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Nikki Kaye MP

Nikki Kaye MP

Nikki Kaye has been the Member of Parliament for Auckland Central since 2008 and is the Minister for Youth and Associate Minister of Education. We spoke to her about her career and her experiences as a woman in politics.

Interview by Nicola Hoogenboom & Annette Azuma

Q: What made you decide to enter politics?

A: From a pretty young age I worked out that I really want to help people. While working in the private sector in London (and earning more than I do now as a Cabinet Minister) I worked out that wasn’t where my heart lay. Having worked for Bill English before going overseas I realised there is no better place to help people than politics, so that is what I wanted to do.

Q: How did you get into politics?

A: I was elected very young. I came back from the UK at 27 to stand and was elected in 2008, winning the Auckland Central seat for the first time in history for National. People gave me 5% chance of being selected because I was up against two people, and at the time no one had ever won this seat for National. So it took a lot of effort!

Q: What characteristics do you think are important for women in
business or politics?

A: Meeting so many people in communities and business I think I have found a common recipe.

The first is integrity. It is very difficult at a leadership level for people to follow you if they can’t trust and know who you are, so one of the things I often say to people who are considering standing for politics or want a promotion in business is that it is really important to spend a bit of time becoming confident in who you are and what you stand for. At a leadership level it is very difficult to get people to work with you if they don’t know what you stand for.

The second thing is that there is no substitute for hard work. I meet a lot of people who are very talented but don’t succeed because they don’t put in the hard yards. Everything I have seen from successful senior business people and politi­cians is really about work ethic.

The third thing is that those who are successful are also courageous. What makes up those who go that bit further is having courage of conviction and accepting the conse­quences when you need to make a hard decision.

My overall experience in business and politics at a leader­ship level is that success is about character.

Q: Are there any issues you see as important for women to
succeed in business?

A: I think we have a couple of current issues specific to women. Obviously the pay equity issue is top of mind for us at the moment and the Government has announced principles around pay equity that we have agreed on for a range of stake­holders. I think what you will see in the next 18 months is that working itself through based around legislation and how that works in practice in certain sectors.

In terms of other issues we know we still have a low repre­sentation of women on boards and there is a lot going on both in the public sector and with the Ministry for Women to see how can we get more women on boards. I think we had some success in the last year in increasing the number of women on public sector boards. Often they don’t get on private sector boards because they haven’t had any experience so we are actively trying to get women onto public sector boards so thatthen they can get a foot in the door of the private sector.

The other thing is that you may be aware of the changes we have announced to provide more flexible working hours for women as well.

Q: Do you feel that men using flexible working hours is just as important because it makes it for everyone?

A: I agree with that totally. I don’t think that people have realised the dramatic change that has occurred.

Q:How do you think you personally can help women in business?

A: As the MP for Auckland Central I have a large number of businesses in my electorate so I deal with up to 2,000 con­stituents a year. That means I actively help women who come to see me in a practical way, either by putting them forward for boards or if they have got issues with their business in terms of interface with Government. As the MP of Auckland Central and as a Cabinet Minister, I think I have been a very strong advo­cate in areas such as paid parental leave and also with pay equity and flexible working hours.

Q: What are your proudest moments?

A: I have a few for different reasons. As a new MP I was tested pretty early on my position on mining. As I had campaigned on being very strong on environmental issues I actually stood against the party and said that I don’t agree with mining Great Barrier Island. It was a very proud moment for me when we ended up changing our policy. As a result of that and I was able to come full circle for the Barrier and get through a con­servation park covering a massive amount of the island.

Nationally I have been proud of the work I have done around upgrading schools across New Zealand, both fixing leaky buildings, and creating modern learning environments involving investment in the billions. I think that people will look back and say this period of history has been a time of great investment in our schools, so I am very proud of that as Associate Minister.

My work in youth development is very rewarding as Government agencies can end up spending millions of dollars cleaning up the mess of someone’s life because they have ended up in the prison system, reliant on drugs. The power of one opportunity to have a mentor can literally change the course of someone’s life, so I have been very focused on delivering hundreds of mentoring opportunities across New Zealand. I have people who come up to me and talk to me about that, but I know that in 20 years’ time that for those young people mentoring would have been the difference between them going off the rails and not.

Q: What have been your biggest challenges?

A: I think in Civil Defence. It’s an incredibly challenging role because you are dealing with difficult situations from earth­quakes to floods to tsunami alerts and I fought very hard to get the public alert project through and funded. The PM men­tioned it when we had the tsunami alert last year and that has been a very challenging portfolio.

There have been other moments that have been personally very challenging in terms of particular constituency cases like having a husband and wife come to me because the husband had cancer and they have wanted a drug to be funded but I cannot interfere with Pharmac, for pretty good reason, but you really feel the weight of responsibility and I have had a number of moments like that which have been pretty heart breaking. When I was Associate Minister of Immigration I felt that weight of responsibility very acutely because I was literally holding the pen on whether someone would be able to stay in New Zealand or not.

