Judy Bai­ley talks to Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Paula Ben­nett

She’s ex­u­ber­ant, con­fi­dent and hard-work­ing – and feel­ing pretty good about life. Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Paula Ben­nett tells Judy Bai­ley about what has fi­nally given her such a sense of con­tent­ment.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

She’s hap­pier than she’s been in a long time. Paula Ben­nett, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter, Cli­mate Change Min­is­ter, Min­is­ter of Po­lice, Tourism, Women’s Af­fairs and State Ser­vices, sits at my kitchen ta­ble pos­i­tively brim­ming with en­thu­si­asm.

Those are not small port­fo­lios. The sheer weight of them would cause many a politi­cian to feel just a lit­tle daunted. Not Paula.

“I’ve felt bet­ter than ever in the last six months – more healthy, I’m sleep­ing bet­ter,” she con­fides.

Why is that? Per­haps some­thing to do with the fact that she’s rea­son­ably re­cently set­tled into mar­riage with the love of her life?

“No,” she says, “it’s since I got the new job

[the deputy role]. I don’t have to prove my­self any more.”

The teen mum and former wel­fare ben­e­fi­ciary has risen to be­come one of the most pow­er­ful women in the coun­try and those close to her tell her she has noth­ing left to prove.

“They’ve all said the same thing. The PM, my men­tor [she has reg­u­lar men­tor­ing ses­sions from an un­named high-fly­ing busi­ness­woman] and my hus­band. I don’t have to fight so hard any more.

“Af­ter nine years in par­lia­ment I have learnt not to sweat the small stuff. I sur­round my­self with smart, ca­pa­ble peo­ple. I do the big-pic­ture strate­gis­ing. Peo­ple-work is the work I love.”

She rel­ishes lead­ing a team. “I have to be so care­ful how I use that word ‘lead­er­ship’,” she says, giv­ing a ful­some chuckle and rolling her eyes wickedly.

Of course, I have to ask her about a tilt at the top job. Would she be keen to lead the coun­try?

“My job as deputy is to let the PM be the best he can be.” It’s a per­fectly guarded po­lit­i­cal re­ply. “We’ve had a close work­ing re­la­tion­ship for many years. We don’t ar­gue as much now,” she laughs. “We used to have big de­bates, mas­sive ar­gu­ments re the di­rec­tion we were head­ing in. For ex­am­ple, work ex­pe­ri­ence ver­sus ed­u­ca­tion. Of course we were both right.”

They’re a tight unit, Paula and Bill. “I know what he’s think­ing,” she says sim­ply.

When she took on the role as his deputy, the Prime Min­is­ter told her, “Let’s en­joy this; this is an op­por­tu­nity for both of us.”

“Bill is big on fam­ily. We try to care for each other that way. He does oc­ca­sion­ally tell me to shut up,” she dead­pans, and we both laugh… Paula Ben­nett is not short of words!

Paula, 48, was the third of three chil­dren born in Auck­land to Bob and Lee Ben­nett. She had two older broth­ers, Stephen and Marc. She was just five when the fam­ily made the move to the lake­side vil­lage of Kin­loch near Taupo.

Bob and Lee ran the lo­cal store. Paula reck­ons two words sum up her child­hood: free­dom and sun­shine. With both par­ents work­ing, she was free to roam the vil­lage, al­ways pro­tected by the fam­ily Labrador, vis­it­ing el­derly neigh­bours. “The vil­lage raised me,” she re­mem­bers fondly.

Hers was a gre­gar­i­ous fam­ily. There were lots of par­ties, lots of roast din­ners. Her par­ents were best mates with the lo­cal com­mu­nity con­sta­ble, who was among those in the vil­lage who looked out for young Paula, while her older broth­ers spent their time hunt­ing and fish­ing.

Paula spent a lot of time with her fa­ther’s par­ents, par­tic­u­larly her grand­mother, who was part Tainui. A for­mi­da­ble ma­tri­arch, she taught her grand­daugh­ter to have the strength of her con­vic­tions. To this day, self-doubt is not some­thing Paula strug­gles with.

She is keen to con­nect with her Tainui her­itage, but, like many Maori at that time, her grand­mother wanted Paula to em­brace the Pakeha world. She wor­ried there were too many neg­a­tive stereo­types at­tached to be­ing Maori in 1970s New Zealand.

