes, she supports Waikato). She has a "strange obsession" with Antarctica and thinks it has something to do with her dad reading books about explorers when she was a little girl. She pauses awkwardly when asked if she's single. "No comment." Though she will say he's not a Waikato farmer, so no plans currently to move back to the homeland.

She loves Auckland. "As much as I'll always be from the Waikato, Auckland is where I choose to live", and sometimes she feels stuck in the middle of banter between those north and south of the Bombay Hills.

She sees the Waikato differently now that she's not living in it. She notes how reliant the economy is on the dairy industry and how that creates vulnerability. Equally, she says, it highlights the importance of the dairy industry in New Zealand.

She says Hamilton has "bled so much out of the city" and is nostalgic about how it used to have a busy main street. "It feels a little bit sad to me. To have a thriving city, you have to have a thriving heart."

In 2008, she campaigned in the Waikato electorate and spent time door knocking in Huntly and Ngaruawahia. She saw poverty there, but says she sees it everywhere. "It's hard to accept in a place like New Zealand that you would struggle with very basic things like eating three meals, being able to afford shoes and clothing, living in a warm house . . . I've seen it enough to know these aren't people making bad choices."

She thinks providing food in schools for hungry kids is one thing the Government could do immediately to help alleviate the issue of child poverty, "but it's not a long term solution. In the longer term it's about [these families] having enough money to get by".

Poverty has always been on the Ardern agenda. She's also been pivotal in creating Labour Party policy to allow same-sex couples to adopt and believes te reo should be compulsory in schools.

Her decision to stand as Grant Robertson's deputy in his bid for Labour Party leadership is based on the fact that she likes the guy and has always though he'd be a great PM. "He's always driven to do the right thing."

She says she "really, really, really" likes Nanaia Mahuta, one of the first MPs she worked with in an election. "I observed her at the candidate meetings, she's got huge standing and for good reason." In fact, she seems to really, really, really like all the candidates. She says she wasn't approached by anyone else to be deputy and that she's always been transparent about where her support lies.

She thinks Labour has what it takes to win in the next election, despite its mammoth loss. Team Gracinda may get them there. Her softness vanishes for a moment only - when she talks about 2017.

"It's on!" she says. "I didn't get into politics to lose."



The Labour leadership vote is divided into three parts: caucus, members, and affiliated unions.


Caucus gets 40 per cent of the vote, the membership 40 per cent, affiliated unions 20 per cent.


There is a preferential voting system; voters say who they want as leader, and also rank candidates in their order of preference.

In each round the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated and their supporters' second preference votes are tallied up until one candidate has more than 50 per cent.

When the leader is known, caucus elects the deputy leader.

Results will be announced on November 18.

Waikato Times