She has barely made a splash in her first term of Parliament but Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds has a big past and, as Audrey Young writes, is likely to have a big future in any National-led Government.
National MP Penny Simmonds will be heading back to the deep south next week for her second election campaign and the glorious prospect of nine million tulips.
She and her husband, Marty Irwin, live on a farm near Invercargill, 20ha of which is leased to tulip growers and in a few weeks, they will be blooming.
“They are absolutely stunning,” she told the Herald.
“There is nothing quite like nine million tulips growing right outside your kitchen and lounge.”
Simmonds has not had a big impact nationally but she was a big identity in Southland well before being elected to the Invercargill seat in 2020.
She is tipped to become the minister in charge of undoing the amalgamation of polytechnics into a single entity, Te Pukenga, if National leads the next government after the October election.
And if she is made a minister, it will be the first time in a very long time that an MP from Invercargill has made the Cabinet, for National or Labour.
The last person was Ralph Hanan who was first made a minister in 1954, with the Health portfolio in Sidney Holland’s Cabinet. In 1969, Hanan died in office while serving as Justice Minister and there hasn’t been a minister from the electorate since.
Simmonds was well-known in Southland when the National Party candidacy became vacant at relatively short notice.
The sitting MP at the time, Sarah Dowie, had been re-selected to contest the 2020 election, despite having been embroiled in the Jami-Lee Ross scandal that rocked National in 2018. But she had a change of heart over the summer and Simmonds stepped in.
At that point, Simmonds had been in charge of the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) for 23 years which offered zero fees for locals and long-distance students.
Opposing Labour’s polytech merger proposed in 2018 was her main mission when she signed up for politics.
“I knew it would stifle innovation and SIT had done really well out of innovation and it would mean centralised decision-making which takes the power and responsibility away from local communities.”
The zero-fees policy was a collaboration with southern community organisations, businesses and council and was strongly promoted by Simmonds’ good friend and former long-serving mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt.
Shadbolt has often retold the story that she came up with the idea of zero fees in the shower.
Simmonds explains: “I came up with zero fees on a MacQuarrie University leadership course but had to develop the project when back at work and with two young twins at the time, in the shower was about the only free-thinking time I had – I mentioned that to Sir Tim and he included it in his comedy routine and it stuck.”
Simmonds won Invercargill - against Labour list MP Liz Craig and the red wave - with the majority reduced to 224 from Dowie’s 5579 in 2017. But the accolades for the new MP flowed in the local newspaper: “Among the ranks of Southland’s movers and shakers, precious few have moved or shaken the place half as much as Invercargill’s newly confirmed electorate MP Penny Simmonds,” one journalist wrote.
“Invercargill is in many ways a city that has been transformed by Penny Simmonds’ career to date … her election campaign pledge has been that she knows how to make things happen and can get things done. And that, to date, has been unquestionably true.”
Simmonds said one of the things that has surprised her most about politics was what she sees as a lack of collaboration between parties.
“I suppose I spent many, many years trying to get collaborative solutions and I found that a bit of a shock when I came in and found how far apart parties are. I found that quite difficult at the start.”
Besides having been the chief executive of the Southern Institute of Technology, which gave her links to the city council and businesses, she was deeply connected to the community, especially the farming, sporting and disabilities communities.
Simmonds grew up on a sheep farm in Riversdale but it was not a long-held family farm.
Her father had been a shearer and got the land in a returned serviceman’s settlement block after the Second World War.
Her mother was a music teacher and was from a distinguished Southland hockey family, the Sansons. Her mother, Bessie, had been a non-travelling reserve for the New Zealand team, and three of her mother’s sisters had played for New Zealand, two of them as captain, Margaret and Linda Sanson.
Simmonds herself was a New Zealand rep in indoor hockey and made the under-23 New Zealand squad – as centre-half or left-half - and has had a long involvement with the sport. At five foot two and a half inches, she says she is the second tallest in her family.
She went to Gore High School, and then gained a science degree at Otago University. It was funded by summer jobs as a shearing rouse-about or her seven years in the Territorials infantry where she rose to second lieutenant in 4-OSouth.
Her family is also involved in the disabilities community through experience. Her oldest sister, Jill, was intellectually handicapped after damage at birth, and her youngest daughter, Briony is Down syndrome.
Simmonds said the family moved to the farm she now lives on because it is close to Invercargill and allows Briony to go into the city daily for her activities.
The farm runs a few lambs in spring but it is a cut-and-carry enterprise, meaning it grows grass for silage and hay bales to supply other farms.
As part of the rural sector, she is worried about the health of farmers as the cost-of-living crisis ensues.
“Farmers have had a raft of things thrown at them and you see the burden and the stress it puts on them,” she said.
“The inflation on farmers is far higher than general inflation is with the cost of transport and fertiliser but then when you get pay-outs dropping, they are under incredible pressure from all different angles.
“It is quite a solitary job and I really worry about the pressure it is putting on farmers.”
Despite National leader Christopher Luxon having publicly suggested that Simmonds would become a minister, she is not counting on it.
But she said National’s policy was to disestablish Te Pukenga and revert to about 10 locally autonomous polytechs instead of the previous 16.
She could not say which, yet, but she believed it would not cost anything.
Te Pukenga gave SIT the go-ahead last week to continue with zero fees for another year but only to Southland-based students, not for its distance learning.
She said she could not guarantee that fees would remain zero under National but that the decision would be back in the hands of the SIT itself.
Simmonds was aged 37 when she took over Southland’s polytech and it had a small roll of 1400 full-time equivalents.
“I think I kept reinventing the job,” she said when asked why she had stayed so long at SIT.
It grew to a roll of 5000 and became an institute of technology offering degrees as well as trades training.
She turns 64 next month and after the election on October 14, there may well be another reinvention ahead.