Politics

‘The rounding out of Paula Bennett’ – lunch with National’s rising star

In a wide-ranging interview, the senior minister talks Wicked Campers, online abuse, her new cabinet roles, her (formerly) sexist dad, leadership ambitions, John Palino, and a whole lot more.

The front page of the most recent Herald on Sunday trumpeted “The war on Wicked Campers”. For years the Australian-owned company had thumbed its bumper at popular outcry and ignored rulings from the advertising regulator over the gross-drunken-DJ-level slogans scrawled on its multicoloured vans. (For example: “In every princess there is a little slut who wants to try it just once”; “Fat chicks are harder to kidnap”; and “A man would be interested in a woman’s mind if it bounced gently as she walked”.) But now they faced a new crackdown, led by Paula Bennett, the associate minister of tourism.

Bennett’s campaign, which has included pushing for campground bans and exploring regulatory avenues, has gathered steam over the week, generating acclaim and dissent – including one internet user who mused that her campaign was the sort of approach that sowed the seeds of Isis. Another commenter left a message on Bennett’s Facebook page saying, “Bit of sexual violence never hurt anyone Paula. Your should try a bit. Lol”.

On a windswept Wednesday afternoon in Auckland, the Spinoff sat down with Bennett, the MP for Upper Harbour, fifth ranked cabinet minister and self-described Westie, to discuss the Wicked Campers campaign and personal abuse, as well as her other new portfolios of climate change and social housing. Beneath the flapping awnings out the back of 23 Cafe in Eden Terrace we also covered the essentials: her leadership ambitions, the prospects of National getting into bed with the Greens, her (formerly) sexist dad, and Auckland mayoral candidate John Palino.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 24:  Welfare Minister Paula Bennett speaks ahead of Leader of the National Party, John Key's official launch of the National Party campaign at Vodafone Events Centre, Manukau on August 24, 2014 in Auckland, New Zealand.  Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key will go head to head with Labour leader David Cunliffe at the general election on 20 September 2014.  (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Paula Bennett during lunch at 23 Cafe. Oh, all right, it’s from the 2014 campaign. Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

After an extended conversation about the cornichons advertised as coming with the pâté – I thought they might be mini-pickled-onions but turns out they’re mini-gherkins – I attempted a joke about how it would have been better if we’d met in the Urban Cafe in Newmarket, the very cradle of the world-famous teapot tapes scandal. That generated precisely no response from the minister, nor her aide, who sat opposite through the interview, occasionally jotting down a note. So I asked instead about the Wicked Campers campaign.


This is the third in an occasional series of interviews, which we’ll call The Spinoff Meets Politicians it Thinks Are Interesting. Other interviewees so far are David Seymour and Grant Robertson.


The Spinoff: When did the camper issue first come on your radar?

Paula Bennett: After becoming the Associate Minister [of Tourism] I noticed an increase in correspondence coming in. I had noticed them before that, but to be honest I thought that they were, perhaps, edgy. I could see the clever element to them. And there still are some that I categorise like that. And then over summer I had my then eight-year-old granddaughter in the car, who reads everything, everywhere, and when she started reading things out about sluts and oral sex, I just went, wow, this is a step too far, and actually just not something that I thought was appropriate.

When I got back and signed off another whole lot of correspondence that had obviously come in over summer, I thought, it’s a public issue, not just my own personal feeling affronted about what I had to read as I drove around over the summer.

It’s kind of anomalous, presumably, being a moving vehicle – does it fall between the stalls of the Advertising Standards Authority and the censor’s office [Office of Film and Literature Classification]?

What I was doing was directing everyone to the ASA – my letters back were directing everyone there, I thought that was the solution. I spoke to Amy Adams [the Minister of Justice] on the phone, and she said, look, I can explore it further but I don’t think it is. And then I started looking down the bylaws of local councils, and as an ex-minister [of local government] I can tell you that’s always a mess, because it’s not consistent across the country and it requires them to be following up and doing all the work around it. And then I got the brainwave of banning them from DOC camping grounds, so that’s when I rang [Conservation Minister] Maggie Barry. And in the meantime I had officials going to scour the landscape and trying and find me a solution. I wasn’t against some form of legislation but it would my least favourable way to deal with this thing.

The next thing I heard was the Office of Film and Literature, that do the censoring, had made the decision that it is a publication under the act, and as such they can now go ahead and decide whether or not they fit the criteria of being banned, restricted, or OK.

