Lan Pham with her trusty bike (Photo: Shanti Mathias)
Lan Pham with her trusty bike (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

PoliticsSeptember 18, 2023

Meet Lan Pham, the MP-in-waiting who loves native fish and hates politics

Lan Pham with her trusty bike (Photo: Shanti Mathias)
Lan Pham with her trusty bike (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Freshwater ecologist Lan Pham leapfrogged a pair of sitting MPs to nab the sixth spot on the Green Party list, all but guaranteeing her a place in parliament. She tells Shanti Mathias why she’s trying to make the world ‘not so screwed’.

Lan Pham skirts around some rotting camellias on the footpath, checks the address on her clipboard and marches down a driveway. She knocks at the door: five raps, syncopated. “Hopefully someone will answer – I want you to have lots of content for your article,” she says. The last six houses she’s tried, this tag-along journalist trotting behind, have been empty. The door opens. Pham beams widely and starts talking.

Her opening is practised. “I’m the local Greens candidate running for this area,” she says. Then she tries to read the vibe. We’re in the well-off suburb of St Martins, part of the Banks Peninsula electorate she is standing in, so she might mention something about the tax study that revealed how 312 wealthy families pay much less tax than the average earner, or talk about the importance of protecting the environment for future generations. 

After a conversation with a tired mum who says she and her partner aren’t on the same page about who to vote for, Pham ticks boxes on the clipboard she’s brought with her, indicating weak support for the Greens. “I can’t imagine being in a relationship with someone who had different political values to me,” she says, shaking her head. At the house of a retired teacher who is sweeping the drive, she talks about the failures of imagination in National’s education policy. 

The teacher mentions a concern about Act having cabinet seats. “Oh, I know,” Pham says, her eyes widening, groaning a little bit. “It’s so close. We can’t let them win – we need your votes!” 

Lan Pham (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Pham is confident and assured: after all, this isn’t her first campaign. The 37-year-old was elected to Environment Canterbury (ECan), the regional council, twice. She was the highest-polling candidate in 2016, even though she was running from the remote Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, where she was living at the time. For her second council run in 2019 she didn’t have to do door-knocking, she says, but she did anyway, because she enjoys it. Her demeanour is certainly friendly, dressed for the spring chill in boots and jeans, with an unobtrusive Green badge pinned to her colourful plaid jacket.

A few days after the door-knocking session, I meet Pham again on a grey Christchurch afternoon. Her bike, a slightly battered secondhand commuter that she bought at an op shop when she first moved to Christchurch, is parked outside bar Dux Central. Pham has her bike helmet and a tote bag from the Local Government NZ 2019 conference on the seat next to her. She shows me the calendar on her phone, blocked with events to go to in the weeks before the election, although she admits that were it not for the master Green campaign calendar, she’d be keeping track of everything on paper. She’s gained a new appreciation of the “party machine”, operating at a far bigger scale than when she was a local government representative.

After Elizabeth Kerekere left the Green Party amid controversy in April, the provisional list of candidates supplied by the party was reshuffled. It was fully confirmed in May, and Pham was at number six, above two sitting MPs. If current polling numbers hold, she’s essentially a shoo-in. “It sort of went from ‘I’ll give this a crack, this will be awesome’ to ‘oh my gosh, it’s really happening,’” she says, laughing. “I felt terrified, but a healthy terrified, because this is really big, it’s big for me and my family.” The list ranking has meant she could quit her job and focus on campaigning full time. 

Pham might be an MP in waiting, but she talks about the possibility carefully; it is both real and not-real to her. On one hand, she’s thinking about how strange it will be to live and work in Wellington again, walking through the “little pocket” of the parliamentary precinct only a few hundred metres from where she went to school at Sacred Heart and St Mary’s College. Pham is thankful to have extended family in Wellington for support; she’s pretty sure she’ll be the first MP of Vietnamese heritage (Gina Dao-McLay, also Vietnamese, is number 23 on the Greens list). But at the same time, she couches her political intentions in “mights” and “ifs”. Nothing is certain, after all, until the election is called. 

two women standing together in the sunshine, one is light skinned with brown hair and one is brown skinned and petite with black hair
Chloe Swarbrick and Lan Pham in 2017. (Photo: Finn Jackson)

The making of a Green politician

So how did a first-time candidate running for the Greens get such a plum position on the list? The party list is determined by Green members. After an initial application process, potential candidates are grilled by delegates to come up with a draft list. “It was so intense – I lost my voice,” Pham says of the interview stage. The list is finalised after it is voted on by all Green members.

