In conversation: Sue Kedgley and Nicola Willis

We hear from two Wellington women in politics.

By Melody Thomas
Photography by Anna Briggs
Hosted by Sunday Night Club

Featured in Capital #54
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Sue Kedgley’s autobiography, Fifty Years a Feminist hits the shelves this month. In it she tracks the development of feminism over the last five decades and its intersection with her life, describing how she went from debutante to stroppy activist, journalist, safe-food activist and Green politician.

To celebrate publication, we looked back to 2018 and the energetic conversation she had with National Party MP Nicola Willis and our journalist Melody Thomas.

At the time of this interview Sue Kedgley was a Wellington Regional Councillor and former Green MP and Nicolas Willis was a newly inducted National Party list MP and spokesperson on Early Childhood Education.

Melody Thomas convened the interview.

Sue Kedgley once described herself as an accidental politician. An activist and leading spokeswoman for the women’s liberation movement in New Zealand in the 70s, during her 26-year political career Kedgley steadfastly campaigned on safe food, animal welfare, public transport, natural health and other Green issues.

For Nicola Willis a political career seemed pre-ordained. In a parliamentary corridor today hangs a photograph taken in 1981, of the press gallery journalists of the time. Among many men it shows female journalist Shona Valentine, nine months pregnant with Nicola.

Paving the way

Sue: I think there were only about two women in parliament in 1970. [At school] I was being taught to become an educated wife… We weren’t expected to have careers, to aspire, to have choices, to think about going into politics. So I very much hope that our generation of women paved the way for these new young woman to just go into any career, including politics.

Nicola: I was born in 1981, so absolutely, a lot of hard work had been done by many women before then. I often think about the sacrifice my mum made for me. She stayed at home to be my mother… and today I’m able to balance work and family and pursue my career, so just in a generation a lot’s changed.

Parliament culture

When Sue Kedgley was sworn in to parliament in 1999 around 30% of New Zealand MPs were women. While this number was a vast improvement on previous years, it would refuse to budge for the next twenty.

Since the 2017 general election a wave of women has entered parliament, boosting the proportion of female MPs to 40%, the highest in New Zealand’s history. Nicola Willis is one of them.

Sue: When I first went into parliament there were the alpha males and the bullies… It’s not what I’d call a sort of welcoming, nurturing environment. Parliament was a men’s club. All the rules evolved to suit men. So it’s great to see young women like yourself [Nicola] and Jacinda, bringing children into the house and starting to break down that whole culture.

Nicola: I’ve found parliament to be an incredibly welcoming place because of the sense of team. I walked into a caucus of 55 people, now 56, and they all wanted me to succeed. That’s how it appeared to me. And in many ways it’s one of the least sexist organisations you could work in because the rules are so clear, the hierarchy is so transparent and you are really competing on your merits. And so I found that not to be a barrier.

Sue: Certainly, I felt incredibly supported within my Green party. And I agree with Nicola because… they become like your family, and you live or die by that team… But the general parliament, the wider parliament, I’ve found to be very male-dominated and much in need of change.

In her valedictory speech in 2011, Sue Kedgley called attention to a ‘polarised and confrontational’ parliament culture akin to ‘trench warfare’, which she saw as counterproductive to the running of an effective democracy. Kedgley referred to a group of 14-year-old students who, having observed question time in 2002, wrote a report about the mocking, interrupting and lack of respect they had seen.

Sue: They said, if we did this in a classroom, we’d be thrown out of school and yet this is held up as a model.

Nicola: I must say that does keep me pretty honest in parliament. I often think to myself what would I do if my kids were watching now? Is this behaviour that I want them to see? I think you can argue a point that is principled, and you can argue it very strongly and disagree, while still respecting another individual’s right to have a different point of view.

Melody: The comment about trench warfare reminded me of Twitter and the internet generally. It feels like there’s a growing divide between people who are unwilling to see the humanity in each other.

Sue: America seems to be absolutely divided down the middle, you can almost imagine civil war. There doesn’t seem to be an ability to listen, to have conversations. I’d like to think that in New Zealand we could get beyond that because it really is quite frightening.

Nicola: I think MMP saves us from that to an extent. In the US political system there’s the gerrymandering of the different seats and the polarisation of Republican versus Democrat, but in New Zealand because of MMP the parties need to be willing to work with each other. And we’re all in a fight for the centre – people aren’t necessarily politically aligned one way or the other, they’ll switch depending on what they think a party will deliver for them in their everyday life. And so it pays for all politicians to be respectful.

Individuality VS Teamwork

When Sue Kedgley first put her name on the list for the Greens, she had no expectation of making it to parliament. After the 1999 general election Sue was watching her son play cricket when she received a call from party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons to say the Greens had secured 5.2% of the vote and she was now an MP.

Last year, when the National Party lost two seats to the special vote, Nicola Willis was one of two who missed out. She told the media that she considered herself to be on the ‘sub bench’, and was hopeful that opportunities might yet come her way.  In March this year Steven Joyce stepped down, and Nicola became an MP. 

Sue: [In 1999] we were brand new…. And we could sort of do what we liked… I imagine it would be much harder to be a backbench MP in a mainstream political party, where you are supposed to know your place and to a certain extent carry out orders.