Is that a new decision they’ve made, that it’s a publication?

Yes, it is.

As in, recent days?

Recent weeks. But I think it’s the first time that they’ve had an official complaint so that’s probably the reason they’ve looked at them.

Did the complaint come from your office?

From the Police. So when I’d been scouring, I’d spoken to Police – what would their enforcement be – and for the censors to look at it they have to have all four sides of the van, because otherwise one side is not considered a publication. Apparently it’s like reading a quarter of the book.

There’s something slightly surreal about that.

So you have to have all four sides, and the Police were the best ones to be photographing all four sides, so we weren’t reading a quarter of the book.

Labour put out a press release last night, saying if Paula Bennett is serious about this, she would make compliance with Advertising Standards Authority rules a requirement for renting vehicles.

The advice I’ve had is that wouldn’t have been the most effective way to get the slogans off the road, that going through the chief censor’s office is. We already have criteria. I am really reluctant for politicians to start being the moral compass on what is and isn’t offensive. And, yes, the ASA might be able to do that. That would mean that we would then have to legislate – at the moment they’re a voluntary body. All advice has said, they’re industry regulated, that’s the way it should stay, and if we’ve got another solution, why wouldn’t we take it?

Is there a danger that by making a public issue out of it, you serve the purposes of their business model: they trade in outrage.

If you’re overseas and you now go to look for a campervan and you Google camper vans in New Zealand, there are plenty of stories that are pretty negative about this company. I reckon they’re going to end up losing business. Then once you see camp grounds starting to ban them, I think it will have a negative effect on their business. So, balancing that risk, because it is a real risk, in the probability of it all, I think it’s going to have a negative effect. And if we don’t get rid of the slogans, I’ll have to look back and reflect on whether or not I’ve done the right thing, but at this stage I’d say I have.

What about the free speech issue. There is an argument that if we believe in the principles of free speech, the speech we should defend most vigorously is the speech we find most disagreeable.

At some level I would agree with that. It’s not a campaign that I embarked on lightly, because I agree with freedom of speech, and I don’t get morally outraged at things that some other people do. I can usually see the funny side of something, and if I can understand where it’s come from then I can get there. But I do think as a society we also need to have a bottom line. And so what adults do in their own time and with their own money and their own views, I have pretty much no opinion on, and don’t care, to be honest. It’s when it’s actually affecting society and children that I start getting a different view of it.

Some of the offending Wicked Campers

Some of the offending Wicked Campers

That chap who left the “sexual abuse” message on Facebook, which generated a lot of response. Was that an aberration? Were there other comments like that or did it stick out like a mile?

It stuck out by a mile. I get personal vilification and hate stuff, that’s actually more kind of cruel on some level, on a regular basis. Whether it’s about my weight, my family – stuff that’s actually personally cruel, is the only way to say it. I can ignore most of it, I can skim read it. I have the odd moment where I have a [gasping noise] and then I get on with it. That one, for me, wasn’t about me. I must admit, it was on a Sunday, and I’d just read Teuila Blakely, talking about her own experiences [with trolls], and I know Teuila well, and I’d just read her saying those things, and that she was standing up to them, and a part of me was reflecting on that – how much do you stand up to bullies and how much you back away? – and then I read that comment. I wasn’t affronted for myself, or hurt for me. I just went, this is exactly what we’re talking about: that we’re yet again accepting that a comment, whether it’s joking or not, is saying sexual violence is OK. I just saw enough through Child, Youth and Family, I saw enough in that work experience that I’ve had, to be disgusted.

So in a way that comment was part of the same problem on the side of those vans. Does New Zealand have a problem – do NZ men have a problem?

I don’t think it’s more of a problem than it is around the world, to be honest with you. And I think that we all do – I don’t think New Zealand men have to own it, women can be just as bad. And I think the things that were acceptable and funny 20 or 30 or 35 years ago, when I was growing up, are not now. And even my dad – I grew up in the most macho, male environment: older brothers, different rules for the only girl, I grew up in a really male dominated environment – and when even my 82-year-old dad is saying, actually that might have been all right in my day, but it’s not all right now, society’s changed.

That’s recently?

Yeah, just the last couple of days, with the Wicked Campers thing coming up. He said, I would have been making those jokes 40 years ago. It’s not acceptable in this day and age, with who we are and how we want to be as a country.

So when you were growing he presumably wouldn’t have imagined the daughter, rather than one of your brothers, would be the one to become the fifth ranked minister in cabinet.

