Michele Hewitson Interview: Penny Hulse

By Michele Hewitson

South African-born Penny Hulse, the daughter of a Kiwi, says she's pretty good at seeing political knives coming her way, but prefers to deal with her critics face to face. Photo / Richard Robinson
South African-born Penny Hulse, the daughter of a Kiwi, says she's pretty good at seeing political knives coming her way, but prefers to deal with her critics face to face. Photo / Richard Robinson

Penny Hulse, deputy mayor of about-to-be-defunct Waitakere City Council, who is about to be the deputy mayor of the new Super City, was described in the Herald on the morning I went to see her as "an iron fist in a velvet glove".

That came as a considerable relief because it said something, anything, about her. I couldn't find out anything about her. I looked on the council website.

The outgoing Mayor of Waitakere, Bob Harvey, has a page which tells you far, far more than anyone could ever want to know about him: what he's been thinking, reading, viewing, saying, eating and what bonkers conspiracy theories he's currently holding. (I made those last two up but, really, they ought to have been included.)

His deputy's page is composed of short lists of committees and good works and special interests. She's Leftie Len's hand-picked deputy.

You can guess what her special interests are: climate change, youth, sustainable city development, environmental advocacy, not upstaging the mayor. I made that last one up but it's implicit in her old job description and, presumably, her new one.

I didn't quite say that her page is boring, but I did make the comparison with the mayor's. She said something about how the council hadn't fully utilised the website, but I prefer to think it's just possible that Mayor Harvey has used up all available space. She is used to being the deputy to a mayor who takes up a lot of space.

She said: "No, I could never upstage Bob, believe me."

Her office is livelier. There's a picture of her, with her long-suffering "gentle scientist" husband - who has no interest in local body politics but gets ear-bashed, probably, nightly - and their two sons, dressed up as Westies, for a party. You dress up as a Westie by wearing a black T-shirt.

Hers reads: "Don't f*** with the West." She said, "I knew I should have carried out an ethnic cleansing before you came."

She had carried out an ethnic cleansing on her profile. She likes talking about council matters, using Leftie council lingo, and I don't, so it was a funny sort of interview.

Anyway, here are a few things about her, which may or may not be interesting. She was born in South Africa (she says, "may-er", the last trace of her South African accent) and came to New Zealand when she was 16; her father is a New Zealander who fell in love with Africa when he was based there during World War II.

She is a lapsed Catholic who would now "probably" describe herself as an atheist. She likes being fit and drinking sav blanc and reading "good" fiction, meaning women writers.

She was head prefect at primary school, but not head prefect at high school. She gets paid, she thinks, $78,000 for being Bob's deputy, which I think isn't nearly enough, but which she thinks is a perfectly good salary. She can't cook. She loves committee meetings. "I do. I know. What an anorak."

That's a pretty good description of the job of a deputy mayor which must, I think, be a boring one. The deputy gets to do all the behind-the-scenes stuff and can't have too much profile because that would be seen to be attempting to upstage the mayor.

A rude way of putting this would be to say that a deputy can't have a personality. A slightly less rude way of asking the question is: does she have to dampen down her personality? She said, "I don't really think that's an issue, to be honest. There's so much work to do."

It was difficult to get a picture of the personality of the new deputy mayor, mostly because she wasn't what you'd call relaxed about the prospect of an increased profile.

Also, she is not the sort of person who is given to public displays of anything that might pass for emotion. She is used to being a deputy to an emotional mayor and her new mayor is given to the odd emotional display - you wouldn't want two people in a relationship going around hitting themselves in the face on television.

She gave me a mild ticking off for being mean, telling me what a terrible day Len Brown had had on the day of the face-hitting: "The credit card issue and he'd found out that his wife had cancer."

Still, you can't imagine her reacting in any such way. She said, "well, I have had to be, and I am, quite steady."

I wondered what Her Steadiness thought about Brown's rapping and singing. She said, "The first time I saw it, I raised an eyebrow. Then we walked through the Waitakere mall together and I watched the reaction of some of the young people who came out and shook his hand and high-fived him and I thought, 'we just need to give a bit of space to how people need to be'."

