Pie-loving Kieran McAnulty is tasked with keeping Labour's bigger, more diverse caucus in line. Let's hope he manages this better than his messy red ute. By Michele Hewitson.
At the Carterton Rotary Christmas parade, Kieran McAnulty, the Labour MP who turned the Wairarapa from blue to red in the October election, was dressed from the waist up as an elf. Down below he was wearing shorts and jandals. He was also wearing his sunnies. He looked utterly ridiculous. He said he thought that was rather the point and did I mean he looked generally ridiculous or just ridiculous today?
He looks a bit elfish generally, really. He's a little, angular bloke; whippet thin, which is handily appropriate now he's his party's chief whip (he was a junior whip in the last Government).
Despite some murmurings about the possibility of a ministerial post, he got the job he wanted, he says. "I have spent 12 years trying to win this seat, and I can't think of any other job where you would spend that long trying to get it and, as soon as you get it, start looking for another job.
"I want to keep this seat for as long as I want to do this job and I want to do a shitload for the region. But I won't be able to do that if I'm off doing ministerial shit straight away."
He's like the kid who wished for a model aeroplane for Christmas and instead got a real one and still can't quite believe it. "I'm bloody stoked, to be honest with you, eh?"
In the week he took Wairarapa, he posted on Instagram a picture of a Wairarapa Times-Age billboard: Rogue sheep return after six years. "And I thought this week couldn't get any better," he wrote.
"How f---ing funny was that? Gold. Absolute gold. I just love it and that's the sort of thing I love to post about. You can talk about what's happening in the region and how much you're passionate about it and all of it is true. But something like that just sums it up perfectly."
He says "strewth" and "good as gold" and "to be fair" and "crack on, mate". As a preface to going to the loo, he says, "I'm just going for a slash." He could win a cussing competition with a pirate's parrot. He has a rollie behind his ear when I arrive. "I'm not scared of a cigarette," he says.
He's not scared of a drink. He got drunk on election night. How drunk? "Oh, not silly drunk. I wasn't crook, and I remembered everything the next day. But I had a bloody good night."
He's not scared of a pie. But it has to be a good pie. He can't be doing with those "flimsy" gas station pies. How many pies does he eat a week? "No more than two. You can't live on pies alone."
He has a dartboard on his deck and a banged-up pool table in his basement.
He loves cooking and might, on a winter's night, slow-cook beef cheeks with star anise. That's a bit wanky, I say. He may be a foodie. "Oh, I wouldn't go that far."
He has a BA and a masters in business, politics and communications. He may be brainy. "Oh, I don't know. No one likes to show off." He used to be a bookie. It runs in the family; his mum used to work the totes in Masterton.
When he was 17, he turned down an invitation to a school ball, where there would be girls, because it was election night and he wanted to watch the coverage. He may be a nerd. "I was captain of the rugby team, but I was also captain of the chess team, so you can make up your own mind."
He has good country manners. Would I like a hot drink? Coffee? What sort of coffee, I say. "Don't panic," he says, getting out the plunger. I've lived here for three years, but I'm still from Auckland and I mention that we have an espresso machine. "That's a bit wanky, isn't it?" he says.
He has lived in the Wairarapa for all his 36 years and is buying the modest but tidy home he grew up in from age nine off his parents.
You could not accuse him of living the high life. His coffee table appears to have contracted leprosy. I say: "What the hell happened to that?" He glances at it. "Oh, it's just sort of coming away. It still works."
He's storing donated bits and bobs for the town's planned arrival of Syrian refugees (delayed by Covid and political discussions about the shortage of social housing).
Somebody has donated a coffee table that's a sight better than his. "What's that famous line from The Sound of Music? Yeah, well, 'the poor didn't want this one'."
He says about the Wairarapa: "I f---n love this place."
It seems the Wairarapa loves him right back. The region has been true blue since 2005. It is almost overwhelmingly conservative, Christian and white, although it did elect Georgina Beyer, the world's first transgender MP, in 1999. So, it is capable of throwing a curveball.
His was quite the curveball: he won by more than 6500 votes over his nearest rival, National's novice candidate, Mike Butterick. Labour's share of the party vote improved by nearly 50 per cent.
But the result he is most excited by is the four votes he won by in Eketāhuna. "This was genuinely my great-grandfather's dream. It's folklore in the family. He was the campaign manager for Labour against [former National Prime Minister] Keith Holyoake, dreaming of one day winning Eketāhuna, and we bloody did it."
McAnulty is adopted, but this is not something he has the remotest interest in talking about. He has never contemplated seeking out his birth parents. "No. I have parents and I'm happy with that."
His family are simply his family and they have deep roots in the fertile farmlands of the region; they have been here for over 170 years. His great-grandmother's great-grandfather was the first settler in what would become Featherston. He reckons his great-grandfather was the only Labour-voting cockie in Eketāhuna.
His dad, Mike, is a dairy shed inspector; his mum, Marie, was a community worker who used to manage Wairarapa Supergrans. If there was a person more excited than the candidate on election night, it was his beaming mother.
He's still trying to work out how blue turned to red. So are we all. Because who are all these people who voted for him? Almost everyone I've met is a dyed-in-the-wool National voter. "Well, you've got to get out more," he says. "You live in the country, don't you? And, I would hazard a guess, they might be staunch National voters, but I don't think they'd be terribly upset by the fact I won the seat."
McAnulty is quite famous in Masterton but not as famous as his red ute. Broadcaster Hilary Barry naughtily suggested people may have voted for the ute rather than for him.
