Winnie Laban talks to about life after being an MP, overcoming breast cancer and seeing the Pope in Rome.
Is there a life after politics, Winnie?
There really is. I’m busy, but it’s a blessing and I’m thankful. I love what I’m doing here at Victoria.
What’s your role at Victoria University?
It’s about promoting, assisting and providing policy to aid Pacific students into tertiary life. I can’t speak highly enough about what the university has done to create pathways for our Pacific children. I get out and meet them whenever I can — they call me aunty and I love supporting this next group of Pacific leaders. Seeing kids achieve their dreams through university life makes me happy and I talk at schools and in communities about it.
Did you see the power of education as an MP?
I did. I’ve always been interested in education and especially how it can be a key to breaking that cycle of poverty and powerlessness. Children can come to university regardless of their background, if they are prepared to work hard. Twenty-six per cent of Porirua is Pacific and I want those young people to be in tertiary study – the numbers are trending up, but they could be better.
What are some of the initiatives for Pacific Island students?
There are clubs, a website, music – good plans are in place. European and Asian students traditionally do much better at university than Pacific Island students. Yet Pacific Islanders are a fast- growing youth demographic, so it’s important that statistic improves and we give our future Pacific leaders the opportunities they need. Do you travel much? Victoria has a memorandum of understanding with Samoa and Papua New Guinea, so I travel there often. This is another way New Zealand can keep its ties with the Pacific Islands strong.
Do you miss the hurly burly of politics and Parliament?
I miss the people of Mana most, those I worked with and worked for. I’m a pastoral care type of person and being the MP for that electorate, which is an absolute snapshot of New Zealand life, was an amazing time. The diversity was there, from Linden and Cannons Creek to Whitby, Plimmerton and Raumati – every shade of New Zealand is represented and you need to be able to talk on different levels to the different communities. Was it hard work? I was MP from 1999 until 2010 and gave everything I had to the office. I left with no regrets. You have to have the passion and commitment to be an MP and be prepared to put in the hours and fight for the interests of your electorate. As an MP, you’re paid to give your people a voice, not sit on your backside.
Was there much competition to be Graham Kelly’s successor?
Let’s just say it wasn’t an easy process, and it shouldn’t be. I beat [former Porirua deputy mayor] Kevin Watson, who was a strong candidate.
Do you talk much to your successor, Kris Faafoi?
I see him now and again. It’s important when you leave a job to let the new person take over and bring their own flavour to the role. The last thing he wants is me hanging around, but we catch up. As an MP, you have to serve, be relevant, and be effective, and Kris is doing that.
Do you keep an eye on local politics in Porirua?
I do and I think Porirua City Council is doing a good job. I’m really heartened to see Izzy Ford coming through the ranks — a real Pacific leader in her community. We need to encourage people like her. It’s always good to see new blood coming in.
What about Pacific representation on the national stage?
There are seven Pacific MPs in Parliament, three of them women, which is fantastic. It makes me proud.
How do you think Labour is going?
You have to have an effective Opposition to have a fully functional democracy. It needs to be a united team and Labour didn’t have that for some time. Andrew Little is doing fine and it’s important Labour stays on message – on education, selling state assets, housing – and away from distractions. The public needs to be constantly reminded what Labour stands for and its principles, in a sincere way and in plain language. Visit Porirua regularly and talk to people and you’ll know what’s going right and going wrong in this country. Labour needs to convince voters it is a government in waiting.
How is your health after the much-publicised breast cancer issues you had in 2008?
The health is fine. I have regular check-ups. I could be fitter, that’s for sure. I’m 59 now, so I’m not getting any younger.
You went to Rome to see the investiture of John Dew as a cardinal. What was that like?
He’s a good friend of mine and it was a wonderful occasion for him and for New Zealand. St Peter’s Basilica blew me away. We stayed with Kiwis working [for the Cath- olic faith] in Rome. It is so amazing to see these people working tirelessly for others. I admire the work of Pope Francis, so it was special to see him up close and hear him speak.
You’re the patron of Wellington Rugby League. Do you get to many matches?
Not as many as I’d like. I give out the trophies on the grand final day, but I don’t see a lot of games because of my work. Rugby league is going well in Wellington and what we try to do with the University club, with its links to Vic, is create good role models for kids. I’ve often said rugby league is the people’s game. What else keeps you busy? I don’t have a lot of spare time, but I’m on a business network for Pacific businesses in Wellington and on the arts council for Creative New Zealand. Where do you live? I’m back in Wainuiomata. It’s where my family is. I get out to Porirua a lot, though.
If you could offer advice to parents who want their kids to go to university, what would it be?
Read, read, read books. You give your kids such a chance if you’re reading to them constantly at home, and encouraging them to keep reading when they get older.