In my former life as a women’s magazine writer I got to interview plenty of our nation’s politicians.
It was a familiar cycle. For two years most of them didn’t want to know us, with emails to press secretaries often unanswered and requests for stories ignored. We were dubbed “soft media”, a somewhat sexist term for women’s media that always pissed me off to no end.
But every three years, me oh my how the tables turned.
We’d be biblically flooded with requests for coverage (from ALL parties, contrary to public opinion). Some of the ideas were wonderful. Some were not. Some had us wondering if these people had the sense to lead an ant out a paper bag, let alone a country.
So many of them have blurred into one white, upper-middle class male blur. From John to Bill, to Simon to so, so many Davids, it was pretty much the same thing each time (although to be fair to Sir Bill English – he was more interesting and charming than anyone ever gave him credit for).
But I will never forget the moment Paula Bennett swept into the lounge of the rented West Auckland home where were photographing her.
She was a force in shocking pink; her newly slimmed-down figure hummed with energy and urgency as she greeted the photo shoot crew with a wide smile and her trademark cackle.
She shrieked with joy when she saw the sizes on the clothes our stylist had picked out – then a size 14, but she’s lost even more weight since. She enthused over the Chardonnay she’d be having that night with a gal pal. She admired a Spotify playlist I’d picked out – ‘Old Skool West Auckland’. She told me about the Mexican-themed Christmas party she was throwing for her colleagues, complete with her recipe for the best ever Tequila Sunrise. She joked about herself, her party, her profession. She insisted on pink and leopard print – in her email to us, she suggested we channel the singer Pink! for the clothing options. And she answered every question – some professional, even more of them personal – with aplomb and humour.
She was well aware of the Parody of Paula – loud, loose, leopard print – but the public didn’t really understand the Paradox of Paula: a whip-smart, cunning and clever politician that didn’t get her fair shot to reign as the Beehive’s queen.
While she was ‘the fun one’ in the National Party – I suppose there’s not too much competition there, especially when she was the one to bring a karaoke machine into her office to celebrate her 50th birthday – Paula’s contribution to her party is in danger of passing by unnoticed and uncelebrated, following her announcement this week that she’s leaving politics after 15 years in the game.
“The whole thing though has been a hell of a ride and I have loved it,” she said.
Yes, she was the MP that broke up that mall fight in West Auckland in 2009. Yes, she once covered her entire car in animal print because, well, West Auckland. Yes, she appeared on The Great Kiwi Bake Off and showed a rather rudimentary understanding of how flour, eggs and sugar are supposed to combine.
And yes, she’ll probably be remembered mostly for her comedic alter-ego, Tom Sainsbury, and his incredibly funny, kimono-wearing, panini-eating and bowl-latte drinking parody of the former deputy prime minister with the tagline, ‘Hi sweeties, it’s me, Paula Bennett’.
Whether or not you agreed with her and her policies and her politics, Paula Bennett was always unashamedly Paula Bennett, a welcome female flash of sass and colour in a sea of male, pale and stale beige.
She was National’s highest-ranked Māori MP – now, they only have one MP in their top 20 of Māori heritage (that doesn’t include Paul Goldsmith, BTW).
She was the deputy prime minister, the minister for state services, the minister for women, the minister of tourism, the minister of police, the minister of climate change issues, the MP for Waitakere.
For years Paula was undervalued, underrated and under-appreciated within her more conservative party. She understood how to get her message across to middle New Zealand. She nailed her soundbites. She was passionate, she was proud. She had character – a trait now rather missed in our collective group of politicians.
Sure, she had some clangers – the ‘Zip It, Sweetie’ quip towards Jacinda Ardern wasn’t her finest hour, nor was the time she leaked the private income information of two single mothers to the media. She was on the other side of some shockers too – most notably former National leader Simon Bridges’ inability to understand her last name is Bennett, not Benefit – a gaff he committed not once, but twice.
Her detractors never let the public forget her roots as a teen single mother who received income support from the government, but then joined a party that didn’t give others in the same situation the same kindness, and perhaps that criticism was deserved.
Ultimately it was her loyalty to Simon Bridges that spelt her demise, and mere weeks after National elected its new leader, Todd Muller (you know, the guy who wanted to bring a Make America Great Again cap into his office and couldn’t understand why most Kiwis were a bit miffed about it), Paula decided to call it a day.
As Labour’s Grant Robertson ever-so-colourfully put on one of Parliament’s last sitting days, “She thought about who to tell first. She scrolled through her address book until she got to the letter ’T’. And she found her options – Tom [Sainsbury], Todd [Muller] or Tova [O’Brien, Newshub’s political editor]. The choice was obvious… the person who had been relentlessly taking the mickey out of her… or Tom Sainsbury.”
And a full two days before she told her party leader, Paula, dressed in a signature kimono, danced her way into frame on a Tom Sainsbury parody video to announce her retirement, singing along to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, while Tom’s Paula spoke into the camera. “F you to the National Party,” he natters.
“Sayonara Todd – a big F you… no, I’m not going to say that, I’m going to keep it civil.”
Parliament will certainly be a less colourful place without politics’ proudest Westie. Sayonara, sweetie.