Minister and NZ First MP Tracey Martin talks to Andrea Vance about working in the shadow of Winston Peters and the future of the party.
Imposter syndrome – cruel doubts and a persistent anxiety that we are not good enough – cripples women. It almost killed Tracey Martin’s career.
After NZ First signed a coalition agreement to govern with Labour, Martin had expected to become a backbench MP. Four days after the signing ceremony, her phone rang with an unknown number.
Engrossed in paperwork, she ignored it. “They didn’t leave a message,” so she searched for the number in her email inbox. It was new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“She said: ‘I wanted to do this job, but they tell me I can’t do this job. So, I’m asking, will you be the Minister for Children?’ And I don’t know why she did. I’ve never asked her actually.”
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Martin was to become responsible for Oranga Tamariki, the agency that replaced Child, Youth and Family; a daunting job.
Over a 12-month period, OT received more than 89,000 notifications from those concerned about the welfare of children, and more than 6000 young people were under the ministry’s protection. Māori children made up 59 per cent of those in state care. And in March 2018, a damning report revealed 220 children had been abused in that care. The child protection agency would also be dogged by the scandal of the removal of a newborn baby, but that was to come later.
Martin, also minister of internal affairs, seniors, and associate minister of education, was tasked with the biggest overhaul state care services had ever seen. The responsibility was overwhelming.
“There’s always going to be drama in that portfolio. When everything’s going well, nobody will talk about it at all, but when things go bad they go really bad. And so, in that first year, I wasn’t sure I was the right person for that job,” she says.
“It’s just such an important portfolio. But if I stepped away from that I would have to step away from everything.”
She turned to her friend, long-serving Labour MP and former minister Annette King, who is now New Zealand’s High Commissioner in Canberra.
“About six months in, I went to Australia to see Annette King to say, ‘I’m just not sure that I’m cut out for this.’
“Annette sat down and gave me a talking to. She gave me some tips and some support.”
Martin didn’t feel able to turn to the party’s leader Winston Peters, her political mentor. She calls him ‘WP’.
“Of the four NZ First ministers I’m the one who is the greatest risk,” she says. “Ron Mark had been in politics for a lot longer than me. Shane [Jones] and WP were ministers before.
“I went to Annette because she wasn’t my leader. She was a person [to whom] I could say, ‘hey, I’m unsure about my abilities here.’ I wouldn’t have gone to my leader to say that.”
Would a male politician ever suffer such a crisis of confidence? “I mean, I suppose we’ve just seen a male politician recently admit that he couldn’t do the job,” she says.
Labour’s David Clark resigned as health minister after criticism of the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and his own breaches of lockdown rules.
“Women in general are harder on themselves in leadership roles… they worry more, they are overachievers, they’ve got to do twice as much in their own head,” she says.
“And we probably get too affected by other people’s opinion, or we want people to like us.
“I mean, I’m 56 years-old, and as much as I’m a feminist, [I’ve got] that desire to be liked or to be thought of as good. My daughter suffers from the same thing as well. Whatever that is, we don’t seem to be to kick it out of a majority of women’s brains.”
Martin was drawn into politics by her mother, NZ First stalwart Anne Martin. A former party secretary and president, Anne Martin also stood as a candidate in three elections and her daughter would help with hoardings and flyers.
The family lived together on the same property in Warkworth. Martin was a stay-at-home mum, also caring for her father, who’d suffered a brain haemorrhage. Her husband Ben, a winemaker, was working in Northland. They have three children, Connor, now 25, Sean, 22, and Rose, 20.
Anne Martin asked if her daughter would stand: “They needed a candidate in Rodney.”
She didn’t succeed the first time around. The 2008 election was a low point for NZ First, which was bounced out of Parliament – and for the Martin family.
The party was embroiled in a dispute about party donations, with the police, Serious Fraud Office and Electoral Commission ultimately clearing Peters of wrongdoing.
Anne Martin, as party secretary, was dragged into the police investigation after a complaint by then ACT Party leader Rodney Hide.
“At the beginning of 2008, it must have been Easter, Dad just woke up yellow: liver cancer. Mum took a break, she needed some space to sit down with her husband and talk about the fact that he had terminal cancer,” Martin says.
“And that meant that the return was lodged late.
