Minister of Conservation, Emergency Management
MP for East Coast, Labour
Aged 36, Former lawyer, first elected 2017
Referendums: For End of Life Choice Act, For legalising recreational cannabis
Fascinating fact: Left school at 16 to work at KFC with the aim of working in every KFC in the country to “see the world”.
Q: Tell me about your childhood, what was family life like growing up?
A: I grew up in a really neat centre of the universe, a little place called Paengaroa [near Te Puke].
My Mum and Dad were my aunty and uncle. They got me when I was about six months old, and I [had] a whole number of siblings, 10 of us in total. I was number nine. My Mum that raised me, my aunty, she couldn’t have children; so my Nan who I’m named after, Kiritapu, she said ‘Right, this one’s for you’.
I had a wonderful childhood, brought up in a little rural environment where there was about 500 people in our village. We weren’t fiscally [with] plenty but we had a wonderful lifestyle.
Dad was working in the meatworks during the time of Rogernomics and the reforms of the late 80s and 90s. Growing up as a child you don’t necessarily understand the implications of those things … I remember asking a lot of questions. Who made decisions? Why were they made? How come my Dad and his mates were laid off at that time? Or how come Murupara went from being one of the most flourishing communities in the Eastern Bay to almost dead in a couple of years? As you grow up you learn they were decisions that were made from [Parliament], for really important reasons.
Q: Would you say your early family life and those personal experiences are why you wanted to get into politics?
A: Yeah absolutely. I think I grew up with a really strong hankering to understand who made the decisions … If you’re looking at it through the eyes of the 7-year-old girl sitting there in Paengaroa, wondering why things are changing so swiftly in your community, those are the things I wanted to be able to answer to her.
And in turn, when you find yourself in a role like I am now … sometimes they will be very hard decisions that we have to make, and they won’t make everybody happy. But the fact we’ve gone through a process to understand the implications for that 7-year-old kid sitting in Murupara, or Paengaroa, or Ruatoria, that’s what I think has really shaped the way I see politics now.
Q: Conservation is obviously an area where it’s hard to please everyone, what are the biggest challenges you want to tackle?
A: I probably look at things through the biggest opportunities. The Department of Conservation has over a third of New Zealand’s land holdings, we have a reach through our operational arms into almost every single regional community in the country. We are the face of the state in most communities, other than the police.
Our priorities are about being future-focused, they’re about focusing on sustainable economics that do stuff well. What does that look like at a really practical, small level? Creating awesome jobs in regions … creating the next wave of environmental eco warriors is kind of how I look at it. Those are the things that excite me about the portfolio.
There are challenges of course, because you’re balancing rights and interests on using public land. Those challenges, they’re exciting as well. I’m a quintessential pragmatist you could say; I like thinking that I can listen to arguments pretty well, from across a really broad range of stakeholders.
I’d say I have really good relationships with everybody from hapu and iwi, through to Federated Farmers. I’ve done that intentionally … because I think you have to take the communities with you, whatever those decision we need to make, however hard those decisions are.
Let’s take some controversial issues that are probably sitting at the top of the list.
We’ve got whitebait reforms that are coming through. I think there needs to be a real tough look at the commercial components – one, it’s an endangered species; two, it’s one of the only fish species where we don’t have regulations around how we sell [it], we don’t have limits.
In turn, I love whitebaiting, my father-in-law is teaching my daughter right now how to be a kaitiaki of the Rangitaiki Awa and preserve our mahinga kai … I want to see our way of life preserved, and to do that sometimes that means we’re going to have to stop and pivot so we can get the environment up to a place where we can do those things again.
If I go in with a sledgehammer and go bang, bang, bang this is how we’re doing it, and people don’t feel like we are a government that is for everybody or refuses to listen to large portions of our community, I think we, deservedly so, should feel the wrath of those people.
We are a government for all New Zealanders, and I feel that really strongly in my own core constitution. My job is [to be] an elected representative in this House, it has so much privilege, we have such an obligation to govern, and govern for everybody whether they voted for us or not.
Q: With your Emergency Management role, it seems your community on the East Coast is one of those that are particularly at risk from emergency events?
A: You’re absolutely right, it’s a very lived experience. I have a home in Edgecumbe, for example. In 2017 we had to evacuate 700 families … as a consequence of phenomenal flooding. Whakaari White Island, [was a] huge, big devastating event that has shaped our community for generations to come, I would say.
Q: Stepping away from politics and looking to summer, what’s your favourite beach in New Zealand – and why?
A: I’ve got to say my spot is down in Te Kaha, I’m there most summers. One, there’s no cellphone reception; two, it’s very remote so you’ve got to want to get there; three, it’s just simply stunning.
You can go diving, I love diving … you’ve got wonderful rivers, you’ve got the beach … stunning surf. But you’ve also got this great estuary … which is great for kids – and adults – you can do bombs and diving and all that stuff. And there’s this great campground that has no power, but it’s huge. And you can park up, and go nowhere, and do nothing for a very long time and feel great about life [laughs].
Q: What’s the best holiday you’ve ever had, here or overseas?
A: Te Kaha. For me it’s always going to somewhere in the East Coast, but Te Kaha’s a special little spot, I’ve had a long association with the area … We set up big kind of tent campgrounds, these are pretty big operations; big tents all around, big shared, communal area, one kitchen which is comprised of multiple barbecues. We sit and do not much. We swim every day and basically live off the sea, and just have great quality time with family. That’s my ideal kind of summer.
Q: Some quick-fire questions … KFC or Macca’s?
Q: Wine or beer?
Q: Gin or Whiskey?
Q: Tea, coffee or hot chocolate?
Q: Long black or flat white?
A: Long black
Q: Tramping or skiing?
A: Tramping. I lied, it’s totally skiing, I just said that because of DoC. It’s actually snowboarding, that’s like my favourite
Q: Dogs or cats?
Q: Tennis or cricket?
A: Cricket. All day, every day
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