Her public profile has exploded thanks to her new role as the minister in charge of border isolation and quarantine, but Megan Woods has long been known as the most reliable pair of hands in government. She talks to Michelle Langstone about her slew of portfolios, chairing Labour’s 2020 election run, and the secret to keeping so many balls in the air.
Megan Woods is not tired. She is not remotely tired, and she dismisses the suggestion with a shake of her head, as if tired is an annoyance she simply does not have time for. She’s the minister you’ve heard more from in the last year than almost any other. Whenever something goes pear-shaped in the Labour cabinet, her name only has to be uttered and she’s there. She’s the chief fixer-upper, stepping in to rescue the housing portfolio and Kiwibuild from its humiliating under-delivery, and since June she’s been the minister in charge of border isolation and quarantine for the government’s Covid-19 response, working beside Air Commodore Digby Webb. She’s also the minister for energy and resources, science and innovation, and the Greater Christchurch regeneration. When Todd Muller stepped down from the National party leadership in recent weeks, a small part of me expected to hear that Megan Woods would be called in to sort things out, she’s so ubiquitous to New Zealand politics, and to a crisis.
What you see in her pressers is exactly what you get in person: positivity, pragmatism and vigour. She’s chatty – properly chatty – while also being careful to tread the party line, and deliver the key messages of momentum and achievement. Her voice is low and husky, like she’s warding off a cold, and the only time it lifts in tone is when she says “Um” which punctuates her sentences often. Her “Um” is high pitched and melodious, and it makes her sound a bit like a kōkako. She’s immaculately dressed, her signature red lipstick matching her red high heeled boots, and she sits with her arm thrown over the back of the couch with a relaxed air that suggests we have all the time in the world. In fact I have been sandwiched between a significant progressive housing announcement, and a Zoom call. She repeats my question back to me a second time. “Am I tired? No. No. I mean – it’s been a strange year! It’s been a strange year for everybody.”
The Covid-19 lockdown meant Woods spent more time at home in Christchurch’s Wigram electorate than she has in the last 11 years of her life, which she enjoyed because she could wear flat shoes for once, and keep tabs on her parents, whose shopping she did each week because their age precluded supermarket visits. She’s a Christchurch girl down to the bone, and has always lived in the electorate for which she’s an MP. The family home was in Somerfield. “I grew up in a street at the bottom of the Cashmere Hills. The river was really close by. It was a really happy, uneventful childhood, without the trauma that might lead someone to become a politician!”
Wigram, formerly the Sydenham electorate, used to be held by the late Progressive/Alliance/Labour MP Jim Anderton, and it’s clear as Woods talks that he inspired her into politics. “He seemed to be this magical figure in my childhood, that if something went wrong, they went to Jim, and he fixed it. I remember some trees were going to be cut down in our street. Mum called Jim, and there was a meeting in the street, and the trees are still there today.” She beams at the memory.
In a way, she could be talking about herself. Woods is the person the Labour party goes to with their problems, and invariably, she sorts them out. I ask her why she thinks that is and she grins: “I do like looking at a problem and thinking about how we can fix that! That’s not something I find daunting. I find it a stimulating challenge and it’s something that I enjoy doing.” She’s got that workhorse quality that inspires confidence, and it’s easy to believe that she’s being genuine when she speaks. It’s a great skill to have as a politician; she’s not revealing anything she doesn’t want me to know, but she still makes it sound candid and off the cuff.
When Woods stepped in to sort out the border response for Covid-19 the New Zealand public were anxious. The two women granted leave for a funeral who drove from Auckland to Wellington, to then be diagnosed with the virus, had really got the nation’s back up. The situation was poorly managed, obvious gaps appeared in our border security, and director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield was left publicly scrambling to answer the barrage of questions thrown at the Ministry of Health. Labour’s health minister David Clark dug himself further into a hole of ineptitude, and eventually resigned from the role, to be replaced by Chris Hipkins.
Says Woods, “I knew that we needed to move very quickly in order to make sure that we had a system that New Zealanders could have absolute faith in. I took it personally as a huge responsibility. It is an absolutely critical part of how it is that we protect the gains that New Zealand has made – all those sacrifices that we made together.”
The system still isn’t perfect, but the streamlining of returning New Zealanders into hotel and quarantine facilities has meant that, with the exception of escapees, cases of Covid-19 are routinely caught at the border. Community transmission has not been seen in the country in more than 90 days. The New Zealand government’s Covid-19 response has been internationally praised, and our death toll is the lowest in the OECD.