“Dad died and my uncle Barry, her older brother, came up from Hawke’s Bay. He helped carry Dad’s coffin out, went home, had a brain haemorrhage and died three weeks later.
“We were down there in the Hawke’s Bay when the Rodney Hide news broke… I remember distinctly him and his [trademark canary yellow] jacket being on TV, walking down and filing charges… people thought it was Winston, but it was against my mother because she was the party secretary.
“I wasn’t political before that, but the injustice of that, about what was written and said and being on the other side of it, it made me really angry.”
Martin took over the party’s administration.
“The whole thing came to a screaming halt. You get three weeks to get out of Parliament, or all your stuff gets thrown in a dumpster or truck. They boxed everything up, and… my garage was full of NZ First stuff.
“The membership secretary quit… I became, by default, the membership secretary. I had to drive to Whangārei and get the physical computer with the data.
“We really had feet of clay. They didn’t have an email train, I had to manually ring and people ask if they still wanted to belong to the party.
“But Mum and I made the decision that we believed that NZ First should still be there. Winston had gone up north, to take a break and Mum went up to Whananaki to say: ‘we’re going to have a meeting about whether we should continue NZ First as a political party – are you going to come?
”We didn’t know… anyway, Winston came, and we had to move a motion from the floor that he still be the leader.
“There was debate. Because it was a really hard campaign, and some people felt he could have done better. We had to change the constitution for him to be the leader. And so that’s how I ended up being number two on the [party] list in 2011 was because I actually did all that work.”
Martin entered Parliament at the 2011 general election and in 2013 was elected the party’s deputy leader, only to be rolled by Mark, two years later. At the time, she said “suits stick with suits” blaming a majority male caucus.
It is still a very “blokey” caucus, Martin admits. She is one of two female MPs, the other is former newsreader Jenny Marcroft, a first-term MP.
“It is very male. It is not just a perception, we are outnumbered. Sometimes I just disagree with them strongly, and they don’t get Jenny’s and my perspective.
“I have struggled with it, certainly. WP doesn’t… believe women should have to fill their own drinks, he doesn’t believe women should swear… which occasionally is difficult because I quite like swearing.
”[But] my greatest advocate inside that caucus is WP.”
One notable example came last year. Martin and Marcroft were sucker-punched by the party’s last-minute decision to demand a referendum on legislation that would have removed abortion from the Crimes Act.
Martin had worked for months on the law change with Justice Minister Andrew Little.
“It did blindside me. But there’s always more to the story. [MP] Darroch [Ball] had been in Fiji, monitoring their elections. And so he hadn’t been in a couple of the caucus [meetings] where I had reported back about my conversations with Andrew.
“I didn’t consider that we needed a referendum because we weren’t deciding whether to have abortion. We’re just shifting it from one place to another. But then Darroch came back in and won the day, he got the majority.”
Martin and Marcroft chose to cross the floor and vote for the legislation. And Martin gave a heart-rending speech in which she revealed her grandmother Beverley died after a backstreet termination in 1946. She delivered the story with tears in her eyes.
“I have to go home and sleep with me and [husband] Ben, and my kids have to be proud of me. What Jenny and I agreed is that we needed to do this, and we were prepared to wear the consequences.
“But we’ve never ever had anything negative from the guys at all. I think if you interviewed my male colleagues, you know, [they’d say] there’s no way that Tracey’s voice is not heard.”
The party has also been criticised for stalling a bill that stops complainants being questioned on their sexual history in courts.
Martin’s disheartened that a joint venture, set up to reduce family violence and sexual violence, has failed to produce a Government strategy. Last week the Auditor-General launched an audit.
“If we could wave a magic wand and do one thing in this country that would fundamentally change so many other things with a domino effect, it would be around family violence,” she says.
“We missed the boat this term on family and sexual violence. I appreciate it was a new way of working… but we lost the chance there. And whoever’s back after this, that’s the one thing they need to work.”
Martin might not always get her way. But she’s a power-player in her own right, ensuring the ties that bond the three governing parties don’t fray.
“Because Ron’s travelling for Defence, Shane’s [Jones] travelling with the PGF [Provincial Growth Fund, a $3bn programme to promote economic growth] and WP’s travelling with foreign affairs, out of the four ministers, I’m the one who’s on all the cabinet committees [that consider policy in detail].
