Nikki Kaye is described as 'dogged' and has more licence than many to argue with National Party leader Simon Bridges. They are like chalk and cheese politically, but Kaye is crucial for Bridges' chances in winning over Auckland. She speaks frankly about Bridges, turning 40, what cancer has taught her, and what she admires in Jacinda Ardern.
Two days after Nikki Kaye did the Coast to Coast, she turned 40 – an event celebrated with a surprise birthday party her friends organised over the road from Parliament.
Former PM Sir John Key and his wife Bronagh flew down for it, and there were friends dating back to her days at university.
It was a mixed blessing day, Kaye says.
"There's something about having a 4 in front of it, so I didn't like turning 40 at one level. But at the same time when I was diagnosed [with breast cancer], I remember having a conversation with my doctor which was 'I want to make it to 40.'
"So, at one level the thing about cancer is 'a significant birthday, yes! You're getting older!' But then also 'agh, you're getting older'."
Kaye was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, taking time off from her ministerial roles to undergo treatment. She did not talk about it at the time, and she says she still does not want to talk about it much, beyond saying she has learned to relax more and drinks kombucha over booze, other than an occasional pale ale.
The week before she turned 40 she had done the Coast to Coast, that gruelling effort of running, cycling and kayaking from the West Coast to Christchurch.
It was the third time she had done the full Coast to Coast, but the first since she had cancer. She did just the running leg last year.
Her cancer treatment included a double mastectomy and Kaye said that had an impact on her training. But she reckoned surgery did give her the mental strength to get through the Coast to Coast.
"I felt like I was starting from ground zero in terms of upper body strength. The physical element was probably harder. But the mental component was a bit easier. Because when you've been through that, there is nothing. I would have had to be significantly injured to not get over the line."
Epic day to complete the C2C for a 3rd time.This morning I was curled up in the boot of a car & I thought about pulling out.I’ve learned that a big part of life when your battered & bruised is persevering & turning up when things get hard 😉 congrats to all competitors! pic.twitter.com/BSYAzIGQ4u— Hon Nikki Kaye (@nikkikaye) February 8, 2020
Kaye was 28 when she entered Parliament in 2008. She fought her way in, too far down the list to get in without winning an electorate and standing in Auckland Central, a seat National had never held.
She has since moved up the list, but has held on to that seat in the three elections since then. In two of them, she beat Jacinda Ardern.
She has had to fight for her seat in every election. Auckland Central remains one of the most marginal seats in the country, courtesy of the ever-changing population of students and apartment dwellers.
She won it, famously, by knocking on 10,000 doors. This election she is aiming for at least 5000 doors, saying the front bench role and education portfolio meant she has had to get around the country more.
Kaye remains convinced that door-knocking is one of the best tools of campaigning. "We are a small country and you can never underestimate the power of personal conversations."
She says it also helps her with policy, and gauging how people are feeling about issues. "People are a bit more raw, a bit more frank, when you're on the doorstep."
This election she will have to fight for it again. The Green Party is standing the high-profile Chloe Swarbrick, while Labour will choose between 2017 candidate Helen White and another, as yet unnamed person.
Kaye's hold on the seat has partly been because of the split vote on the left.
In the past, the Greens have said they are campaigning for the party vote only, effectively ceding the candidate vote to Labour's candidate. But Swarbrick is hoping her party will agree to let her gun for the candidate vote this time round.
Kaye is well aware of the challenge she would face, saying the party vote on the left is larger than the right.
One Labour supporter reckons Kaye will win it again, saying her position on National's left and her vocal advocacy on Auckland issues mean some voters are comfortable with ticking Labour for their party vote but back Kaye for candidate.
There is some evidence of that - in 2017, 9 per cent of Labour voters and almost 8 per cent of Green voters gave Kaye their candidate vote. In 2014, when Ardern was Labour's candidate, only 2 per cent of Labour voters had supported Kaye.
Kaye is an important figure for the National Party, especially in those inner city Auckland suburbs where her more liberal outlook is more in tune with many voters than Bridges' conservative approach.
That was also the case in 2017 when Kaye regularly appeared alongside Bill English on the campaign trail.
She has come to be seen as the standard-bearer for National's "urban liberal" branch as the leadership swings to the right under the socially conservative Bridges. She is in the "Blue-Greens" – National's environment group, has consistently promoted gay rights and supports abortion reform.
She is warm about Ardern, and happy to praise her publicly, saying she believes Ardern's caring nature and kindness, and her ability to inspire younger people are important for politics. Kaye does not let Ardern off scot-free however, saying though the prime minister may be personally more popular than Bridges, voters will make decisions based on what they think a party can deliver.
Much is made of National being a "broad church" but a recent slew of Christian conservative MPs has left the "leftie" pew somewhat slimmer.