Megan Woods doesn’t seem to have taken a moment to reflect on that. The work is ongoing, and she knows it. Shortly after I leave her, a family of five escapes from isolation in Hamilton, and she issues a statement. The following morning, a Saturday, she fronts up to a presser about the escapees where, for the first time, you can see her positivity slip a little. She’s terse, and appears disappointed. On Sunday morning she’s back, this time with her minister for energy and resources hat on, and making an announcement about renewable electricity, something she’s very excited about. It appears that she thrives on being busy.
Her press secretary jokes there is a “tapestry of colour” in her diary that allows little wriggle room. In one of the charmingly transparent aspects of New Zealand parliament, you can look at the schedules of all our ministers on the Beehive website. Woods’ June diary would make the Energiser Bunny give up the ghost. Every single day of the week is crammed with meetings, from as short as 15 minutes to as long as several hours, and she’s up and down the country multiple times, often giving up weekends as well. It’s no wonder she says she loves her pajamas, the couch, and Netflix when she finally gets home.
On top of her already groaning workload, she’s taken on the position of campaign chair for Labour’s 2020 election run. It’s a role she relishes, and despite some criticism that Labour is cruising on its popularity and not releasing enough policy, Woods is upbeat: “I think one of the things that I’m most proud about our campaign is that it has been nimble and agile, and flexible enough to adapt to the year that has been.” In a happy turn of events for Woods, the campaign manager working beside her is Hayden Munro, one of the Young Labour kids who was on her campaign team for her first bid for parliament in 2011. That year, she held 200 street corner meetings in her electorate, standing on the pavement with a loudhailer, encouraging the public to come and engage. This year? “Oh no no no! Much more than a loudhailer! I’ve actually got a van! It’s got speakers and a microphone!” she exclaims, and she comes out with such a delighted, hearty guffaw that I crack up as well.
All I have to do is ask her why she’s into campaigns and she’s off, barely pausing for air for a good eight minutes. “I love them!” she says with glee, all shining eyes and killer grin. Campaigning and connecting with people in her electorate is another thing she attributes to Jim Anderton, who was still doing street corner meetings when he ran for mayor of Christchurch in 2010, after 26 years in parliament. For Woods it’s a case of giving everyone a chance to talk to her. “You can’t just sit in your office and say ‘you’re welcome to come and see me’. You need to get out, get on their doorsteps, onto their street corners and make yourself as accessible as possible.” Woods says she never loses sight of the fact that she is the elected voice of Wigram. “I look on the job I have now as the best job I’ll ever have. It’s the ability to change things, and that is an absolute privilege,” she says, for once the smile dropping from her face. You can tell she means it.
Woods never had a plan to get into politics. She was at university studying history and listening to Blur and R.E.M at parties when she started to really become aware of changes to society around her. It was 1992, one year after the Mother of all Budgets from National’s Ruth Richardson, and the first year of full fees at university, and means testing for the allowance. Unemployment was high. It wasn’t the New Zealand Woods had grown up in; the stratification in society was becoming more evident. “I had a real sense that what was happening around me wasn’t making New Zealand a better place, or a fairer place. It seemed to me that New Zealand was becoming a place where people couldn’t succeed…” That’s when Woods started volunteering for Jim Anderton, and where the seeds of politics really started to take root. Woods went on to complete a doctorate in history, and carried on campaigning, becoming more interested by the day. She’s reflective when she considers how her life could have gone down another, more passive track, where “as a historian, what I might have done – looked at things that had happened in the past and talked about what the complexities were, or the things that weren’t fair for people.” Now she’s able to create actual change.
Jim Anderton retired from politics in 2011 and handed the torch to Woods, who became the candidate elect for Wigram. When she won the seat and arrived in parliament in 2011, Christchurch was broken. There had only been one earthquake in September 2010, when she secured the candidacy for Wigram. Within five months, the city had been ruined by a second, which left so much damage there is still major work to be done nine years later. Woods’ whole body shivers when I ask her about the second quake in 2011. She was working out in Lincoln at the time, and assumed it was another jolt on the Darfield fault. The city had grown used to aftershocks. She drove back into town, but couldn’t take the back roads as she usually would, because the bridges were out. She drove to her parents’ house, navigating streets full of liquefaction, realising as she got closer to the city how bad things really were. “It was just chaos, really,” she says, shaking her head. National won the 2011 election, but Woods won her electorate, and Christchurch was the top of her priority list. “It was really clear that it was going to be a major project for any MP, whether you were in government or not. There was a job to do.” After two terms of a government that many Cantabrians say badly mismanaged the earthquake response, she’s now minister for the ongoing Christchurch regeneration.
