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Battle looming in Auckland Central

By Jane Phare

The way Nikki Kaye, National's candidate for Auckland Central sees it, the seat she's gunning for will be a "battleground".

Kaye is under no illusion that taking on Labour's Judith Tizard will be easy. But neither will she be.

"I do believe this is a battleground seat. There is an opportunity for a bit of excitement."

It's an electorate of highly educated young adults living in expensive houses. Suburbs like Herne Bay, St Marys Bay, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn and Westmere spell money. But Auckland Central has always been a Labour stronghold, although Kaye and her backers argue it is less so now. Last year's boundary changes, dropping Pt Chevalier and taking in part of Arch Hill, favour National, they say.

And last election the Greens - through the colourful Nandor Tanczos - picked up 5300 votes. This year he's not standing. Some commentators question whether Tizard, whose performance as Minister for Auckland has often been criticised, will scoop up those votes.

What does Tizard think? We're unsure. The minister declined to be interviewed by phone, her press secretary saying she would agree only to a sit-down discussion.

Kaye knows she's in for a fight. If anyone thinks the slight blonde sipping a skinny latte in Auckland's Chancery won't last the first round, the 28-year-old argues otherwise. As if to make her point, she tells a spine-chilling story of being trapped upside down in a kayak while training for this year's Coast to Coast marathon in February.

Fresh back from London, Kaye decided to take on the gruelling 3km beach run, 70km of cycling, a 33km mountain run/climb and a 67km kayak. Without much cycling experience, and none at kayaking, she had to train hard. Two weeks before the event, she found herself trapped upside down by her spray skirt in the raging Waimakariri River in the South Island. An instructor went back up river and rescued her but she was badly shaken.

If ever there was a moment Kaye might pull out of the race, that was it. It never crossed her mind. The only concession she made was to enter the two-day marathon, rather than attempt to do it in one day with the top guns. The next time she got in a kayak was on the second day of the race, facing 67km of water - seven hours paddling for a 20 hour, 20 minute finishing time. "I knew I'd finish that race."

NOW KAYE'S turning that focus and grit to campaigning for the Auckland Central seat. That she's standing for National is no surprise, given her pedigree; raised in the blue-blood suburbs of Epsom and Kohimarama, educated at Victoria Ave primary school - where people buy gracious homes on the correct side of the street to be in zone - Remuera Intermediate and Corran School, a private school in Remuera where she was head girl.

It wasn't all privilege, she insists. There were holiday jobs cleaning toilets at Auckland Hospital and her parents, Julia and Peter, split when she was six. Her extended family includes a brother and sister, a step-brother, six half- brothers and sisters (from her father's marriages) and two step parents.

"It's good. It makes life interesting," Kaye says.

She left home at 17 for Otago University, where she studied science and began a law degree. She completed law in Wellington while working fulltime as a researcher in the Leader of the Opposition's office. In 2003 she set off for the UK, travelling in Europe and taking on short-term contracts with government policy projects. Kaye says she worked with black minority groups, managing welfare-to-work schemes, project managed a transport system for disabled people and worked six months for a Labour minister.

A looming conflict of interest, after she was elected vice-chairman of the International Youth Democratic Union, a global group of centre-right political parties, persuaded her to resign. She worked in IT management for the Halifax Bank of Scotland, another tick on an impressive CV.

The earnest young woman who arrived back in New Zealand late last year is a curious mix - confident, determined, idealistic, wanting to make a difference, keen to hear people's stories, keen to communicate. She peppers her sentences with "if that makes sense" endings.

Already running her own business, and with two degrees under her belt and now a planned political career, Kaye is from a generation that wants it all. She has no "delusions of grandeur" about life in Parliament. Her time in Wellington has made her well aware of the toll - the commute, long hours, the strain on relationships and family life.

"I'd love to have children and I will need a supportive partner to share the load. That would be a necessity."

The comparisons with that other young blonde National pin-up are not coincidental. Kaye says she fell into politics after being invited to a meeting to meet MP Katherine Rich, whom she admired. The meeting was the AGM of the Young Nationals and the job of women's vice-chair of the southern region came up.

"I was the only woman in the room so I was elected."

Nine years on she still talks of her regard for Rich.

"I admire the fact that she has the ability to stand up for what she believes in. There are certain things that she has not compromised on."

Kaye won't be drawn on the consequences of Rich's decision to not give her support to then-leader Don Brash's tough-on-welfare stance in 2005. (Rich was demoted and dismissed as social welfare spokesman until John Key became National's leader in 2006). Kaye, the politician-in-waiting, hesitates, choosing her words carefully. As she described herself earlier, she is "at the bottom of the political foodchain" and now is not the time to put a foot wrong.

Finally she says that nine years of involvement in the political and policy process has taught her it is a matter of timing and the way you disagree.

"You pick your battles."

"I would never change my belief and my desire to get to a particular issue but I might realise it might take me a bit longer. I might have to win certain people along the way... If it was something I felt very strongly about I would continue to fight that internally. But I would do it in a respectful way."

Having said that, Kaye is not one to back down. She laughs at the run-in she had with the makers of a reality TV documentary in 1997, during her final year at school. It was called Fish Out of Water and she was one of six teenagers left on a remote island off Great Barrier for eight days with very little food.

The three girls and three boys represented a cross section of New Zealand. Looking back, she says, she was supposed to represent "the private school girl who couldn't survive without a hairdryer".

"But I did all right," she says. Camping holidays with her family at remote Fletcher Bay in the Coromandel had taught her to fish, swim and be resourceful.

On the second day the production team pulled her aside and asked her to hold back and let the others struggle a bit without her.

Kaye told them where to go in reasonably strong terms. Even when she swears she sounds polite. The lessons she learned from that Lord of the Flies experience are still with her.

"It taught me about human nature, how everyone deals [differently] with crises. It taught me what hunger felt like. I'll never forget that."

So why National? At 28 and with some socialist ideals, why not Labour?

Kaye says she is aligned to National's core principles. She believes in entrepreneurship, in individual responsibility. She's set up her own business, a technology-based company called Networkme.com. which has developed software to help political, charitable and corporate organisations identify skilled people who can help in both volunteer and paid roles.

As for her strategies to win, Kaye says she'll be on campus, handing out enrolment forms and replacing her daily jog round the city for a campaign of doorknocking and street and community events.

If that all sounds too grassroots, Kaye is running a series of talks with young entrepreneurs dubbed the 40 Below seminars. First up, at the Viaduct Harbour in Auckland tomorrow, is social page regular and internet millionaire Seeby Woodhouse.

And money does feature in Kaye's big election issues. She says the rising cost of living is what people are talking about in her electorate.

"I do feel that tax cuts are really important... it's tough for people out there at the moment."

Will she be reflecting that back to the party. "Yes, absolutely."

- Herald on Sunday

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