Families, K Rd and dad jokes
Herald journalists show a different side of our politicians in the series Leaders Unplugged. Today, Michael Neilson sits down with New Conservative leader Leighton Baker.
This interview was not meant to be political — and it wasn’t, mostly. But then I was interviewing Leighton Baker, leader of the New Conservative Party, who’s standing in the rural Waimakariri electorate (the country’s second-most white) and we were metres from the multicultural/ rainbow melting pot of Karangahape Rd, affectionately known as K Rd. So after he told me he stopped drinking at 17, I asked if he had any vices.
“Just the vice on the work bench,” the builder/politician responded.
Turns out he is quite fond of the “dad joke”, something he often turned to through our interview, particularly around the more “tough” questions.
Time pressure meant we had to squeeze in a one-hour interview at the Cordis Hotel, where his party was launching its campaign the next day.
In an ideal scenario I might have met him on the lifestyle block he and wife Sue call home near Rangiora, North Canterbury, where they raised their four now-adult children.
We might have caught up for a round of golf, spent time with his five grandchildren — family, it becomes clear, is very important to him.
Several years ago he might have taken me for a spin in his rally car, but a near-fatal accident while codriving with his brother-in-law put an end to that hobby.
Sue accompanied him too, which gave the interview an interesting dynamic. She also recorded it.
But while there was an awareness of political inexperience through the interview — his party has never been in Parliament, garnering just 0.2 per cent at the last election — Baker seemed very relaxed throughout.
And as extreme as some of the policies might seem — like placing solo mothers under the “care” of professional couples — there was nothing that suggested that in his demeanour, which if anything was disappointingly normal.
He was born in Lower Hutt, but spent his formative years in Auckland, attending St Kentigern College.
It was a happy time with supportive parents — his father an accountant, his mother looking after the children and household — and three older siblings.
“[My parents] stopped after they reached perfection,” he said, another one of those jokes.
He’s been a lifelong Christian, and met Sue while on church cyclone relief work in Fiji in the late 1980s.
His parents divorced when he was 15, which had quite an impact on him, and influenced the importance he places on the nuclear family.
“There can be some rejection there, that sense of security damaged, even if the parents do the best they can.”
It contributed to his dropping out in his final year of high school, spending a few years on a farm in the Far North, before he was back to the big smoke to become a builder. Construction gave him a strong work ethic, which he said drove him to enter politics after seeing government after government ignore the results of citizeninitiated referenda.
Time was winding down so I asked him about K Rd, the heart of Aotearoa’s rainbow community and arguably its main red light district: How does that make you feel, to be mere metres away?
He dived into a story about travelling through India, on one of his missions, and witnessing mass brothels reportedly housing child sex slaves.
“How can we as a caring and loving society condone that?”
I asked him about the LGBTQI community, respect for which is increasingly a point of pride for the country — and he diverted to how we shouldn’t “sexualise children”.
“It is about choice. If that is how people feel, as adults, that is okay.
“What we don’t want to see is the over-sexualisation of children in schools.”
Given his background, I asked him if he felt he’d lived a life diverse enough to be able to make strong judgments about others and their own life choices.
He said he’d worked with troubled youth in North Canterbury, his deputy leader had done the same in South Auckland, and other party members had worked in various social working roles.
“We’ve seen the realities of what works in life, and what doesn’t.”
Geoff Simmons of The Opportunities Party
Leighton Baker says his party has seen what works in life, and what doesn’t.