THE QUIET REVOLUTIONARY
Jan Tinetti: Minister of Internal Affairs, Minister for Women, Associate Minister of Education
No one was more surprised to be called to Cabinet last year than Tauranga's second-term Labour list MP.
The greatest controversy of Jan Tinetti's first year in Cabinet centred on the thorny debate over what exactly defines a woman — which is ironic given the Ministry for Women falls within her portfolio. Her championing of a bill that will make it easier for people to change the sex on their birth certificates led to her copping personal abuse as "shameful" and "a disgrace as a woman".
Much of the opposition came from feminists, which is also ironic because she counts herself as one too. "I understand those feminists who've come through the 60s and 70s when they had to fight so hard for women's rights, and the fear they're bringing to this now because they feel like they're giving something away," she says. "I just don't see it the same way."
A school principal for 20 years before entering politics, Tinetti has taught trans students. She's also seen the down-river impact on those who hid their gender struggles when the education system, and wider society, was less accepting of those who diverge from the "norm".
Just as revolutionary, in a way, has been her determination to shine a light on women's issues that are typically taboo, from menstruation (new provisions were brought in this year to supply free period products in state schools) to menopause (in a recent Zoom interview, she told a journalist she needed to open her office door for some fresh air in case she had a hot flush).
Her breasts have been a regular topic of conversation too. In 2019, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The day of her mastectomy, she moved into the Wellington apartment being vacated by National MP Nikki Kaye, herself a breast-cancer survivor, who gave her unwavering support. As part of her recovery, Tinetti has given up alcohol, exercises daily and tries to keep her stress levels in check. She's not on Twitter. She doesn't even drink coffee - but only because she's never liked the taste.
A 52-year-old mother of two, she'd have been at long odds as a potential candidate for Cabinet last year after Labour steam-rollered the election. On that Sunday when the call came, she was at home in Tauranga, doing the ironing, before her flight back to Wellington for a caucus meeting the next day. Her husband Dave was out fishing. Tinetti was in such a state of shock it took her half an hour to realise she'd left the iron on.
Until then, she'd considered herself a "good foot soldier" and admits to still suffering from imposter syndrome, although her time in the education sector helped prepare her for the massive amounts of reading required as a Cabinet minister. Tipped as a future Education Minister, she's seen as a quiet achiever steadily growing in confidence and stature.
Tinetti has spoken publicly about how it was the suicide of a former pupil that led her into politics, where she believes there's a real possibility to drive meaningful change. Significant milestones in the past year include a $15 million package to help Auckland students re-engage with the education system after the disruptions caused by Covid 19, a women's employment action plan to improve resiliency against economic shocks (90 per cent of New Zealanders who lost their jobs in the first few months of the pandemic were women) and a law change allowing an employee to take up to three days' paid bereavement leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth.
She's also had to step up in education, with Minister Chris Hipkins busy leading the Covid-19 response, and has broadened the Ministry for Women's brief to support work on sexual and domestic violence. Her real chance to shine, however, may come on the day she makes her debut for the Parliamentary cricket team. A former captain for Southland, she's handy with the bat.
As a first-term MP in 2017, Tinetti had steeled herself for a notoriously toxic and sexist environment, but that's improved markedly since an external review into workplace bullying and harassment reported back last year. Parliament has become more family-friendly and there's increased flexibility in working structures, reflecting the record number of women MPs who now make up 48 per cent of the House. "It doesn't matter what side you sit on, you share something — you are a woman in a man's world," she says. "The Westminster system was designed for men. We are united in the fact that we are women and we are doing it our way."
— Joanna Wane
THE GISBORNE GRAFTER
Kiri Allan (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Tūwharetoa): Minister of Conservation, Emergency Management, Associate Environment, Associate Arts, Culture, Heritage
Kiritapu Allan was in Gisborne last week, her home town, helping with the vaccination drive, when the skies opened and down it came.
She knew what to do. Allan, who is 37, is the Minister of Emergency Management, among other things, so she cleared the vax people out of their base in the Lawson Theatre and set up a "war room". Flood response HQ. Local emergency, action plans, they rolled it all out.
And she fetched her bomber jacket. The one she made famous earlier this year, fronting to media about earthquakes and tsunami alerts. The one she called "pretty skux".
Does she travel with that jacket?
"I actually do." And a satellite phone, and a bunch of other skux stuff. You have to be prepared.
Allan wasn't prepared back in April when she was diagnosed with stage 3 cervical cancer. Straight to hospital, straight into the invasive treatments. And then, only three months later, she was back. Easing into her job as Minister of Conservation and, more recently, taking back her other roles too: emergency management, associate minister for the environment and the arts.
How is she now?
"Oh, you know, it's not fun. They take you to the brink of death and back. I feel fine."
Right. Tell us about a Kiri Allan day.
If it's a Monday she'll be awake at 4am reading Cabinet papers. In the office by seven every day, the meetings start at eight and "from that point on you don't breathe". Never goes home later than 10.30pm, she says.
"I love my job."
All of it?
"Well, I hate being away from my kid. She's hilarious. Her first language is te reo Māori, she's in kohanga reo, you know, and now she's teaching herself English."
