‘Work­ing at the coal­face’

Marlborough Express - - INSIGHT -

In the last of a se­ries with the Kaiko¯ura can­di­dates for the four largest par­ties, re­porter Oliver Lewis paid a visit to John’s Kitchen to chat with Labour’s Janette Walker.

Stand­ing on the pave­ment out­side a char­i­ta­ble dropin kitchen she man­ages in Blen­heim, it be­comes im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous Janette Walker is on home turf. I want to get a pho­to­graph of her lean­ing against her red Labour ute, but within sec­onds the for­mer farmer gets hailed by the driver of a pass­ing car.

‘‘I’ve got mail for you,’’ she yells back, as the man swerves into the park­ing lot of John’s Kitchen.

The two strike up a con­ver­sa­tion and, in an in­ter­ac­tion so per­fect it could have been staged, he tells her to­day is the day he gets to move into a state house.

‘‘He’s been liv­ing in a car for months,’’ Walker tells me later. ‘‘I banged on, and banged on, and banged on to help him – usual story.’’

And it does not stop there. As the pho­tog­ra­pher lines up an­other shot, a 22-year-old on a skate­board whizzes past, but not quick enough to es­cape Walker.

She calls out af­ter him, name drops Jacinda Ardern, then pre­sump­tively asks if he is vot­ing Labour.

‘‘That’s what I’m think­ing at the mo­ment, you guys are do­ing a pretty good job,’’ he says, be­fore skat­ing on down the road.

Walker be­came the co-or­di­na­tor of the Red­wood St cen­tre in 2015, two years af­ter she ac­cepted a re­quest to move to Marl­bor­ough to stand in the Kaiko¯ura seat.

Peo­ple are milling around, chat­ting at the ta­bles while vol­un­teers work in the kitchen. ‘‘Na­tional can kiss my arse, they’re out the door’’, one woman quips.

But Walker is more diplo­matic; af­ter the re­mark­able surge in sup­port for Labour un­der Ardern she thinks the elec­tion will come down to the wire, where every vote counts. She rates her own chances too. Af­ter los­ing in the Na­tional strong­hold by more than 12,000 votes in 2014, Walker says there is a real mood for change.

‘‘In some of my speeches I talk about work­ing at the coal­face and the peo­ple I work with and sup­port are the ca­naries,’’ she says.

‘‘I use that anal­ogy be­cause, to me, they’re just be­ing left be­hind. A civilised so­ci­ety is mea­sured by how you treat your vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple and in my opin­ion this Govern­ment has failed.

‘‘That’s why there’s a mood for change, peo­ple want some­thing bet­ter.’’

This ad­vo­cacy on be­half of the most vul­ner­a­ble can, in part, be traced back to her own up­bring­ing in North­land, where Walker was raised by her mother and Dutchim­mi­grant fa­ther. Her first home in Whananaki – the same place New Zealand First leader Win­ston Peters comes from – had a bare earth floor.

‘‘I knew by the time I was 12 that I had to sur­vive my fam­ily, I had to get an ed­u­ca­tion and I had to leave, and I needed money – so I had my first paid job by the time I was 9,’’ Walker says.

That was pick­ing tamar­il­los, but even­tu­ally she be­came a nurse, mar­ried, had two chil­dren, adopted an­other af­ter a string of fos­ter chil­dren then, when she di­vorced, moved into farm­ing. In 2005 she bought an 800-hectare high coun­try farm in Pon­garoa, on the east coast of the North Is­land, but it all went belly-up when the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis hit and she was forced to sell at a mas­sive loss.

‘‘I came away from that ex­pe­ri­ence fairly shat­tered, lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally be­cause I’d also had a se­ri­ous farm ac­ci­dent that meant I didn’t walk for seven months,’’ she says.

But it also led to the next stage of her ca­reer, where she be­came a ru­ral bank debt ne­go­tia­tor and ended up in­ves­ti­gat­ing and chas­ing up banks for the prac­tice of in­ter­est rate swaps. Her work helped trig­ger a Com­merce Com­mis­sion in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which ul­ti­mately led to banks pay­ing out close to $30 mil­lion to farm­ers and other ru­ral in­ter­est groups.

Then, af­ter be­ing ap­proached by mem­bers of the Labour Party, she moved to Marl­bor­ough to take up the ba­ton and be­come the next Kaiko¯ura can­di­date.

‘‘Peo­ple were very crit­i­cal of me be­ing here,’’ she says of her first cam­paign. ‘‘They said I was a blowin, a ring-in, but I’m still here.’’

Since 2014, when she got 8287 votes, Walker has con­tin­ued to build her pro­file through her work at John’s Kitchen, col­lect­ing data on home­less­ness and lob­by­ing for tran­si­tional and emer­gency hous­ing.

‘‘All of a sud­den this be­came the go-to place for peo­ple who had enor­mous so­cial is­sues and needs that weren’t be­ing met, and I think that came about be­cause there was no as­sis­tance else­where,’’ she says.

On her worst day, Walker says she had to help 11 peo­ple onto emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion grants, and while the work has taken a toll the 61-year-old is adamant she has plenty more in the tank.

‘‘Have I run my­self into the ground?’’ she yells over at a vol­un­teer.

‘‘You’ve come very close to it at times,’’ comes the re­sponse, lead­ing Walker to ad­mit that ‘‘some­times I feel like all I was do­ing was jug­gling to keep the balls in the air’’.

The Labour can­di­date freely crit­i­cises the Govern­ment for the sell-off of so­cial hous­ing in Marl­bor­ough and around the coun­try, be­fore ad­mit­ting the irony that she is, in a way, also work­ing for them.

Be­cause John’s Kitchen, in part­ner­ship with the Christchurch Methodist Mis­sion, now has a con­tract with the Min­istry of So­cial De­vel­op­ment to pro­vide tran­si­tional hous­ing in Blen­heim.

A vic­tory of sorts, but Walker wants to see more hous­ing built, some­thing she says she will lobby to make hap­pen in Marl­bor­ough should she be­come a MP, ei­ther on the list or as the elec­torate rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

Labour has come in for a drub­bing from parts of the ru­ral sec­tor over its plans to place a roy­alty on ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter, how­ever Walker rub­bishes claims of an ur­ban/ ru­ral di­vide as a Na­tional Party con­struct.

Na­tional has been cam­paign­ing on a plat­form of eco­nomic man­age­ment, some­thing that seems to have played out in Marl­bor­ough by statis­tics show­ing rapidly ris­ing GDP. But Walker has pause to ques­tion them. ‘‘If there was eco­nomic growth here why is ev­ery­one so broke? Why have you got peo­ple liv­ing in bloody cars if ev­ery­thing is so shit hot and shiny,’’ she says.

‘‘What needs to hap­pen to make this re­gion thrive? It has to move out of sun­shine wages, it has to.’’

Janette talks to DJ Ac­ton-Adams and Kate Gre­gory.

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