Kaye points to the likes of Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis as others with similar views to her. "One of the reasons I stick around is that I think I'm still contributing, and I think it is important to have balance in the caucus. National is at its best when we have that balance of liberal and conservative in the caucus."
One of Kaye's rivals, Chloe Swarbrick, said Kaye's "leftie" credentials should be questioned.
"If you look at the way some votes have fallen in the past term, the policies of the National Government she upheld, and her party's position on things like medicinal cannabis and legalisation, and public transport, the track record speaks for itself." Swarbrick said whatever Kaye's individual views were, she would always have to toe the party line in the end.
However, she conceded it would be a "substantial challenge" to topple Kaye in Auckland Central, and would require the voters on the left to club together behind one candidate.
Kaye and Simon Bridges entered Parliament in the same year, and so have a different relationship from the relationship Kaye had with former leaders Key and English, who were very much her senior.
She likens her relationship with Bridges to that of political siblings. "When they are in your intake, you're much closer. So even though you might have scraps over some things, they're sort of like your siblings in a way."
Both Kaye and Bridges admit to a fair few "scraps". They argue about policy positions on social issues and Auckland. They argued over Kaye's education discussion document.
Bridges characterises this debating as Kaye challenging his thinking "and that's very valuable".
He describes her as hard-working and "a deep thinker on policy".
"While she is a terrific team player, Nikki broadens our broad church, and I deeply value her for that. It's not always comfortable, but our arguments and debates are constructive and make us stronger."
He says Kaye was behind the recent announcement of a policy to put more funding into HIV research.
Made it Auckland yesterday to be at Big Gay Out. Simon announced we have committed to the goal of ending HIV new transmissions by 2025. To support this we committed $1 million in new funding to NZAF. Thank you to Jason, the team & 2600 volunteers for all the work that you do pic.twitter.com/petuLtzm3E— Hon Nikki Kaye (@nikkikaye) February 9, 2020
The Ports of Auckland is another – Bridges has been against moving the Port, while Kaye supports it. Bridges says Kaye has forced them to consider that more and "I'm more open-minded about that now."
He also points to her importance for National in central Auckland. "Ponsonby. She's constantly getting decaf lattes, or whatever it is she drinks, from a variety of stores and small business owners, and the feedback she gets helps keep me in tune with what people are thinking and want to see from us."
Kaye publicly backed Amy Adams for the leadership over Bridges in 2018, but he put her on his front bench and gave her the portfolio she wanted: education.
"He could easily have put me on the back bench, in my view because I was Amy's 'numbers' person. And he didn't. I think that shows he's made decisions that are good for the party rather than personal retribution."
Bridges has also earned her respect. "Every leader has a superpower, and Simon's is work ethic. So – this is a big call, and I'm sorry Bill [English] and John [Key], but Simon is up earlier.
"You know that, because you get texts from him pretty early. I think he would be pretty much one of the hardest-working leaders or MPs that I have ever met.
"And I'm a hard worker. So even if we have not always agreed on some social issues there has been a mutual respect there."
Wikipedia reports that Kaye has been described as "obsessive" or – more kindly – driven.
Kaye admits she can be persistent, but makes no apologies for it. "I can be very focused and very determined and persistent on an issue if I care about it. So, yes, sometimes I probably am a bit hard to deal with.
"We all have strengths and weaknesses, but I can persist over a long period of time to get things done."
She says time and experience have taught her to listen more to the others' views than she might previously have. "And I don't worry about stuff as much as I used to. That's what cancer has given me, in that life just comes massively into focus. I don't sweat the small stuff as much as I used to."
The voters of Auckland Central may be the ones who decide whether Kaye leaves Parliament altogether or not.
After 12 years as an MP, she is not yet ready to go – but she says she would not want to be a List MP.
"The power I have in caucus is because I have won a pretty tough seat. It's who I am, I am ultimately a liberal, blue-green, fiscal conservative. So I would find it very difficult if I lost the seat to stay in Parliament."
She does have plans post-politics.
One of them is to do the one-day Coast to Coast. She will not do that while she is an MP because the travel makes it impractical to train, especially for kayaking and cycling.
In a recent Twitter exchange, comedian Urzila Carlson – a friend of the PM's – congratulated Kaye after the Coast to Coast, saying she looked "fresh as a daisy! Well done".
Carlson and Kaye had gone to head-to-head a couple of times in a Pride Week debate in which Ardern and Kaye head teams.
Kaye replied: "thanks, not feeling so flash today. Will hobble around Big Gay Out smelling like Deep Heat."
She was indeed at the Big Gay Out, standing next to Bridges while he announced the policy she had pushed for, wearing massive platform heels and not hobbling at all.