After 15 years in parliament, National MP Paula Bennett has officially announced she’s quitting politics. Here, we round up some of her most memorable moments.
Following last month’s coup ousting her from the deputy leadership, Paula Bennett has decided to leave politics behind, confirming on Monday that she won’t be standing again in 2020. As a polarising figure who’s often lent herself to politicking and parody, we look back at some of Bennett’s greatest career hits, ranging from the good to the bad to the downright weird.
‘Tough lady’ minister breaks up mall fight (January 2009)
In 2009, Bennett proved she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty when she helped break up a brawl of around 30 young people outside Henderson’s West City shopping mall. She told the Herald at the time that she’d leapt in as things started getting more aggressive, physically forcing apart the group of fighters before telling the crowd to move along.
“There I was, wagging that finger in [their] faces and telling them to back off, go sit down. I was really angry,” she said. “It was pretty intense. They were going for each other and it was going to brew into what I thought would be a lot of young people involved. Someone was going to get hurt. So I was fiery – there’s no two ways about it.”
One observer described Bennett as going into “mum mode” while another praised her as the “tough lady” who stopped the fight. Waitakere city mayor Bob Harvey also praised Bennett at the time. “I applaud her. It might not seem so wise in the cold, hard light of day – someone might stab you. You don’t know what they’ve got.”
Privacy breach (August 2009)
During her time as social development minister, Bennett ran into serious trouble for releasing income details of two beneficiaries – a highly unusual move considering ministers rarely comment on individual cases. Bennett reasoned that she did so in an effort to combat the one-sided story she felt was being told by the women involved.
In response, one of the women, Natasha Fuller, lodged a complaint against the minister to the Privacy Commissioner. In June 2010, Bennett was ordered to pay $15,000 to Fuller for a breach of privacy which she refused to do. Two years later, the Human Rights Commission also ruled in favour of Fuller although Bennett continued to deny any wrongdoing.
The westie mobile (September 2009)
In case you haven’t heard, Paula Bennett’s a westie. She’s so much of a westie that she got her entire car covered in leopard print just so the whole world could know. And in case you think her leopard print fervour had died off in recent years, well…
Zip it, sweetie (November 2012)
In a heated exchange in parliament, then-social development spokesperson Jacinda Ardern was famously told by Bennett to “zip it, sweetie”. The quip went down poorly in the house, with Ardern’s Labour party colleague Trevor Mallard noting that while “zip it” might’ve been OK, “sweetie” wasn’t. “If that term was used to a member who was not a younger woman member, in that sort of approach, I think you would find it offensive,” Mallard said.
Nevertheless, Bennett went on to make the most of her now-infamous quote, producing her own pink wine label called Sip It Sweetie, a “fruity little number, [with] plenty of sass and spirit.”
Smear campaign? (June 2016)
Bennett landed herself in controversy once again when her office was accused of smearing the chairman of a marae helping the homeless by informing media about a police investigation into the man. Te Puea Marae chairman Hurimoana Dennis, a police inspector and national Māori strategic adviser for NZ Police, was under investigation after being stood down by police the previous year (he was later found not guilty in charges related to kidnapping).
Bennett admitted at the time that a member of her office told a journalist about the investigation, but denied it was an attempt to smear Dennis. She said the staff member involved presumed the investigation was public information. Bennett said she personally apologised to Dennis for the leak.
Live and let die (February 2017)
Embracing her inner bogan to fullest, Bennett, a self-described Westie, made her writing debut for The Spinoff with a review of the Guns N’ Roses concert at Western Springs in Auckland. A real must-read for all.
‘Hi sweeties. It’s me, Paula Bennett’ (September 2017)
No one has managed to put bowl lattes and chicken paninis quite on the map like Paula Bennett … played by Tom Sainsbury. In his Kiwis of Snapchat series, Sainsbury’s impression of Bennett – complete with coiffed hair, gold chains, and face filter technology – became one of his most memorable, catapulting the character (and her hauntingly addictive catchphrase) into wider pop culture adoration.
Bennett later responded to the impressions with a video of her own, filming herself “out with [her] best girlfriends” Amy Adams, Maggie Barry, and Nikki Kaye, the latter going on to launch the coup that would oust Bennett from the deputy leadership.
This year, the pair finally teamed up in real life to grace the cover of Express magazine with a bizarrely intimate photoshoot back in January. Clearly, the two hit it off having teamed up again this week to film a video marking Bennett’s retirement. According to Sainsbury, she’d “reached out” to him about doing a video on Sunday afternoon – a day before she’d informed National Party leader Todd Muller.
Paula Benefit (December 2018, May 2020)
After becoming a single mother at 17, Bennett started receiving the Domestic Purposes Benefit which, as a politician who went on usher in strict new rules for beneficiaries, earned her the catchy nickname “Paula Benefit”. In fact, it was so catchy that her own party colleague, Simon Bridges, made use of the name not once but twice during his time as National leader: the first time in 2018, which won him Massey University’s annual Quote of the Year competition, and a second time earlier this year, just days before the pair were rolled from the party leadership.
‘Cheap and nasty’ flowers (August 2019)
While recuperating in hospital after minor surgery, deputy prime minister Winston Peters took to Twitter to lash out at a truly horrible thing Bennett had done.
“Paula Bennett sent me flowers in hospital. Seriously bad taste,” Peters wrote. “Also, they looked like she just picked them from a local park! Gave them away to an elderly patient. Not knowing their origin, she really appreciated them.”
Later, he labelled Bennett’s act was “cheap and nasty”, adding that rather than being sent the big bouquet of flowers she’d posted a picture of on her Facebook, she instead got him “a handful of daffodils, put a ribbon around them, [sent] them to the wrong place – namely my home when I was in hospital – and [told] two of her female media mates.”
Bennett declined to comment on Peters’ remarks.
Paula Bennett sent me flowers in hospital. Seriously bad taste. Also, they looked like she just picked them from a local park! Gave them away to an elderly patient. Not knowing their origin, she really appreciated them.
— Winston Peters (@winstonpeters) August 22, 2019
Poo biscuits (December 2019)
In a celebrity edition of The Great Kiwi Bake Off, Bennett joined Dave Fane, Toni Street, Jackie van Beek, Bree Tomasel and Art Green in the GKBO tent for a Christmas charity special. First, the contestants had to bake ginger kisses (Bennett remarked that hers looked “like little poos”) before having to build a 3D biscuit scene of a fond Christmas memory. Bennett quickly ran into trouble while attempting to double the recipe for her 3D biscuit scene without enough ingredients. “Typical National Party, promising everything and under delivering!” Dave Fane heckled.
In the end, however, judge Sue Fleischl described her beachy biscuit scene as “a masterpiece”, but not enough for Bennett to be crowned Star Baker. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
A ‘baggie’ of herbs (December 2019)
During a debate on the legalisation of cannabis, Bennett took to her feet in parliament and held aloft a “baggie” of herbs. The herbs (aka oregano) was a visual prop for Bennett to demonstrate just how much 14 grams of cannabis – the proposed maximum daily purchase under the draft bill – looked like, the argument being that it was a lot.
A minor melee quickly ensued, prompting the Speaker of the House to ask “both the deputy leader of the National Party and the minister of finance to chill out”. Perhaps with some oregano.