Michele Hewitson interview: Laila Harre

By Michele Hewitson

The Internet Party’s leader and its founder Kim Dotcom are politics’ oddest couple — just don’t tell her

Laila Harre thrives on doing the hard things. Photo / Doug Sherring
Laila Harre thrives on doing the hard things. Photo / Doug Sherring

Dear oh dear. Things seemed to go so terribly haywire with Laila Harre that I left wondering what on earth had just happened. I'm still wondering. I've interviewed her before and, now that she's the leader of Kim Dotcom's Internet party, I was looking forward to seeing her again — because who isn't wondering about that? She does like to do hard things.

She's steely and earnest and fragile, and has long been given to anxieties and occasional panic attacks, yet she takes on public roles in which she will be much scrutinised. This doesn't make her the easiest interview subject in the world, but far better complicated and twitchy than thick and dull. I like her.

She is not much given to easy chattiness so when her new press secretary, Pam Corkery, said she'd be there I didn't say, as I usually would, "Oh no you won't, sister". I've interviewed Corkery, too, and I like her too. She's funny and loud and so I thought that her motor-mouthiness would be the perfect foil to the natural reserve of The Leader (as Corkery calls her).

When I arrived, the press secretary said: "You've lost a lot of weight. Have you got Aids?" That's pure Pammy for you and I thought: What fun. This is already like being in an episode of Veep — in which press secs are always saying the wrong things to journalists and then muttering about them in corners with The Leader and having to flutter around like headless chickens to try to put things right.

Are they an odder couple than Harre and Dotcom? I'd wanted to interview Corkery, but now she's a press sec she's not allowed to give interviews, but what about talking to The Leader? So there I was talking to The Leader, in the living room of her very nice Mt Eden house, with the biggest bathroom I've ever seen and an enormous bath in the middle of it.

Other than the bathroom, it is not particularly swanky and the kitchen needed a good clean-up, which I told the press sec to do. She quite rightly told me to F off, not for the last time.

Anyway, good. Two for the price of one.

Perhaps they are not such an odd couple. They are both ardent feminists and lefties, and were Alliance MPs together. Pam, said Laila, is "fabulous and she's loyal ... and she's a true professional". That made me laugh, because she goes about being a professional press secretary in her own unique way — as you'd expect.

She was, however, disappointingly well-behaved (mostly) for most of the interview and stayed in the kitchen end of the house although she didn't do the dishes. She claimed she'd cleaned it up the night before, so I hope she's getting well paid.

The other thing she has done has helped Harre to "find my funny voice".

Harre can be very funny, if dryly so. She said about my two recorders — one for back-up — that this made me the neurotic, not her, as I may have suggested.

She says she is now cured of the severe anxiety she developed when she was about 9 or 10 "as a result of things happening in my life — my parents' marriage breaking up, my mother having quite a serious mental illness. Feeling kind of responsible and worried beyond my capacity to deal with it".

She saw a "sort of ... therapist" who said he could cure her anxiety in one session, through techniques for managing it, and he did. I thought it was a shame she had been so anxious for so many years (she is 48) but she said, "Well, as the Chinese proverb says, 'the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second-best time is today'."

I was glad to hear all of this because she was horribly anxious when I last saw her. And since then she has had breast cancer (her mother died of it) and a subsequent double mastectomy, after which some people might have decided to take it easier for a while. Her idea of taking it easier for a while was to go to France and do an intensive language course while sharing an apartment with a woman who spoke only French. "My primary motivation was to give my brain a task." She also runs marathons.

This tells you quite a lot about her. She thrives on doing the hard things and she's looking terrific. "Thank you." She was even wearing makeup, which she never used to do and which I mention because the last time I saw her she said: "You wear makeup which I find quite impressive."

So the makeup is new and very impressively done. "I did it myself." She even took lessons. "I thought I kind of need to learn this stuff, you know. I did it for you."

She looked swish in the Internet Party official pics and I wondered whether she'd also been seeing a stylist but she said, no, she just "did a big shop". Where did she do her big shop? "At Smith & Caughey's." Good heavens. Who paid? Dotcom? "Um, I'm being paid for the work that I'm doing." I hope she spent a lot of Dotcom's money. How much did she spend? "Oh, look, I don't want to go into that. It's expensive looking nice. You know. I've spent very little on clothes over the years."

