Parliament's heavy hitter bids adieu

TIME TO GO: Rodney Hide will forever be remembered as the Perk Buster.
TIME TO GO: Rodney Hide will forever be remembered as the Perk Buster.

Rodney Hide was the chubby, shy kid who turned himself into a parliamentary terror. On the eve of his departure from politics he tells Nick Venter about how he fell in love with an institution, changed MPs' perks forever and hoist himself on his own petard.

Stretched out on a bed at his mother's Auckland home, a damp tea towel over his forehead, was when the realisation struck Rodney Hide. He'd "stuffed up".

It was November 2009, a week after the release of figures showing the ACT leader had used parliamentary funds to take his then girlfriend, now wife, Louise Crome, to Britain, Canada and the United States.

He had not broken any rules. In fact, he hadn't even cost the taxpayers any money.

The money spent by individual MPs on private overseas travel is deducted from the total available to remunerate all MPs. But it was a calamitous misjudgment.

The news that Parliament's perkbusting hitman had been caught in a snare of his own making sparked a media storm.

Hide struggled manfully to explain the fine distinction between the system as it operated in 2009 and the system that had operated 13 years earlier, when he had accused politicians of holidaying on the earnings of people who struggled to save enough "to go on a caravan jaunt to the Coromandel at Christmas". He failed.

By the time he lay down at his mother's house he was at his wits' end. His head hurt. He couldn't understand why people couldn't see the logic of his position. Then it dawned on him: he had got locked into defending an indefensible position. Publicly hung by his own petard.

"What I had forgotten was that I set a higher standard for myself," Hide recalls this week in an interview in his office overlooking the Beehive.

"So just operating within the rules and like other MPs wasn't acceptable."

The MP apologised and repaid the $22,000 cost of Crome's travel. But it was too late. The perkbuster had become the busted perker. It was the beginning of the end for a politician who changed Parliament forever.

Next month his political career will end when he slips quietly out of Parliament. By tradition, retiring MPs deliver a valedictory speech before departing, but Hide has chosen not to join Sir Roger Douglas, Jim Anderton and Keith Locke and others in the formal farewells.

The official line is that he thinks valedictories are for politicians who have chosen their time of departure. He has not.

He did not jump – he was pushed, unwanted by his old friend Don Brash, the man who ousted him as ACT's leader. That is true, but there is another reason too.

"I've never cried in Parliament and I'm afraid I couldn't give a valedictory without you know ...", his sentence tails off part-way and he shrugs.

There is an undeniably soft side to the hardman of politics, a man who thought nothing of relentlessly harrying bureaucrats he felt were letting the public down – and tormenting weak ministers in the debating chamber.

It's the private side of a "chubby", "intensely shy" boy who fell in love with an institution he didn't expect to respect.

Hide was elected to Parliament in 1996. At the time he didn't know such a thing as Question Time existed (he didn't even know what a select committee was) – but he instantly knew he was where he was meant to be.

"I realised the day I turned up to this place that I was built for it, that everything I'd ever done in my life prepared me for being an MP and a minister."

He loved the history, he loved the people, he loved getting the opportunity to crusade for the things he believed in.

The perkbusting happened by accident. His ambition was to reinvigorate an "over-governed, over-regulated and over-taxed" country by slashing taxes, paring back regulations and encouraging people to take responsibility for themselves.

It was only when he inquired about the rules governing the expenditure of money by MPs that he discovered there were none, or very few.

"I asked 'When can I use a taxi chit?' – and no-one knew. It was basically "Whenever you think it's appropriate". I was stunned that you could stay in a hotel room and not present your expenses."

So was the public when Hide blew the lid off the ruses politicians were using to pad out their relatively modest salaries – tax-free two-for-one superannuation subsidies, free domestic air travel for MPs' families, subsidised international travel for MPs and former MPs and free home phone lines, not to mention a complete absence of anything resembling proper oversight. It was one rule for politicians and another for the rest of the country.

Hide's disclosures outraged his fellow MPs. He'd shattered a cone of silence that had been observed for decades by MPs from all parties.

