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April 3, 2008 | by  | in Online Only |
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Unedited Darren Hughes interview

Darren Hughes Interview.

What did you want to be when you were growing up, and why?

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a member of Parliament.

Seriously??!

Absolutely. And I wanted to represent the local area, and I wanted to be a labour MP, so I knew all of those things ridiculously early. I never wavered from any of those things too. So on one hand, I have always felt fortunate that I have never struggled to know what to do. But on the other hand, I cant really explain why that was the case. For me, for as long as I can remember, I wanted to be the labour MP for my home area.

What are your memories of your childhood and growing up – and did these have any bearing on your political life?

I have really good memories of growing up. I have always lived in small places. Foxton, Levin, and Wainuiomata for a short while too. And I have always liked areas where you get to know nearly everybody, and where you kind of feel part of the community. My childhood was very much a community focused childhood, like I was involved in everything that was going. I guess that gave me a strong sense of community, of looking out for people, respect, understanding, tolerance, inclusion – all those kind of things, which I think are all hallmarks of how successful a society is. And so I guess that did influence my politics, yeah. I don’t like to see groups of people excluded cause the only reason is they’re different, or they’re not rich enough, or powerful enough, or they don’t speak English well enough – that greatly offends me cause I have always felt very included in society and I want that to be true for everyone.

At high School, did you have any particular subjects you enjoyed or excelled at?

Debating! [laughs]. The two subjects I felt really good at were history, and accounting. Which Is probably quite good now that I am the minister of statistics! Yeah, two very different subjects, but those are the two subjects I really, really enjoyed. I really enjoyed history, cause like politics, there is so much of what happened before in the world, who’s in power, who’s in, who’s out, you know, who’s manipulating it, who’s using it to be a force of good, and how that shapes what happens around you, you know? I guess that’s what’s happening at parliament – we are writing the future history at the moment, so I was always fascinated by that. Yeah, numbers interest me as well, which is why accounting was quite interesting. Trying to work out how much things cost, and can you spread things over more years, and all that kind of stuff – but those are the two.

What extra-curricular activities did you take part in during your years at high school?

look, I wasn’t really born into a body that was suited for sports [laughs]. I worked that out pretty quick. So I worked out that politics would be the only activity I would get any support in. I played a little bit of soccer. I was very involved in debating at school – I did that. And I was the manager of the first 15 rugby team at school as well. I enjoyed that, I mean I like rugby, Im just not built to play it, but I was built to administrate it, so I got quite involved there. And then I guess, on the service side of things, I did a lot of activity. I was involved in student council. I was the student representative on the board of trustees for 3 years. I was involved in lots of community initiatives while I was at secondary school, and really benefited from that.

Aside from having a successful election, what other political or personal goals have you set yourself for 2008?

The absolute top goal, is to end the year as the member for Otaki. And to end the year with Helen Clark as Prime Minister – so those are my two top goals. And that takes a lot of my energy and focus. But I have some other goals. I am really trying hard this year to be a lot healthier, so I have got a new gym routine. Im sticking to it so far, trying to make that a priority. The difficult thing is finding time – so I am sort of going to the gym at 9, 10 o’clock at night – which is probably not the best time to go, but I get to. So that’s a goal. There are a few things around my house I want to do. Some practical things I suddenly realised, I have almost lived in my house for 6 years, and I have been meaning to do things that whole time – but I’ve got one or two things on the list there. So those would be my personal goals, but they are dwarfed by the political goals, cause in the election year, the 3 year cycle is all consumed – that’s [the election] the priority.

What has been your most memorable moment as a member of Parliament?

