I was in a group of Green MPs voted into Parliament in the November 1999 election. We didn't win any seats or reach 5 per cent on the night but, when we found out Jeanette Fitzsimons won Coromandel 10 days later, suddenly there we were. But it meant we didn't start at Parliament at the same time as the other new MPs and 2000 was spent getting to grips with it.
They provide training when you get there, but it's hard to get your head around all the rules of how the House operates. And there's also an enormous amount of regulation and custom around how Parliament operates. It was how I imagined boarding school would have been, with all the little cliques and factions.
What was amazing for me was suddenly getting all that pay and having a full-time executive assistant. Even though I had run quite big organisations, I had never had a secretary and my first executive assistant was earning more than I'd ever been paid in my life.
One of the first things that happened was that a media adviser sat us down and said: "While you're in Parliament, what you do out on the town tonight might be in the news tomorrow night." One's social life becomes quite constrained. Some MPs drank a lot and still came to Parliament. I couldn't believe the risks people took operating in that way.
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And I found it difficult having to change the way I dressed because I'd lived in a T-shirt and jeans and had to get into the new dress codes.
I went on another big learning curve when co-leader Rod Donald asked me to go on to the Employment and Accident Insurance Legislation Committee set up by Labour. This was to get two huge pieces of legislation in place. They were moving them through very quickly and there were thousands of submissions.
I had to quickly learn how to be an operator on a select committee, which included people who had been around in Parliament for a long time — like Richard Prebble and Gerry Brownlee and Lockwood Smith.
I had to go to the toilet a lot because I'd a had lot of children and one day early on in the select committee process I went to the loo and when I came back the Nats were on the verge of winning a vote on something. When I came back into the room the Labour people were furious at me. I could have let down the unions, Labour and the Greens — all because of a biological function I had no control over.
There was some cross-party support but from early on I always thought of it as walking with crocodiles. You had to be really cautious, even at things like social functions that felt really friendly.
All of us first-generation of Green MPs were full of hope that we would make a difference if we worked really hard.
We were different from a lot of MPs because we had come from activist backgrounds, so we brought strengths and experience from working in those areas. That gave us strength. Even when things got really tough I remembered back to experiences I'd had and thought parliament can't be as bad as that.