Cabinet's new poster girl

By Simon Collins

Don't tell me we can't do it," says Paula Bennett.

The world recession is bearing down on us and our new Social Development Minister, who will have to pick up the human fallout, says she is "fully aware of what we're going into".

But would she deviate from her party's plans to require 15 hours work a week for sole parents without children under six, even if no jobs can be found?

"We may need to juggle some of the parameters a little bit, but don't tell me we can't do it!" is the sharp response.

"We've got an ageing population. They need assistance, and they [sole parents] are the sorts of people that can help them."

Bennett, a 39-year-old sole parent herself, was the big surprise in this week's new National Party cabinet. Commentators saw her bringing a softer image to the welfare portfolio than the former spokeswoman Judith Collins, a hardline lawyer now shifted to Police and Corrections. In policy substance it's impossible to find any difference between them. Bennett is a true believer in the same policies of moving people "from welfare to work" that have dominated National thinking since at least the days of 1990s and Jenny Shipley.

But Bennett's personal background may make her more effective at implementing those policies than any of her predecessors. She has lived the life of a beneficiary. Rather than lecturing people as Shipley did, she wants to inspire them.

"Like many teenagers, I was confused and angry at the world and authority," she says.

"I made mistakes and rebelled a bit. When you do that sort of thing, you meet people on the edge and doing some unsavoury sort of stuff. You don't become a teenage solo mum without having had a bit of a past, and I'll never be one of the opera singers putting herself up and waving. That's just not what I want to do.

"But I actually see myself as in some respects a role model now. I made some bad decisions. I actually didn't like me very much. But I forgave me, and got over it, and I suppose that's the message of change and hope I bring."

She comes from a classic "middle New Zealand" family. Her dad, Bob Bennett, had his own flooring business in Auckland, but bought the village store in the lakeside resort of Kinloch, near Taupo, in 1974 when Paula was 5.

Her mum, librarian Lee Bennett, says it was "a marvellous life" for the children. "There was a lot of hunting and fishing."

Paula had two older brothers, Stephen and Mark. She said in her maiden speech in Parliament that she was "treated differently from my brothers purely because I was a female", and "so I learned to fight for what I believed in".

"It was, 'No, you will not just go bush for the day,"' she said this week.

"I felt it was wrong and I had to stick up for myself. I won most of the time, and when I didn't I rebelled."

"Life was never dull with Paula," says Lee Bennett. "She had her brothers and her father and she twisted them round her little finger. She could debate 10 different ways as to why she couldn't eat her brussels sprouts."

She left school and went flatting at 16, getting a job in the Taupo Times stationery shop. She didn't tell her parents she was pregnant until six weeks before her daughter Ana was born in February 1987.

The baby's father "was well out of the picture and wasn't going to come back". Bennett says she decided alone to go ahead with the pregnancy. Asked why New Zealand has the world's second-highest rate of sole parenthood, she says: "Because we back people to have choice ... You're not going to have me bagging the solo mums."

At 19, still on the domestic purposes benefit, she bought her own house in Taupo for $56,000 with a Housing Corporation loan.

The mortgage drove her back to work. She did a part-time day job booking tourists on lake excursions while Ana was in childcare, then worked the 11pm-7am shift waitressing at a truck stop while someone else looked after Ana at home.

"Then I pretty much fell apart because I was exhausted. I went back on the DPB," she says.

Over the next few years she worked as a cleaner, went back to the tourist job and was receptionist at a hair salon. In between, she was on and off the benefit.

In 1991 her brother Mark died in a diving accident on an Indonesian oil rig, her best friend died in a motorbike accident and she broke up with a long-term boyfriend. She and a friend were fired from the hair salon after taking a week's holiday in the Coromandel. She decided to make "a fresh start" in Auckland.

She got a job washing dishes at Albany's Beechworth rest home, graduating to nurse aide six months later. So she carries some credibility when she urges other sole parents to find work with old people.

"I loved working with the elderly," she says. "I'd sit and talk to them - I got married 100 times when I was there. I just adored them."

The two owners, both women, let her put Ana to bed in the rest home when she worked night shifts. Those two "dynamic, business-savvy women", and the rest home's doctors, nurses and social workers, planted the idea of university.

"Don't underestimate the spirit of work," she says. "It was the people I met while working that changed my life. I didn't always feel that I was better off financially, but I was a lot better off emotionally."

She arrived at Massey University's Albany campus to study social work in 1994, a year after the campus opened. She says about half the students were "staunch feminist mature women" like herself (she was 25), studying social sciences, and the rest were "business boys", often straight out of school, doing commerce.

"I kept flitting between the two," she says. "I'd march in the streets with the staunch women, then I'd go out at night with the business boys."

Derek Quigley, a business student and the first students' association president on campus (no relation of the ex-MP of the same name), met Bennett on a 10,000-strong march up Queen St protesting at then Education Minister Lockwood Smith's plans to raise student fees.

