It’s been a meteoric political rise for Kiritapu Allan. In 2017, she was a bright-eyed first-time candidate. Today she is justice minister. Along the way, she got dealt a life-changing diagnosis.
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“She looked at me quite ashen. And she was like, ‘I’m saying this to you as a friend. I really need you to go to the women’s centre and get tested. Urgently.’”
That’s how Kiritapu Allan remembers her cabinet colleague and friend, Dr Ayesha Verrall, responding when she told her about her symptoms – “I had basically not stopped menstruating for quite some time.” The East Coast MP had been avoiding getting checked out. She “didn’t really go to doctors or enjoy that side of things”. She hoped Verrall would say something like yeah, nah, you’re all good.
Allan did what she was told and booked an appointment. The morning the tests were scheduled, March 5 2021, a tsunami warning was issued. Allan was the minister for emergency management. “My phone started going off at about two or three in the morning.” Having taken stock, summed up the situation and completed the morning media rounds, Allan sped to Wellington Hospital. At one point, in the middle of an examination, she completed an interview with Kathryn Ryan on RNZ. “That was a vibe.”
A couple of weeks later the results came back. The diagnosis was stage three cervical cancer, Allan announced in a social media post in which she urged women, Māori women especially, to get smear tests done regularly. “I was incredibly grateful to live somewhere with a public health system and I got to see it firsthand,” she said.
And she “confronted mortality, face up”.
“They did think I was going to cark it for a good period there,” said Allan. “But my main doctor didn’t think that. Ever … She was like, no, we’re OK. But I was seeing a psychologist for the entire time, and preparing to die.”
With characteristic understatement, Allan said: “That’s an interesting experience to go through as a young mother, as somebody who just recently started a parliamentary career, had been a minister for six months, not even that. Being confronted with this real prospect: OK, everything you thought was going to happen, isn’t.”
Allan, who was speaking at a special Spinoff Members event in Auckland – a reunion, alongside National MP Erica Stanford and the Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick, of the candidate diarists who five years ago chronicled their efforts across the 2017 election for The Spinoff – was given the all-clear by her doctors at the end of 2021. In June, she was promoted up the cabinet ranks by Jacinda Ardern and appointed minister of justice.
‘Nothing about that place feels normal’
“This job really pushes you to your limit. Spiritually, physically, mentally. It’s a very uncomfortable environment,” said Allan.
“I think some people come in and feel automatically relatively comfortable,” she said, before gesturing towards Swarbrick. “We feel out of place. We don’t fit the mould. We’re not from that place. It doesn’t sound like us. There is nothing about that place that is familiar, even five years on, even as a minister and you’ve got all these public servants helping, nothing about that place feels ordinary or normal.”
Allan’s solution was to focus on the “wairua side of it”, she said. “Spiritually, I’ve got to ground my feet in this job. Every single day, you chuck your boots on, and you feel it is an absolute privilege. And it is a heartbreaking privilege. I don’t think that you can separate the two out.”
There was “a lot [more] camaraderie that goes on across the house” than was obvious from the theatrics of parliament, said Allan. She, Stanford and Swarbrick would routinely ping tension-lifting text messages between one another during debates.
Tending healthy relationships over party lines was critical for the times when cross-party support really mattered. Allan would routinely talk to opposition members in her office seeking to iron out points of difference. “And then they’ll be sledging me the next day in the house, and that’s fine.”
‘A very standard trajectory’
“It was huge. It was life changing,” said Allan of the 2017 campaign. It was made all the more challenging because she and her then partner were expecting a baby. “Probably just a little bit of advice to budding politicians: maybe don’t do both of those things in the same year.”
The intensity of the campaign was all the greater, she said, because “it felt like there was a lot at stake, that New Zealand was ready”, yet the Labour Party, bedevilled by uncertainty over the leadership, kept “doing these 360-degree things”. All the same, she said, “I loved it. I loved campaigning because I love our people … It was epic.”
Of her path to a life in politics, Allan said an important career spark arrived when she was working at the Grand Central bar in Ponsonby as a first year university student and she got chatting with a regular, law professor Mark Henaghan. “I was 18. I knew quite a lot about the world,” she deadpanned.
Henaghan, who would also sometimes turn up with another esteemed legal academic, Andrew Geddis, encouraged her to study law. “You’ve got all these reckons – you should do something about it,” was the advice, said Allan. “He started sending enrolment packs and law texts to my bar.”
At the time, she said, she thought, “sweet, maybe I should check out this thing called Laws at uni.” A couple of decades later, she’s the minister of justice – “a very standard trajectory”.
As for today, after five tumultuous years, Allan alighted on the impact of the lunches in schools programme as the political achievement from which she draws the greatest personal satisfaction.
“I, too, am a nerd, and I love doing all the constitutional reform. I love doing law reform policy work. But it’s the people and it’s the faces that are etched into my memory … That’s why, even on the hardest and the worst of days when you’re just clinging on by your fingernails and you’re feeling really raw, somebody will just go, ‘Bro remember, X?’ And you go: yup, yup, stay the course. We believe in what we’re doing.”