Pham’s high position is a signal of the party’s priorities. With the retirement of Eugenie Sage, who also ran in Banks Peninsula, the party wanted someone in Te Waipounamu in an electable position to replace her, as almost all of the party’s senior MPs are from the North Island. The party also wanted to stay true to its environmental credentials, so Pham’s background as a freshwater ecologist was a good fit. 

That’s the ranking, then, but how did Pham, who professes to “hate politics”, end up running for parliament? It started with a political awakening more than a decade ago. 

Raised in the Brooklyn suburb of Wellington, Pham is the “second equal” – a twin – of six children, with an older brother, two younger sisters and a younger brother, and a twin sister. She exclaims when I tell her I have a non-identical twin sister too. “Twin life! I love the twin life.” Pham’s Vietnamese dad came to New Zealand to study during the war in Vietnam. At university, he met her Pākehā mum, of English and Irish heritage. Her mum was the primary caregiver, deeply involved in the community as a social worker and teacher, while her dad “worked literally night and day to put food on the table”. 

She was aware, vaguely, that her mother was a supporter of the Alliance and then the Labour Party, and during her childhood, refugee friends lived with their family. But as she describes it, she had a sense that decisions were being made elsewhere, by people who knew what they were doing. “I genuinely believed that the world was governed by these wise, all-knowing people that made really good decisions,” she says, sighing at the naivete. She remembers hearing Don Brash’s Orewa speech in 2004 and liking the idea that things should be fair, then coming home and telling her mum about it. “I remember her being like, ‘one day you’ll realise that that’s basically wrong.’” Her mum died soon after, passing away when Pham was 19. 

light reflecting off a tank and small fish lurking at the bottom
Inanga, a galaxiid fish whose numbers are in decline. (Photo: Finnbar Lee)

“It wasn’t until I was 24 that I learned to use my brain,” she tells me now, taking a sip of her soda with lemon and leaning against the bar’s green velvet seats, as ‘Wagon Wheel’ pipes tinnily through the speakers. By then, Pham had finished university – she studied at Massey in Palmerston North – and moved to Otago to take part in the Conservation Corps programme, which trained people to work in the environment. “Driving tractors, operating chainsaws, that kind of thing.” 

“It was the native fish, the freshwater critters, that got me going ‘hey, this is really cool!’” she says, lighting up. “I was meeting all these incredible native species that were just getting destroyed by trout predation, their habitat being bowled by forestry or farming intensification. I was like – how is this happening? How are there no laws to protect them?” 

She speaks with affection about the fish she studied, and expresses sadness that most people only encounter native galaxiid species when they’ve been fried into whitebait fritters. As she learned about the perilous state of the environment, “my whole idea about these wise people [running the country] was shattered.” She went back to university to get a masters in ecology; part of that process included presenting to a select committee on oil and gas drilling in Aotearoa’s exclusive economic zone. “A staffer emailed me saying ‘did you know that Eugenie [Sage] quoted you in parliament?’ and it made me feel – not awesome about myself but like, why isn’t there anyone else?” 

That sense of shattered ideals, that someone should already be doing something, has stayed with her in the years since. Pham realised that she was hungry for scale, to do something big picture that could make a difference. She started a group, Working Waters Trust, to work on community engagement around freshwater. “Lan was full of energy, a natural for connecting with people,” remembers Nicki Atkinson, who helped lead Working Waters and is “not at all” surprised that Pham ended up running for parliament. 

a woman in jeans and a coat speaking in front of an audience
Lan Pham speaks about freshwater issues to an audience in Mount Pleasant; ECan councillor Vicky Southworth sits on her right. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

‘There are all these awesome projects on freshwater, but they’re just little bubbles,” Pham told an audience at a campaign event screening documentary Rohe Kōreporepo: The Swamp, the Sacred Place in Mount Pleasant, a suburb by the bike lane to Sumner beach. In a beautiful wooden hall, near a sign for the event pinned to the back of a piece of corflute advertising failed 2022 Christchurch mayoral candidate David Meates, Pham paces back and forth. She is explaining to the audience her frustration at seeing how freshwater was being damaged, but not being able to change the root cause. 

