Peters' new kid plunges into fray

By Joanne Carroll

The new NZ First MP is keen to get on with her job. Photo / Doug Sherring
The new NZ First MP is keen to get on with her job. Photo / Doug Sherring

They call it the Winston Peters Party but if New Zealand First were to contemplate a successor then strident new MP Tracey Martin could be it, writes Joanne Carroll.

It didn't take long for Tracey Martin to start shouting. There she was, on her second day in Parliament, hollering at the Nats across the benches and joining in the banter with gusto as though she'd been doing it all her life.

Debating pay and conditions for the cleaning lady scrubbing John Key's office toilets, National MP Simon Bridges defended government assistance for those on the minimum wage - and got a Martin jab for his efforts.

"That would be a young man in a suit speaking, would it?" she hollered.

Winston Peters might have preferred she follow Keith Holyoake's oft-quoted advice to new MPs to "breathe through your nose", keep quiet, listen and learn.

But Martin was having none of that. All that voice projection training, honed at the Torbay Dramatic Society, was turning out to be useful.

She was ready for a new stage. She'd had her hair done specially. "I'll be sitting next to Lianne Dalziel," she told the stylist. "Don't make me look like her."

This week, the new sitting of Parliament can't come quickly enough. The 47-year-old mother of three and first-time MP is set on being heard. She sees it as her job to challenge the Government. "They'll hear me, don't you worry about that."

She's less forthright about how she ended up as No2 to Winston Peters on the NZ First party list. She says it was a board decision and it doesn't guarantee her the deputy leadership or make her leader-in-waiting.

Peters won't be drawn on his eventual successor or on the appointment of a deputy leader at the end of March.

"I can't as a leader tell you who I prefer before the caucus has made a decision," he says.

Both Martin and former North Shore mayor Andrew Williams have been tipped as potential deputies. But Peters laughs when asked if he looks at the deputy leader as someone who could replace him when he retires - or, indeed, whether there is life for NZ First after Winston Peters.

"What a stupid question," he barks. "Of course there is life after Winston Peters. The party will grow into a tower of strength and will help you and your children to live the New Zealand dream."

While Peters won't speculate on Martin's future role, he does say she is talented and has the ability to handle herself well in opposition.

"She is focused and gets the work done. She delivers."

MARTIN IS tuning her vocal chords and gearing up for an abrupt change to family life.

For 15 of the past 17 years, she has been a stay-at-home mum, giving up her job as a credit controller for a law firm in 1995. Now, she'll be commuting to Wellington three or four days a week from the family home in Warkworth.

But she vows one thing won't change - the Sunday night roast with her husband, Ben Dugdale, and their three children, Connor, 16, Sean, 14, and Rose, 11.

Right now Dugdale is at home in the kitchen baking biscuits. We're next door at Martin's mother's house, sipping coffee and eating store-bought muffins.

Martin's mother, Ann, is party secretary and has long been an active NZ First member.

"I didn't run for Parliament because mum asked me to," Martin insists. "There's no Kennedy stuff going on."

Martin's mother might not have asked her to run but they are certainly very close. Martin and Dugdale built a home out the back of Ann's home when Martin's late father was ill. The MP insists the interview takes place in her mother's house, refusing to even consider a photograph in her own lounge.

Waving in the direction of her home, she says: "It's not a very nice house."

Martin is determined to keep her family out of the public eye as much as possible.

"I remember being disgusted when John Key had his children on stage and everyone picked holes in what his daughter was wearing. I have teenagers and I don't want that for them."

She does, however, agree to fetch her somewhat boisterous, unruly Dalmatian dog to pose for a photo. And she summons her husband for a chat.

Dugdale, a giant of a man, arrives wearing appropriately large jandals and promptly steps in a pile of doggie doo left on the kitchen mat by an ageing, ailing dog belonging to Martin's sister.

The new MP seems not at all bothered at having to help clean up the mess, including the jandals. She has always been ready to turn her hand to any task.

ALTHOUGH THIS is Martin's first public role with NZ First, she is not new to the party. She has worked behind the scenes for years and has been a board director since NZ First lost its place in Parliament in the 2008 election.

She helped organise the last campaign - the brochures and the billboards - and joined Peters on the campaign trail up and down the country. Her admiration for the party's wily leader is evident.

"Since 2009 I have spent more time with him," she says. "I was surprised at the humility of the man, how absolutely democratic every meeting is. People see him as having a dictatorial attitude but he doesn't."

Martin's decision to enter politics came out of frustration with her local representation. "Our MP was Lockwood Smith, and a number of policies came in which I disagreed with: prostitution reform and the lowering of the drinking age. The community asked him to take a stand and he followed the party line."

She won't follow the NZ First party line if it does not benefit her community or goes against what she believes in, Martin says. "NZ First doesn't require me to vote the party line. That's been for me really, really good."

And she's a staunch defender of the party.

"I've heard it all. It's the Winston Peters party, the old people's party, the racist party. You try not to take it personally."

As a 40-something Martin baulks at the notion the party's elderly membership base is dying out.

The party now consciously surrounds Peters with younger party members to try to counter the perception, she says. "But the media will always find the oldest looking person in the crowd and photograph them. It is frustrating."

NZ FIRST and its leader have always had a combative relationship with the media. On hearing my Irish accent on his voicemail, Winston Peters called back and demanded: "How did you get into the country?"

Martin and her mother are far more conciliatory. They ask after my family background and if I plan to stay. Doug, the English photographer, gets the same questions. It is all very friendly - no suggestion we should be given our marching orders.

After all, Martin says, she has family members who are Chinese, Maori and Cook Island, and she will include those languages in her maiden speech to Parliament on Wednesday.

With Martin packing her bags for Wellington, Dugdale jokes that he will have more control of the TV remote. But his support is evident from a book he gave her for Christmas, Speeches That Changed The World. Inside, he wrote that she would one day be making speeches like that.

- Herald on Sunday

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