I think getting sworn in for the first time as an MP. I think being 24, and being chosen by my own electorate to be there member of parliament, and coming in on to the floor of parliament, and being sworn in – you know, I remember every moment of it really. It was the fulfilment of a lifetime dream, and I was still at a ridiculously early age. So that would strike as a real memory for me, cause it just felt like the beginning of what I want to do for the rest of my life. I’m realistic, I know that in politics, everything can be all over in 5 minutes, you know, and I know that. So you have to know that – this job doesn’t belong to me, you know, im looking after it for a while, but the job of MP for Otaki will go on regardless of who holds it, but I am determined to fight to keep it. It means so much to me, and my most memorable moment was being sworn in and being officially made the MP for Otaki”. “Do you regret entering politics so young, and not experiencing more of life?” “No, I don’t, cause I think the House of Representatives does need 2 or 3 people who are under 30. this term, I have been the only person under 30, and in April I wont be [sobs]!!! You’ll need to pause the interview!!! ‘interview was stopped while Mr. Hughes broke down’ [laughs]. But I don’t regret it, I have loved everyday of this job. I mean I think it is true to say, even the bad days are good in this job, you know? You are doing something that you passionately believe in. but the only regret I guess I think I have is that a lot of my uni mates have gone off and had fantastic times overseas, on their OE, and I never got to do that. I think it is really important that young New Zealanders travel. We live at the bottom of the earth, and we need to know about the world, and the world needs to know about us. And that’s not gonna happen if people sit here like fortress New Zealand. Yes, so I guess that’s the one thing. I have had emails, texts in the middle of the night, phone calls from mates who are really living it up. And you sorta think, ‘well, that could have been me’. but in no way has that ever made me wish I was wasn’t doing this. Everyone I grew up with, who meets me again, they all say the same thing – there is no surprise you doing this. Everyone knew that’s what I wanted to do. So the fact that I am able to live my dream so early in life is a blessing, but if I had to offer up something, it would be the OE.

Is there a certain accomplishment in your political career that gives you the most pride?

yeah, there are 2 things that I was able to do in my first term, that I am really proud of. One was getting money approved for the new Horowhenua health centre, which had been a really difficult issue to resolve. I got heavily involved in that, and we were able to take a case through to the Government and argue for it, and get the money. And that is making a real difference everyday to people who live in the Horowhenua. And then the other thing that I feel really proud of, from that first term, is the money for the McKay crossing over-bridge. Because on the Kapiti coast, transport had been neglected for quite a long time, and I want to see transmission gully – that is the Grand-daddy of the projects. But I just knew we had to get some runs on the board, to show people we were doing something, and so McKay’s crossing became one of my very first projects that I took on and we got that approved, and got the money up, and got the building started, and we opened it – you can point to things an say ‘I was responsible for that, the work I did on that, helped make that happen’. And so that’s the concrete side of the job that you really like to be able to do. And I guess, in general things, there is not one case you can turn to and point, you know, cause obviously they are confidential largely, but just the general ability to run just a couple of clinics a week, you know were people walk in off the street and see you, about some major problem in their life, and your able to pick up the phone and do something about it, and if you can sort it out (and nearly you always can, not always, but mostly you can), that invigorates me every time it happens. That’s the lowest profile part of this job, but it’s the one I get the most satisfaction out of. I know that what I was able to do, changed those peoples lives. From an outsider looking in, it might be a minor thing, its probably why it doesn’t get the press. The people concerned, you know you did something for them – I just think that is the most amazing ability you have as an MP, as a local MP.

Do your decisions in Parliament reflect your personal ethics – and where do these ethics stem from?

Yes – I think so. Well obviously, on the more difficult decisions, you can spend a lot of time debating things, within yourself, but I think one of the good things about MMP is that it means the 2 big parties have broken up into lost of small parties, and retaining Labour and National, it means that people can now belong to political parties that they genuinely feel a philosophical commitment to. So, there is not the broad term of the big old churches to the left and the right, and in them you could have had people that could have belonged to either party pretty easily, or who were way to the extreme but felt that they had nowhere else to go. So I think that you have your own personal values, and you have got to find a political party that matches up with that. When you join it, you should feel comfortable in there. Political market place under MMP was in parties. You know, if your interested in Parliamentary democracy, then you should be able to find one [party] that fits you. And for me it was just clearly Labour [laughs]. And I have never ever doubted that.

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What is the hardest part about being a politician?