Ha! I don’t want to pick on my Dad, because he’s a very kind man.

I don’t want to pick on your Dad either, but –

He’s a very kind man, and he’s changed a lot in 40 years, trust me – I’m 47 right? So my dad has changed a lot in 35 years. But my father was very much a sexist. He was! And he would admit that, you know, so I’m not being cruel to him. He was very much “men do one thing, women do another”. My brothers had different curfews to me. When I cut my hair, he said it was one of the worst days of his life that his little girl was not being feminine enough in his eyes.

How old were you then?

Twelve. You know, he bought me a sewing machine for my 16th birthday when my brothers got shotguns, and he was horrified that I traded it in for a motorbike. So of course all of that grew me into a very robust, resilient, strong person, because I fought it the whole way. So I never was compliant or happy with what I saw as outrageous, sexist, misogynist behaviour.

And did you turn him around over time? What happened?

I don’t know if I turned him, or just wider society did in some respects. You know, I’m sure I played a part in that. And he’s my biggest and staunchest supporter and confidant and all the rest, but I noticed him change probably about 20 years ago. I started noticing those sort of changes in him. So mid-90s. You know, I lost a brother in a horrific accident in ’91, so that changes you as a family. You start weighing up what’s important and what’s not, don’t you, so I think that certainly changed my parents a lot losing him. He was 26, and losing your son in the prime of his life kind of thing – I think all that other sort of stuff isn’t important any more.

How old were you?

He was five years older than me, four-and-a-half years, so I would’ve been 21. It was awful. Worst year of my life. I lost my brother in March and then I lost my very best friend two months later in a freak accident. So it was just the worst year of my life. And it was the next year I moved from Taupo. It was the following year I turned my life around, I suppose you’d say.

Apart from Wicked Campers, you’ve got all this other stuff on your plate. Minister for Climate Change Issues, Social Housing, State Services, Associate Minister of Tourism and Associate Minister of Finance. Those last two as understudy for John Key and Bill English. Is this like a finishing school for future party leaders?

Ha, I don’t know! I don’t think so. Sometimes it does seem kind of “the rounding out of Paula Bennett”, you know, a little bit, I think. In that I’m just so blessed to have people like Bill English and John Key that believe in my ability, I suppose, and that I’ve got something to contribute. I don’t think they think about my future leadership, whatever that means, but what I can contribute and how I can do that, and they just give me heaps of really good opportunities. It’s really interesting. Just when I think, “I’ve slightly got my head around this one and I’ve got a plan I’m starting to put into place”, they just throw me another challenge that sits me back on my arse and makes me go, “OK, that’s going to be a lot more work”. And I’m up for it.

If I was going down to the TAB to put some money on Paula Bennett becoming leader of the Labour Party, should I bet on her becoming the leader in –

The National Party. I’m presuming you’re meaning that.

Yes. Though a bet on you leading Labour would pay really well.

It would, eh?

Sorry. Should I put money on Paula Bennett becoming leader of the National Party by 2018 or by 2022?

I wouldn’t put money on it. I’m not saying I won’t. I’m just saying I wouldn’t put money on it. What year are we talking? 2018? I didn’t know what I’d be doing [now] only three years ago, to know what I’ll be doing in another two or three. I’m not ruling it out, but I’m just saying it’s not something that concerns me on a daily basis. Life’s full of twists and turns and I’m kind of going on the ride of my life, which I never thought I’d be on.

Those questions are going to keep on coming, though, aren’t they? It may be a bore, but they’re good questions to be asked in a way.

Hey, in one way they’re flattering, because 10 years ago no one would’ve thought I’d be a minister, let alone thinking that I might be in contention and having to deal with questions like this. So how can I not at some level be flattered that people think I’m doing a good enough job that I might have a future job that’s bigger than this? If that’s what it means, then I’m thrilled, and all that does is drive me to keep doing the best job I can right now. And I know that sounds wanky, but the other thing I would say to you is that I’ve seen enough people in both history and in the present time that are so damned consumed with their next job that they don’t do the one they’re in now well enough. And they become bonkers. And if there’s one thing I want in life is I don’t want –

Who in Cabinet are you talking about?

Ha! No – I don’t want to leave politics completely bonkers. I want to leave politics with my family somewhat intact, and my sanity, so that I can have another job, to be quite honest with you. I want to do something post-politics.

Climate change. Did you put your hand up for that job?

No.

It was suggested to you?

Yes. It was suggested to me.