"I was just strolling along and this person yelled out: 'Hey, you! If you're not using that megaphone, give it to me!"' he says.

"I thought, 'I quite like your style.' We started talking and I said, 'Why don't you stand for welfare officer?' So she did."

It was the launch of her political career. The welfare job was crucial because the new campus lacked many facilities. Bennett's biggest achievement was a childcare centre which finally opened in 1996, by which time she had become the student president.

Bennett says: "All of a sudden I found a voice. It all just clicked. I rebelled again, but it was a rebellion with passion and perhaps a bit more education, so I would rally against the perceived things at the time, and then after I got over the excitement of that, I sat down and started working out my own politics.

"I really thought I'd changed my life. I'd done it through hard work, through discipline. And I really thought those values matched up with the National Party.

"I didn't like the victim stuff. I felt patronised by the Labour Party. If I'd allowed them, I would have continued to be this poor, uneducated Maori solo mum, whereas I felt at that stage that that didn't need to be my identity."

Although she has huge respect for social workers, she decided that her best contribution would be political. She switched to a social policy degree.

"I felt someone needed to make change at the policy level."

After graduating, she worked as an electorate secretary for East Coast Bays MP Murray McCully, then looked for a new job after the 1999 election. "I needed to prove to myself that I was more than just someone else's secretary and that I could cut it on my own. By then I thought I would become a politician eventually."

She became a recruitment consultant at what was then Lampen Associates in Queen St.

"I found I could make money and it was based on the amount of effort. It was the first time I'd made some real money," she says.

"It was a time I felt I let Ana down a little sometimes. I'd work over the top."

After a year at Lampen, she moved to Recruitment Consultants. By 2005 she managed the firm's business support division, providing corporate clients with white-collar and middle-management staff.

At that point, then National Party leader Don Brash met her for coffee and asked her to stand for Parliament. She had chaired McCully's East Coast Bays team in the 2002 election, and Brash says McCully "suggested to me that she would make a very good MP".

Brash was unsure how she would respond. It was the year of National's "Iwi or Kiwi" billboards. Brash's Orewa speech the previous year had declared the Treaty of Waitangi irrelevant to modern concerns and advocated removing all "race-based" laws.

Bennett's grandmother, Ailsa Bennett, still alive in a Hamilton rest home aged 96, is half-Maori. In her maiden speech, Bennett said she did not "connect with my Maori self" until she was at university, but that she then gained, through Ailsa, "knowledge of our Maori history".

But she agreed to stand for National. "I believed in the underlying values of the party," she says. "I believed we'd get it right."

In her maiden speech, she also said she was "grateful for the treaty" as the country's founding document, but added: "We need to settle claims quickly and then see the treaty for the historical document that it is and move forward, as was always intended, as one people."

She told Paul Henry on breakfast television this week that Social Development was her "dream job".

"This is what I came into Parliament for," she said.

Her first priority, before Christmas, is to implement National's "transitional relief package" for people made redundant after at least six months in a job.

Depending on the family income and number of children, they will be able to keep the in-work tax credit of up to $60 a week, and will get up to an extra $100 a week in accommodation supplement, until they get a new job or for 16 weeks, whichever is sooner.

She wants more action on child abuse. She has seen pockets of the country where local agencies look after families with problems effectively, and she wants to fund the right agencies to do that work everywhere. She wants to make sure that babies referred by midwives actually get picked up by Well Child agencies such as Plunket.

"If legislation is getting in the way of protection of our children, perhaps we need to have a look at that," she says. In her maiden speech, she said the number of beneficiaries was "still way too high".

"Our concern should lie with what it is doing to our culture, and the lack of aspiration and self-esteem that many beneficiaries feel."

Although unemployment beneficiaries have dropped dramatically, about 5 per cent of non-Maori women and 30 per cent of Maori women aged 18 to 64 are still on the DPB.

A further 4 per cent of non-Maori and 11 per cent of Maori people in the same age group are on sickness and invalid benefits.

Bennett will implement National's policy for sickness and invalid beneficiaries deemed capable of part-time work, and sole parents with no children under 6, to do 15 hours a week of "employment, training or job-seeking".

As well as identifying work with the elderly, she has already talked to the Hospitality Association about providing suitable part-time jobs or training in hotels and restaurants.

At this stage she has no plans to bring back state-funded "work-for-the-dole" if the recession causes private sector jobs to dry up.

"That's not on our agenda at this time."

But although the policy is unchanged, she understands beneficiaries' concerns.

She says that what would have worked for her when she was on the DPB was more certainty that she could go back on the benefit if the job didn't work out.

"To give that [benefit] up and go into a job that you are not sure you are worthy of having, because quite frankly who wants to employ you, for something that may or may not work out ... " she says.

"So maybe we have a role to say that we will back you - if you take a chance, I'll back you, and if you stumble a bit and need a second chance, I'll give you one."

- NZ Herald

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