Michele Hewitson Interview: Nikki Kaye

By Michele Hewitson

Determined and ambitious, the new Minister pushes ahead with care

At 33, National's Nikki Kaye is a fresh-faced Cabinet Minister.  Photo / Brett Phibbs
At 33, National's Nikki Kaye is a fresh-faced Cabinet Minister. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Nikki Kaye, the MP for Auckland Central and newly promoted Cabinet Minister, arrived fresh as a bright pink daisy at Prego restaurant on Ponsonby Rd from the Big Gay Out, where she had been doing, she said, a lot of kissing. She gave me a slightly awkward peck which left a smear of matching pink lipstick, which she then dabbed at with her fingers; her nails were also painted pink.

She looked very young and very sweet. She is an odd mix of utterly confident and slightly awkward but she is a very new, and young, minister - she was to turn 33 on Monday, the day after I saw her.

Would she be going out for her birthday, for dinner, perhaps? She said: "I'll be in Palmerston North." She can be funny, in a deadpan way, when she lets herself - which is not often. She is cautious, serious and dutiful, probably partly by nature and partly because you get the impression that she is keeping a careful eye on herself. She is the minister least likely to muck up, I'd say.

She is also studious. She was worried about who was to pay for her dinner and thought she should, so as to avoid any trouble. I thought it would be less trouble if I paid. She has been studying the ministerial manual and thought this would probably be all right - but was I sure? I was, and I'm also as sure as I can be that no politician I've ever given a meal or a cup of coffee to has ever expressed any such concern.

I'm also sure she is studying assiduously to be a minister because that is the way she does everything. She famously knocked on 10,000 doors campaigning for her seat. She has just done the Coast to Coast. She is considered to be fiercely competitive and you'd think she might get up her colleagues' noses. I posed that as a question and she said she "can't guarantee" that she doesn't. "I want to get stuff done and I can probably be a little bit persistent."

She has also been accused of being high-maintenance. "As I used to say to one of my ex-boyfriends: medium to high." God knows how she found time to do the Coast to Coast but she was determined to do it, and regarded the time it took as a "luxury". She reminded me of another fiercely competitive politician whose idea of leisure was to climb mountains: Helen Clark. She said, about my banging on about how competitive she was, even in her free time, that: "You're saying that [but] I was one of the last women home." Did she mind? "It's good for me." Is she going to do it again? "Not while I'm a minister."

She is ambitious, obviously, but says that "truly" she doesn't want to be the Prime Minister. Really? If she had the opportunity, she wouldn't take it? "That's a different question." I don't think it is, but it might require a different answer.

As Associate Minister of Education, she had been asked by her friend and Minister of Education Hekia Parata to open a new building at Massey, which was why she would be in Palmerston North for her birthday. It is her first gig as associate minister. I asked which portfolio she really wanted, and she replied diplomatically that she was "pretty happy" with being associate minister. I asked how she thought the Minister of Education was doing and she replied even more diplomatically: "She's had a pretty rough year."

Among her political colleagues, she counts as friends Parata, Maggie Barry and Paul Goldsmith, and she likes and respects Green MP Kevin Hague. She "gets on all right" with Judith Collins and "okay" with Paula Bennett. She had a disagreement with Gerry Brownlee over her stand against mining on Great Barrier; she admires his work ethic and thinks they have this in common - you can't imagine they'd have much else in common.

She is also now Minister of Civil Defence, which is why our interview the week before had to be postponed at the last minute from the footpath on Ponsonby Rd. She had her suitcase and an assortment of smaller bags around her feet and was on the phone. She was then a little flustered (somebody tripped over the Minister of Civil Defence's suitcase, which made me laugh, but she was on the phone again and barely noticed).

She had been up since about 4am for a Waitangi Day service and now it was 4pm and she was waiting for a taxi to take her back to Wellington and the civil defence bunker where she would spend the evening. She insists this is an interesting way to spend an evening.

There was a tsunami warning for New Zealand and I said, Oh, there wouldn't be a tsunami. She said, rather sternly, that even if there wasn't a tsunami it wouldn't be a good look for the Minister of Civil Defence to be doing an interview "for a feature article" while there was a tsunami warning.