But you’re into it now?

I am so into it now. I must admit when he first said climate change I went, Hmm, that’s interesting, are you pulling my leg. And he went, No-no-no-no-no. I’d been kind of busy in the last six years, so I hadn’t spent a lot of time on the climate change stuff. And then, two days into the job this light went on for me, and I thought, wow, I am the right person for it, I actually can understand and learn it. It’s very learnable. And what this can do for the country, and the difference we can make now, that will affect my grandkids’ kids, is actually really exciting. So I feel like, post-social-development, I’ve got something big and significant, and meaty and challenging again. And I love it.

In terms of your portfolios, then, does climate change demand the most time?

It does at the moment, because I’m learning. As you can imagine I’m doing a lot of reading, a lot of reports. My biggest personal fear at the moment is that I make a silly mistake that steers what I want to accomplish in this portfolio off balance – you know, like I get caught in a silly argument because I don’t understand something that I should. So I’m spending as much time as I can trying to get the fundamentals right in my own head.

Coming out of the conference in Paris, are we going to do anything differently? There have been criticisms that, despite the commitments, it’s business as usual as far as climate change policy in New Zealand is concerned.

I’m big-time into it. Right now, we’re in the process of making decisions about two-for-one [the 50% discount on emission obligations, introduced as a result of the financial crisis] and the price cap on the ETS [emissions trading system]. So we’re up against a few deadlines on that. Decisions will be made in the next couple of months, and quite frankly it affects Budget ’16, so we’ll be locking it in and that will be happening. It’s going, it’s a matter of how and when, and that’s the detail we’re getting into.

Are you getting into some fights over that?

Oh, no. I’m just making sure that I’ve got all my ducks in a row, that I understand the consequences of the actions that I take, that I’m asking the right questions, and not just of officials. So I spent today talking to business people on whom there would be an effect, and how that gets passed on to the consumer. I just want to know the consequences of the decisions I make, and that I’m not scared to make the decision. That’ll happen fairly soon.

Then I’ve got to get on to the next stage. And I think things are going to change and I think change quite dramatically. Mainly because of the INDC [the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions goal, that all countries were required to table ahead of the Paris climate change conference] that we’ve done, so our 2030 target, and also because New Zealand’s ready for it. New Zealand’s ready. We don’t argue about the science every day any more, now it’s the argument of how far and how fast do we go to change ourselves so that we’re changing the planet. So I want, as any good girl should, a plan to have a plan. My idea is that up to about June next year we’ve got a unique window to get key players around the table, and by key players I mean government, business, non-governmental organisations and academics, and really sit down and work out something that’s principle-based, that really gets us to the foundations of what we can and will do. And then I’ve been tossing up whether I write a white paper to generate that conversation, whether it’s a task-force with everybody working together – I work with that group, I’m not sure what it looks like because it’s all very new. I work alongside them and in the meantime I’m also bringing the public with us in that conversation, to then design a plan that gets us through to at least 2030.

You didn’t mention agriculture, the farming sector – would they be part of that group?

They would be, I suppose I included them in business. Agriculture is a big part of it.

It’s a tricky one, especially at the moment. It wouldn’t be easy to say to a dairy farmer: now we’re going to take away your exemption from the Emissions Trading Scheme.

That’s one part of it, but what has got me in my very limited time in the role is the variables from farm to farm as far as how sustainable and forward thinking they are. I know a lot of that has got to do with the debt some farmers have and others don’t, so they’ve got the luxury to be able to invest in the sorts of areas that lead to more sustainable farming, but they’re definitely part of the equation, I’m just not rushing to the solution.

There seems to have been something of a reinvigoration of the Bluegreen group within National. Is there a challenge for you and the people in that group with some people in caucus who don’t buy the anthropogenic climate change argument?

No. I can’t get over how much we have moved as a caucus in eight years, and I think that’s reflective of the country. We might disagree to what degree human induced climate change is happening, and that’s absolute, you know, but we know longer have staunchies that just go, “It’s not happening at all.” And I think that’s the same in New Zealand, to be fair.

There are people who would like to see a National-Green coalition or partnership. Is that something you could see anywhere on the horizon?

No. I just would challenge that, and say, is there really? When I am going out at the moment and seeing some of the most evil and dirty politics, quite frankly, as far as how people are currently campaigning against us and protesting. Most of them are actually Green supporters, and are you going to tell me that they seriously think the Greens should be in bed with National? So I reckon there’s this nice little rhetoric at the moment, and James Shaw looks nice and clean and tidy in his suit, and they are trying to get manipulating power with the Labour Party to such a point where they say they could come into bed with us. I don’t think there’s any actual substance behind it at all.

