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Idealog—in the ideas business

Nikki Kaye on doorknocking, copping flak and fostering innovation

She famously knocked on more than 10,000 doors to score the high-profile Auckland Central seat. After a ferocious battle with nemesis Jacinda Ardern, political wunderkind Nikki Kaye tells Hazel Phillips how she's faring, nearly six months on from defending her position in a spot of national significance.

Nikki KayeHow dramatic was election night?

Obviously it was close, my seat. It had been quite a tough campaign – I’d knocked on 10,000 doors again. I knew it was probably going to be pretty close, but I also knew if I won by more than 500 or 600, then I’d probably get over the line. A pretty exciting night, but doing it a second time you learn a bit. I was probably a lot calmer than people think.

Is it all a bit of a rush?

Yeah, it’s exciting, it’s a seat of national significance. It would’ve been gutting to lose the seat. I’m halfway through a number of projects, and I’m starting to wonder when I’m going to finish a number of them, because some of them you know you’re halfway through.

What’s one example?

On Great Barrier Island we’re putting on a million dollars into funding broadband infrastructure for a small community, and there are still a few issues I’m working through.

You have a history with Great Barrier, in terms of standing up against removing it from Schedule Four for mining ...

While I’m not opposed to [mining] at all, I don’t believe the economic and environment case stacks up. It was something I took a big stand on. I was fortunate the government decided it wasn’t in the best interest to mine Schedule Four, which included Great Barrier. [But] we will have a plan around mineral excavation in other parts of New Zealand.

How can we foster innovation?

By giving young entrepreneurs the time to develop their ideas. I’ve met a number of people through my office who might have a reasonably good idea but can’t afford to take the time off to develop it. So it’s about investing in people. Also, how do we support those small to medium companies to go a bit further and not sell? And sometimes the solutions will be very different for different companies. One of the advantages of New Zealand is having a testing ground for certain products, and I think that whole discussion about how we can better support that as a small nation is worthwhile having. And while it isn’t something you’d say is tangible from a policy perspective, I think it’s creating that culture, where we actually elevate those people who take a risk, people who are innovators, that we foster a culture where we support them constantly, and push them.

How do you balance handing out money with ensuring outcomes?

Good question. It depends on the situation, there are some projects where the money’s clearly tied to outcomes and you’re being much more defined about the scope of innovation, but with other projects you want a blank canvas. The purpose of innovation is to give people the freedom to think and to come up with new ideas, so you don’t want to be too prescriptive about what that idea might look like. It’s about defining whether you’re trying to solve a specific problem or you’re actually asking for a much broader range of ideas.

You famously knocked on 10,000 doors your first time around. Isn’t it terrifying?

I love it. I don’t know whether I’m a strange creature, but I love people. That’s part of the reason why I love this job. A lot of ideas for policies that eventually are implemented have come from someone writing in to a minister. I’ve had a number of situations where my constituents have come to me with a policy and I find it very rewarding. You just learn how things are really happening on the ground. There can be a massive difference between legislation or policy and what it is supposed to do and how it actually works in practice. I like hearing people’s stories as well, it inspires you, and I can think of a few constituents who have done extraordinary things.

What’s your modus operandi? You knock on my door, I open it, and you say ...

I say hi, I’m Nikki Kaye, I’m an MP. I’m just coming to drop off my card and see if there’s anything I can help you with. What you’ll find is maybe they’ll say, “No, I think you’re doing a good job,” or “I’m not a National supporter”, but they’ll still engage in conversation. That’s one of the great things about New Zealand – very few people, regardless of who they’ll vote for, are rude to you. They want to engage in conversation about New Zealand. People often say people are apathetic, but that’s not my experience of New Zealanders.

Where did your confidence come from to do that?

It came quite quickly from the first campaign, and I found the more I did, the more that I wanted to do it. I did doorknock throughout the last term, and I did more obviously in the last year, but I kind of missed it. There are some issues people feel strongly about and they want to tell exactly why they feel strongly. You’ll see a reoccurring theme as well. The media might not be talking about it, but you can gauge that particular problem by people talking to you as well. There’s some people who have been aggrieved by the system. It’s really important they have the opportunity to talk to you, because it gives them a little bit more confidence in the system.

What are your personal ambitions?

The reason I stood for Parliament was because I want to help people, and I’ve always said I would only stay in Parliament if I felt that I was making a significant difference, so I stood again for Auckland Central because I think I am making a difference, both locally and at a national level. At some point I would like to get into Cabinet. If I didn’t think that wasn’t going to happen then I would probably reassess whether or not I would stay.

What did you think about the Metro story on you and Jacinda [where Kaye was described as a ‘dog-at-a-boney’ girly swot version of Lisa Simpson]?

I can say [Metro editor] Simon Wilson writes very well. I may not have agreed with all of the content, but I think he writes very well. Jacinda and I are very different in our beliefs. I have a lot of respect for her because I think she’s very committed to her beliefs. Because we were up against each other last time, it’s naturally going to be more competitive. I’m very confident that if we stay in Parliament for a long time we’ll work together on various issues. I couldn’t say that about every other politician but I can say that about her.

A huge amount of the media coverage seems to be framed in terms of ‘battle of the babes’. Does that frustrate you?

My interest is for people to know what I’ve done for New Zealand as a politician. I didn’t agree with the term but I also knew we had the opportunity to talk about issues we wouldn’t have been able to talk about, if people hadn’t focused on the race as much as they had.
I made it clear to the various journalists that I didn’t like the term. A number of women wrote to me in particular, and I did speak to one or two people in the media, and I don’t think they got away scot-free with it. From the people who wrote to me, there were people who copied me in to various journalists and made their views very clear.

How do you handle criticism?

I think it comes down to your confidence and who you are and what you believe in. When people ask what makes a good member of Parliament, I always say I don’t think it matters what age you stand, or what your background is. I think what matters is that you have a very good understanding of who you are and what you stand for. Some people have that at a young age and some people don’t. I say that because some of the politicians I have the greatest respect for might sit in completely different parts of the political spectrum to me, but they know what they want to achieve politically and they do everything they can to achieve it. I’ve always been quite confident in who I am, I’ve got a pretty good understanding of when I stuff up and when I do okay. The stuff that gets written online, obviously some of it is really personal and you can’t help but feel bad, but I also know what’s fair criticism and what’s not.

Wikipedia, that bastion of modern knowledge, says you’ve been called a high-maintenance backbencher, obsessive and driven. What are your thoughts on that?

I think I am driven, but I’m driven to help people. What were the other two? High-maintenance backbencher. I’d say I’m focused. Your detractors will always take the more negative view of those terms. In terms of high-maintenance, it’s all comparative. I’m not afraid of voicing my opinions, and some people might think it’s better that you stay in your box and know your place. I don’t generally give up, which is probably that obsessive-driven thing

When was the last time you took a holiday?

I took one at Christmas. Last year I worked six- and-a-half-day weeks, because particularly as a younger MP in a seat of national significance, I felt an additional level of responsibility to work really hard and do really well. Obviously it was a high-pressure race, so I think I need to get the right balance in terms of my personal life and work. I’ve been very conscious of that. A couple of my New Year’s resolutions are around this – spending more time with family and friends.

And when you switch off from work?

I go out with mates, glass of wine, go out for dinner. I run to relax and I always find I get stressed out when I’m not running, so I know I need to keep up my exercise because that’s my time to order my thoughts. I love the outdoors as well – if you ask me when I’m happiest, I’m fishing, or snorkelling.

Originally published in Idealog #38, page 28

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