Her grand­par­ents were well-read, in­ter­ested and opin­ion­ated. They loved ar­gu­ment and

dis­course and en­cour­aged Paula to have opin­ions of her own, but al­ways to be able to back those opin­ions. Her dad, Bob, was equally opin­ion­ated. When Paula was grow­ing up, he was firmly of the no­tion that girls did women’s work around the house and boys did men’s work. Need­less to say, it didn’t sit well with his free-spir­ited daugh­ter. She re­mem­bers at the age of seven feel­ing in­dig­nant about be­ing treated dif­fer­ently. She thought it was un­fair, and railed against it.

The Ben­netts’ neigh­bours at Kin­loch were Na­tional Party roy­alty. Sir Keith Holyoake had a fam­ily farm there and Paula grew up with the former Prime Min­is­ter’s grand­son,Tim. They were great mates and it was Tim who would take Paula to her first Young Nats meet­ing in Ro­torua.

Paula reck­ons she was a good stu­dent un­til she turned 14, when she be­came “lippy”. She ar­gued, an­swered back, be­came a tru­ant. Her par­ents were al­ways be­ing called to school. “Dad even signed a form giv­ing them per­mis­sion to beat me... I was ap­palled,” she re­mem­bers. “I was a dys­func­tional teen in a func­tional house­hold... I think I wore them [her par­ents] out.”

At 16 she left home and school and went flat­ting with a girl­friend. By 17 she was preg­nant. “The fa­ther did a run­ner,” she says mat­ter-of-factly.

She hid the preg­nancy. It was seven-and-a-half months be­fore any­one knew. Her daugh­ter, Ana, was born and Paula re­turned home to be with her par­ents. “It was tough for them. Em­bar­rass­ing, there was lots of judge­ment. I didn’t have the best rep­u­ta­tion. Mum said, ‘I will sup­port you, but I don’t want to raise a baby.’

“I’d been raised with a strong work ethic. It was seen as some­how shame­ful to go on the ben­e­fit if you were ca­pa­ble of look­ing af­ter your­self.” So she put Ana into child­care and went to work.

She was wait­ress­ing in a truck stop when in walked ruggedly hand­some truckie Alan Philps. “He was sport­ing a par­tic­u­larly fine mul­let in those days,” she says, grin­ning at the mem­ory. The two would be to­gether for three years, but then life in­ter­vened. Paula’s brother, Marc, al­ways one of her staunch­est sup­port­ers, died in a div­ing ac­ci­dent, and two months later she lost her best friend, Chris­tine. They had grown up to­gether.

“We’d spo­ken ev­ery day since we were 11. We lived at each other’s houses. We were al­ways go­ing to grow old to­gether,” she tells me sadly. Chris­tine was on a mo­tor­bike. She was hit by a truck.

“I went into sur­vival mode. I felt con­sumed by grief, my own and ev­ery­one else’s.” Alan wanted to marry her but Paula wasn’t ready. They went their sep­a­rate ways and, de­cid­ing it was time for a change, she and Ana moved to Auck­land.

“It was one of the loneli­est times of my life.” She was work­ing in a rest home and even­tu­ally the owner of the rest home said, “We’d pro­mote you, but you don’t have any qual­i­fi­ca­tions – what are you go­ing to do about it?”

Paula was ter­ri­fied of go­ing to uni­ver­sity but she en­rolled at Massey for a de­gree in so­cial work, which quickly changed to a de­gree in so­cial pol­icy as she be­came in­ter­ested in the mech­a­nisms for change. She was ac­tive in stu­dent pol­i­tics and soon har­nessed her in­nate sense of jus­tice to fight for a crèche on cam­pus. “It was

I thought, ‘Wow, peo­ple lis­ten to me. I can make change.

so un­fair – the boys were get­ting a bar built but there was noth­ing for a crèche.”

She got her crèche… And it gave her a feel­ing of power; it felt good. “I thought, ‘Wow, peo­ple lis­ten to me. I can make change.’”