I think the hardest part is trying to convey to voters that you are working on an issue, that things always end up being far more complex than the general public might appreciate. So, one of the great things about this job is that you get to meet a lot of great people, but, not and, but, you meet a lot of people who give you quick fix solutions to every problem in the country – and they give it to you in the 10 minutes that they are talking to you. They genuinely believe these are good answers to the problems, that’s the sort of challenges we face. But, when you get in here [Parliament], and you start working on things, you realise there is a massive competition on for the attention of the Government, the funding of the Government, for space in the media, so in order for an issue to come to prominence, you have to do a lot of background work and solid evidence based policy work, and that takes a long time. The difficult thing is to let your constituents know, ‘yes, we are working on something’, even when they cant see immediate results in front of them, and when you finally come to present a solution to an issue, it might have had to go through quite a few different stages before it gets to what people might have used as a one liner to describe it in the beginning. That’s a real tension, and we live in a time when the opposition and the media love to make out that everything is easy – run a hospital? No problem, its simple to run a hospital. Well, it would be simple if everyone got sick in a logical and orderly fashion, but people don’t, lives don’t work like that and we have politics cause peoples lives don’t function in a way like that – we need collective solutions to things like that, that you cant leave people on their own, so I guess that’s the frustration of being an MP, is that things don’t happen quickly enough. But the longer I’m here, the more I understand why that is. You can have meetings where groups of people come in and see you and tell you diametrically opposed things, with equal passion, vigour, conviction, and integrity, but you cant please both sides. I think the MP’s in here, who tell every audience what they want to hear, are the ones who get initial popularity, but long term, never get anything done. Because in the end, people work it out.

What do you believe to be essential personal characteristics for a politician – or what would one need, to be a successful politician?

A strong work ethic. A thick skin. An ability to listen. But also, an ability to lead. A lot of people confuse listening with telling people what they want to hear. Our job is to be ahead of the public on some stuff. I think that’s important. I think if we just tell people what they are already thinking, you know, we are failing them in that regard. I think you need to be an inclusive person. I think you need to be respectful of differences in the community. I think because New Zealand is a small country and given our location, you have got to be a person with a global outlook. Who doesn’t believe in wallowing in the ‘poor old little New Zealand’ syndrome, but says ‘Right, This is where we are, this is how many people we’ve got, this is the way it is, now – lets get into it!’. And take on the world like that, you know? I think that is critical. That’s why I get really frustrated with this discussion about ‘Brain Drain’, because I think we need as many New Zealanders, obviously we need New Zealanders to stay at home, but I mean there is a pretty good cycle of people who come back, but we need to be sending lots of New Zealanders around the world, so that they improve themselves, but also, so they let other people know about New Zealand. The ones who stay away, and work in prominent jobs in other countries, are always gonna have New Zealand’s interests at heart. When you are a tiny country you need that sort of thing. So yeah, I think a global outlook is pretty important. And I think the other thing that you have to have is patience.

You are quite clearly an extrovert. Do you think it’s necessary to be extroverted to succeed in Politics?

No, I don’t. Although I think it’s easier. I think all manner of people are able to do well in politics, but I think when you are at an advantage as an extrovert, is when you draw a lot of energy of being with a lot of people. O course there are times when you need to get away, from it all, but I think this is a job where you are in front of people a lot. I think politicians who are more introverted, often they struggle with that a bit. The way they work is they don’t like being constantly surrounded by people. And yet in this job, its pretty hard not to be. But I don’t think that people who are introverted can do the job well, I just think that is one of the differences. I mean there are people in here who love working late at night. When there is no one around. Where as there are others of us, where we do a bit of work, and you have to talk to someone you know? Run this idea past someone, or get on the phone, talk to your colleagues, send a text you know. We are pretty good communicators together. That’s the other thing about this place, that please me, well, certainly in this Government. It’s a really collegial atmosphere, people generally like each other, and want to help each other, and want to work together – so its pretty cool. I mean I have made a lot of friends, genuine friends, who are other Labour MP’s. I find that great, I mean its not ‘all for one’ and all that sort of… “Do you have friendships with politicians from outside of the Labour party?” “Oh Yeah. On the other side of the House. To an extent I do. They’re pretty limited friendships tho, by the nature of things. I mean there are people on the opposite side of politics, like Simon Power and Katherine Rich, who I get on with, you know? I went to Nigeria with Shane Arden. I get on well with people from parties who work more closely with Labour. I get on really well with Metiria Turei from the Greens. I get on very well with Peter Dunne, and Judy Turner from United Future. I have got on very well with Brian Donnelly from NZ First. He’s just left, but I mean a lot of the NZ First guys are really easy guys to hang out with, and get on with. So you can. I was a whip for 3 and a half years, you are constantly dealing with other parties, in that respect.

