Interview: Amy Adamsby The Listener
Amy Adams, the minister behind changes to the Resource Management Act, is making sure women are making their mark in the corridors of power.
She is super-organised, talks super-fast and is super-busy. She’s a super all-rounder, really. You’d be very surprised to see her slink out onto the Beehive balcony for a cigarette or to snog a staffer at a Christmas party. But there’s more to her than that. She was raised by a solo mum of little means who put herself through university, supporting two daughters and inculcating them with a strong sense of self-belief and self-reliance.
After just one year in Cabinet, and at just over 40, Adams is already being talked about as a future National leader. She’s certainly competent and knowledgeable in her portfolios, which include Minister for the Environment and Associate Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery. In John Key’s Cabinet reshuffle this week she was promoted from No 19 to No 15. What might hold her back in the rugged world of politics, though, is that perhaps she is too scripted, too cautious, too proper in that head prefect sort of way.
She seems to be constantly catching herself. Her press secretary shares her nervousness and scribbles away with a furrowed brow at the slightest whiff of anything newsworthy. But occasionally she slips out of her robot suit and speaks her mind, and laughs. Her press secretary frowns.
Don’t expect Adams to dazzle you with rhetoric. If she is passionate about the environment, it’s buried in technocratic language. Her biggest piece of work recently has been reforming the Resource Management Act (RMA), legislation that National supporters have been complaining about for nearly 20 years.
Year after year at National Party conferences, delegates have swapped apocryphal stories of good jokers who only wanted to extend their decks but were thwarted by the Act. So you’d think Adams could incite some excitement over her reforms. Or not.
“So it’s phase two and even two is broken into what we are sort of calling 2A and 2B. So 2A is in the House and passed its first reading and 2B is the much bigger, more substantive piece of work that tackles some of the harder questions.” Don’t ask what the harder questions are because you’ll get more impenetrable jargon broken into subclauses.
To be fair, it’s significant work – such as putting six-month time limits on consenting medium-sized projects – and with significant prodding, she musters a scintilla of passion for why the Act needed reform.
“As a lawyer, I have seen it work badly for communities and objectors and I have seen it work really badly for applicants,” she says. “I was part of a profession that used to openly refer to it as chequebook law, because basically you just keep going and burn the other guy off. That’s not justice.”
Okay, so let’s try rivers. Surely, as a farmer and Environment Minister, she is at the collision point between dairying and clean water – two of the great New Zealand passions? She gets close to criticising her own, but smothers it with balance and consideration.
“There are some farmers who aren’t doing enough. There are a lot of farmers working quite hard on this – and sometimes it’s working to improve from a not-good-enough to a good-enough – and there are some who are doing exceptional environmental work.”
Then the technocrat takes over. She’s off, talking about council sewerage outflows, E coli and pathogens. She agrees it is the major challenge of her portfolio. It’s just that she fails to be interesting when talking about it. It’s only when she turns to the magnitude of our problem with dirty waterways that she cuts to the chase.
“Some of the reports I have seen suggest that even if we could turn off the tap of all contaminants entering the water system today, some of these water bodies wouldn’t show improvement necessarily to 2100,” she says. “We have to be realistic about whether we are going to see nitrogen levels in some of our most polluted lakes drop significantly in a short time. So, we have to think of this as a generational piece of work.”
The press secretary seems a little troubled at this. Maybe he’s playing with a potential headline in his head: “Rivers Foul for a Generation, says Minister.”
Adams’s other major challenge is helping Gerry Brownlee on the Canterbury rebuild. Here she is less guarded and more intimate. “I live it every day as an electorate MP and as the Associate Minister. I am not immune to frustrations. I get frustrated as anything with the processes.”
About a third of her farmhouse collapsed after the September earthquake and she has another house in the city that is unliveable. “At a personal level, I am battling the insurance companies.”
Then she fears she may have said something interesting. “Battling is too strong a word. I am struggling to make progress.” She laughs at her euphemism. “I am not suing them.”
It’s a story with which many Christchurch people will be familiar. Major drilling has to be done before decisions are made. When can they start drilling? Don’t know. Is it a rebuild or a repair? Not sure yet. And so it goes on.
She’s “incredibly frustrated” about it, but could it be any other way? Adams pauses for the longest time in our interview. It’s actually only four seconds, but given how quickly she usually answers and how rapidly she talks, it feels like a minute’s silence.
It seems she has been separating her personal and ministerial responsibilities. “As a government minister: no, I don’t believe that the Government can do a lot more than it is doing to put pressure on insurance companies,” she says. “My personal view is that I would like the insurance companies to be more responsible and proactive and responsive.”
They are trying to get away with paying as little as possible, aren’t they? “As a homeowner, I hope that is not the case,” she responds. But could it be anything else? “I imagine they will be very concerned to ensure that they don’t pay anything they don’t need to pay.”
That is the same thing, though, isn’t it? “Yeah,” she whispers, subconsciously agreeing with the more bald statement, before her lawyer’s instincts kick in. “They obviously want to be very careful that their exposure isn’t any bigger than it needs to be. As a homeowner, you are concerned that you don’t get the short end of the stick.”
