Jude packs punch

By Jane Phare

Try a bit of name calling - "seat warmer", "Minister for Nothing" - on Judith Tizard and she seems to regard it as a form of sport.

Either she's developed an extraordinarily thick skin - a useful armour thanks to a combination of Labour genetics and political experience - or she's wasting her talent as an actor. She doesn't appear particularly bothered by the nasty labels that filter through the media or lurk on blog sites.

"I understand Tizard is kept quite busy by being Helen's Mini-Me at all those Auckland cocktail parties..." wrote one emailer to the kiwiblog forum. "She's not stupid, just moody and, well, not the hardest working Labour MP by a long shot," wrote blogger Liberty Scott. "One thing is for sure, Judith won't be remembered as a mover and shaker, but as one of those odd MPs who is really there because of family heritage."

Why the constant criticism? Why is the longtime Labour politician and former Minister for Auckland a target?

"I think I piss people off," Tizard says, throwing her head back to laugh. It's a loud, gutsy guffaw which can border on a cackle. You get the feeling she rather enjoys the reaction, particularly from "conservative men" who oppose her.

"They don't like me because I win. The greatest affront, particularly to conservative blokes, is successful women who they don't agree with."

And later: "I think I really upset particularly conservative men... I've made something of a career of it of course." More unrepentant laughter.

Tizard offers other reasons for being a target - that she's energetic, a tall poppy, she's very opinionated (and yes, she does regret some of the outbursts) and that her style of politics is different.

"I'm not a hard-edged headbutter and I don't shout at people much. I take politics much more lightly... I watched Dad (former Deputy Leader of the Opposition Bob Tizard) and his colleagues and Mum (former Labour city councillor, Mayor of Auckland and Governor-General Dame Cath Tizard) and hers, and you know you can take life too seriously."

But she knows it could get dirty, particularly in the build-up to this year's election where she will go head-to head with National's young hopeful for her seat of Auckland Central, 28-year-old Nikki Kaye.

Tizard says she's already been warned about a "particularly nasty group of men, mainly younger men".

"I mean I've got friends in the National Party who are warning me to make sure I am ready for the filthiest campaign ever." That warning could be why she fronted National Party member and city councillor Aaron Bhatnagar at an Anzac Day function last month, accusing him of spreading a rumour that she had lost her virginity to former Maori MP Mat Rata in the back of a car. The rumour is an old one, but Tizard is still "appalled" by it.

So is she ready for a dirty campaign? Tizard's answer is more like a political mission statement.

"Mm, I've been doing this job for 12 years in Auckland Central and another six in Panmure. I know that New Zealand and Auckland Central are much better for having a Labour Government, and I'm happy to keep working."

Referring to some of the sniping on blog sites, Tizard shrugs if off with "I don't think the people who say things like that were ever my friend or the Labour Party's friend."

She admits the sniping sometimes gets to her.

"Some of it's been foul for the last couple of months."

It's mainly coming from the "Act sort of edge of National", she says, people she has been battling since the 70s and 80s. Many were in the Labour Party so "we know each other fairly well".

It was this battle that made her angry enough to get into politics in the first place (she insists politics is not in her blood, rather in "my brain and in my heart") at a time when she was on Labour's regional council and "they were trying to take over the Labour Party".

"I was determined not to let those bastards steal my party and my country..." she says, referring specifically to Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble.

As for the looming election and the tussle for an electorate with a population which has increased from around 2000 in the mid-90s to more than 30,000 today, Tizard says winning is everything.

"There is nothing more important to a politician than getting elected."

And then, with typical straight forwardness: "I've won every election that I cared about, that I've ever stood for."

She's been in the game, in one form or another, for 30 years when, as a 21-year-old barmaid, she was elected as a Labour candidate to the Auckland Electric Power Board. After that, the Auckland Regional Council and then the Remuera seat, against Doug Graham, in '87. While she didn't win, she did a credible job of clawing back National's margin in a blue-ribbon seat. In 1990, at 34, she won Panmure, a seat held by her father for 26 years. But it was the 1996 win of Auckland Central which was the biggest thrill. Born in Pitt St, in the former St Helen's maternity hospital, Tizard has lived in the area all her life. She says quite simply: "I love Auckland Central, being the electorate MP."

So what does she say to the criticism that she hasn't done enough for Auckland, that she's under performed, that the 1999-created portfolio of Minister Responsible for Auckland Issues was disbanded because it was not working?

Nonsense, Tizard says. She works a long day ("hell yes") and is often out at night attending arts-related functions and performances. So what has she done exactly?

"What I've done is I've focused the whole of the Government's attention on Auckland. It helps that the Prime Minister also comes from Auckland."

She then begins a long, and difficult to interrupt, explanation on her achievements and work in the city, her concerns about the need for open spaces to teach inner-city kids to ride bikes, about a wider choice of secondary schools. She talks of the "extraordinary" amount of money and effort focused on Auckland's transport infrastructure. In her bag, she says, is a report from Transit that estimates between 15 per cent and 20 per cent more vehicles are being carried on motorways at present.

"Now that's a huge achievement."

But Aucklanders are still moaning about the traffic and claim it's getting worse, I say.

"Well they're wrong."

Then she concedes that, "Every five years a city about the size of Dunedin moves to Auckland." Followed by the politician's spin: "Auckland's problem is that it is so popular."

Continuing her what-I've-done-for-Auckland lecture, she singles out the North Shore busway, something which wouldn't have happened "if Mark Gosche and I had not sat down and knocked heads together".

Not that she is claiming credit on her own. She works in teams, she says. She's had to, her Auckland issues portfolio came with a staffing level of zero.

So why was the portfolio disbanded? Basically because the job is done, Tizard says. That job was about "co-ordinating portfolios across Government and getting the focus on Auckland interests".

But can she understand why people might speculate that there is another reason? Tizard's retort is a little sharper this time.

"It was also disbanded because we got tired of silly questions like that, you know, why haven't you fixed Auckland?"

And, she adds, on the day the Prime Minister announced the change Helen Clark gave her a letter "saying she wanted me to go on doing exactly what I had done before".

The long-standing friendship between Clark and the Tizard family is no secret. Tizard refers to "Helen" throughout her conversation, and describes her as a dear family and personal friend.

Tizard says she helps Clark both professionally and personally, a role which has earned her another label as the Prime Minister's handbag.

Dame Cath and Clark were at university together and Clark lived with Judith's parents at their Freemans Bay home at one stage.

These days the family ties are still close.

Judith's brother, a builder, has worked on projects at the Clark/Peter Davis house in Mt Eden over the years. One of her older sisters, Anne Culpan, has been helping Davis with a house lighting project.

"It's just the way we've always worked for all those years."

It was Clark who first encouraged Tizard to stand for the power board in 1977 and later the Remuera seat.

But after 18 years in Parliament, Tizard's never been a cabinet minister, despite putting herself forward in 1999. Again she shrugs it off, "Helen's view was that I was more useful working across portfolios."

But would she like to become one?

"Umm, no I don't think so, it's an awful waste of a Monday."

Tizard says she'd rather work on specific projects. She doesn't particularly like spending time in Wellington.

- Herald on Sunday

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