She is quite right - she is young but she can't help that and she's not a fool, it would be a terrible look. I was just trying her out. This is a waste of time. She has said in the past that she's a tough cookie, and she is, but it's still a funny thing to say. Perhaps she feels she has to say it to make people take her seriously. There was a load of "battle of the babes" nonsense written about her going up against Labour's Jacinda Ardern for the Auckland Central seat, which was entirely but tiresomely predictable: they are both young, pleasant-looking women. She gets a bit of this and is mildly exasperated by it, but not entirely above it. She did, for example, a make-over feature in Next magazine, and that sort of thing can't exactly help - though I can also see that it might not hurt. She did this with another of her friends, the fashion designer Denise L'Estrange-Corbet, and she said: "People might know what your party stands for and they might know what you're doing on a local level, but they actually want to know whether you're a decent person and who you are, and that's why there's a level of that stuff that you do."

On that level of stuff, I had just noticed that she dyed her hair. She said: "You ask a lot of personal questions." I had thought she was blond. "Oh, no, it's a bit sandy, a bit mousey. I like it. I don't see myself changing any time soon."

The next day she was to become a vegetarian for a month, for national animal rights group Safe. As she is not a vegetarian this seemed to me to be a nonsense, but she defended it robustly enough. She said: "I do care about animals." I did rather pooh-pooh that because who doesn't, except possibly Gareth Morgan and nutters. She likes to do things for community groups and she believes animals should be treated well, and is happy to lend her profile to good causes. I suggested she could eat bacon sandwiches at home and nobody would ever know, but she was horrified at the idea. If she does something she does it properly. I still didn't quite know why she'd bother.

"It will raise awareness of the cause," she said primly. She can be a bit proper, but not so proper that she hasn't tried "marijuana" (when she was 14) or been drunk, and she took the remains of her pizza away in a brown paper bag for her tea.

A cynic might say that doing things like going vegetarian for a month will also raise awareness of her profile, and cynics do say such things. (She told me I shouldn't read the blogs but she does, or some of them, and then carefully examines what is said about her to see whether she thinks there is any truth in it. She usually decides it's "bollocks", but that she does this at all is more studying.)

I asked if she had a relentless drive for publicity (another accusation) and of course she said: "No." But when she first became an MP she felt she had something to prove. She says she has relaxed a bit now and is making time for family and friends, which she hadn't in her first three years as an MP, and is now happier. This would seem to indicate that she was unhappy but she says she wasn't, because she is "living the dream in terms of my job and it is a bit of a life, I accept that ... but if I can just shimmy in a little bit of time to be with my family ..."

She has a complicated family background with nine siblings, or half-siblings or step-siblings, and she didn't see her father for some years after her parents separated when she was 7. She is very loyal to her mother and stepfather. She does see her father now and says she likes him, and jokes that he may have used up her quota of relationships. This is a joke because she would like to get married and have children, but she says she has to get a boyfriend first and she hasn't had one for a long time.

Well, she can hardly go to a bar and pick up somebody or go internet-dating - "Can you imagine? 'I like long walks in the Beehive"' - so it's a bit tricky. I said we should find her a nice Young Nat and she said, emphatically, "No."

She had a relationship for five-and-a-half years which ended the Thursday before the 2008 election, when her partner phoned and told her he wouldn't be coming back from London for election night. (I did ask a lot of personal questions and she has yet to learn to say "mind your own business".)

She had a funny old election night in which she won the seat and lost the bloke. "Probably election night was one of the best nights of my life and it was one of the hardest of my life." She was heartbroken and had to be brave-faced. "She'll be right. Life, as my grandmother says, all works out."

So she would like a boyfriend and she would love a cat, but can't have one because it would be unfair to the cat (I don't know about the boyfriend). She said: "Oh, no. I can see where this story's going."

It's tempting: Sad, Lonely MP Can't Get Cat or Boyfriend. But nobody would buy it. She is a tough cookie and is not given to sitting around examining herself or her navel - which is not the same thing as keeping a close eye on herself. I'd like to interview her again in a few years to see how she turns out. I imagine that she will indeed be right.

- NZ Herald

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