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A Kiri Allan hoarding in 2017. Photo: Supplied
A Kiri Allan hoarding in 2017. Photo: Supplied

PoliticsJuly 24, 2023

The Kiri Allan story

A Kiri Allan hoarding in 2017. Photo: Supplied
A Kiri Allan hoarding in 2017. Photo: Supplied

New Zealand woke to news this morning that cabinet minister Kiri Allan had resigned and will face charges for careless driving and resisting arrest after crashing her car last night. The incident was a culmination of a period of extreme distress for a politician who overcame immense personal challenge to achieve meteoric success as a parliamentarian, writes Toby Manhire.

Kiri Allan this morning resigned her portfolios and returned to her East Coast home, where she will consider her political future. She spent much of last night in police custody, after crashing a ministerial car into a parked vehicle on Evans Bay Parade, the road that curls around the bays beneath Hataitai in Wellington. Allan has been charged with careless driving and refusing to accompany a police officer. 

Chris Hipkins said Allan was in “extreme emotional distress” at the time of the incident. She had recently been through an upsetting breakup with her fiancée and faced mounting pressure at work. The prime minister was nonetheless clear that the actions of his justice minister were “indefensible”, her remaining in post “untenable”. Whether she is able to resume a political career that has proved eventful, often inspirational and for the most part glittering will in part depend on as yet unknown details about her response to police shortly after 9pm last night.

‘Nothing about that place feels ordinary or normal’

In the months before the 2017 election, I approached a couple of senior Labour figures to ask who would be an engaging, interesting first-time candidate from the party to approach for our new diary series. Both came back immediately. Kiritapu Allan. It was good advice. This young Māori lawyer was bright, funny, mischievous, and very clearly going places. 

“I have put my hand up to be Labour’s candidate in the East Coast because life is really hard for many people these days,” she wrote in her first post. “I think regions like ours need someone that understands the hustle and bustle of central government and that will be committed to making gains for our towns.” In her second, she described her first live TV appearance. “Let’s be honest, I wanted to throw up.”

Allan gave the incumbent MP, Anne Tolley, a run for her money, but finished second, arriving in parliament on the list. In her maiden speech she described her upbringing. “I am one of 10 children, from a mixed family that transcends race, class and geography.” She said: “Growing up, central government politics were not part of our daily discourse. But standing up for what was right and honourable was of fundamental importance.” 

Last year, Allan spoke about her own experience of conversion therapy and how, as a teenager, she had “desperately tried to pray the gay away”.

Minister for emergency management Kiritapu Allan with prime minister Jacinda Ardern and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield in March 2021 (Photo: Marty Melville)

After dropping out of school at 16, Allan’s first job was at a KFC in west Auckland. She would later decide to study law. As she gravitated towards politics, former finance minister Michael Cullen was a mentor. 

The 2017 campaign was “life-changing”, said Allan at a candidate diary reunion event alongside National’s Erica Stanford and the Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick in November last year. “I loved it. I loved campaigning because I loved our people. It was epic.” Allan made an immediate impression in parliament and was soon appointed junior whip. At the time she felt anything but a fish to water, however.

“I think some people come in and feel automatically relatively comfortable,” she said in November, 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.”

She sought strength from 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 … This job really pushes you to your limit. Spiritually, physically, mentally. It’s a very uncomfortable environment.”

‘I confronted mortality, face up’

Allan won the East Coast electorate in 2020, and was promoted into cabinet by Jacinda Ardern, as minister for conservation and emergency management. Within months, she had an emergency to manage, in the form of the March 2021 tsunami threat, with her response across an edgy few hours winning her many new admirers. 

At the same time, she recounted at the candidates’ diary event, she had been undergoing hospital tests – “I had basically not stopped menstruating for quite some time” – and a few weeks later received a devastating diagnosis: stage three cervical cancer. While her lead doctor insisted that she would make it, “I was seeing a psychologist for the entire time, and preparing to die.”

She 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.”

Just before Christmas 2021, Allan revealed she’d been given the all-clear. “I am so grateful to every single person that has supported our family through this journey, and the incredible medical staff that have saved my life to date,” she wrote on social media. “This disease caught me out and I was not prepared for what would follow. We have the medicine, the science and the expertise to detect this form of cancer far earlier than I did. Please, to all my sisters out there, take time to have your cervical smears, your mammograms, and all other health checks; to all my brothers out there, let the doctors have a look and take a prod – it may just one day save your life – and your family wants you, needs you, to stay healthy for them.”

