Kaye brings energy, humanity and commitment to Cabinet

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 26/01/2013
NIKKI KAYE
GEORGE GARDNER/Fairfax NZ
NIKKI KAYE: Minister for food safety, youth affairs and civil defence.

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National was looking to inject some youthful energy into its frontbench team. It chose Nikki Kaye, who is preparing to run, cycle and kayak 243 kilometres.

The rise and rise of Nikki Kaye has been well canvassed. Even the most casual of political observers could have picked her promotion to minister this week - although a fast-track straight into the Cabinet is an extra gold star.

But Ms Kaye's rapid rise into the political big league almost didn't happen, her fledgling career faltered with a clash of ideology. Just a year after she was elected in 2008 - the first National member of Parliament for Auckland Central - the Government floated opening up 7000 hectares of conservation land on Great Barrier Island to mining.

The remote island is not only in her constituency backyard, but it was also where the 32-year-old was marooned as a teenager for a survivor-style reality TV show, and she was against the idea of mining.

After careful consideration - and long talks with political "old heads", she took her concerns to Prime Minister John Key. He was sympathetic but nonetheless, "he was very clear with me there are always risks when you do things like that [oppose the party line]". She went public anyway - arguing that the economic case did not stack up.

Ultimately, public opposition saw National back away from the plan. But Ms Kaye is keenly aware her stance could have ended her career before it got off the blocks. "It was tough because I recognised the extraordinary opportunity National Party members invested in me . . . I knew it [was] going to disappoint some people, but you've got to do what is right."

In some quarters, Ms Kaye was accused of grandstanding, but it was a gamble with a political career that she had fought hard to establish. Against the advice of many, including her dearest friends, she threw in a good job with a bank in London to contest selection. You wouldn't have put money on the slight 28-year-old blonde.

But not only did she beat Jackie Blue, a list MP, for selection, she ousted Labour grand dame Judith Tizard, ending a 90-year Opposition hold on the seat. "I knew it was a long shot, but . . . my heart was always going to be back home so why not go back and stand," she says with a shrug.

But Ms Kaye wasn't a newcomer to politics - active in the party since 1998, and a Young Nats president, she had worked for Bill English when he was leader of the Opposition in 2002. In Britain, she continued to work in government, securing transport access for the vulnerable and disabled.

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While with the bank she set up her own internet business.

Her ambition and drive are exhausting. As well as juggling one of the busiest electorates in the country, dealing with 11,000 cases and queries since 2008, she chaired the education and science select committee and oversaw an inquiry into digital learning.

She also beat Labour's Jacinda Ardern in what panting male pundits labelled the 2011 election "Battle of the Babes".

The scrutiny was useful but it is time to move on, she suggests. "I would hope, in the future, people in the media focus more on what we have done and what we want to do, than just the previous race."

Sniping colleagues have called her "high maintenance"; her friends say she is "focused" or "determined", but also a lot of fun to be around.

One says she has taken care to maintain old, pre-politics friendships.

"They are essential to keep you sane in this place but also keep you grounded," Ms Kaye agrees. "People who are close to you, who can give you a hug when you need a hug but also tell you when they think you need to keep your feet on the ground."

Concerns about her fragility often surface around the parliamentary precinct. This is partly because of her tiny frame - and a relentless drive for publicity.

But her physique is explained by her phenomenal fitness. She is training for the Coast to Coast and completed a seven-hour mountain run this week. And no-one thought Judith Collins was too needy when she courted the media as an MP.

"I am very strong, right. I wouldn't have fought and won the nomination for Auckland Central if I wasn't made of pretty strong stuff. I had a lot of Labour activists throwing things at me," she says.

Ms Kaye is direct, but warm, and when she talks politics is refreshingly free from the evasive flannel favoured by many of her colleagues. However, observers wonder if her loquacity might one day land her in trouble. She abhors nastiness in politics. "I never want to be aggressive . . . young women think they have to be really really aggressive to make it in politics.

"You have to be strong, you have to have convictions but I think I'm pretty caring and I will continue to be that person. I'm not going to change."

She credits her unconventional upbringing for her success and her socially liberal bent. Her parents separated just before her seventh birthday and she has nine siblings, a stepfather, and a treasured grandmother, Micky Kerr, 92.

In her maiden speech she described her family as "diverse, bubbly, challenging, and sometimes maniac" adding: "I am not judgmental about how families should be structured - if it works, it works."

Last year she threw her weight behind Labour's marriage equality bill, was instrumental in bringing a gay pride march back to Auckland and is working with Green MP Kevin Hague to reform adoption laws. She campaigned hard to retain the alcohol purchase age at 18.

Elevating her to the Cabinet gives Mr Key a ballast against its more conservative elements.

Ms Kaye's mother worked several jobs so her daughter could have a private school education. Ms Kaye was head prefect at Corran School in Auckland, going on to earn a science degree in genetics and a bachelor of laws. As well as the environment, learning is one of her passions.

As associate education minister her priority is to implement the recommendations of the e-learning inquiry. It's not just ensuring every school has the gadgets but getting the curriculum and training for teachers right, she says.

The next few weeks will be spent getting to grips with her new portfolios: food safety, civil defence and youth affairs. Associate immigration - where many of the operational issues are delegated - also brings a heavy workload. She also promises not to neglect her constituency. Despite months of training, a busy ministerial diary may force her to pull out of the Coast to Coast, although she's anxious to compete. She has learnt to make time for family. "The last four years, it's been 6 - day weeks. I don't really expect that to slow down. In the last year I've got more of a personal balance. . . . I've been reconnecting with friends. I didn't see my family enough and I've made a real effort in the last year."

With any top-level career comes sacrifices but Ms Kaye firmly believes female ministers can have it all. "I'd love to have kids and I'd probably love to be married, meet a nice guy, but that's one thing you can't control. I don't think that being a minister or an MP should be that different to being in the corporate world. We actually do get a reasonable amount of support in terms of our salary, things like flights . . . [but] I'm happy at the moment, I've got some good friends, an amazing job and that's the thing about life."

- The Dominion Post

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