Key Points:

You should have respect for your elders. Hard work never hurt anybody. Modesty is a virtue."

For a young man burning with talent and ambition, Waimakariri MP Clayton Cosgrove sounds like a voice from an older generation.

He describes himself as traditional, morally conservative, old-fashioned even. Respect and teamwork are themes he continually harks back to, as is loyalty.

"You do actually come into politics for what you can do, not who you can be," Cosgrove says.

"I was a backbencher, I was chairman of the Finance and Expenditure Committee, now I'm privileged to be a Cabinet Minister. All of those steps you can do things with, but others decide where you go to next."

At just 37, the sky would seem to be the limit for Cosgrove. Building and Construction and Statistics are training-wheels portfolios, but weighty associate roles in Finance, Immigration and Justice indicate the potential that Labour's hierarchy feels Cosgrove possesses.

Former Prime Minister Mike Moore first saw that promise when the then 14-year-old Cosgrove arrived on his doorstep to talk about joining the Labour Party.

"He was very impressive," Moore says. "He was a very forceful, very mature guy. He was very focused on hard work and discipline in a way that not many teenagers are."

The Nelson-born, Christchurch-raised Cosgrove was then a weekday border at St Bede's College, and was soon granted permission to climb the school fence after hours to attend meetings of Labour's Redwood branch.

"Dad and Mum are pretty middle-of-the-road people," Cosgrove says.

"It would be fair to say the Cosgroves were Labour people ... but they were the sort of parents that if I'd come in and said I wanted to join the Potty Party they'd have said, 'OK' and wouldn't have tried to influence me. It was my idea to join."

Cosgrove soon became Moore's right hand man.

He was his campaign manager in 1990 and 1993, and a senior parliamentary adviser from 1991-1993.

The closeness of their relationship is underscored by the large photograph of them together that hangs prominently in Cosgrove's office.

Observers have described Moore as everything from a mentor to a second father but each describes the other simply as a mate.

"It's died a bit in the last few years but when I first entered Parliament there were those who said I couldn't think and any speech I made or any idea I had wasn't mine, it came from him," Cosgrove says.

"He's a very close mate, and always will be. I learned a hell of a lot from him. I learned about the machinery side of politics, the campaigning side of it."

After Moore lost the 1993 election Cosgrove left politics and spent several years in the private sector. It was Moore who encouraged him to return to the fray and stand for his own Waimakariri seat.

"I said to the selection panel that 'we know what we are going to get with Clayton, and we know he's going to do well representing this electorate'," Moore says.

Cosgrove says he took quite some convincing to leave behind a well-paid job for life as a backbencher.

"I didn't join the Labour Party to become an MP. I suppose what swung it for me, it's got to burn in your guts and you've got to believe in it. There are some people for who this is an occupation, you do a bit of public service after you've retired sort of thing. It's got to actually burn in your guts or you shouldn't be here."

Cosgrove now holds Waimakariri by a 5606 majority. However, in the last election National actually narrowly won the party vote over Labour, a reminder to the local MP that the urban/rural split in his electorate means the seat is not a sinecure.

Not that Cosgrove had assumed it was. He has never moved to Wellington, and spends at least three days a week in Waimakariri. He says his partner Jane is highly supportive, and realises that if you don't visit the schools, businesses and community groups you don't keep your seat.

"I have never considered the seat safe because the moment you go to that place, people can smell that arrogance, taste that arrogance, and they'll do you and so they should."

The morally conservative values Cosgrove was taught by his parents and through the Catholic schooling system play well in his electorate, but occasionally see him at odds with Labour's liberal wing. He voted against prostitution law reform and civil unions, and needed some convincing before finally supporting the child discipline bill.

One observer likens Cosgrove to the caged canaries miners once took underground with them to warn of dangerous gases: when the Waimakariri MP starts to gag, the party knows it has gone too far for middle New Zealand.

It's a description which would probably appeal to Cosgrove, a self-described middle-of-the-road man who sprinkles his conversation with blokey metaphors about the footy team.

However, being a moderate in no way means Cosgrove shrinks from a confrontation.

The motor-mouthed Cosgrove is pugnacious in the debating chamber, and in recent weeks he has tangled with real estate agents over law reforms, and lawyers he claims are coining all they can from the leaky-homes scandal.

The recent revival of interest in the boy racer controversy has also served to remind people that while he was in the backbenches Cosgrove introduced and had passed legislation to tackle the issue. That law allowed the courts to confiscate cars, a power Cosgrove feels is under-used.

"You can't do a lot of damage to yourself or your mates if you ain't behind the wheel of your wagon."

Getting the boy racer legislation passed was a highlight of Cosgrove's second term in Parliament. The worst time was two years down the track, when another rising star, and close friend, John Tamihere had his now notorious lunch with Investigate magazine's Ian Wishart.

Overshadowed by the more outrageous comments by Tamihere was a claim that Cosgrove once rang Helen Clark incessantly in support of Moore.

Cosgrove says that was inaccurate, and Helen Clark had made that clear.

"I've moved on," he says. "That's history, and that was not a particularly pleasant time in my life. I don't dwell on it, very rarely have I commented on it, and what people say and do, they have to shave their own faces in the mirror in the morning ... You learn about people and you learn about situations, and I've grown up a bit more."

Tamihere retains an affection for Cosgrove: "old hairy legs", he laughs.

"He's great company, a great after-dinner speaker, and very witty. He's a very good character out of the spotlight, but when it's showtime he walks out there, that little political robot, and does the business."

The incident seems to have done little to impede Cosgrove's trajectory, and his mentor sees nothing but good things on the horizon.

"Clayton has a splendid future,' Mike Moore says. "In the near future he will get one of the very serious roles. He has front bench written all over him."

Cosgrove won't buy into such talk, saying the "future leader" tag is the kiss of death. For now he is content with the huge scope his finance role offers, and the range of challenges thrown in justice and immigration.

"I'm not a home handyman or a builder but when the Prime Minister rings and says, 'I want you to do this job', you say yes."

For Cosgrove - a man who says the best lesson he ever learned was during a lean time when he was self-employed, "If you don't get up in the morning and work you don't eat" - getting to a position where he can put everything into changing something is the ultimate reward for hard work.

"The neat thing about being a Minister is that you can actually do some stuff, you can do things in Parliament, and the higher you go the more you can do."