Her first po­lit­i­cal job was as an elec­torate agent for Mur­ray McCully. “We just gelled in all re­spects; we shared the same sense of hu­mour. He taught me how to think. He chal­lenged me to back my state­ments with ev­i­dence and present an ar­gu­ment well, to care about the de­tails. He would re­ally fight for his elec­torate. He taught me about re­spect for the peo­ple who vote for you. He would never tell me what to think. We had lots of dif­fer­ences but he loved that I had a view.” He re­mains a close per­sonal friend.

It was McCully who per­suaded her to stand for the party at the 2005 elec­tion. She stood in Waitakere and lost, but en­tered on the party list. She would win the seat in the next two elec­tions but hold it by the slimmest of mar­gins. Paula now holds the new Up­per Har­bour seat, which she won by a sturdy 9500-odd votes.

John Key took per­haps the big­gest punt on Paula Ben­nett, nam­ing her So­cial Devel­op­ment Min­is­ter in his 2008 cab­i­net. He had faith in her and she has ad­mit­ted feel­ing a real sense of loss over his de­par­ture from par­lia­ment.

She says she doesn’t find the Bee­hive daunt­ing, ad­mit­ting peo­ple are of­ten sur­prised when they walk into cau­cus. “Peo­ple gen­uinely want you to do well be­cause then the team does well. I try to or­gan­ise a bit of moral sup­port. I of­ten set aside an hour for peo­ple to come and see me. I’ll lend an ear, share ex­pe­ri­ence.”

It was just be­fore the 2011 elec­tion that she was sit­ting in a bar with a group of women friends hav­ing a wine. You get the sense that she enjoys her women friends enor­mously. The talk turned to re­la­tion­ships and some­one asked Paula why she had never mar­ried. “I’ve never met any­one I loved as much as Alan,” she told them. And then what Paula calls a Sex in the City mo­ment oc­curred. Her friends were gal­vanised into ac­tion and said they would track him down. They even­tu­ally found him in Aus­tralia. He was a solo dad with two chil­dren.

They rang Paula in a state of high ex­cite­ment. “What shall we do?” they asked.

“How about telling him the truth?” said Paula. Soon af­ter­wards an email ar­rived from Alan. He felt the same. “I can’t get you out of my head,” he wrote. Paula asked him to wait three months un­til af­ter the elec­tion. “My life runs by elec­tions.”

Then she went to Mel­bourne. “The minute he opened the door there was this strong pull.” They mar­ried in 2012. “I’m def­i­nitely a lot more set­tled. I feel in­cred­i­bly lucky to have his kids in my life. I al­ways wanted a big fam­ily.”

Now she has one. Her daugh­ter Ana is mar­ried with three chil­dren and liv­ing close by, and her par­ents have moved to West Auck­land as well.

When Paula be­came Deputy Prime Min­is­ter it was Alan who re­ally un­der­stood how mo­men­tous it was. He knew her when she was 19, a strug­gling solo mum, wait­ress­ing in a truck stop. Only he knew how far she’d come. “My big, staunchy, tat­tooed truck driver knew the 19-year-old me – the con­fused, frus­trated, lack­ing con­fi­dence me,” she smiles. “He is a gen­uinely lovely man.”

And in the fu­ture? “I want to ride this along­side Bill for as long as I can. My men­tor tells me I’m not al­lowed to think about [the fu­ture]. If you’re so busy think­ing about what’s next, you’re not fo­cused on your job.

“I def­i­nitely don’t want Bill’s job. I al­ways make him text me the minute he’s back in the coun­try to say, ‘Stand down.’ I’m al­ways ready for han­dover.”

Paula of­ten says how proud she is to be a Westie. What does it mean, I ask, to be a “Westie”?

She says sim­ply, “It means you have a level of blunt­ness, a big dose of real. Gen­uinely no judge­ment. Westies take all of you.”

Sounds pretty much like Paula Ben­nett.

If you’re so busy think­ing about what’s next, you’re not fo­cused on your job.

RIGHT: Paula Ben­nett was brought up to have a strong work ethic and the strength of her con­vic­tions – qual­i­ties that serve her well in par­lia­ment.

ABOVE: Paula and her daugh­ter Ana at Par­lia­ment Build­ings. The MP speak­ing at the Na­tional Party’s An­nual Con­fer­ence in 2017. With former Prime Min­is­ter John Key, serv­ing break­fast to school chil­dren in West Auck­land.

Prime Min­is­ter Bill English shakes hands with his deputy, Paula Ben­nett.

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