Blue-green ambitions

By Audrey Young

Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye's stance against her party's proposed mining on Great Barrier Island is not just political it's heartfelt.

Nikki Kaye's connection to Great Barrier Island stems back to her teenage years. Photo / Chris Skelton
Nikki Kaye's connection to Great Barrier Island stems back to her teenage years. Photo / Chris Skelton

Nikki Kaye's political opponents were quick to accuse her of "grandstanding" this week when she opposed her own party's proposal to mine on Great Barrier Island.

Her act of rebellion, they implied, was simply to satisfy the liberals of Auckland Central who voted her in - that it was a cynical act of survival, not sincerity.

In fact, Kaye's bonding with Great Barrier goes back a long way.

As a 17-year-old schoolgirl, she was left on the island for eight days with very little food as part of a survivor-style reality television show with five other teenagers.

She was head girl of the private Corran School at the time and was picked as "the private school girl who couldn't survive without a hairdryer," she told the Herald on Sunday before being elected to Parliament in 2008 as the first National MP to ever hold the Auckland Central seat. She did rather well, according to herself, on the TV show called Fish out of Water.

Family holidays camping at Fletchers Bay on the top of the Coromandel peninsula had made her resourceful.

Kaye is clearly from National's socially liberal wing - the "fish out of water" wing.

One of her most important role models in politics has been Katherine Rich, a liberal rebel who lost her frontbench position after failing to back Don Brash on toughening up welfare policy on solo mothers.

Rich retired before her liberal backbone was tested as a cabinet minister; but Kaye, as a backbencher in a marginal seat with a majority of just 1497, can afford to take an independent stand without harming her standing in the electorate, which has been traditionally Labour.

Her challenge will be maintaining that sense of independence without losing her standing in the party - and the chance of a high enough list place to protect against a Labour comeback.

She is already offside with some of her senior colleagues who are finding her to be what could be called a "high-maintenance" backbencher and not a natural team player.

Insiders say she considered crossing the floor last year over changes to the Resource Management Act that she thought provided less protection to trees. She was talked down.

Kaye - 30 and currently unattached - has had more than a flirtation with environmentalism. It is an avowed political mission for her.

"Our environment is the greatest gift we have been given as a nation," she said in her maiden speech, delivered in the throes of the global economic crisis.

"There are people who think the environment is an issue that can be put aside when times are tough. I would ask those people to look deeper and realise that from a social and economic point of view, our environment is the most precious asset we have."

Long before National had thought of mining on Great Barrier - or a least long before it had told Kaye and the public it was thinking of mining there - she described the island as "an untouched piece of paradise".

A word commonly used to describe her by admirers is "driven."

A word commonly used to describe her by critics is "obsessive."

She doesn't just run; she runs marathons, she doesn't cycle, she decides to race Labour's Trevor Mallard around Lake Taupo [cancelled because she broke her ankle in a cycling accident]; she doesn't just campaign, she runs herself ragged campaigning and a week after the win is back on Waiheke Island campaigning for the next election.

She doesn't get just one degree from Otago ( in genetics), she resumes unfinished work from student days and will pick up her law degree in May.

Kaye is particularly driven about publicity - she has combined her relentless activity in the electorate and self-promotion into an art form with a website, Facebook, newsletters, emailing - though she wouldn't be interviewed about herself this week.

She is not so obsessed with work that she doesn't know how to have a good time - she gets out occasionally with friends, who include right-wing blogger David Farrar, and she has been known to post Facebook comments from a bar.

Kaye joined National at university, ended up working in the research unit at Parliament under Bill English's leadership and worked in London for five years before returning to stand for Parliament.

She was number 57 on National's list and ousted Labour's Judith Tizard in the Auckland Central seat.

But her competition next time will be a closer match - one of Labour's new young MPs, Jacinda Ardern, who is at least as bright, and at least as attractive. It's a contest that has already been dubbed by red-blooded males as "the battle of the babes."

Kaye has thrown herself into her job.

The Herald's social issues reporter covered her meeting last year with a group of victims of sexual abuse. After Kaye heard one woman's story, tears welled up in her eyes and she threw her arms around her.

She is clearly devoted to her electorate and has respect on Great Barrier Island. Community Board chairman Paul Downie, who says he has voted Labour, National, Green and Act in the past, calls her a good communicator and says "she is highly visible."

She was over there recently on a beach clean-up project and raised $800 when she took part in the Wharf to Wharf marathon - the proposed mining site is part of the course.

Downie does not believe Kaye is grandstanding.

"I think it is just Nikki speaking from the heart."

- NZ Herald

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