“I’m the one who is on all the ministerial groups. It’s not true for every single thing. But… if you want to know what’s going on inside the caucus, [or] if [the caucus] need to know what’s going on, it’s usually that I’ve been there.”
She dines regularly with Greens co-leader James Shaw, to keep open the lines of communication.
“When relationships get a bit tense between different perspectives, so let’s just say James Shaw and Shane… they normally send me in there to broker some sort of middle road.
“James and I started to have dinner, once every sitting block, because one of the things that is possible is for Labour to tell them something about NZ First. And then for them to tell us something about the Greens…
“I figured it out when we were in Opposition and on the campaign trail, [Ex-Green] MP Catherine [Delahunty] and I figured it out that… we could get them to do what we wanted to do. It still kind of works.”
Commentators, somewhat patronisingly, often suggest that Martin is in the wrong party, like she is a woman who doesn’t know her own mind. She is “100 per cent NZ First”.
And once WP retires, she would like a shot at being leader. “There’s a couple of us, you know, that could step into that role when Winston is ready to retire, but nobody is going to knock him off.
”Shane is there. And from the outside looking in Shane is a strong contender from a profile perspective. Fletcher Tabuteau is the deputy leader and… Fletcher and I are the only ones who haven’t come from somewhere else. Ron was Labour, Winston was National, Shane was Labour, Mark Patterson was National.
“You have to ask yourself why would you want that job? You become responsible for the cock-ups of everybody else in your caucus.
“I ask myself that question now and then. But, my big thing is too many women say no to opportunities because they worry. So I’ve just decided that you’ve got to say yes to these opportunities. I’m not going to say no.
“The caucus will decide, when the caucus is in that place. I don’t see any reason why NZ First and the caucus wouldn’t put in a woman.”
Martin is facing a tough race in Wellington’s Ōhāriu electorate and lives in the city’s Ngaio suburb. Incumbent Greg O’Connor, a former police union boss, is gambling a second term after taking himself off the party list.
NZ First’s polling has reached the doldrums of two per cent, and they face political oblivion if they can’t crack five per cent, or win a seat.
She says her party struggles to recruit women – something she’d like to change.
“I did a workshop for some NZ First women who did stand as candidates for us… [a] thing that came through was that they need to be asked. See, men make a decision and decide they are going to go for it. Women need to be asked.
“Her first reaction will be: ‘Oh no, surely not me, no’. But already what’s happened is she felt: ‘Oh, you think I’m capable of it. It absolutely is about political parties, making a choice to go and seek woman candidates… And NZ First has still not managed to crack that.
“The difficulty which NZ First has is around breaking the myth. We have had the same leader for all of our existence, and he’s been such a strong, politically pivotal figure.
“That very male figure, it’s just very hard to cut through… probably the greatest opportunity to change will be when there is a change in leader. That’s only me talking, though.”
The biggest barrier for women is the disruption to family life, she says. “The sense of guilt about taking away time from your family. I’m not quite sure what Parliament could do about that. And actually, their partners need to do something about that.”
Martin hasn’t experienced the same level of abuse and harassment identified recently by departing MPs, Paula Bennett, Clare Curran and Sarah Dowie.
“Nobody’s threatened to kill me. I have never had a level like what happened to Paula a couple of years ago – it was criminal was what that was.
“But there are those who, for whatever reason, ignite a really fierce backlash. I’m not one of those, normally. And, if I think about Paula, and the private details of a couple of beneficiaries, if you do an act like that, you end up you’re fair game.”
But she has removed the Twitter app from her cellphone: “It is just bombarded with negativity.” And she recalls one nasty incident when a colleague (who she won’t name) left a poisonous letter on her desk.
“When we saw these behaviours, you go talk to Winston and Winston will take some action. How you treat a female, let alone a staff member, is really important to him.
“I’m thinking of a particular [time]… there’d been an interaction a day before with a colleague, and when I came in the next morning there was a note. It was meant to hurt… meant to make you feel very small. My staff were quite shocked, but all it did was make me mad. I don’t think of it as abuse.
“Parliament is a workplace like any other workplace. Perhaps people think that all of us are going to be so much better than the cross-section of New Zealand. And we are not. There are some of us there that are just arseholes. And you get them in all sorts of workplaces.”