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Tracey Martin. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

NZ First minister Tracey Martin on her family's tragic past

Tracey Martin talks to Michele Hewitson about being blindsided by her own caucus, bypassing Winston Peters’ charisma, and what drove her to tears.

Tracey Martin, the New Zealand First MP and Minister for Children, has just one slightly unusual sanity-saving hobby: she binge-watches talent shows. She doesn’t care what they are. “Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice, Israel’s Got Talent. I stream them. I love seeing those people. They’re just normal, average, everyday people that you’d pass in the street and they open their mouth and the most amazing sound comes out. And nobody would have thunk it. I love that. I love human beings surprising you – in a nice way.”

She was surprised, not in a nice way, by her party announcing that it wanted a referendum on abortion law reform – on the eve of the reform bill’s first reading in Parliament. This was after Martin – the chief negotiator for her party who worked closely with Justice Minister Andrew Little on the Abortion Legislation Bill – had said nobody in the NZ First caucus had mentioned a referendum. That was on a Tuesday morning. Later that same morning, her caucus called for said referendum. This, said The Daily Blog, was the equivalent of “a drive-by shooting of one of their own MPs”, which, even allowing for hyperbole, seems about right.

Martin had been about to give a speech in Parliament. It was a speech by way of a highly emotional and personal story: that her grandmother and great-aunt had both died young of complications from backstreet abortions. The speech would have to wait, she told the House. She was visibly upset. That was because, she says, she was thinking about her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother, Beverley Williams, had been abandoned by her parents and raised in an orphanage. She went on to have a child out of wedlock, whom she gave up for adoption. She then married, had two children and, when they were five and two, dropped them off at the neighbours and was never heard from again. It is a terribly sad story, hence the tears.

Beverley Williams, left, with daughter Anne Martin and son Barry, not long before abandoning them. Photo/Tracey Martin collection/Supplied

I’d have thought Martin would also be furious. “In that moment, you can be frustrated. I was sad. I mean, I’d spent a lot of time and I’d gone back continually to my caucus. It just never came up. [But] no, I wasn’t furious. I think there are times when you just think, ‘This is where we’re at, and how do I get from here with dignity to somewhere else?’ Ha.” Because it was embarrassing? “It was. Yeah, it was, and that’s why I got permission from the caucus to immediately talk to the Prime Minister and [Finance Minister] Grant Robertson and Andrew to say sorry.”

You would think, or I would, that she’d have been in an almighty sulk about being so publicly blindsided. She is not a grudge-bearer. She sucks it up and moves on. She is immensely pragmatic.

I am not the only person to have wondered why Martin is in NZ First. I wondered whether, if not for the prohibition on waka-jumping, she might have been tempted to step into another canoe after the “drive-by shooting”. People, she says, often ask why she’s not in National; they also often ask why she’s not in Labour. She says if she wasn’t in NZ First she wouldn’t be in politics at all. She has “a basic mistrust” of both Labour and National. She is in NZ First because “I lived through the 1980s. I saw what National and Labour did to our country. From a neo-liberal aspect, my dad was one of those middle managers, men in their late forties and early fifties, who got laid off. I just saw a whole change in the way we looked after each other. And community caring for community became every man for himself.”

Is that right-wing or left-wing? “It was the Labour Party that did it and it was the National Party that built on it.”

She likes and admires Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister. She is good friends with former Labour MP Annette King; she gets on well with Education Minister Chris Hipkins. Her friends in the NZ First caucus are Jenny Marcroft and Fletcher Tabuteau.

Emerging from coalition talks with party leader Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images

She doesn’t “like to say” that her party’s leader, Winston Peters, is a friend. “It seems a bit presumptuous of me. He’s more of a mentor, I would say.” Why presumptuous? “Because lots of people want to be Winston’s friend … or say they’re Winston’s friend and say his name in vain.” She makes him sound like some sort of guru. “It’s amazing, some people treat him that way. To me, he’s just a man I highly respect.”

She is oblivious to his famous charisma. “Actually, I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen other people react to it – absolutely I have. But I couldn’t describe what that is. I haven’t been affected by it.”

She was deputy leader in the last term but was rolled by Ron Mark. Of course she was hurt, she says. “Yeah, I think so. I mean, nobody likes losing a vote … I don’t know who voted for whom.” She has a good idea, though. “Oh, you have to go away and suck it up.” She didn’t cry. She tries very hard not to cry, she says.

She also tries very hard not to put herself second, which is what she did during the negotiations with Labour to form a coalition. She said: “Oh, don’t worry about me.” She means that she would have been satisfied with being a backbencher. As it turned out, Ardern offered her the job as Minister for Children – she is also Minister of Internal Affairs, Minister for Seniors and Associate Minister of Education – but she was furious with herself at the time. “Because that’s what women do and, so, I’d done what traditionally we do, right? We say, ‘Okay, sorry’, if somebody gets upset, or we say, ‘Oh, well, I’ll put myself second,’ and I deliberately tried not to do that.”