The ute has no back window and, now, after it recently shattered, no sun roof. It has almost 500,000km on the clock. Usually it is littered with pie crumbs and pie wrappers. He cleaned it up when he took Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for a ride as a publicity stunt. It was his idea. He thought it would be funny, a play on Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and "that fat guy from Gavin and Stacey [who] did the karaoke in the car".
I assume he also cleaned up the fag ends he chucks on the floor. This is a safety measure, according to him. Well, he says, you can't chuck them out the window in the country, can you? That is inarguably true. Still, you can't imagine any other politician using their car as an ashtray, let alone doing just that in front of a journalist. Actually, you can't imagine any other politician admitting to smoking these days.
Why has he even got a ute? He's not a farmer; he lives in town. Is it an affectation? That earned me a mock glare. "I don't even know what that means. Don't try and be clever with me. This isn't going to go very well."
It is going very well. He is the first person I've interviewed – and certainly the first and no doubt last politician – to tell me to "f--k off". We are talking about the coronavirus and Wairarapa being, in April, the first region to be declared free of community-transmitted Covid, and he says he's "bloody proud" of this fact. I say, facetiously: "Did you do that?" Of course, he didn't, but he did buy the nurses at the testing station a coffee machine because they didn't have one. "I'm not saying, 'Look at me – how good am I?'" Yes, he is. "F--k off." He's a funny bugger.
He has a swimming pool. Can I come around for swims? "No. This is your dash done, I think." You begin to see why he was made chief whip.
In January, he woke one morning feeling a bit froggy. He got the Covid test, in the ute, of course. Both he and ute tested negative. "Oh, yeah, mate. All clear. No Covid for me." He wasn't freaked out. "Nah, it's the thing we should all do. Ring Healthline and if they say to get tested, get tested. So that's all I did. And I think it's probably a wake-up call for all of us. A year ago, we probably wouldn't think twice about going back into work. But we shouldn't because you're just going to make every other bastard crook."
Although his red ute has spread his fame around the country, in the Wairarapa he is infamous for something that is entirely untrue: the reasons that his ex-wife packed up and returned to her native Ireland. He knows what Masterton is like for gossip.
It is true that they are now divorced; the rest is bollocks. He doesn't want to go into the details of what led to their break-up. "In this job, you don't get much opportunity to keep your privacy, but she and I are on very good terms. When my grandmother died a couple of weeks before the election, she rang up and we had a good chat."
He's a rugby nut who played halfback and halfbacks, according to him, are cocky little buggers: "Someone who's a bit of a smart-arse, likes a laugh, doesn't take himself too seriously. I think that's about right. I wouldn't say arrogant."
He may be pleased to see the back of last-term coalition partner New Zealand First. "I'm not upset about it. Some of their ideas are quite sound, but it's like the bloke on the committee who comes up with a good idea but has spent the past 18 months destabilising the committee. No one's going to listen to them."
Winston Peters' favourite campaign insult was that Labour, and the Greens, stood for "woke pixie dust". I ask an entirely redundant question: was McAnulty woke? "What the f--k is woke? This was, I think, one of the mistakes that New Zealand First made. They kept using the term 'woke' in the campaign. Well, if I don't know what the hell woke is, is the 83-year-old woman listening to Winston in the public meeting going to know what woke means?" I think we can safely assume, then, that he is not, and will never be, woke.
NZ First's Ron Mark, defence minister in the last Government and a former mayor of Carterton, rang a few days after the election. "I'm not sure he congratulated me, but we did have a conversation. It's never uncivil. I'm not into that sort of thing."
In 2019, McAnulty was kicked out of the debating chamber for slagging off then National leader Simon Bridges. "It was quite funny, really. He was dancing in his seat, and I just said, as you do in the House, back and forth, 'You're dancing like a fool.' And the rules of Parliament say, if you use the word 'you', you're referencing the Speaker." He relates this in a tone that may be interpreted as cocky.
He was raised and remains a Catholic, although these days he attends Mass only at Christmas and Easter. "The marriage equality debates started and I just felt that the church at the time didn't reflect my values. So I do things personally now, just take time out to reflect and all that sort of stuff."
The 35-year-old believes in marriage. He can't wait to have kids. His god is "more in line with what Pope Francis has been saying than the blokes before him". You are unlikely to meet another Catholic who refers to their supreme pontiffs as blokes.
He is slightly cautious about talking about his faith. I wonder if that is because it is not very Labour to do so. "Oh, no, I disagree with that. You go to South Auckland and tell Labour people that religion and Labour don't go hand in hand. [Michael Joseph] Savage talked about Labour as Christianity in action."
He voted "yes" in both the cannabis and euthanasia referendums. Doesn't God decide when people die? "Not everyone believes in God. And as long as we have a structure in place that allows people to pursue their own personal beliefs, then how dare they impose their views on others?"
He is imposing his views on me. I attempt to whip him into helping save the Masterton A&P show, which is in its death throes. He says he won't, because he has long held that it should amalgamate with the Wairarapa show. "I'm not going to do what you want me to do." If I want to save the show, I should join the committee, says the chief whip.
He drops me at home in the famous ute. He chucks his fag end on the floor. He says, again, "I f---n love this place."
I had thought before meeting him that the country-bloke thing must be at least partly artifice; a public persona exaggerated to appeal to us country folk. But, nah. It turns out he's as straight-up as your good old Kiwi mince-and-cheese pie.