He and Greens co-leader Rod Donald were widely regarded as the most dangerous opposition MPs in Parliament, expert at working the media and making the headlines.

Hide couldn't have cared less about pulling the tent down from inside. He had another reason for coming to Parliament that MPs didn't know about. It was the same reason he would give a few years later when asked why he had agreed to participate in television's Dancing with the Stars.

"I'm actually intensely shy. I think any person who's intelligent wants a little bit for confidence because you know how little you know. I over-compensate. The job requires it.

"My first attempt to overcome shyness was I got a job university lecturing. That was horrific, but I ended up the most ebullient lecturer anyone had ever had because I didn't want my self-doubts or shyness to get in the way of students learning or succeeding.

"I was terrified about being an MP ... the public eye, journalists, criticism ... then I thought that's the worst reason for not doing something, because you are scared of it, so I thought go for it.

"If you are going to make a difference here and make a contribution, you are probably not going to be able to do it by sitting in the back row hoping no-one notices you. So I sat in the front."

It is his role in exposing MPs' rorts that Hide will probably be best remembered for, but he is proudest of other things – forcing the Inland Revenue Department to change its culture by highlighting its abysmal treatment of complainants, overseeing the reorganisation of Auckland's eight local authorities into a single super city as local government minister, a task Prime Minister John Key told him would not have been accomplished without his involvement, and representing the people of Epsom as their electorate MP since 2005.

A list MP till then, Hide seems genuinely to have been affected by being given the responsibility for representing the people of a geographical area.

He credits winning the seat with convincing him to tone down his style in Parliament.

He didn't want children in Epsom to see him behaving in a way their teachers would disapprove of.

While doorknocking the electorate before the election he quickly realised he was far too overweight and unfit, motivating him to embark on the fitness programme that transformed him from an overweight politician to a competitive power lifter.

He privately agonised over the invitation to join the lineup of Dancing with the Stars before accepting. Viewers saw the weight melting off him each week and continued to vote for him.

The "chubby, fat kid" at school, he's struggled with weight all his life, he says.

"I could starve it off but it required such a lot of focus and attention that I would be miserable. I had reached the conclusion that I was just fat and that I must be lazy and a glutton."

But, after winning Epsom, he "starved off" 40 kilograms with the same single-minded devotion he took to harrying bureaucrats and Government ministers.

When his involvement in Dancing with the Stars ended in catastrophe – dropping dance partner Krystal Stuart live on national television – he looked for another source of salvation. He found it in the gym – lifting weights.

"Basically all the government advice on diet will make you fat and endless cardio will also make you fat and sick, so you need to eat a nutritious natural diet of good natural food, high in good fat, no processed food and to lift weights."

Hide works out three times a week and says the one good thing about his impending departure is that he will be able to spend more time in what he calls his church – Wellington's Powerhouse Gym.

Now 54, he claims not to have a clue what he will do next.

"I find it terrifying and exciting and challenging all at once".

However, he says he leaves Parliament happier, healthier and wiser than he's ever been.

"I'm a much better person now than when I came in. I'm a lot wiser in the sense of understanding New Zealand and New Zealanders. When you're not a politician you can move in a very narrow circle of friends and colleagues and you're always right.

"Politics is wonderful at shoving you up against all sorts of people. I've had meetings at gang headquarters. I've met the rich and I've met the down and out and they've talked to me because I'm an MP and I'm on TV. And, as an MP and a minister, you're challenged every day on your integrity and your principles, more than any other job I've had. And so you grow in it."

He leaves with no regrets – and plans to spend more time with his five-month-old daughter Liberty.

"I look at most MPs and they end their careers sick, bitter, twisted, divorced, kids not talking to them, and, while I tick some of those boxes, I leave Parliament happier than I've ever been in my life – with a great sense of achievement and healthier.

"I'm the only person who went to Parliament and lost weight and got fit. I've got a beautiful wife and baby and my son [Zach, aged 22] still loves me and spends every minute he can with me, which is wonderful."

The Dominion Post