She's teaching herself? How old is she?
"She's 4. When I got sick, the one thing I knew was that I had to dedicate more time to being with her. So yeah, I've done that. She's a priority, the staff know that. They'll know, oh Kiri's out for half of Saturday, or she's got the baby tonight."
Half of Saturday?
"And I might do three or four hours' work on a Sunday, but I'm pretty good about it."
On a Saturday morning in March this year, Allan took her daughter on a semi-official visit to Kelly Tarlton's. The stingrays drifted, fish went shoaling past, the penguins hung about. Families flocked through the place, alive to the closeness of so many exotic animals.
Allan had an entourage: three adults with two kids, minders from DoC and the aquarium. The DoC people said they loved her: she had a rare skill to connect people to the conservation work.
But she was tired that day. It seemed like the tiredness of anyone with a stupidly stressful job who tries to combine a bit of family time with work on a weekend. It wasn't that. Three weeks later, she learned about the cancer.
Why does she love her job?
"Because I get paid to run around and advocate for the East Coast and a whole range of social and environmental issues. And I feel privileged. I can sit around the table in Gizzie talking about what to do, and then go and turn it into law."
That feels like the key to Kiri Allan, lawyer from a family of 10 kids, a local made good: "I use my local base as a way to see the world."
She says she has two big goals this term: stronger rules for the conservation estate and better protection for biodiversity, which she says people think of as the "poor cousin to climate change". Both are underway.
Does she have a view on bats?
"Yes I do. Obviously I couldn't vote for it, it's not a bloody bird. But I'm very proud of New Zealanders for sticking up for it, it's a pretty incredible creature." Smart answer, backing both sides.
What's your health and fitness regime?
"My friends go to the gym. They tell me I should go too."
— Simon Wilson
THE CAUTIOUS OPTIMIST
Ayesha Verrall: Minister of Seniors, Food Safety, Associate Health
A year on from becoming a politician, Dr Ayesha Verrall is getting comfortable in her political skin – and even starting to enjoy the rough and tumble of it.
In the year of the pandemic, Verrall's experience as an infectious diseases specialist saw her get an immediate elevation to Cabinet minister when she entered Parliament a year ago.
Verrall is Associate Minister of Health on top of her portfolios of Seniors and Food Safety, and Covid-19 takes up a large portion of her time.
"Covid has been a huge part of my year, more than half of what I do. Clearly we've gone through a period of having to rapidly change aspects of our response and that's been really demanding. I've been used well by my colleagues in that area."
However, it is not Covid-19 she points to when asked for her highlight.
Instead, that was her move to introduce mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid to reduce rates of neural tube defects and better protect babies.
"Those families who will have healthy babies born as a result of that, that's a big change in their lives. There was an effort made to do it [by National in 2012] and the effort was essentially sunk by misinformation. So I felt it was important to do, but I was also able to bring that through and not have misinformation detract from our efforts."
Verrall also took on another move that has been controversial in the past: taking decisions on fluoridating water out of the hands of local councils and giving it to the Director General of Health.
Verrall picked up on a National Party bill to take that step and, when the law passed on Wednesday, it earned her congratulations from her National Party rivals.
Both issues had been controversial in the past, and Verrall suggests the lack of an outcry this time could be because of a greater awareness of misinformation and health measures because of Covid-19.
"I must be an optimist and think maybe there's a greater willingness to look at these public health things now."
It has also confirmed for her that the move to politics was the right thing to do.
"It's a really good place for me now. I've had the opportunity to do a lot of things, like fluoride, like folate, and the work we are doing on tobacco control. They are things that I've always thought should just be done. That feels incredibly fulfilling."
She was also starting to enjoy the political side of her job.
"I am enjoying politics. I enjoy being in the community, talking about issues. I like working with my colleagues on difficult problems. And I am even starting to enjoy the House. It took a bit of getting used to."
She admits she still gets nervous before Question Time.
"But it's okay. I don't feel I can really show my sense of humour yet, because I haven't figured out how to do that but I enjoy it."
Science and politics are not always totally compatible - politicians have to take into account human nature and behaviour as well, as was seen in the decision to ease Covid-19 restrictions in Auckland because of decreasing compliance.
When this is put to Verrall she laughs and says, "It sounds just like being a doctor.
"When I used to have to worry about looking after one patient, what good was my medicine if I could not convince someone to take it? It's the same question, writ large."
"So that experience in medicine was what let me see the need for pragmatism about the balance of lockdown restrictions and their sustainability."
She does not wonder whether Auckland was moved out of level 4 too early, saying there was a lot of evidence that it was not going to deliver zero cases again.
"We had no chance of stamping it out, absolutely. The biggest issue was that they weren't working. They were not effective in the time that was available."
On the biggest Covid-19 challenges that lie ahead, Verrall points to the "the unknown".
"There is still a risk of new variants and that is the case while parts of the world are unvaccinated. And then there is what happens to our unvaccinated population, and if they get sick how we care for them."
Verrall says people need not be fearful about Delta having ended our Covid-free days earlier than planned - not if they get vaccinated.
Verrall may well be getting a handle on the political side of her job – but science will always be king.
— Claire Trevett