Then obviously there have been tough times personally and with the health stuff it has been a pretty challenging year.

Q: Are there any challenges specifically for women in politics?

A: When I first started my first political meeting was a Young Nat’s AGM and I was elected Women’s Vice Chair because I was the only woman in the room. Since then the party has changed dramatically and John Key was very progressive. I have been very fortunate as the youngest National woman to be at the cabinet table and it is great to see the increasing number of women in cabinet.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t get people who write to me about physical appearance and you get trolls, but the whole “battle of the babes” thing that Jacinda and I had is much more a rarity now. To be blunt, I think particularly in the last 5 years people have a lot less tolerance for that kind of b.s.

Q: Who do you look up to?

A: I look up to my Mum and my grandmother. They have always been there and Mum, particularly with the health stuff has been incredible. My grandmother is 96 and she has lived and seen a lot, from the war, to my grandfather dying and the loss of a son. She is just someone who always has an amazing attitude around not worrying about the small stuff.

I am also constantly in admiration of people who I meet, particularly young people. I always say to people to never believe what you read on the front page of the paper, or else you would think the future of New Zealand is in dire straits. It’s not. In fact a classic example was The Young New Zealander of the Year Awards where one of the best speeches was by Rez Gardi, a young woman who started life off as a refugee in New Zealand. She is doing some incredible stuff and I constantly meet young women who are doing phenomenal things and I find them a real source of inspiration.

Q: Do you have any tips for women who are looking to succeed
in politics?

A: I always say to people I don’t think it matters at what age you stand. I was very young but what is important is that you know who you are because it would be very difficult to be in this job and be successful if you didn’t have a strong sense of your own identity and your belief system, because you are constantly tested. I have met people who know that at 20 and then I have met people who don’t know it at 50. At the second point is that you have got to get involved with a politi­cal party, because I have also met people for which they have put themselves forward or they have come in to Parliament and they realise that it is nothing like they imagined and that you do start out often at the bottom and work your way up. So you might have been the head of a business or community organisation and you have got to be prepared to come in as a back bencher. That is how the majority of people come in to Cabinet. So you have got to have that attitude of getting stuck in.

The third thing that I say to people looking to get involved with a political party is to really understand the process of selec­tion. I do a lot of talking people through the process, younger people in particular, but also women who are interested in poli­tics and want to talk to me about standing one day. I have also seen people who are outstanding and would make great MPs but they haven’t done the work to understand the process.

Q: What happens when you do change what you stand for over time?

A: My main thing that I say to people is if you are going to change your opinions then you have just got to very clearly explain why. If you are able to stand up and say I “got that wrong I didn’t have the evidence at the time”, or “the evidence has changed”, or “I was a lot less liberal then because I didn’t realise how many people have been through this”. People will respect you for that, but it is going to be challenging.

Q: What political issues do you think are important right now?

A: At the moment we are one of the most successful nations in the world and one of few developed nations in surplus. That has been a real hard slog at the government level but when it comes down to it, it is all the small businesses out there that have made this happen.

I think we are pretty world leading in the social investment model. This is about recognising that we have made prog­ress in major social indicators with educational achievement up, particularly among Maori and Pacific students, and overall crime down, plus we were the first government in a long time to raise the benefit However there are still some long term issues, and the housing sector is one of them.

I see international business as a key area. Where business is concerned we are seen as one of the best countries in the world to do business with and in, with relatively low corruption and relatively low regulation. A major challenge is continuing to attract some of the best talent. If you look around the world you can see a fair amount of protectionism happening, whether through Brexit or what is happening in the United States. I think our challenge is to continue to have reasonable immigration settings and allow highly skilled and talented people to come to New Zealand and looking at those settings to see whether we have got them right.

Ultimately we can’t succeed in certain areas unless we have not just people who are born here but also an amount of immigration.

The second issue that I think is relevant is around the ability to constantly look at both labour law and issues around employees to make sure that we are fair and get the balance right. At present on the left wing side there are political parties that want to raise the minimum wage by several dollars an hour. We have consistently raised the minimum wage every year since we have been in office and it is going up to $15.75 in April. Comparatively, our increases have been higher than other nations and I would argue that we need to keep increas­ing it, but at a pace that businesses can understand and handle. If increases are too high and too quick then there would be jobs lost, particularly with hundreds and thousands of self employed in small businesses, so again I think maintain­ing that balance is really important.

Housing is relevant to business because if we can’t ensure that we get greater gains around the cost of housing, then people’s income gets eaten up. In a city like Auckland it is more difficult to attract the talent that we need, but it is very impor­tant that Auckland is an affordable place to live. So whether it is through releasing Crown land, or the recent unit titles reform, of which I chaperoned some of those issues, or the increase in first time buyers subsidies that have been announced, or the changes that have been made by the Reserve Bank in terms of LVR, it’s not going to be a straight forward thing to resolve.

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