Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Standing her centre left ground

Josie Pagani's deep Labour roots leave her shocked by sniping from the left.

Former Labour candidate Josie Pagani is now the "everywhere woman" with spots on radio, a newspaper column and TV appearances. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former Labour candidate Josie Pagani is now the "everywhere woman" with spots on radio, a newspaper column and TV appearances. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Political commentator Josie Pagani had a daunting entrance into politics. She fronted up to an interview panel of Jim Anderton, Jeanette Fitzsimons, Sandra Lee, John Wright and Mr Anderton's chief press secretary, them on one side, her on the other.

It was for a job as an Alliance press secretary and all the party leaders had to have a say.

Mr Anderton knew Josie through her close friendship with his daughter Philippa, and suggested she apply for the job.

The only person on the panel who thought she wasn't up to it was the chief press secretary, John Pagani, no relation then but now her husband.

"They all gave me the tick except for John who said, apparently, 'I just don't think she's strong enough'."

That was 14 years ago and they both know better now. Having moved to Jim Anderton's Progressives when it split from the Alliance, then to Labour, they were in the unique position, until recently, of being husband and wife political commentators as well as an activist on her part and an adviser on his.

John Pagani has moved into a PR job with New Zealand Oil and Gas and bowed out of commentary, and she picked up one of his spots, adding to her own independently acquired gigs.

Now, as one tweeter recently put it, she is the "everywhere woman" with five regular radio spots, a new column in the Truth under the editorship of right-wing blogger Cameron Slater and the occasional television appearance.

Josie Pagani was raised in a political family and her roots are in Labour but not blue collar Labour. She remembers as a girl meeting her great uncle, Rewi Alley, on one of his returns from China. Her mother, author Elspeth Sandys, was very active in the British Labour Party and Josie joined as a teenager.

"I got very involved in the miners' strike in England on the picket line. Being radical when I was in my 20s meant having 'Coal not Dole' stickers and standing on the picket line. Nowadays ... you're standing outside the mines with a 'Keep the Coal in the Hole' sticker."

Her parents are both New Zealanders but they split when she was aged 4. Her father headed to the US and her mother took her and her brother to a small village in the Cotswolds, Ascott-under-Wychwood.

New Zealand-born actor the late Bruce Purchase became her step-father and worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, in film and in television.

"John Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, Sam Neill, people like that, were in and out of our house in the village all through my childhood."

She was a good friend of Sam Mendes who has just directed the latest James Bond movie. She dabbled herself in films but the furthest she got was second focus puller on The Piano.

Her mother later married author Maurice Shadbolt and he helped Josie get writing work with the Reader's Digest, and for a while she juggled freelance writing and film work before becoming researcher for Brian Edwards' Saturday morning show on Radio New Zealand. Her next step was to Parliament.

Perhaps fittingly for her present career, she has a degree in "political theatre" or what her husband jokingly calls "basket weaving".

John Pagani was regarded suspiciously, especially by the unions, in the highly factionalised Labour Party as an adviser to Mr Anderton, then Labour leaders Phil Goff and David Shearer.

Josie Pagani is, by nature, more Pollyanna than Machiavelli.

She's a Labour Party member in the unusual position of not only having a platform to criticise the Government but her own party's leadership, the party itself, and sacred cows such as welfare reform.

She happily debates right-wing opponents such as Matthew Hooton, Deborah Coddington, David Farrar and Cameron Slater. There is no personal invective; they are often complimentary about her.

She wonders jokingly if they are trying to destroy her career "by showing me so much love and support". The most severe criticism is from the left of politics' left, usually by anonymous bloggers who question her left-wing credentials at best and can be personally abusive. A "neo-liberal apologist" is one of the more constructive criticisms. "Useless" and "loathsome" are more typical.

"I'm quite shocked at how much I have been presented as some right-winger," says Josie Pagani.

"I believe in free education, free health, a progressive tax system, I'm a social liberal and I'm thinking 'what on earth is right-wing about that'?"

"There aren't enough mainstream centre-left voices out there and I can see why now - because you get your head bashed in."

