Amy not afraid to speak her mind

NEW JOBS: Communications Minister Amy Adams.
Fairfax NZ
NEW JOBS: Communications Minister Amy Adams.

Amy Adams was hanging out a farmhouse window, trying to keep her cellphone signal, when Prime Minister John Key told her he was making her Communications Minister.

"It was one of those surreal moments. Being Communications Minister I probably shouldn't admit it, but I have lousy cellphone coverage at my house.

"The boss called and I was half-leaning out a window to try and hear him. And I was carrying a basket of laundry to put a load of washing on. Talk about the blending of worlds."

Adams says she was "grinning like a mad thing" when told she'd be the 20th-ranked minister, but had the nous to ask Key: "That's in Cabinet, right?" He told her she had a great future, and insiders say he is keeping an eye on her.

Her rise has been rapid. In 2008, the Aylesbury lawyer and mum-of-two, claimed an 11,075 majority in the blue-ribbon Selwyn seat once held by Ruth Richardson.

At last year's election she was one of only a handful of MPs to boost their majorities, winning by more than 17,000 votes. In June last year she replaced Craig Foss to chair Parliament's powerful finance and expenditure committee - a huge promotion.

"I loved it," she says. "I used to enjoy sitting there as chair with all the male members down one side of the table, and men down the other. I thought, I may be the only woman, but I'm up here."

She also chaired the electoral legislation select committee, set up to implement electoral finance rules and pave the way for last year's MMP referendum. Other wins included shepherding through a member's bill requiring professional charity collectors to say what proportion of donations they were skimming, and winning a speech of the year award for her tear-jerking recollection of the September 4 earthquake.

"It's a neat feeling to think I've made a difference," the 41-year-old says. "It's a question you get a lot as a backbencher - can you really do anything? You can. It was about changing your expectations.

"Working on legislation at select committee, you could change wording, pick up something from a submission, you could get a clause to work more effectively, or clear up some inconsistency. The lawyer in me felt quite pleased about that."

Fellow National MP and closest caucus buddy Louise Upston, puts the rise down to Adams making the most of the opportunities that have come her way.

The pair attended Rangitoto College together and were reunited at a National Party candidates' college in 2007. "When I saw her, it made sense to me that she would be there. She was always a high achiever."

Raised by a solo mum "in a reasonably poor household," Adams graduated with a first class law degree and worked first in Invercargill, then Canterbury. She took time out from the law to have her children, Thomas and Lucy, now 14 and 12. It wasn't long before she was back - first working part-time, but making partner by the age of 32, practising commercial, property and lobbying law.

"I always like to know what I'm working towards. I guess I'm goal-oriented . . . Making partner was a goal for a long time. Then I looked around and I couldn't quite see myself doing the same thing 30 years on."

Advocating for clients at select committees in Wellington gave her a taste of Beehive life. "Apparently, I told my mother when I was four I wanted to be in government. It's written in my baby book. But I also said I wanted to be a concert violinist . . . I must have been a precocious four-year-old.

"But the more time I spent in Wellington the more I knew it was where I wanted to be. I was on the wrong side of the desk."

Selection for Selwyn was her shot at getting into Parliament. The process was mired in controversy after a legal challenge from a disgruntled party member.

"When the seat became available . . . my kids were younger than I would have liked. My husband Don is a farmer; his family have been on the land for 150 years. We're not going anywhere. So, if I was going to do it, it was going to be in Selwyn. And if someone else had got it, they could easily have held it for 20 years.

"It was one of the most scary things I've ever done, but I decided I could live with the shame and ego-crushing if I failed, but I knew I wouldn't be able to live with myself if the chance never came round again."

She worries her portfolios - as well as communications she holds environment and associate earthquake recovery - reduce her time in the huge, rural electorate.

"I haven't come up with any magic solution to it. But on the flip side, I feel like I have more influence, and my electorate therefore has a voice in Cabinet. The earthquake portfolio, everything I do in that is in one sense electorate work, because my community is absolutely tied to that.

"In environment, water is the most contentious issue in my electorate . . . and the communications stuff has benefits, particularly in rural areas. We stand to gain immensely because we're part of New Zealand that's been a bit left out of the connectivity revolution."

As associate to Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee, Adams is tasked with much of the on-the-ground work in Canterbury. She speaks reluctantly of the damage to her own home, just 1.5km from the epicentre of the first, magnitude 7.1, quake.

"I hate talking about it because there are so many people suffering so much worse. We were lucky in that we had no land damage on the farm. About a third of the house collapsed . . . we lived in a few rooms for a while but, look, it was nothing in the scheme of things."

Another property they own in Christchurch "is TC3, which - this new language - is basically as bad as it gets before it is red zoned". But she says: "I'm lucky. My family has got somewhere safe, warm and dry to live."

And she is "amazed" at the resilience of her children. Thomas was hit by flying debris in the CBD during last February's shake, "but he's OK". Lucy was with her in Wellington during the recent 7.0 shake centred off the coast of Taranaki - but calmly lay on her bed, with her earphones in. "I was more worried because I was acting Civil Defence Minister that night."

Adams likes to focus on "the positives" of the rebuild. She was heartened by a recent trip to Chile to take a look at recovery from its 8.8 quake in 2010. Her counterpart, Loreto Silva, told her "that the first two years of the recovery was really difficult . . . once you've got past that, the physical manifestations of the recovery start to take off".

It's her job to create excitement about the opportunities for Christchurch, she believes. "I'm careful when I say that because it's still hard for so many people. But we always said this was going to be a five to 10-year exercise. And when you are living it, that feels like forever. I want people to focus on the positives. Into the future I think it's going to be New Zealand's most exciting and vibrant city."

In communications, Adams must step out of the shadow of Steven Joyce, who got the $1.5 billion ultra-fast broadband project off the ground. Her job is to oversee the rollout.

Later this year an airwaves auction will sell off swathes of the 700Mhz radio spectrum - described by some as "the new oil", and crucial to the next generation of mobile phones. Studies have suggested it's worth $1-$2b of extra productivity, she says. However iwi believe they are entitled to a stake and she is currently negotiating with the Maori Party, with a paper to go to Cabinet soon.

Adams landed environment this year when Nick Smith resigned. Water quality and management is a hot-button issue and appointing a Canterbury farmer to the job was a smart move by Key.

Ahead of the recent Rio +20 Earth Summit, a report by the World Wildlife Fund said New Zealand had failed environmentally, emissions were up, rivers polluted and more species were being lost.

A report by business group Pure Advantage said the country was lagging behind in the global green economy, and Green activists claimed National was interested only in "more cows, roads and drilling".

"I see my portfolios as being absolutely crucial to New Zealand's long-term success in wildly different ways," Adams says. "If we don't have a digitally enabled and connected society . . . then we are absolutely going backwards in world terms."

The environment also has a part to play. "You can't protect the environment by destroying the economy, any more than you can build your economy by destroying your environment."

Water is an immense economic resource. "I've seen figures suggesting there's potential for $4b annually of increased profitability through better water use."

A senior Labour source recognises Adams as "very capable" during debates but says she can be "abrasive" when negotiating with other parties.

But Adams says while "the whole right-wing, left-wing analysis is a bit limited", National's principles are "absolutely core to me", and she won't trade them off for expediency. "I'd like to think that, at the end of the day - oh, I hate that cliche, sorry - I'd rather pass good legislation."

Sunday Star Times