Chester Borrows is in his final weeks as MP for Whanganui. He speaks to Zaryd Wilson, reflecting on his 12 years in Parliament.

There a many boxes you could try to put Chester Borrows into.

An ex-cop. A Christian. A politician. A National party member. An artist. A marriage celebrant. A defendant in the dock.

But none really fit.


Often outspoken, firm in his convictions but willing to admit mistakes and change his mind; Borrows' political career has been an enigma.

Born in Whangarei and raised in Nelson, he left home at 17 to join the police despite a desire to go farming.

"But mum and dad, who had both come off farms, basically said 'look, you're not getting any money coming to you and you haven't got any land coming to you, do you really want to do this?"

Even back then he was interested in politics and took on the family's Labour party leanings.

"We were quite a committed church going family and I think my mum and dad felt Labour best expressed the social gospel so that's the way we saw things for a while," he says.

"It takes little cathartic events to make you have another look at those things."

That's what happened to Borrows in Patea. He was a cop in the South Taranaki town when it has the lifeblood sucked out of it under the Rogernomics of the fourth Labour government.

"Basically in those day Labour and National swapped sides so I kind of joined the National Party out of spite," he says.

"[But] I just felt like a complete fish out of water a lot of the time. They just had completely different backgrounds."

That difference and his interest in social policy probably helped Borrows stand out within the party ranks.

"No one was talking about law and order or welfare so when I got up people could see I was speaking from experience."

He first stood for Whanganui in 1999 and chipped away over two elections before ousting Labour's Jill Pettis in 2005.

In his four terms he has been Minister for Courts, Associate Minister for Justice and, in his final term, deputy speaker.

"I really wanted to be a minister inside Cabinet and I never achieved that. But it's not about being things, it's about doing things."

Justice is where Borrows has been most vocal and is the work he's most proud of.

"I didn't win every fight, you know, there are things that I don't like," he says.

"I don't like the three strikes legislation. Don't like the fact the we removed the ability to vote off people in prison. Don't like our refugee policy, those sorts of things.

"But that's just the way it is. You're in a big party so going into Parliament you accept that you're going to be whipped by the party.

"Keith Holyoake said if you can agree with 80 per cent of your party's policy you're in a pretty good space."

Whanganui MP Chester Borrows was cleared of a driving charge laid earlier this year following an incident with protesters in Whanganui.
Whanganui MP Chester Borrows was cleared of a driving charge laid earlier this year following an incident with protesters in Whanganui.

Borrows says his views on justice come from having been a policeman, lawyer and a politician. It's a bottom-up view.

"I suppose I put faces and names to the people the policy is going to impact on," he says.

New Zealand puts too many people in a prison system which should be reserved for only those who are a threat to society, he says.

Not for breaches of court orders or people who should be out on bail.

"We've become paranoid about that sort of stuff, and people have been hurt by people who have been granted bail, but we tend to then look in quite a myopic way about risk," he says.

"Realistically a lot of those people who are in jail wouldn't go on to commit an offence or wouldn't go on to get a custodial sentence so you've got to wonder whether they should actually be there."

Still, he thinks the justice system is better than it was.

"And the public are less bigoted now than they were and realise people offend for all sorts of reasons and that a lot of the reason they're offending is about a social condition.

"I think we need to realise if we have a more just society we're probably going to have less people in jail rather than more people in jail. We need to be tough on crimes that present a real risk but we don't need to be tough for show."

Being an local MP means much of his work is not actually in Wellington but out in the electorate.

"It's real stuff. It's where policy hits the road and it impacts people's lives," he says.

"You can change one little thing in someone's life and change their life completely. That's huge. A lot of these things you here at a school gala or a church on Sunday morning.

"There's a hell of a lot of MPs who waste their time sitting in an office."

Borrows says it's a lot of work - 80 hours most weeks - and sometimes people don't understand why he may have turned down invitations from time to time.

"They think it's all snout in the trough and I don't think they'll be happy unless we're paid $20 and hour and live in barracks in Wellington."

Chester Borrows Valedictory Statement.

An edited version of Chester Borrows Valedictory Statement. Video by Parliament TV on demand.

As a four-term MP he has noticed Whanganui change for the better in the nearly 20 years since he first stood in the seat.

"It wasn't long after Pakaitore and a lot of people had their chins down or their noses out of joint. We'd also had big unemployment building through the 1980s. Whanganui city wasn't very happy with itself," he says.

"I think it is now. There's a lot more pride. There's a lot more niggle out there about feeling good about what we've got going on here which is fantastic."

Borrows admits he got things wrong and has changed his mind on things.
"I get the wrong end of the stick as well," he says.

Voting against the marriage equality bill was one and he has since officiated at a same-sex wedding.

"Sometimes you end up voting for things because you weren't listening hard enough at the time and you didn't make the argument you'd wish you made in hindsight but that's the human condition.

He says Parliament has changed the way he sees a lot of things.

"Once you start knocking around with people from other faiths, other persuasions, people who have got a different world view then it makes you think about what you've previously had in a box.

"I've often thought that as you get older you often see things less in black and white and more in different shades on grey.

"You become less emphatic about some things and more settled in your own mind."

Chester Borrows regularly spoke up on justice issues in his 12 years in Parliament. PHOTO/ MARK MITCHELL
Chester Borrows regularly spoke up on justice issues in his 12 years in Parliament. PHOTO/ MARK MITCHELL

After six elections, four successful, Borrows says it is time to move on with no regrets.

"There's not many of us who get through without thinking there's something I could have done better," he says.

"I think I could've paid more attention to some things and I was overly distracted on some other things.

"But I'm really happy with my tenure and there's not a whole lot that I would change."

He is interested in work in the justice sector or something to do with the Treaty of Waitangi.

But first.

"You've got lots of mates who work really hard for you to get into Parliament but then there's all sorts of events you haven't been to with them and you just want to get back to remembering what's important and that's about you're friends and family."