The press secretary’s pen has been hovering over his notebook. He relaxes, not realising he’ll need the pen again shortly. When confronted with Mayor Bob Parker’s concern that Christchurch could become a sleepy backwater without a vibrant CBD, Adams hits back with what for her is a vicious counter-attack. She says that by moving to block the performing arts centre and cricket pavilion, the City Council’s rhetoric about a lively central city isn’t being matched by its actions.
“They are making some odd decisions,” she says. “The challenge of delivering something new is you have to be prepared to change from the old, and I find some of their decisions incongruous.”
“Odd” is severe criticism in the Adams lexicon. “Incongruous” is probably even stronger. Besides, she says, throwing caution to the wind, the central city before the quake wasn’t that great, anyway. “Almost anyone will tell you that Christchurch central city was a bit gloomy and grim to begin with. There was a lot of wasted space, there was too much space – dead and dying and big wind tunnels down Armagh St and really old.”
The press secretary scribbles away. Perhaps he’s envisaging the worst this time: “Minister Slates Council’s Decisions as Odd – says Old City was Dying.” But he needn’t worry. Adams is back to talking about blueprints and plans and opportunities – all delivered at a hundred kilometres an hour. The lawyer-turned-politician has made her case in Adams vs Christchurch City Council. It’s time to move on to the personal stuff.
Adams clearly loves being a minister and clearly works hard at it. “It’s a bit like having kids. You think you know what you are getting yourself into. It’s a decision you wanted. It’s what you went after, but when you have them – no one has ever prepared you for that and it’s more full-on than you could ever really understand until you are in the job.”
Why don’t you take us through an average week, then? It sounds like a reasonable question, but it’s a dreadful mistake. She methodically works through her diary.
Mid-Sunday she spends up to four hours reading Cabinet papers and discussing them by phone with other ministers. She leaves home at 7.00am on Monday and flies to Wellington. There are staff meetings about the week ahead, then officials brief her before Cabinet.
After Cabinet there are more meetings before she flies back to Christchurch for electorate events on Monday night. She leaves home at 5.30am on Tuesday for caucus and the start of the House sitting week. She ploughs on, right through the whole cycle: times, dates and all, right down to pre-caucus meetings, community fairs and firefighters’ awards. The press secretary stops taking notes.
Adams’s energy and exactitude may have plenty of fans, but she denies being ambitious for the leadership. “I don’t see it … it’s certainly not something I am aiming for,” she says, when asked the impossible but inevitable question about whether she aspires to be Prime Minister one day.
The press secretary hovers over his notebook, but he needn’t worry. She praises John Key in an answer that only falls short of perfect for being too perfect. “He just astounds me in what he does and how he does it and I think he has set the bar so incredibly high that I look at him doing that role and I think, ‘You know what? I’m pleased we’ve got him, but it is not somewhere I see myself.’”
She worries that might sound a bit “greasy”. It does. Even the press secretary looks a little embarrassed.
It’s easy to pin a goody-good label on Adams. She admits she’s a typical Nat from one side, but offers another angle. “If you wanted to paint it the other way: product of a broken home, raised by a solo mum with no education. I won’t say poor upbringing, but certainly not a privileged upbringing.”
She was two when her parents split. Her mother had no real qualifications or even a driver’s licence. “She’d grown up in a house where women didn’t drive and they didn’t really work, either, and she found herself suddenly with no way of supporting herself.”
She put herself through university and became a psychologist bonded to the Education Department. She passed on the value of hard work to her daughters. “If my sister and I wanted pocket money, we made fudge after school and we went to the Saturday markets and set up a stall and sold fudge. If we wanted extra money, we got a paper round.”
When Adams was four, she apparently announced she was going to be a violinist and after that was going to be in Parliament. It’s not so much the heights she aspired to that surprise but her career planning. She got her chance in 2007 when Brian Connell was ejected from the National Party. Connell effectively sparked the leadership spill against Don Brash by blowing the whistle on his affair, but what seemed to horrify voters was Connell’s confession he once swung a cat into a fireplace (animals having a higher place in New Zealand politics than jilted spouses).
Selwyn is a safe National seat that has been held by high-achieving women, including Ruth Richardson. “My seat has this incredible history of putting up strong, stroppy women, which is kind of odd in one way because I have quite a traditional heartland New Zealand seat,” Adams says. This led to some confronting scenes when Adam was running for the Selwyn nomination. “I would have people say to me, ‘I am not going to vote for you because you should be at home with your children.’”
It happened again during public meetings at the 2008 election when she found herself up against four male candidates. “All of [them] either had children as young or younger than mine, or who were just getting married and starting, but I was the one who would get questioned about, ‘What if you become an MP, how will your children cope?’”
Adams had a ready response. “A big part of the reason I wanted to stand was because I think Parliament needs mums.” Parts of Parliament are still strikingly male-dominated – particularly finance and economics. Adams chaired the finance and expenditure select committee last term and felt the gender skew.
“I remember sitting there one day and all down the Government side were male members, all down the Opposition side were male members,” she recalls. “There were literally all men at the back of the room and the only other women in the room were committee staff, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s odd.’”
As we know, “odd” is a word of deep opprobrium for Adams, so we can assume this is one part of politics she does not like. But there are rewards, too. “I love the fact that my daughter looks at me and sees [politics] as a potential path. She is never going to grow up thinking she can’t do any of this stuff because she’s a woman. In fact, she has already told me she wants my seat!”