For a newcomer to parliament after 2017, the National caucus could be a hellish place. At a special Spinoff Members event, Erica Stanford recounted the experience, and how the party got back on track.
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After winning the highest share of the party vote but losing the contest for the affections of Winston Peters, the mood in the National caucus at the end of 2017 was one of “unease”. That’s how it felt to Erica Stanford, at least. The first-time MP arrived at parliament after a relatively straightforward campaign, in which she successfully won the seat vacated by Murray McCully, for whom she had previously worked in the East Coast Bays electorate office.
Landing in opposition after nine years did mean that National MPs, former high-ranking ministers and newcomers alike, “were all suddenly on the same level”, said Stanford, but there was “a weird sense of unease because it felt like – and I don’t know whether other MPs would agree with me – Bill English wasn’t going to last. It was one of those weird secrets that no one talked about.” The questions of who might be next, and when, hovered in the air, “but it wasn’t really talked about. So it was a really uneasy period, trying to figure out why we lost, and what’s going to happen now?”
What was not obvious at that moment was how just bad it was soon going to get. After English’s resignation and a brief period of calm under Simon Bridges, the wheels spun all the way off. “There were some caucus meetings that were so horrific that I sat there wringing my hands looking at the floor going, ‘this needs to be over, this needs to be over’. It was horrific.”
Speaking at a special Spinoff Members event in Auckland in which she rejoined fellow 2017 candidate diarists Kiri Allan and Chlöe Swarbrick, who detailed their efforts across the 2017 election for The Spinoff, Stanford said her watchword was “you just you can’t get involved in it. You’ve got to get on with your own work.”
But, she said, “it was rough”, especially as the coup that saw Todd Muller take the leadership spiraled into disaster, with a mental health crisis leading to his departure after just 53 days. “Todd is a really great friend of mine. He’s a wonderful man, so just watching that happen, you know, it was awful. It was awful.”
But, she said, “the great thing is that’s all behind us and we’re moving on and it doesn’t happen any more.” It was an echo of what happened to Labour when they were last in opposition, she said. “We’ve all been there. It’s that wilderness, right, after you’ve had nine long years in government and then suddenly you’re out on your ear and you’ve got to rebuild. Like every party, we just don’t do succession planning very well. I mean, you guys didn’t,” she said, in Allan’s direction. “And then you end up with exactly what’s happened.”
‘I’m so freaking proud of that’
As spokesperson for immigration, Stanford has been one of the most tenacious and effective voices from the opposition benches, highlighting everything from the ongoing government refusal to offer migrant nurses a straight-to-residency pathway on the immigration green list and families split apart owing to decisions through Covid. It’s her work in that area of which she is most proud, Stanford said at the Spinoff event.
“In the pandemic, there were nurses in this country who were split, because they had to come and do a course before they could get registered. You can’t bring your families when you do that. So we had thousands of nurses in this country who’d come to their course and left their young children, often their babies, at home. And then we went through the pandemic, and they were working at the frontline, and without their families,” she said.
“I wanted that portfolio. And we just went hard. I went hard … I knew what hooks [the media] wanted. It felt a bit awkward doing it. But I got nurses crying on the news every night holding up pictures of the kids they hadn’t seen in 18 months. And I worked every channel, every radio station. We just went on and on and on. And I did not give up. I asked the minister in the house uncomfortable questions day after day after day. And we got a policy change. That took a while but in the middle of last year they were allowed to reunite with their families. And I got sent videos of these women at the airport reuniting with their children for the first time in 18 months. And it was so freaking cool. I was like, that’s why I’m here. Even in opposition, I got a policy change. It was relentless, and I’m so freaking proud of that.”
Speaking on the subject during general debate in parliament, Stanford was heckled by an MP from across the house who said she was “just doing this for the votes”, she said. “I shot back at him: ‘These people can’t vote. They’re not residents. They’re migrants. If I was going to do this for political purposes, it wouldn’t be these people. But the thing I’ve realised is if you always do the right thing for the right reasons, then good things will happen.”
Of the culture at parliament, Stanford said that while MPs “go hell for leather” in the house, there was good rapport between many on opposing sides, such as with her and both Allan and Swarbrick. “We’re usually laughing at each other across the house, or texting,” she said.
Allan could be “answering a question in parliament, and I’ll be heckling her and texting her at the same time”, said Stanford. “If you didn’t get on behind the scenes, you’d go mad. Some of your mates I probably wouldn’t have a drink with,” said Stanford to Allan, “but probably some of mine you wouldn’t, either … But also you need to get along to do work fast and get work done in select committee. If you didn’t, it would just be a big shitfight the whole time.”