After stepping down from ECan, Pham thought she’d find a way to connect some of those bubbles together: she’d been appointed a freshwater commissioner, a new direction for the National Policy Statement on Freshwater under the principle of Te Mana o Te Wai. “I was like, goodbye politics! Hello decision making under that framework.” But then the Otago Regional Council’s bid to have every aspect of its regional plan considered part of freshwater – after all, liquid concerns trickle quite literally into everything – was rejected by the high court. Pham saw a vision of losing decades of her life to paper pushing, deciding what counted as water and what didn’t, over and over again. So she quit, and when she heard Sage would not be standing in this year’s election, she put her name forward for the Greens. 

a woman smiling in front of a graffiti wall
Pham is proud of her Vietnamese heritage and excited to be the first Vietnamese-heritage MP (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Campaigning: hard work and spectacle

When I speak to those who have worked with Pham in the past, everyone mentions her energy. “On Raoul Island, she would organise dress-up parties and short film competitions, things that made it feel like we weren’t stuck on an island, away from everyone,” says Ben Ngapo, who volunteered with her at the time. Pham says the decision to run for ECan while working on a remote volcano was a little bit spontaneous. She and her husband Emerson were based on the island for 13 months, managing weed eradication on the biodiverse island and supporting the volcano and atmosphere research that takes place there. She campaigned from the island, which had a population of seven, with offbeat videos: in one, she places a pamphlet in a seabird nest and tries to go door-knocking. “Lan, you live here,” another volunteer says when she knocks on the door of her own house. 

“She’s quite zany in the way she campaigns,” says Atkinson, remembering a rap about freshwater fish.

It was on that remote island sanctuary that Pham started using the power of spectacle to direct attention to causes she cared about. In 2015, as climate marches took place around the world, Raoul Island’s entire population of seven turned out to protest. She put some photos online and was mentioned in The Guardian

Another moment of internet-based campaigning came a few years later, once she was an ECan representative, when she made a video soundtracked by Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’, featuring Pham and friends dancing under irrigators to make a point about freshwater contamination in Canterbury. Pham clutches a lilo in a verdant field, then goes on a date where a waiter with the face of then-environment minister Nick Smith pours her “100% pure” brown and muddy water while facts about water systems flash on screen. It’s very 2016, but it’s clear she’s having fun. She laughs at the “shoddy editing job” – she put it together herself – but is thoughtful about whether she might use TikTok or other video platforms herself in her campaign. 


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“I’m thinking about it,” she tells me later in the week at Christchurch Central candidate Kahurangi Carter’s campaign launch, at a cafe just off Moorhouse Avenue. But she has another spectacle to show me first. “Look at this from New Brighton today!” Pham opens her phone, which has a photo of her two kids, aged two and five, on the lockscreen, and flips through pictures of a sand carving on the beach reading “The Time is Now”, the Greens’ campaign slogan. “Miriam, you’re there too – how epic is this?” she says to the Greens general manager and authoriser Miriam Ross, who is duly acknowledged in the corner of the gritty artwork, as the law requires

“I’ve seen Lan a few times, she seems really cool,” says a young Greens supporter at the event, who lives in Banks Peninsula and has brought their dad along to try to convince him to vote for the party. People are nibbling at coconut cake and milling around the exposed concrete floor while a musician in a floaty dress sings into a microphone. Lots of people are wearing green. 

Pham waves at me from across the room a few minutes later. “I have to go to a candidate debate,” she says, frowning. “And I don’t want to, because this is so much fun!” She’s made fast friends with the Green Christchurch candidates, most of whom are running for the first time. Before she leaves, though, she has a few words of praise for the other candidates in Banks Peninsula whom she’ll be debating tonight. “I really like [Act candidate] Laura Trask, she has lots of energy – it’s just that she says that the Greens can’t pay for their policies, and she’s wrong.”

three women: lan, of veitnamese heritage on the left, sahra ahmed, of somalian heritage and wearing a hijab in he middle, and kahurangi carter, Māori and wearing a green dress on the right
Pham with Sahra Ahmed (centre), the Greens’ Christchurch East candidate, and Kahurangi Carter, right, who is standing in Christchurch Central, at cafe Ally and Sid. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

What can an MP do?

