When the National Party talks about renewal, their East Coast candidate Tania Tapsell (Te Arawa) is a potent symbol. Alex Braae went to Whakatāne to find out what drives her to push so hard for political success.
She was the youngest person in the room by far. Admittedly, that room was the Whakatāne Bridge Club on Monday morning, but Tania Tapsell still stood out. As the National Party’s 28-year-old candidate for the East Coast electorate, Tapsell is living proof of the party trying to renew itself. She’s been unusually successful in local government – a contrast to the many candidates who’ve come through the parliamentary staffer machine – and is unafraid of speaking her mind, even if her stump speech sticks close to the party line. She’s also Māori and a woman, in a party that has lately been criticised for lacking both.
Her speech at the Bridge Club was bright and cheerful, underpinned by both sheer enthusiasm and a more subtle sharpness. Without notes, she went for about 20 minutes, without ever once getting lost or heading down an inconclusive tangent. She had the feel for public speaking of someone who had been prepared for leadership roles from a very young age. Almost as a joke, I asked if she’d been head girl at her high school.
“No, I dropped out of high school,” she said. “I left school when I was 16, the one size fits all system just didn’t work for me, so I was very independent. But I just had this huge drive through the challenges I faced and saw my community facing, I developed a huge drive to serve my community.” She also left home at the same time, but at 16, she was too young to get benefits so worked two jobs instead.
But dropping out of high school didn’t mean dropping out of society for Tapsell. She still participated in youth council and was the youth MP for Rotorua’s Todd McClay after having joined the National Party as a teenager. Instead of being in school, she did business studies and had a stint at Deloitte doing business consulting before being elected as a Rotorua District Councillor at 21 years old. By then, she’d resolved to become a politician “because I believe it doesn’t have to be as hard as it is for people to get ahead”.
As far as life stories go, it’s pretty much the perfect narrative for the National Party worldview. While some on the outside look at the party as being a force for maintaining and entrenching hierarchy and privilege, those inside the party see it as a force for aspiration and ambition. It’s why concepts like “a hand up, not a hand-out” are such potent political lines for National supporters.
But can it really be a party for everyone? The event she was speaking at was a monthly meeting of the Whakatāne National Party called Blue Mondays, started by popular but retiring MP Anne Tolley. For Blue Mondays, MPs or prominent candidates are asked to come up and say a few words about their particular portfolio areas and interests, such as Botany candidate Christopher Luxon and MP Nicola Willis.
Held just before new cases of community transmission were announced, those who turned up to this month’s event had come from various professional backgrounds: former teachers, community service workers, and businesspeople. By and large, though, it was a room full of retirees and predominantly Pākehā. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does make it harder to claim the party is being rejuvenated.
Being the youngest in the room is a fairly common experience for Tapsell, who said it’s part of what drives her. “A big reason why I’ve wanted to get into this space is to let other young professionals and young families know that this is a space for us.”
Surely that’s particularly a problem within National? “We’ve got a lot of long-serving members in the National Party,” she conceded, which is a good way of not saying old. “But we’ve got this fresh, exciting new wave of experienced young candidates that are coming through the party. We’ve got a very active Young Nats group, and that’s something I want to help grow in the regions as well.”
If anyone can make that happen outside of the big university cities, it’s probably Tapsell. She’s immensely popular at the local government level to the point where a mayoral candidate last year described her as a “pied piper” for younger voters. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but she said they now get on OK around the council table.
For those who recognise the Tapsell name, her allegiance to the National Party might come as a surprise. After all, her great uncle was Sir Peter Tapsell, who served five terms as Labour’s MP for Eastern Māori, an electorate that no longer exists. However, Tapsell said her family has always been supportive of her political allegiances, saying it was “clear to them that I leaned to the right”.
“Even as a child, I couldn’t understand how some of Labour’s policies were so hurtful to rural communities. And I’ve always really loved how National is about limited government, and supporting individuals and families to get ahead.”
There’s pretty much only one way Tapsell can make it to Wellington, and that’ll be as an electorate MP. She’s fine with that, casting her low list ranking (64) as a combination of both National Party processes around new candidates, and a sign of confidence from the party that she can actually win the seat. When I point out to her that a balanced National caucus would probably have more people like her in it, she points to incumbent health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti, and new candidate Dale Stephens, who is Te Rarawa.
“Māori are well represented, but it’s my personal opinion that you should be placed somewhere on merit,” said Tapsell, with a slightly wry suggestion that she’d expect a better list ranking if she becomes an MP.
But to become an MP, she faces an extremely formidable opponent. In the last election, Labour’s Kiri Allan was 5,000 votes short of incumbent Anne Tolley. But after a solid term in parliament, Allan has already started campaigning hard to win the vacated seat. On the same day Tapsell was at the Whakatāne Bridge Club, Allan was in Kawerau – an industrial town that’s now been plastered with her signs and is always hearty for Labour. The East Coast electorate might include a lot of rural areas (farmers were well represented at Blue Monday) but it also includes towns like Murapara, Ōpōtiki and Kawerau where National traditionally fairs less well. And of course, many of Labour’s voters in these towns are also on the Māori roll.
She’s also up against the fact that the campaign has now been suspended due to a change in alert levels. With just a few weeks to go before voting begins, Tapsell said all activities had been put on hold “until we can guarantee it’s safe”. In the meantime, her existing profile will have to do a lot of heavy lifting, along with the hundreds of hoardings her campaign team have put up across the electorate.
If Tapsell wins, she wants a role in either local government or the environment. And if she loses, there’s always the possibility of a mayoral run which she said some had asked her to consider in 2019.
The last question I ask is perhaps the only one that throws her: if it weren’t for politics, what would she be doing right now?
“Having a life,” she jokes, before a long pause. “I don’t know, I’ve always been interested in serving the community, so whatever way or role I could do that, yeah.” Then, after another pause: “I’ve never thought about anything else.”
Alex Braae’s travel to Matamata was made possible thanks to the support of Jucy, who have given him a Cabana van to use for the election campaign, and Z Energy, who gifted him a full tank of gas via Sharetank.