It is not hard to get a rise out of Labour's new social development spokeswoman Carmel Sepuloni: just say she is Labour's equivalent of Paula Bennett.

When it is suggested that her own solo mum story is similar to that of her fellow Westie, Ms Bennett, she is not amused. "Don't you dare compare me to Paula Bennett! We do have similar back stories but we have different approaches to life."

Sepuloni, 37, has just returned to Parliament after a three-year break. In her first term she crossed swords often with then Social Development Paula Bennett over the welfare changes affecting sole parents. It was Ms Bennett who helped see her out of Parliament as well - beating Sepuloni by just nine votes in the Waitakere electorate in 2011.

The boundary changes last year ended the Cold War of the West - they delivered Sepuloni the safe Labour Kelston electorate and Ms Bennett the safe National Upper Harbour seat.

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Sepuloni returned to find herself rocketed onto the front bench and given the major Social Development portfolio under new leader Andrew Little as well as the junior whip role.

Little says Sepuloni has returned as a more mature force with the work experience for the portfolio by working as CEO for the Pasifika mental health and disability organisation, Vaka Tautua. He describes her personality as a mix of "forceful and compassionate."

"This is about stretching some people and given her background and her maturity, I think she is ready for a big stretch. So that's why I put her on the front bench and gave her a big portfolio."

Sepuloni also thinks the time away was good for her in the long run. The solo mother to two children, 16-year old Bailey and 21 month old Isaiah, Sepuloni also has the life experience.

Sepuloni grew up in Waitara. Her freezing worker father, Kamisi Sepuloni, was Tongan-Samoan. Her mother worked in the Swanndri factory and was the Pakeha daughter of local farmers who were staunch National supporters. It was the 60's in rural New Zealand and the mixed race relationship raised eyebrows. When Sepuloni was in her teens her parents split up, the freezing works closed down and her father moved to Australia to get a job. Sepuloni was a prefect but started skipping school. "Dad had left and Pacific parents are known for their strict rules and discipline. After you've had so much discipline and that parent leaves, you're kind of a bit lost. I just wasn't feeling like carrying on at school. I was a pretty chronic truant and smoking constantly at the back of the cafeteria."

In her seventh form at New Plymouth Girls' High principal Jain Gaudin asked Sepuloni to come and live with her and her husband to try to get her into university. Sepuloni did and squeaked through bursary.

The pair are still in touch. Gaudin said there were some who believed only "the goody two shoes" could be leaders. "You get kids whose parents think they should be leaders because they've never put a foot wrong. Those are really good people, but that isn't what a leader is necessarily. She's never looked back." She says Sepuloni had always showed a concern for others and was respected. "As spokesperson for social development I think she's really in the right place.

As for herself, she does not think taking in a student going through a hard time is such an extraordinary thing to do. She had done it with another girl on another occasion as well. "You say that a school is a family. And that's really what a family does, doesn't it?"

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Sepuloni went to university the next year to start a Bachelor of Education. She got pregnant in her second year with son Bailey and went on the DPB for a couple of years. However, after completing her education and getting a primary school teaching diploma she never relied on the benefit again. "That was it."

Sepuloni's father now lives with the family and looks after her sons while she is at Parliament. She disagrees with National's policy of requiring solo mothers to look for work. She returned to work when Isaiah was just five weeks old, but said not all single parents had the same benefits of a family support base and flexible working arrangements.. "I was committed to the organisation, and I can't imagine personally for me, not working. It's not just financial. I have things I want to achieve. I love being a Mum but I personally wouldn't want to do it full time." She believed there should be support for sole parents to return to work, but not a strict compulsion. "It is a case by case basis. I don't think it should be so stringent because it's not necessarily to the benefit of their children."

Sepuloni will not say it publicly but she is believed to be one of the four MPs who supported Little in the leadership run off. Sepuloni does say she is pleased with the outcome. "I don't think anyone's complaining about the outcome now. We've had a good week."

Sepuloni said even she was surprised to be launched straight onto the front bench with one of the biggest portfolios.

She won't have to face her old nemesis Paula Bennett. Anne Tolley is now Social Development Minister.

Sepuloni grins when she's asked if she would have preferred to continue her battle with Bennett. "I'm quite content being up against Anne Tolley."

Carmel Sepuloni

• MP for Kelston, Labour's new social development spokeswoman and junior whip.
• 37 years old
• single mother to Bailey, 16, and Isaiah, 21 months.
• Was a Labour List MP from 2008 to 2011 but did not get back in 2011.
• was CEO of Pasifika health organisation Vaka Tautua from 2011 - 2014.
• raised in Waitara, went to New Plymouth Girls' High
• has degree in Education and primary teaching diploma.