I thought she might have felt odd admitting to spending a lot of money, even a multi-millionaire's money, on clothes at Smith & Caughey's, of all places, but she said, crisply, "Not at all. I just felt I needed a uniform for the campaign."

I can take a hint, which was that this was quite enough of the girly clothes chat, especially girly clothes chat involving Dotcom's money. So her big spend-up at S&C's turns into something more severe and worthy — buying a uniform for a job.

Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned Dotcom at all, which would have been absurd. And the point is rather made with the shopping spree. What's a good socialist (I asked if she was still "hard-left" and she said she had never been hard-left) doing leading a party funded by a multi-millionaire whose lifestyle is one of ostentatious wealth?

She said her values were well-known to New Zealanders (in which case there would be no point in me repeating them, I'd have thought, wrongly, apparently) and they haven't changed. She has been to what is invariably described as the Dotcom mansion, "many times" and I said: "Is it awful?" I wouldn't have thought it was her cup of tea. "Ha," she said, "it's very grand." But does she like it? "It's a very pleasant environment ... I can't say I've been to similar houses before."

She says Dotcom's values are "aligned" to her own, but really? I asked if he was left-wing now — he did give 50 grand to the right-winger John Banks' mayoral campaign — and she said she doesn't go around asking people whether they're left or right and he says he's neither, he's "up".

Anyway, his wealth is okay because he made it as an entrepreneur and "I do think there's a very big difference between the kind of person who's climbed the corporate ladder to the top of the bank, making several million dollars a year off shareholders and workers ... " She said she wasn't suggesting Dotcom's money was made in an honourable way and John Key's wasn't. "No. But now that you mention it ... "

She said later, plaintively, that she felt she'd answered all of the questions about Dotcom before. She didn't like my questions on the recent Mona Dotcom women's mag story about fleeing the mansion and the marriage on a golf cart and feeling as though she had to ask permission to leave it. She said she hadn't seen the story and that it was none of her business. I thought that as leader she ought to know what was out there and that it was a bit strange that she didn't.

We had a roundabout but agreeable enough disagreement about that in which neither of us changed our minds. She didn't much like the question about the reported "glamour shoots" with hot chicks at the mansion. The point of asking was that these sorts of things, about the public profile of the patron of her party — and member of the national executive — might be of concern to her, as a feminist as well as the leader. She said: 'Well, it's not my scene", but mildly enough.

Which is why I'm still wondering what went so badly wrong. I went to the loo and when I came back she and the press sec were muttering in the corner — about my Dotcom questions, I assume given what followed.

I did ask a fair few, but I think that was fair game and they both should have expected that I would. Both of them have had ample experience of interviews, including with me. She said, and I thought she was going to cry, that she hadn't been able to talk about anything she was passionate about. She said: "We've talked a lot about Dotcom and I mean I feel like I've got my own voice. I'm a confident leader ... "

The point I'd been trying to make, I said, was that the subject of Dotcom is going to keep coming up and maybe she hasn't effectively dealt with it.

"So how does one effectively deal with it?" she said, through gritted teeth. "Don't know," I said, through my own gritted teeth. "I'm not the leader." But I put the recorder back on and let her talk uninterrupted about her passions. These turned out to be about inspiring young people and about how the "institutions of social democracy" have become weakened and how the Internet Party is for people with "progressive values" who feel alienated by the old order and so on. The press secretary, which is another name for cheerleader, said: "I liked it!"

Good. They can put it in a press release. I wasn't going to. I was busy biting my tongue at the time. I'd had to put the recorder back on because she'd made me turn them both off and refused to say Another Word until they were. This was over an innocent comment made by the press sec, which I agreed not to mention because it was, honestly, of so little consequence, in my view, that it doesn't require mentioning.

But, kaboom, a tremendous fuss blew up and I'm buggered if I know how it all came to be my fault. We might have got to some questions more to her liking if not for this carry-on. But by then we were all entirely fed up which each other — at least I was — and there was little point in going on. Never mind. It was just like being in an episode of Veep — although a little lacking on the jokes — so I can't complain that it was dull. It was certainly odd and, even more oddly, I still like her which is yet another thing to wonder about. I'm fairly certain of one thing — it's not mutual.

- NZ Herald

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