Arriving at Parliament after the 2017 election. Photo/Getty Images

She did what I thought was a peculiar thing after the abortion reform undermining. She issued a statement saying that some people thought NZ First was a dictatorship, but it wasn’t, and that the decision to call for a referendum was arrived at through the democratic process that is the NZ First caucus. Which does rather stress the fact that some people do think NZ First is a dictatorship and that Winston Peters is the dictator. “No, because what I found most sad about it is that the side effect of what was a democratic decision by the NZ First caucus is that people have all said, ‘It’s Winston’. So why I made that comment is [that] I don’t work in a dictatorship and he doesn’t sit there and say, ‘You will do what I tell you to do.’”

I say, disingenuously, that I wonder why people think Peters is a dictator. “I don’t know why, because I’ve worked with him for years.” Has he ever shouted at her? “No! Hell no. He never even swears. Even when he’s telling a joke that might have a swear word in it, he apologises.” Oh, the gentleman dictator? “Yeah, but he’s not a dictator.”

She really likes Peters, whom she calls WP, or the Right Honourable. “I think he’s great. He reminds me of my dad.” Was her father a dictator? “Ha, ha. No. But there are qualities that Winston has. Just the style of him, that reminds me of my dad.”

Her father, who died in 2008, was in “the booze trade”; her mother, who is still alive, was a teacher. They had three girls and not much money. Every Christmas, her mother, Anne, would cut up one of her own dresses to make three new dresses for her daughters.

“I remember my mum telling stories about her Christmases and that she’d only get an orange for Christmas … But my mum would cut down her own dresses … and we would all end up with brand-new outfits at Christmas time, but mum ended up with one less outfit.”

Tracey Martin with her mother, Anne, who joined New Zealand First in the early 1990s. Photo/Tracey Martin collection/Supplied

This might be the very definition of selflessness. “I always thought my dad was the driving force of our family. He was very dynamic; he had the gift of the gab and I’ve inherited that from him. But actually it was my mum. She was just quiet and stoic.”

Her mother joined NZ First in the early 1990s and ran as a candidate in three elections. She was never high enough on the list to have had any chance of being elected, Martin says, but her father always said that, if she did win, he’d leave. So, a little bit of a dictator, perhaps? “I have a husband who is the complete opposite. The moment I got elected, my husband said: ‘Now’s your time. I’m quitting my job tomorrow. You go and do what you need to do. He quit winemaking and stayed at home [with the children, who were then eight, 10 and 12.]”

Her parents lived on the same property as her in Warkworth, and after her father died, Martin suggested her mother get a dog. She said, “I know we’re all here, but when you close the door at night, it’s just you.” Her mother said she’d think about it. “And she went and got a boyfriend instead.” Blimey. Where did she get him? “Grey Power. So she’s in Devonport, living at her boyfriend’s place.”

When Martin met her husband, Ben, she had decided to give up on men and just have dogs, “because they’re much more trustworthy than men”. She got the dog, one of a series of dalmatians, and then she met Ben and asked him out. He had two other women “on the go” at the time and was about to leave for France. He got rid of the other women and they had dinner at her place and he never left. She claims to be “very conservative” but they didn’t get married until after child No 1 was born. They had a big wedding but forgot to get the licence so they got properly married a year later, at the Masterton registry office. They only bothered at all because, at the time, a loophole in the law meant that if one of them died, the other would have had to go to court to gain custody of any children.

She thinks “maybe” Ben is a left-winger. She knows he’s an atheist; she believes in some sort of higher being but doesn’t mind if she’s proved wrong, because “it won’t matter, will it?” She is pro-union. “I absolutely believe in unions. That’s the only way that employees can get a sense of power balance.” She is such a left-winger. “I don’t know. Is that left-wing? That’s the thing I like about New Zealand First, that we’ve got some extremely right-wing, extremely business-oriented, extremely blue [MPs] sitting inside our caucus and then there’s me and Jenny [Marcroft] and there’s Shane [Jones] and we have those conversations and come up with our decision.” And where does WP sit? “He spends most of his time making sure that none of this gets personalised.”

With husband Ben. Photo/Tracey Martin collection/Supplied

We were having lunch in the members room at Bellamy’s. Were we going to have a glass of wine? “Yes. I am.” She called the waiter, and me, “darling”; she also called me “mate”. She doodled the logo for her husband’s new wine label on the lunch menu and then owned up to the waiter: “I’ve ruined your thing.” I’d have just hidden it in my handbag.

She would not, I’m sure, mind if I say that she looks like one of those people she likes to see on her talent shows: normal, average, everyday people you’d pass in the street. Unlike WP, she is entirely unflashy. She is practical and pragmatic and she doesn’t muck about. Her press secretary, when I suggested a lunch, said that it was unheard of for her to have lunch with a journalist. I get my wallet out at the end of the interview and she says: “Why have you got your wallet out?” So that I can pay for lunch, I say. “Oh,” she says, “is that how it works?”

Before she was an MP, she was “a stay-at-home mum”. She was a stay-at-home mum who was always out and about organising things. She loves volunteering for things, such as organising fundraising galas. She says: “I can’t wait to be out of this job. I’m going to go and volunteer for a whole lot of stuff.”

She is “really crap at pottering”. She gave gardening a go. “I planted some bulbs and they did actually grow. I planted cauliflowers, onions, broccoli. They died.”

Her idea of cooking is, “There’s your two sausages, there’s some mashed potatoes and some peas. That’s my cooking.”

Good, plain, ungarnished fare. That’s her cooking, and it also about sums up her political style.

This article was first published in the October 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.