Deborah Coddington: National poorer after Rich's departure

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Katherine Rich's decision to quit politics is her family's gain, but National's loss. Of all the National women MPs, Rich was the only one able to connect with women who would not normally vote for the conservatives. National deserves to lose her.

John Key's done little to repair damage done by Don Brash when he sacked Rich from the social welfare portfolio, Georgina te Heuheu from Maori Affairs, and Lynda Scott resigned from health.

Only te Heuheu remains, the last female standing among macho white ball-breakers, and that includes National's women MPs.

There may be National women elected in 2005 who could reach beyond the traditional blue-rinse-and-pearls brigade, but they're yet to show their worth. After three years, they've done nothing to justify their seats.

A disclosure: before I was an MP, my son briefly worked for Rich, and when I was an MP I flatted with her. I admire her high principles, she works very hard and we're good friends. In the face of intense pressure she stuck to her lonely decision in voting in favour of Sue Bradford's so-called anti-smacking bill.

Rich is also loyal. She was sacked by Brash, remember, for flatly refusing to go around the country trying to sell a welfare policy stating women on welfare would get no increase for a second child, and single mums should consider adoption.

How could Rich, mother of two very small children and sitting pretty on a substantial taxpayer-funded salary, tell struggling beneficiaries to live on the smell of oily rags? She was correct to refuse, but she was cruelly punished - not only by the party - for sticking to her guns.

She was ostracised by most of her male colleagues (Simon Power and Paul Hutchison being two exceptions). Political journalists, who expect the country to take them seriously when it comes to political reporting, wanted to know the name of her lipstick colour.

Back home at night, Katherine and I would giggle at the lunacy of the situation, but she was going through hell. In the debating chamber, Rich looked so glum (the press gallery sits like vultures waiting to catch MPs unable to handle truckloads of shite with aplomb), I texted her with my trick of looking happy: "Think of the funniest thing your kids have said, laugh, and remember how irrelevant this is."

After Michael Bassett had written a column accusing her of bagging her leader in public and allegedly wanting to dictate National's welfare policy, I told her to ignore Bassett's rubbish. But she was angry at his errors, and we talked about defamation. My QC husband's advice was don't sue, but he suggested asking Brash to write a letter to the editor, correcting Bassett's mistakes and stating that Rich had always given the leader her support.

I passed this advice to Rich and we never discussed it again, but she must have quietly seethed when no such letter eventuated. Nonetheless, she held her head high and kept her dignity. In the end, she would outlast Brash, and at least she leaves Parliament on her own terms, with her dignity firmly in tact, and drawing admiration even from the Prime Minister.

Rich was also very funny. Who can forget the look of horror on Labour's faces when she asked Judith Tizard, in all innocence, "Is it correct the Minister of Arts at a New Zealand Film Industry Conference referred to the film Whale Rider as Male Rider, or was that just a Freudian slip?"

But Brash should not take all the blame for Rich's slow withdrawal from politics. John Key, when asked recently whom he'd use to attract women voters, named a string of other female MPs before being reminded of this jewel in National's crown.

Rich has never been pushy, and it's hard to succeed in that corrosive environment unless you're prepared to trample all over your colleagues, utilise bitchy female wiles like backstabbing, running to your leader telling tales, fawning around party bosses. I suspect, like me, she just didn't want to turn into the sort of woman we both despise in order to make it big in national politics.

One day you look around at the people you work with and say, "I don't need this. My family and friends deserve better."

It's a struggle to name more than one woman MP who's retained her femininity, warmth and sense of humour while climbing the political ladder. Most of them are hard - in heart and face.

Until the right starts valuing MPs like Rich for their loveliness, as equally as they promote MPs like Judith Collins for their balls, they'll never get women like me to vote for them.

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