Pham is dedicated and determined in the vision she presents to voters, but will being an MP offer the large-scale change she longs for?

She would like to be government, of course, she responds, taking the opportunity to condemn the direction the country might take under National and Act. “And New Zealand First – I need to remember to start adding that as well.” But if two terms of regional council have taught her anything, it is that change is possible, but also slow. “I don’t have any big romantic ideas that I will be able to influence this or that,” she says. “I’m after transformative change, but it’s still about the direction you’re taking, right? I’m going to do my best to make sure those changes are as big and in the right direction as possible. But I’m totally aware they might be little steps.” 

She appreciates being able to “download” all her thoughts about political change with her husband. “He loves politics, and he can think about what to do when I want to just forget about it – it feels like a real team thing.” 

While her young children aren’t particularly aware of their mum’s job, and what the election might mean for them, the rest of her family are encouraging. “My dad’s excited, especially if I enter parliament as the first MP of Vietnamese heritage.” Her twin sister, who looks similar enough to Pham that they are sometimes confused, is happy for her but has a few reservations. “When my profile goes up, so does hers – there’s that look, when someone sees you, but it’s not you who they’re recognising.”

a hand with horange manicured nails holding stickers saying "tax the rich" and "I only date people who vote Green"
Stickers being distributed at a Green Party event in Christchurch (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Pham’s former colleagues, at least, are convinced that she will be a good MP. “Lan is capable and pragmatic, which you need when you just have seven people living on an active volcano in the middle of the ocean,” reflects Ngapo. He resists the temptation to compare parliament to said volcano, but thinks that the qualities will transfer. “She’ll be a big advocate for parents and children as well as the environment, her personal style is practical and productive – she’ll be really approachable.” 

Her future colleagues are positive too. Greens co-leader James Shaw praises Pham’s experience on local government. “She is intelligent, hard-working, articulate and great with the public,” he told The Spinoff in a statement.

It’s difficult to write about Pham without overusing the word “enthusiastic”. She has the quality of wholehearted belief in what matters and what can be changed that is a characteristic of compelling politicians. This enthusiasm doesn’t distract from her clarity: I saw her speak at a School Strike for Climate protest in 2021 in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, describing the necessity – and real possibility – of change for a, well, greener, future. The young crowd, many in school uniforms, loved it. 

a whole lot of kids holding signs at a protest
A 2021 climate strike in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, where Pham was a speaker (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Pham has been burned out before. She describes weeks of sickness and bone-deep exhaustion before the 2019 local government elections, during which time she was hit by a car on her bike. “I literally bounced off the bonnet, it stopped just before hitting my head,” she says. She kept campaigning, feeling more and more unwell. Today, she holds onto it as a reminder to keep her priorities straight. “I’m going to give [parliament] everything, but I’m not going to give it everything everything, you know?” 

While door-knocking, Pham was sympathetic to voters who felt frustrated that more change hadn’t happened under Labour. When I talk to her, she’s still trying to puzzle it out: “What happens between dreaming and putting something on the table for the nation and getting elected – and then the actual reality of governing? Why is there such a disconnect there?” 

When she thinks about becoming an MP, it’s this that she is worried about, that her drive to make things happen will be overcome with a system that is resistant to big ideas. “Is it just that the system itself cannot support incredible change?” She thinks about the Covid response – rapid, effective, radical. “How can that translate to actually responding to our biodiversity and climate and inequality crises?” 

Pham comes across as optimistic and enthusiastic, certainly. But she says that this energy comes, in part, from knowledge of all the loss that has taken place already. “I basically assume it’s too late, that we have overstepped lots of planetary boundaries that it will be difficult to claw back on,” she says. “The evidence is piling up, but it’s not making a difference.”

Instead, it’s the possibility of being “not so screwed” that gives her hope. She’s come to politics because she’s had to learn, over and over again, that it’s changing people, not accumulating evidence, that makes a difference. “With politics, I want the pathway to what’s possible to be real and relevant to people. It’s about creating a better world, and why wouldn’t we want to do that?”

Keep going!