The real debate on the left should be about the progressive politics of Labour versus reactionary politics. She believes Labour's splits in the 1980s Rogernomics era are holding back debate that should be had now.

"So the minute you start talking about welfare reform, transformational change, they are seen as code words for a return to the right. The contest of ideas in the party has shrivelled as a result of that."

One of her first clashes with other Labour members came about after the 2011 election when, in an opinion piece for the Herald, she recounted her problems campaigning as the Rangitikei candidate over the in-work tax credit.

Labour had just announced it would extend it to beneficiaries with dependent children. It went down especially badly with people close to the minimum wage.

"Whether I approve of that or not, that's the reality. That's how the policy is perceived and that's a problem for us because we weren't seen to be there [for all working people]."

Labour needs to reclaim the debate about welfare reform, which has been wholly owned by the right. "They don't believe in it and we do.

"If we don't win the debate about responsibility, the responsibility when you are on a benefit to make yourself work-ready as much as possible, then we're not going to win the debate on increasing benefit levels - and there are people out there living on a benefit in absolute poverty."

She's been very supportive of Labour leader David Shearer, defending him when the leftists attacked him for his speech mentioning a cheating ACC beneficiary working on a roof.

But he needs to be bolder, she says, such as condemning those in the party resisting moves by former Cabinet minister John Tamihere to rejoin Labour. That shouldn't be tolerated.

"That sends a message to anyone that thinks like John Tamihere that we're going to vet you."

She may have empathy with Mr Tamihere because the unions fought his selection in 1999 - Helen Clark intervened - and the unions block-voted against Josie Pagani's bid to become Labour's candidate in the Mana byelection in 2010.

"The party needs to look more like the broad church it says it is with diversity." She said the sectors in the party - Maori, Pacific Island, union, rainbow coalition - were healthy and to be celebrated.

"It's when your success or not in the party depends on the patronage of one of those sectors that is open to misuse and you move away from a one-vote democracy in the party.

She hasn't decided whether she wants to stand again for Labour but says if she does, she would like it to be in her home electorate of Otaki. She won't be at the Labour Party conference this weekend - attending instead the wedding of former Shearer chief-of-staff Stuart Nash.

But she's clear about what he needs to do: "He has to come out with a very clear vision about jobs. He has to own that space."

"I think what the public are hearing is a slightly buffet-style approach to campaigns. He's got to be seen to be changing the party. You can't just change the leader and think the public is going to go 'that's fine'.

"He's got to say stuff that neither Phil Goff nor Helen Clark would have said. We're waiting for David Shearer to give us the Labour narrative. What does it mean to be a New Zealander in the future? Where's he headed? What is the direction?

"Take our values, our gut instincts and turn them into something that means something to people, that's a Labour vision."

The party had to present a clear alternative direction to where New Zealand can be going.

"If Labour can do that, they'll be the next Government and they'll deserve to be the next Government."

A short history of Josie Pagani

Political commentator
*Aged 47.
*Born in New Zealand.
*Daughter of NZ author Elspeth Sandys and US-based academic Fraser Harbutt.
*Mother of Maria, 12, Carlo, 9.
*Married to former political adviser John Pagani.
*Moved to Britain aged 4.
*Degree in English literature and political theatre, Warwick University, located in Coventry.
*Returned to New Zealand in 1989.
*Brian Edwards' researcher at National Radio.
*Alliance press secretary.
*Matt Robson's ministerial press secretary.
*Communications manager, NZ Aid.
*OECD aid adviser in Paris for three years.
*Progressive candidate, Otaki, 2008.
*Missed Labour selection for Mana byelection.
*Labour candidate, Rangitikei, 2011.

Regular commentating spots
*Larry Williams, Newstalk ZB - Monday drive time.
*Sean Plunket, Newstalk ZB - alternate Friday mornings.
*Nine to Noon with Kathryn Ryan RNZ - alternate Monday mornings.
*Jim Mora's panel, National Radio - alternate Friday afternoons.
*Paul Holmes, Newstalk ZB - Saturday morning.
*Truth columnist.
*Occasional panelist, on TVNZ show Q + A.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 23 Nov 2014 20:38:41 Processing Time: 561ms