What a very good, inclusive and thoughtful message. She once had a very good, inclusive and thoughtful idea about sending every baby born in Waitakere a nice letter from the mayor. She says this wasn't entirely her idea but that it was a "carry on from our 'trees for babies' project".

Every baby born gets a tree. What a nice idea. What's it for? "It's a tree planting." I said it sounded like a nice idea but drippy and when those babies grow up to be teenagers, would they knock the trees over? She said, "Do you want to know?"

She is, no doubt, used to far meaner people than me. Dick Hubbard, the former nice mayor, wrote a letter to the new mayor via the Herald in which he warned of meanies, like Mike Lee. He mentioned shoulder blades.

I asked what she'd do about knives in the back, although that steely "Do you want to know?" had already rather answered the question. She said, "I'm pretty good at seeing the knives coming."

Yes, but what does she do about them? "My preference is to actually just deal face-to-face with the person and say, 'what are we doing?"' She must have stuck a few knives in, in her time. "No, I haven't needed to. I'm not a win-at-all-costs kind of person ... I'd rather tell someone and be absolutely clear that what's happening doesn't feel good."

This all sounds nice and inclusive and velvet-glovey. But let's not get carried away with emotion. I asked if she was excited about being chosen to be the deputy mayor and she thought for a long, cool moment.

Then she said, "No. I can sort of see the size of it, and that tempers the need to leap up and down with excitement."

She is a composed character, generally. She was nervous, she said at the end, when she had relaxed a bit, about coming across as boring. She went out of her way to come across as boring - one way to deal with nerves.

She said, about her complete lack of profile - she says she does have one out West - that this matters not at all because "this is not a popularity contest or a beauty contest". A mayoral election is a popularity contest.

"I think the voters voted strategically." I still maintain it's a popularity contest but you don't want to be getting in a scrap with iron fists. That she takes the description as a compliment is telling.

She does have the most horrifying finger nails, like talons, with white ceramic tips which look particularly strange worn with a pin-striped power-dressing jacket. I said, because you can't ignore them: "Look at your fingernails!"

"I know! It's my only girly indulgence." You wouldn't get a velvet glove on over those talons. She said, "I certainly can."

She wasn't kidding. But does she think they look nice? That was a rude question but she's been in council for a long time. She said, "I think they're vaguely Westie." So I thought they must be a sort of joke, but no, because the idea of being a Westie and how one moves into the "Auckland scene" is apparently a topic of serious discussion. Really?

This makes Westies (whoever they are) and those in the "Auckland scene" (whatever that is) sound like a discussion about separate species.

"It's a really interesting discussion and I guess my view is the most important thing you can do, as a politician, is when you're out in the community, just be completely yourself and when you're in your job, you need to retain that same sense of self."

That's gobbedlygook but, deciphered, means she has a very clear idea of what her job is - and that, in good part, is to be the straight guy to the mayor, which means leaving the showing off to him.

She is clever enough to not have become friends with her current mayor although she says she "adores" him. This shows a certain clear-headed restraint. She doesn't think being friends is "useful" and that you need to "work as colleagues, I think, rather than friends. Otherwise there's a danger of group think".

Group think! "You know, when a group of people work together too closely and they lose the ability to actually stand back objectively and say, 'hang on, back up the truck, we need to actually reconsider this'."

So her job is backing trucks up and lassoing egos and doing all the hard, boring, behind-the-scenes work. It's a funny sort of job. "It's a very odd job. I've said my job is about saying, 'sorry, Bob's not here.

So you've got me ... So if I start to get too excited and think I'm here because people want me here, it's actually because they want Len. So it's starting off on that foot: always the bridesmaid and never the bride, and that's fine."

She said, "I'm worried now about my lack of an exciting life. Or maybe I just haven't told you." I doubt it.

She's the perfect choice for the first deputy mayor of the new Super City. She gave a pitch-perfect interview for the role. She put on her anorak, which is practical, protective gear, and kept the talons mostly sheathed.

- NZ Herald

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