The Al Noor mosque is in Woods’ electorate. She can still remember what table she was sitting at in the Palmerston North airport on March 15 2019, when news came through there was a shooter at the mosque. She called the friends she knew would be in prayer there that day and nobody answered their phones. She flew straight home, the longest two hours of her life, she says, wracked with anxiety about what she would find when she came back into reception. It has stayed with her. “Just seeing the grief and the trauma and the loss, and a community of people, and not just the Muslim community, but Christchurch actually, just trying to make sense of something it was impossible to make sense of.” She is close friends with the Al Noor mosque’s Imam, Gamal Fouda, and helped him campaign to enter local body politics in Christchurch late last year. He was successful, which delights her. Now he’s helping Woods with her campaign for the 2020 election. “He’s been putting up my billboards and sending me texts!”
I ask her how she thinks the Muslim community are doing, just weeks away from the gunman being sentenced. “Anxious. I think there’s probably several hundred sets of feelings going on. Some people do want some form of closure, but it’s hard to understand what closure on that could ever look like.” Woods is a rugby fan, and I ask how she feels about the Crusaders rugby team not changing their name post-March 15, when discussions began in earnest that the historical context of the name was problematic. “I actually spent quite a lot of time talking to members of the Muslim community about this at the time. It wasn’t something that was a big deal for them, to be perfectly honest.” She says there’s a strong core of Crusaders fans in the Muslim community, and it’s from the people most affected by the mosque shooting that we should be taking our cues. We should all be wary of creating false dichotomies, she says, because “there will be as many views across the Muslim community as there are across the rest of Christchurch.”
As well as rugby, Woods is into cricket. Her grandmother introduced her to the game, and they watched it on TV together when she was little. She used to wag school to watch the cricket tests, sneaking out of the grounds and across the road to Lancaster Park, where the guards at the gate always let her in. She laughs when I ask if anybody ever knew. “Um, Probably! The TV cameras were broadcasting it!” She still watches the tests whenever she can. We agree it is the purest form of the game, and Woods goes one further. “It’s taking the time to operationalise a well thought out long-term strategy.” She delivers this straight, and then roars with laughter. Cricket is not unlike a career in politics apparently. “You’re moving bits around – when to bring on the quicks, when to play some spin, when you just need to block – all those kinds of things.” It’s a great analogy, and she knows it.
The only time I see Megan Woods stiffen is when I ask about her personal life. A barely perceptible shield comes up in her eyes, and she looks at me keenly: “It’s not something I want to talk a huge amount about.” Woods, 46, has previously said that politics and relationships don’t match, and when I press her as to why, she says “it is a really difficult life to have a successful relationship. The hours you work, the amount you’re away from home, and then even when you are home, whether or not you’re really present. It does become quite all-consuming.” When she first arrived in parliament a former Labour whip came in to talk to the new MPs. “When you go home it’s like trying to explain having been on the moon,” he said, and that’s something she agrees with. The way she speaks about politics really illustrates it’s not a job suited to just anyone; it’s long hours away from home, and you’ve got to have a passion for it. “I made a decision when I became a member of parliament that I was going to give it my everything. That it is a huge privilege. It’s not going to be forever.”
Nothing is forever, and neither is my time with her. Bang on the hour, we are bustled up and moved on by her press secretary, who it’s clear has a great working relationship with Woods. They discuss the Netflix shows they’re watching all the time, and before I’m out the door I’ve got a short list they’re certain I would like: Occupied, a Norwegian climate change drama (so far, so appropriate), Shameless, which Woods says deals with: “…really serious issues in terms of the dispossession of a whole group of America in a way that’s actually entertaining but challenging”, and Messiah, a thriller. I have approximately 90 seconds to take Woods’ photo. She’s smiling that bright, good humoured smile, and I ask her if she likes having her photo taken. “I hate it!” she says, getting out the words through gritted teeth but never losing the grin. We both start laughing and the next moment she’s off at great pace, out the door to a Zoom meeting that has started without her. The press secretary shows me the door, telling me it’s lucky we could find time for the interview, Woods is so flat tack. I tell her I don’t know how the minister isn’t exhausted. “I know!” she exclaims, before deadpanning “I’m quite tired,” then laughing. A whirlwind hour in the minister’s company and I’m ready for a wine and a lie down. Megan Woods isn’t tired though. She’s just warming up.