The Wairarapa MP talks to Stewart Sowman-Lund about his commitment to the regions – and why he definitely doesn’t want to be prime minister.
It’s a cold and blustery day in central Hawke’s Bay, but Labour minister and Wairarapa MP Kieran McAnulty has still attracted a small group of prospective voters. He didn’t expect anyone to turn up to this street corner meeting, part of his campaign bid for reelection, positioned in the open air near a roundabout in the rural town of Waipukurau. He describes his drive several hours north from Masterton through torrential rain and gales and thanks the crowd for braving the weather. Though he’s visibly shivering, decked out in a jumper and a Labour-branded coat, McAnulty seems genuinely thrilled to have people to talk to.
The night before he was at a public meeting slightly further north in Waipawa, and the day before that he’d been at another candidates event here in Waipukurau. There have been plenty of other meetings around the electorate in recent weeks too, not to mention the ongoing responsibilities of being a minister. Last weekend, he popped down to Queenstown in his capacity as emergency management minister. On Monday, he was on call to head up the coast to Gisborne as rain pummelled the region.
Since becoming an MP in 2017, McAnulty has surged up the Labour Party ranks. He started as a low-ranked list MP before winning the Wairarapa seat in 2020. National’s Alistair Scott had decided not to contest the electorate again, and McAnulty ultimately beat newcomer Mike Butterick for it by 7,000 votes. While there’s no public polling to suggest whether or not he can do it again on October 14 (Labour hasn’t done any either, although National apparently has), Wairarapa has been identified by some in the media as a seat that could flip back to National.
“Who knows, but I’m a chance,” McAnulty tells me. We’re sitting side-by-side in the front seats of my car before the MP heads off to another campaign event in Waipukurau. His schedule is so packed there’s not even enough time to grab a coffee while we chat. “I wouldn’t rule myself out. I’m hearing more and more people that aren’t Labour supporters… saying ‘I’m voting National for the party, but I’m actually going to vote for you locally this time.’
“I don’t know what that means and you can’t make a prediction on feedback, but I’m hearing positive things on the doors, I’m hearing positive things on walkabouts and at street corner meetings. I’m not counting my chickens, but I’m not ruling myself out either.” Now ranked 16th on the party list, McAnulty’s certain to make it back into parliament regardless of whether he retains Wairarapa, but he wants the seat.
His campaign car – no longer the iconic 1997 Mazda ute he sold in 2021, but a flashy hybrid station wagon – has the names of all 206 areas in the Wairarapa electorate emblazoned across it. McAnulty has visited every main settlement and many of the smaller ones around the electorate from Pōrangahau in the west, down through Tararua, and into Wairarapa itself.
The seat itself is one of the country’s largest. In the south, it borders Wainuomata, near Wellington. At its northern tip, it butts up against Tukituki in Hawke’s Bay. McAnulty’s confident that, at the least, he’s been more visible in the community than his National Party predecessor – and constituents agree, he says. “Just the other day I had a guy come up to me and say ‘we’ve seen you more than the two previous National MPs, and you’re a minister’. I was pretty stoked with that. I pride myself on that.”
This is McAnulty’s fourth campaign in Wairarapa, after first running for the Labour Party unsuccessfully in 2014. He lost in 2017 as well, but sneaked into parliament on the party list. The question of why he got into politics in the first place is a simple one with a difficult answer, he says. “It’s like asking someone why did you become a mechanic. The unique aspect of being an MP is that there aren’t many, if any, other roles where you have the ability to achieve and deliver for the region. That really excited me.” If it was just about being a parliamentarian, he’d be satisfied being a list MP again – but that’s not why he got into politics. “I know from the three years that I was a list MP and the three years I was the local MP, I’ve been able to do far more as the local MP than I ever was as a list MP.”
That’s not to say he wouldn’t be happy remaining in parliament as a list MP if the votes don’t fall his way on October 14. But he appreciated the chance to serve his community – “I look back on what I’ve done and I think bloody hell, this has been a really cool three years” – and admits the slim resources of a list MP make that just a little bit harder. He says he’s motivated now by a concern that, if he were to lose, his replacement wouldn’t be such a visible presence in the less-populated areas. “I don’t have any faith that, if I don’t win, that whoever wins will give central Hawke’s Bay and Tararua their fair share of attention.”
It’s likely a two-horse race between McAnulty and National candidate Mike Butterick, the sheep and beef farmer from Masterton who also contested the 2020 election. Placards for Butterick outnumber McAnulty’s around the electorate, at least on the main highways – hardly a surprise given National’s popularity among wealthy farmers.
But McAnulty hopes he has done enough to earn people’s vote again this time. One thing he’s learnt over the years, he explains, is that the Wairarapa electorate is large and diverse – and people in one part of it probably don’t care so much about what’s happening elsewhere. This he knows from experience: while his parents are both from Eketāhuna, meaning he has a natural link to that area, before becoming the electorate MP he didn’t have as close a connection with its more northern parts.
“When I’m in central Hawke’s Bay, I talk about central Hawke’s Bay. When I’m in Tararua, that’s all I talk about. The people of Wairarapa wouldn’t like me talking about Waipawa, so why should people in Waipukurau hear me talk about Featherston?” he says. Making a slight dig at his National Party rival for the seat, without naming him, McAnulty says others clearly haven’t picked up that skill yet. “People [in central Hawke’s Bay] have been ignored and overlooked for so long and they appreciate they’ve got an MP that actually recognises them and does stuff for them. That’s the big thing when I’m campaigning.”