What do you see yourself doing upon exiting politics?

Umm. Look, I don’t Know. You know, I said to you before that politics can all be over pretty quickly, and I know that. My own psychology about this job, I know that. But, even tho I accept that, I accept the finality of that [politics], its very difficult to know what I would do if I wasn’t involved in politics. I don’t know what else I am good at. So, im not sure. I think… and I mean I would like to stay here for quite a long time, you know, I would like to spend a good chunk of my working life working here, as an MP for Otaki. So, I mean I am not sure what kind of opportunities will be there when the time comes to leave.

In your life, what achievement are you most proud of?

In my whole life time. All 29 and ¾ years! Um. Probably becoming an MP, and becoming a minister. I am the youngest minister on either side of the Parliament. Labour or National. And I didn’t expect that. So that was a pretty big thing. So probably the biggest accomplishment in my life was to achieve my dream [Becoming an MP], as I was able to, and start to build on the things that I care about.

Tell me something that not many people know about you

um. Having been in politics for a big percentage of my life, I think most things are known. I was a deputy warden at Weir House at Victoria University, for 2 years. And that was a great training ground for being a Government whip – Trying to organise, and keep everyone in line! And make sure everyone stuck to the rules and that kind of thing. Um, that’s probably something that not many people would necessarily know about me. And of course, I was on the VUWSA Exec. In 1997 as the education president, under president Alastair Shaw.

What scares you the most?

Seeing National get in and ruining this fine country, and setting us back with their reactionary economic and social policy [laughs]. One thing that scared me, was the last election. When I saw the National party come up in popularity, on the back of the race card. Because I could see them picking up a lot of votes. Almost enough votes to form a Government. Or almost enough votes to win an election, on a Saturday, and I had no idea that… I don’t think they had any idea how to put a country back together on the Sunday, you know, playing the race card. I wouldn’t have minded it if we had of been defeated because people think we should have gone to the war in Iraq, when we stayed out of it. Or if they thought we shouldn’t have put so much tax payer dollars in lowering the cost of going to the doctors. I mean if it was a policy based thing, but to see them play the race card, and to see it almost work, that did scare me, cause I think its very hard to maintain an inclusive tolerance of society, when that sort of thing is being preached. So that did scare me, and thankfully, we were able to fight that off. the fact that it came so close, means that it is presumably so close to the surface still. “What about on a personal level – aside from politics. What scares you the most?” “I’m pretty well balanced. What don’t I like? Dogs can scare me sometimes. When I became the candidate for Otaki in 2002, the out going member, Judy Keel, recognised this in me. she said ‘are you scared of dogs?’ I said sometimes I am, cause we have always had dogs, growing up. But other peoples dogs scared me. and she said ‘ don’t worry. All dogs in this electorate vote Labour’. So that gave me the psychological confidence to go out and introduce myself and say ‘take me to your owner’. But, um yeah. No, I think that’s probably it, yeah.

What is the best advice you have ever been given, and who gave it to you?

Very easy to answer this question. My good friend Winnie Laban, The MP for Mana, New Zealand’s first Pacific Island woman elected to Parliament, she said to me very early ion when I go in here, she said ‘My Dear, Don’t give negative people free rent space in your head’. And I think about that a lot, and that was good advice. I think its not about shielding yourself from constructive criticism, and being arrogant. But it is about putting things in perspective, and not obsessing about people who just want to attack you for the sake of it. So you know, don’t give negative people free rent space in your head. I like that, I think it’s a great concept. Good advice she gave.

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