Phil Twyford's reputation has grown as steadily as homeowners' and state house tenants' woes, writes Claire Trevett.

Labour's housing spokesman Phil Twyford must surely be thanking his lucky stars for the meteoric house price rises in Auckland.

It is a major headache for the Government. But it is a gift for the Opposition housing spokesman.

For week after week he has been pounding Housing Minister Nick Smith on the multiple issues in the housing portfolio. It has made Twyford Labour's current Most Valuable Player.

He has had Auckland's house prices, problems with damp, cold state houses, foreign buyers, the woes of first home buyers all at his disposal.

Advertisement

He is also a tinny bugger. Some members wait years to have a member's bill drawn from the ballot. Twyford has had three bills drawn.

The latest was to introduce minimum standards on rental housing.

It was defeated by 60 votes to 60 in March this year - and now National is mumbling about introducing minimum standards.

Twyford's portfolios are in areas the Government is vulnerable.

While he has been fairly quiet on transport, he has used his opportunities in housing well, even if he had to quietly swallow a few dead rats along the way.

Twyford's initial reaction to Housing Minister Nick Smith's announcement the Government would turn spare state-owned land in Auckland into housing was to accuse National of simply brushing off Labour's old 2008 stocktake. He queried why it took seven long years for National to get there : "It's a no-brainer to develop vacant government land."

Then he remembered he was in Opposition. Suddenly, it became the worst idea ever. He turned up in Parliament to embarrass Smith with enlarged pictures of some of the land in question: an exploding substation and a cemetery. Those suffering from deja vu will recall this was straight from the playbook of National's 2008 Opposition housing spokesman, Phil Heatley, who discovered Labour's 2008 housing solution included the Auckland Zoo and a museum.

Speaking to the Herald this week, Twyford looked only slightly shame-faced when this was noted. He shrugged and grinned and said it was his job to point out such follies. "Nick Smith has made such a hash of it and should have done it seven years ago."

Advertisement

That job is the job of an Opposition MP and Opposition is all Phil Twyford has known. He even enjoys it. Despite the turmoil Labour has gone through in that time, he describes the last seven years as "intensely rewarding".

In his first term he cut his political teeth on former Act leader Rodney Hide who was setting up the Auckland super city as Local Government Minister. "He was a really challenging opponent to be up against."

As Labour confronts its diabolical election result last year, Twyford has been appointed alongside Labour general secretary Tim Barnett to do the preparatory work for the 2017 election campaign. He says the back office work is as critical to success as the front of shop presence.

He does not believe constant internal restructuring and tweakings of Labour's constitution will achieve much. "I don't believe you change an organisation by trying to restructure it. I believe it's more about the people and the culture of the organisation."

His involvement with Labour began in 2003 when he returned from working for Oxfam in Washington.

He got on Labour's policy council and worked in Helen Clark's electorate office, making no secret of his desire to inherit Mt Albert from her.

Despite the turmoil Labour has gone through, Phil Twyford describes the last seven years as
Despite the turmoil Labour has gone through, Phil Twyford describes the last seven years as "intensely rewarding". Photo / Rotorua Daily Post

When Clark did go, David Shearer was selected as the candidate - partly because Twyford was already in Parliament and standing him as the candidate would have opened the way for Judith Tizard to return on the list.

Twyford's efforts to get a winnable electorate seat became a running joke. He lost out on Waitakere to Carmel Sepuloni and was rebuffed from Auckland Central. The Te Atatu seat finally came in 2008 after Chris Carter left Parliament.

Twyford is not going to win the caucus prize for Mr Congeniality. He gives only one name when asked who he considers a friend in caucus: it is David Parker, with whom Twyford flatted in Wellington in 2008 and 2009.

Twyford's ambition has not always endeared him to his colleagues. During Labour's frequent leadership changes since 2008, some within the party observed Twyford had a tendency to sniff the wind and ingratiate himself accordingly.

Twyford was among those understood to be trying to persuade David Shearer to step down although Maryan Street took most of the fall publicly for that. In the ensuing leadership contest Twyford helped run Grant Robertson's campaign.

On the day the results were announced, Twyford arrived at Robertson's side to a function in Wellington but quietly left soon afterward. To the surprise of those at the Robertson do, an hour later Twyford suddenly popped up at Cunliffe's shoulder in Auckland.

However, Twyford is widely regarded for his hard work and ability to run campaign strategies on policy issues - an ability forged in years campaigning for Oxfam and his previous life as a journalist and which Labour is increasingly relying on.

In last November's leadership contest, Twyford backed his old friend David Parker but says Little has bestowed greater unity and discipline on the caucus which was the first part of the job of persuading New Zealanders Labour was ready to govern again.

Twyford also has the trust of Little. Asked if Twyford would be on his front bench if Labour won the government benches in 2017, Little's answer was an unequivocal "yes".

Phil Twyford

• 52 years old, married to Joanna, one adult son, Harry, 25.

• 5th ranked in Labour's caucus. Spokesman on housing and transport.

• Entered Parliament in 2008 as a List MP.

• Elected Te Atatu MP in 2011 and 2014.

• Described by former Prime Minister Helen Clark in 2008 as "a person of the future".

• Founding director of Oxfam New Zealand (1991-99).

• Journalist and union worker pre-1991.