Nicola: Well the first thing I’d say about that is that politics is a team sport… I can’t be in a ministerial role making decisions unless my team are in government, right? So I need my team to succeed. To that extent you have to be prepared to let your colleagues take the lead on issues where you’ve said, ‘That’s your portfolio’. And I think that works quite well because we tend to get assigned the portfolios that we have a particular interest in. I’ve been assigned early childhood education, which really means that my caucus say, ‘We trust you on this issue. We back you and we’ll give you the running.’ [Recently] I was able to write an op ed in response to an ugly article from someone saying daycare was a terrible thing for working mothers… and I didn’t have to ask anyone permission from anyone, because I’ve been given that trust… You’ve just got to carve out your place. It’s like in any workplace.

Sue: And where I had to fight and do all these things, use all these techniques, if you’re in a big party and you’re in government, theoretically you can bring about change more easily.

Nicola: And opposition is actually an interesting place for a new MP because you have the ability to shape policy as a backbencher. If we were in government and I was on the backbench I would have no idea what they’re talking about in cabinet, but in opposition we are forming a manifesto for 2020 and I get my say – and that’s a really great opportunity.

The “F” word

Whereas the Greens have brandished feminism as a point of pride since the start, for the National Party in recent years the ‘F’ word has proven a bit of a hot potato. There was the time then-Minister for Women Louise Upston said she’d never called herself a feminist. When Paula Bennett stepped into that role in 2016 she described herself as a feminist ‘most days’, but soon after, then-Prime Minister Bill English said he that while he believed in gender equality he didn’t really know what the term feminist meant.

Sue (to Nicola): Do you call yourself a feminist?

Nicola: Yes I call myself a feminist and I did in my maiden speech − I said that I follow in my great grandfather’s footsteps. He voted for women’s suffrage and so I see myself as part of that proud tradition.

Melody: Would it be fair to say you’re at the liberal end of things, within your party?

Nicola:  I’m not sure that those labels are helpful, because if you pick any number of issues I wouldn’t say that I fit in a neat part of the spectrum. I do really have a philosophy of live and let live, which is to say I don’t really think it’s up to me to tell other people how to live their lives. So could you call it liberal? I guess so. I absolutely support gay marriage and I’m strongly of the view that women should have the right to chose when it comes to abortion.

#WellyGoals

Melody: You’re both Wellington born and bred. If you could wave a magic wand and see one thing happen in Wellington, to help the city thrive, what would that be?

Nicola: I’m really into predator-free Wellington, and I want us to be able to reintroduce kiwi into the town belt. And that sounds wild, but it is possible. We have Zealandia there which has been an incredible success. And … we’re seeing spillover impact now. So at Polhill, where we’ve got the Polhill protectors, we’re seeing incredible native birds returning… and it is not impossible that we would get to the point where we’d eliminated enough predators that we could reintroduce kiwi… Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Sue: I just think Wellington is such an accessible, cosmopolitan, compact, exciting city and I’d like it to remain that way… and one of the things that destroys cities more quickly than anything else is car congestion… Once Transmission Gully and all these motorways from the north are completed cars are going to flood into Wellington. Where are they going to go on our narrow streets? So that’s the thing that really worries me… so many cities have been destroyed by traffic and I don’t want us to go down that route.

Melody: It’s a little concerning how the new bus system rollout has been handled…

Nicola: It’s been really concerning and it’s a really good reminder to decision makers that when you’re making wholesale changes that are large, you really need to think about the human impact… Because what looks great for an engineering planner doesn’t work unless it works in people’s everyday lives.

Sue: I can agree with all of that, but behind it all is this government legislation. So government comes up with this bright idea: ‘We’ve got to have competition in our bus networks’. What that really means… is that the lower tender wins… I’m really, really worried… I won’t talk about all of my concerns about the whole bus transition… But suffice it to say we’re trying to do things to try to rectify it.

Nicola: I’ve been lobbying the regional council to make some changes so this is giving me great confidence.

Greater Wellington Regional Council manages the Metlink public transport network.

Advice

Both Sue and Nicola are mothers – Sue’s son was 10 when she entered into parliament, and Nicola has four children between the ages of 2 and 8. What advice would they give to women who are also juggling career and family?

Sue: I believe in trying to… follow your passions, and do the sort of things that you want. But also you don’t have to do everything at the same time… that ridiculous superwoman thing, this idea that we can ‘have it all’, well many women are just crippled under that aspiration. So just do what you can do, try to be zen about things, be prepared to compromise… you know, life isn’t perfect.

Nicola: Back yourself and take your seat at the table, because you deserve it. And don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and to ask for help… Certainly for me at every stage I’ve admitted my vulnerability or admitted I’m finding something hard… And people are incredibly willing to offer help and support.

Melody: It’s nice to hear someone advising women to accept their vulnerability. I feel like we’re often told to mimic the leadership style of those who’ve gone before us, and that’s often men. And there usually isn’t room for vulnerability.

Nicola: Absolutely. It can help you build empathetic relationships with your team and have people see that you’re a human being. And people prefer to work with human beings.

Sue: I think that’s been a great bonus thus far for Jacinda… She’s had a baby, she’s being real. I do shudder to think how she’s going to cope in a few months time… Though some get babies that sleep through the night.

Nicola: I wasn’t so blessed

Melody: Me neither.

We have two copies of Sue’s new book, Fifty Years a Feminist, to give away. Find out more about it and enter the draw to be in to win here.

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