Allan resumed ministerial duties the following years, and in June 2022 was made minister of justice. She continued to grow in reputation, and there was conjecture around a possible run for the Labour leadership after Jacinda Ardern’s shock resignation in January – though Allan was quick to stress that was not something she’d considered. 

‘She is in a much better space’

Allan issued an apology in early April over remarks made a few days earlier during a farewell at RNZ for her then fiancée, Māni Dunlop. While she had been appearing in her personal capacity during remarks that included criticisms of the treatment of Māori staff at a public broadcaster that should “look at its culture”, Allan said she accepted that as a minister of the crown it left her open to perceptions of interference.

A few weeks later, 1News revealed that Meng Foon, then race relations commissioner, had made cash donations to Allan’s 2020 campaign to the tune of $1,500, while a company of which he was a director had provided office space to her campaign worth more than $9,000. There was nothing illegal about the donation, though some insisted she should have freshly declared it as a conflict of interest after taking the justice portfolio, given that minister appoints the commissioner. 

Kiri Allan at the podium in 2020
Kiri Allan in 2020 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In a series of reports from the end of June, Stuff published allegations from former staffers who had worked in Allan’s office, including accusations of “screaming and shouting” at staff. Allan rejected the claims, while Hipkins, who was in China when the story broke, expressing his confidence in “an incredibly competent and talented person who’s clearly had a bit of a rough run lately”. 

Allan was on mental health leave following a personal relationship breakup when Hipkins returned to New Zealand. She urged journalists and the public not to “conflate” her mental health issues with issues around her interactions with staff. 

A further source of pressure came from a small but increasingly aggressive group of people enraged by the government response to Covid. Though she had learned to brush off online abuse, Allan said last November, “the thing that does get me a little bit is when I’m with my children and I’m threatened. Even by myself I don’t mind, I can manage that. It’s when I’m with my kids. And that’s upped the temperature over the past year, to the extent people are following you, I would have to park in public places and literally wait and have 111 on my phone, those types of things.”

She gave an example: “I was at a Bunnings, got the kids with the bloody sausages and tomato sauce over their hands, we’re running through trying to get nails or whatever we were doing, and just literally being cornered in by two people who were very aggrieved around mandates, locking us in – myself, my partner and our two kids, in a row in Bunnings … I don’t like that that has become the state of New Zealand.”

Ten days ago, the prime minister announced that Allan would return to work and resume full ministerial responsibilities – which included the newly assigned associate ministership for finance, awarded after Michael Wood resigned from cabinet – from July 17. “Kiri has had a rough time lately, both personally and at work,” he said. “I’m pleased she is in a much better space after taking some time off and getting some professional support. Mental wellbeing should never be a source of shame or embarrassment.” At the same time, Allan offered an apology “to anyone who has found my behaviour towards them unacceptable”.

Allan was assured and, on the face of it at least, in good health during an appearance on Wednesday last week alongside Hipkins to lay out out a new ram-raid-specific offence – the smoothest in a bumpy week of government law and order announcements.

‘She has not won that battle’

On Saturday, Allan was in Whakatāne. She posted to her Instagram account congratulations to participants in the Fifa Women’s World Cup, with a picture of her daughter’s football team, which she coaches, playing a game. 

The following evening, she crashed her car in Hataitai. Shortly before its 7am bulletin on Monday, RNZ broke the news that Allan had been involved in a car crash and taken into police custody. Less than half an hour later, in a statement issued by the prime minister’s office, she said had resigned all her portfolios. “I’m heading home and will be taking time to consider my future in politics,” she said.

“Over recent weeks I’ve faced a number of personal difficulties. I took time off to address those, and believed I was OK to juggle those challenges with the pressure of being a minister. My actions yesterday show I wasn’t OK, and I’ve let myself and my colleagues down. I accept that my position as a minister is untenable. I’m very sorry for my actions, the harm they could have caused and the embarrassment it has placed on the government and my colleagues.”

A couple of hours later, a bleary-eyed Chris Hipkins spoke to the media. He acknowledged there were political implications, but, “My initial concerns last night were for her immediate safety and wellbeing. It appears that some of her personal struggles came to a head,” he said. “I spoke to her on the phone this morning, it would be fair to say it was a difficult conversation,” said Hipkins. “She’s clearly not in a good space so it was not a long conversation.”

He said: “I’m very sad for Kiri. Kiri is an incredibly talented person who clearly has been battling some demons, and has not won that battle.”

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