An added difficulty this campaign is that McAnulty’s profile has increased dramatically in the past three years. Now he has to balance his time on the campaign trail with the ongoing responsibilities as a minister, a job that doesn’t get put on hold for an election. McAnulty currently holds six ministerial portfolios: emergency management, local government, racing, regional development and rural communities. He’s also been deputy leader of the house. While there is some crossover, he says, between those roles and his position as MP for Wairarapa, they have inevitably taken him out of the electorate more often than he would like.
Taking on the responsibilities of a minister was a “full-on” transition, he says. There are the big things, like fronting the media and answering detailed questions, but also the smaller things – like being addressed as minister. “Jesus man, like two days ago you were calling me Kieran, what’s going on?,” he remembers. “It was a period of adjustment.”
It’s also thrown him into the spotlight in a way that doesn’t often happen when you’re sitting on the back bench. After a year of internal struggles that saw the Labour caucus lose several key members, there was some speculation that McAnulty could be in line for a serious promotion after the election. His name was in the mix for Labour leader after Jacinda Ardern’s resignation in January, murmurings that have gained more prominence as the prime minister’s popularity wanes in the run-up to the election. In August, the Herald’s Audrey Young named McAnulty as Chris Hipkins’ most likely replacement.
“Absolutely not,” he says of the rumours he’s gunning for the top job. “I’m just not interested. The problem… is that if you say ‘no’, they don’t believe you. Because everyone that has subsequently become a leader at some point has said no before that. But I can absolutely, categorically say right now I’m not interested.
“I don’t spend enough time at home as it is, I want to be connected to the electorate. If I became leader, I’d never be here. I wouldn’t know what was going on because you’re just not connected and that’s not why I got into politics.”
McAnulty has received plaudits for maintaining his blokey, affable demeanour while under pressure over hot button issues like Three Waters, which has since been reimagined as the Affordable Water Reforms. After taking on the local government portfolio, McAnulty visited every regional council around the country and says the reforms now have widespread backing. He was also a visible face in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle due to his role as minister for emergency management. It’s the same portfolio that saw Kiri Allan become a widely respected minister after an extraordinary press conference during a tsunami scare in 2021. Allan has since resigned from politics.
On his personal popularity, McAnulty says that no job should change a person. The key thing, he says, is just to be normal. Unsurprisingly, he name checks Jacinda Ardern and Chis Hipkins as political leaders he looks up to. He also mentions Bob Hawke, the former Australian prime minister, as an inspiration. “Obviously he had his quirks and I wouldn’t want to copy him completely, but for him to be able to demonstrate Labour values in a broad way and maintain the level of support that he did and therefore help working people across the board, I think [that] was extraordinary,” says McAnulty. “He normalised Labour politics and normalised the concept of how a Labour Party can benefit ordinary people. I admire him a lot for that.”
At a public meeting in Waipukurau a few days before our interview, McAnulty answered audience questions on a range of Labour Party policies. He shined most when forced to defend the water reforms. “What the National Party is proposing is the status quo,” he told the crowd. “Whatever they put forward, it doesn’t remove the debt off council books. That’s debt that you are servicing as local ratepayers.” During the same meeting, he leapt in to claim the government’s books were in better shape than some have suggested, rattling off figures you might expect to hear from a finance minister. While MPs are required to have a base level of knowledge about all portfolio areas, many struggle to tactfully shift between subject areas – especially outside of their specialities.
The divisive politics of Covid-19 and its aftermath have made it harder for MPs – especially those from Labour – to campaign as visibly as they once would have. During the street corner meeting I attended, a passerby yelled out that she was desperate to see Labour out of office. Later, the same individual knocks on the window of the car in which McAnulty and I are talking. “I truly, truly feel in the last six years you have destroyed everything great about this country,” she tells McAnulty. Covid-19 is one of the reasons she is planning to vote for either National or Act. “I’m just very angry… There are people who are hurting.”
McAnulty maintains his calmness throughout the encounter, telling the woman he respects her views. I ask him how it feels to have unexpected – and often hostile – intrusions like this wherever he goes. He was recently advised, for example, not to advertise the location of his mobile office for fear of protests.
“The vast majority of New Zealanders, whether they were going to vote for Labour or not, recognise that the way we handled Covid has set us up as a country,” says McAnulty. “Some people are really unhappy with it and that’s influencing how they vote. We haven’t ruined everything that’s great about this country, we haven’t caused division – there are others who are stirring up racial division in this country, but we can’t be accused of that. Nothing I could have said could have changed that lady’s mind – I just give her an opportunity to say what she has to say, wish her a nice day and move on.”
McAnulty may claim he doesn’t want to be Labour’s next leader, but seeing him on the campaign trail shows why there’s been talk that he could one day pick up the mantle. He’s a clear communicator with an approachable, unpretentious manner – political skills that, as Ardern’s consistently high personal ratings suggested, are highly valued by the public. He says he’s most frustrated by people who cannot give a straight answer. “It pisses me off when someone asks a genuine question and all they get is key messages back.” It’s probably one of the reasons he was tasked with overhauling Three Waters and making it more palatable for councils and the public.
“Just be upfront about what it is that you’re trying to do,” says McAnulty. “In general, people will support that approach.”