‘Working at the coalface’
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.