As a child, Joseph Mooney and his younger brother tried - and failed - to get to Queenstown to mine for gold. In a twist of fate, Mooney is now MP for the sprawling Southland electorate. He talks to Herald political journalist Michael Neilson about his first year in Parliament, his party's leadership tussles and why 2022 needs to be the year of reconnecting.
• Aged 43, born in central Hawke's Bay and lives in Queenstown
• Southland electorate MP, National Party
• Member of the Māori Affairs and Regulations Review select committees
• Interesting fact: Has his paragliding license
Q: I'd imagine with the leadership change it's been a challenging year to be a first-term National MP, and especially the embattled Southland seat, to say the least. How have you found it?
A: It has been challenging. But I'm feeling stoked at the moment. We are in a very good position with our leadership team, and are able to offer an alternative vision for New Zealand and be a really effective opposition, which New Zealand needs.
A huge highlight for me has been getting around my region, getting to know people. It is an enormous but amazing region, with a lot of diverse interests and needs.
I've been very proud of the constituency work I've done, assisting people with residency issues and advocating for rural communities and challenges in the health sector.
In Parliament, I've been learning how it all works and doing duty whipping, which I've found really interesting.
I've also had a bill pulled out of the ballot on some reforms for Te Ture Whenua, started with [former Treaty Negotiations Minister] Chris Finlayson, about fixing a lot of errors in governing Māori land, which is holding back development.
Q: Where did you grow up and what was it like?
A: I was born in Hawke's Bay, one of eight kids, then moved to Auckland when I was 14. It was a very basic childhood but gave me insights into both rural and urban life.
Being rural we felt firsthand the impacts of Labour's economic reforms in the 1980s. My stepdad worked on farms and we were doing OK, but ended up in quite serious poverty, often going days without food.
When I was about 11 my younger brother and I ran away and tried to get to Queenstown, our plan to mine for gold. We were stymied by the Cook Strait, but spent about a week homeless on Wellington streets.
I guess I always wanted to get to Queenstown, and it's an amazing twist I'm now MP for the area.
Q: What is your earliest memory?
A: I was probably about 4, my younger brother and I being chased by a big ram across a big paddock. We managed to climb onto a fence and were stuck until mum got our stepdad and farm workers to rescue us.
Q: What is something you are proud of pre-politics?
A: Going to law school as an adult. I left school without the grades to get to university. I lost a brother when I was a teenager in a car crash, and another brother a few years later.
It was pretty traumatic and there were some other things going on, so that really affected me, and I thought my academic life was over.
I went to university aged 27, with three kids, and got an honours degree in law. It was like a lot of people, who go through challenging times, you just don't give up.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your whānau now?
A: My wife and I have three children and we live in Queenstown. I try to keep my family private, but we love getting outdoors. We've lived there close to seven years. I promised myself I'd move there about 20 years ago after cycling through the region, then returned to take a punt and start up a law firm.
Q: What do you do to unwind from politics?
A: I love the outdoors, anything really including kayaking, mountain biking, paragliding, skiing and surfing. We've bought a pack raft and are going to give that a go this summer.
Q: What was your first job?
A: Working on a farm in Hawke's Bay with my younger brother. I was about 11. We managed to save enough when we moved to Auckland my brother and I bought a sailing boat.
Q: How and why did you get into politics?
A: Last year I was really concerned with what was happening, from the Covid measures and impacts around the border to rural reforms, and was not sure the Government understood the implications.
I started giving the local MP [Hamish Walker] a hand, but they ended up having their own challenges and all of a sudden I was running for the seat.
I was most concerned about the impacts on small businesses, on tourism. To be fair the economy has done better than we feared.
I was attracted to National for its values around supporting people to take care of themselves. It stems from my experience growing up, having to work hard, and seeing what happens if you don't support jobs and businesses.
You've talked about growing up around Māori communities, stoking interest in Te Tiriti. You're Treaty Negotiations spokesperson, what have you learned in the past year and what are your aspirations?
A: Growing up we had a lot to do with Māori communities, and I took a keen interest in New Zealand history and the Treaty of Waitangi early on and learned te reo at high school.
I'd like to see treaty settlements resolved, and ultimately Māori communities empowered through them - I think [former treaty negotiations minister] Chris Finlayson did a really good job of that, getting agreements that worked for iwi and hapū.
But the Māori economy is already $67 billion - the whole GDP is $345b- so it's a great success story and one we don't hear too much about.
A: I think there are some things in He Puapua that could end up creating division, like a separate parliamentary system, but ultimately I agree these are things all New Zealanders need to have a discussion about.
There have been some split calls this year between liberal - yourself - and more conservative wings in the party, notably around conversion therapy. How have you found that process?
A: It is hugely valuable having different opinions and even ideologies within a party, and we debate them thoroughly internally. We are a team, and it doesn't work if someone then runs in the opposite direction.
Q: Is there someone you admire in another political party and why?
A: Chlöe Swarbrick. We won't always agree but she has the courage of her convictions and is trying to effect change.
Q: What are the biggest issues for 2022?
A: Clearly Covid will still be very significant, and I think how we reconnect with the world will be the big issue. It's huge for my region also with tourism down and border closure impacts on migration and labour. Here my focus is also improving connectivity.
Housing is really significant nationally and the impact of inflation will be one to watch, how it pushes up the price of food, rent, fuel, which makes it really tough to balance the kitchen table economy - something I've been acutely aware of.
Q: If you could take anyone to dinner – dead or alive – who would it be and why?
A: Ralph Hanan. He was mayor of Invercargill, went to war and was severely injured and came back and became a National MP for Invercargill, later holding various ministerial portfolios. He was a great advocate for the region and stood up for what he believed in.
Q: Favourite place for a holiday in Aotearoa?
A: Anywhere in my electorate - we are spoiled.
Q: Favourite beach?
A: Riverton. On a sunny day it is stunning and you get these cool little waves coming in, which are great for teaching the kids to surf.
And now some quickfire questions ...
Q: Beach or mountain getaway?
Q: Favourite skifield?
A: Coronet Peak, and Treble Cone.
Q: Best road trip song/artist?
A: Lonesome Road, by Stockton's Wing
Q: Red or white wine?
Q: Tea or coffee?
Q: Dogs or cats?
Q: Favourite social media?