So not a possibility at all?

I can’t see it. I just cannot see it. No matter how I play with it in my mind. No matter how I look at it. So I get that the Greens are trying to leverage with Labour, and the way they can do it is by saying they want to play with National, but actually we’ve got no proven history of it, there’s no real substance to it, but almost on a daily basis their membership is just full of hate for National. I just can’t get over the level of vitriolic disgust.

Social housing – the transfer, sell-off to community groups, whatever you want to call it. That had a bumpy start. Where are you at now, roughly?

We’ve had four consortia that are at the moment putting their best offers in, so we’re more or less at the tender stage.

Was it rushed? It seemed that community groups were caught unawares and weren’t keen.

That’s why we slowed it down, because we didn’t want to rush it. And there were a whole lot of unknowns, so how we worked our way through the Public Works Act, how we worked our way through the iwi, and different iwi have got different treaty settlements at different stages, how we worked out what the consortia looked like, how the NGOs and the finances and the developers, potentially, work their way out in terms of how they formed a relationship that fit the objectives of what we’re doing. I don’t know if it was rushed, but we kept slowing it down and saying: take your time to work this out. We get that it’s new, we’d rather get a bit of stick for it taking 12 months longer than we thought it would than us actually making a vital and critical and potentially disastrous mistake.

If you were starting from scratch, do you think it would be better for all the housing stock to be in the hands of community groups or private landlords, and the government simply to play a role in funding the tenants?

Oh, if I was redesigning this thing, that wouldn’t be the first thing I would change. The first thing I would change – and I can’t, by the way, so there’s no point in any scaremongering, I know I can’t – the first thing I would change is the $2 billion that we use in subsidies, and who that goes to and how. At the moment there is such a discrepancy between the income related rent and those that receive the accommodation supplement that there is no incentive to move towards independence if you’re in a state house or a social house. Work doesn’t pay. That has every sensibility of me just absolutely screaming. If it’s income related, as your income goes up your rent goes up considerably and you’re in the same house, so we just haven’t got the incentives and the mechanisms right. And I’m playing with that, by doing tenancy reviews and housing support products, and trying to get people transitioning through social housing and to independence. But if you had a clean slate you would never design it like it is. Now, I’ve looked at the accommodation supplement many times over the last six years, and every time I look at it, there’s too many losers. And to change it is hundreds of millions of dollars. So who owns the houses is what everyone kind of gets caught in, and I know we’re trying to get community housing providers so we’re part of that. But there’s actually some far more fundamental principles and policies underneath who owns the houses that I think are detrimental to people’s wellbeing.

Auckland is obviously the sort-of crucible of the whole housing crisis. I don’t know if you’d use the word crisis?

It’s hard. Challenging.

And you’re on Team Crone. You’re backing Victoria Crone.

I am.

That was signalled when you had lunch with her at Prego. Not in the Urban Cafe in Newmarket.

No way. You can’t beat their calamari.

Has she got the chops for it?

Yeah. I really mean it. I love this city. I grew up somewhere else, but I came back. And it’s been the making of me, and I want someone that leads it, and loves it and wants to change it, and has got the chops to make some big, hard decisions. And I think she does.

People haven’t seen much of her.

Her problem is showing everyone what she’s got. And having a limited time for them to actually see it for themselves. Her public profile is obviously not as high as Phil Goff. He feels he can sleepwalk to victory by trying to keep a full-time job in Wellington, you know, and run an electorate, and also campaign for mayor, because he’ll just go on the back of what his profile is. Whereas, she’s got real substance behind her. Her problem will be raising her profile enough.

But her problem is also John Palino.

Who? I mean, seriously, who?

He got a hundred and something thousand votes last time.

Yeah, but there was no alternative. Now we’ve got a viable alternative. I think he’s embarrassing himself, but, hey, that’s his choice, we live in a free democracy.

Do you think he should just have a cup of herbal tea and quietly withdraw from the race?

Have a stiff whiskey, mate. If he really cared about the city, he would not be standing and just let the best candidate come forward. Because he’s not going to win. But, hey, you know, politicians or wannabe politicians have never ceased to surprise me, so if his ego is bigger than the actual needs of Auckland, we’re in a free democracy, go for it.

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