From the farm to the Beehive

SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 05:00 01/11/2014
Fairfax NZ
Communications Minister Amy Adams.

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When one minister falls, another inevitably rises. So it is for Justice Minister Amy Adams, who takes over the high-profile position from fallen National Party star Judith Collins.

Adams' rise through the party ranks has been nothing short of meteoric. Entering Parliament in 2008 after winning the Canterbury seat of Selwyn, she quickly rose to chair the influential finance and expenditure committee.

Taking up the communications portfolio, she was also briefly handed responsibility for the environment and assisted Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, tasked with handling a lot of on-the-ground work in Canterbury.

After September's overwhelming election victory for National, the 43-year-old Adams was bumped to the front bench - No 7 on the list - and named justice minister after the dumping of Collins, who became embroiled in the scandal that followed Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics.

Speaking to The Dominion Post in her first sit-down interview since taking up the role, Adams said she had not been gunning for the position, but it was high on her wishlist.

"When, going into this election, it was clear minister Collins wouldn't be going back into the role, and the role was effectively up for reappointment or up for reallocation, it occurred to me I could well be one of the people in the frame for consideration . . .

"When the prime minister rang and decided to give me the portfolio, it was a bit of a case of him saying, ‘I've decided to make you the minister of . . .' and in my head I'm thinking, ‘Justice, justice, justice, justice'."

Before politics, Adams was a lawyer and partner at a Christchurch firm. Born in Auckland, she moved to Christchurch to attend university and "fell in love with a sheep farmer".

With job opportunities slim after graduation, she landed a position in Invercargill, but 18 months later was back in the Garden City and engaged.

Travelling to Wellington and lobbying on behalf of clients piqued her interest in politics.

"I just found that incredibly interesting. I always had a background interest in politics - I wasn't a Young Nat, I wasn't particularly political, but always sort of interested in what was going on and the more I came up here . . . the more I had the sense I really wanted to be on the other side of the desk."

But with her family - husband Don and teenagers Thomas and Lucy - well settled in rural Canterbury, options looked slim, until the candidacy for the blue-ribbon seat of Selwyn became free.

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"I honestly didn't think I had much of a chance in getting a seat - you know, strong National seat - but it was sort of one of those now-or-never moments."

Since then her political career has been on a fast track, meaning more time in Wellington than in her electorate.

But she is adamant she's in a strong position to advocate for Selwyn from her position of power and, unlike many politicians, has not moved her family to the capital, which she says has allowed her to stay grounded.

"Within 10 minutes of getting home we're arguing about who's going to put the rubbish out and whether the kids have the right stuff for school, and it's kind of grounding and keeps you connected.

"I'll be down at the supermarket in my trackies buying my bananas with everyone else."

It is this strong connection with her family that has Adams ruling out a tilt at the country's top spot.

When asked if she wants to be prime minister, she quickly shakes her head.

"To be honest, I can honestly say it's not a job I'm angling for. I look at the hours he [John Key] works, I look at the incredible array of issues he's got to be across at any minute in time.

"As it is for me, I sit here with four portfolios, all of which have the potential to become explosive at any point at time, often for nothing to do with anything I've done, and what I've got to stay across . . . and his job is sort of like that ramped up twenty-fold.

"I work very hard to try and keep some degree of normalcy in my life with my kids and some sort of life beyond Parliament. I have a marriage and a family that mean a lot to me and I don't want to put that at risk.

"It's a big call, it's a very rare breed of person that can be PM. We have an exceptional one, and I'm not sure I'd want to do it."

WHILE only a few weeks into the justice job, it's understandable that Adams is not across all the issues in the sector. But she has no qualms about going to her predecessor for advice, calling Collins a "very effective minister of justice".

"Yeah of course [I've spoken to her], several times. Judith is a very supportive colleague, but she's also respectful of the fact that when you become the minister, I'm the minister.

"It's not for her to tell me what to do, but equally there are issues and there have been issues already that have popped up where I've sought her view, so I've understood the background of how it's got to this point."

During Collins' reign, National introduced shakeups to the justice system - the Criminal Procedure Act was a big attempt at modernising and speeding up the area, one that was met with some criticism from the judiciary - and Adams is keen to continue the streamlining process while putting her own stamp on things.

"For me it's about thinking about some of the harder issues possibly in the justice sector that I think the country is still struggling with, which particularly for me are around family violence, sexual violence, serious violent crimes.

"I think we've made incredible progress across youth crime, reoffending and some of the lower-level crime which is very valuable . . . but some of those harder-nut issues that are very, very interwoven with wider societal issues is what I'd like to drive."

ADAMS' THOUGHTS ON...

DAVID BAIN'S COMPENSATION CLAIM

"Where that's at is a matter of public record. Mr Bain's team have obviously applied for the judicial review of minister Collins' actions and that's trucking its way through the courts . . . and Cabinet's made it clear that, while that judicial review is under way, that's on hold."

THE JAMES TAKAMORE BODY-SNATCHING STANDOFF

"It's tough, I don't pretend to have a simple answer to it. I haven't had a briefing on it yet so I'm not going to wade into it. I've been following the case as a matter of general interest and one thing I do know is that it's an area of law that's particularly opaque and not very well understood . . . I do think this has highlighted a real deficiency in the understanding of the law."

THE CALL TO CHANGE THE ROYAL PREROGATIVE OF MERCY

"The system we have, and early days for me, but everything I've seen to date suggests we have a pretty robust system of assessment and, when it comes back to ministers, there's been quite considerable review by an independently appointed person, usually a QC. I'm satisfied it's handled very carefully, very professionally, very appropriately."

THE DECISION TO SCRAP AN $18M PROJECT TO DIGITISE COURTROOM PROCESSES

"[There were] fundamentally three parts of it, two of which were delivered well and are actually delivering really good improvements to how the courts operate. The third part . . . frankly it wasn't going to deliver the benefits for the money spent. In this job spending money is easy, figuring out where it's going to come from is the hard part."

- The Dominion Post

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