We wanted to sit down with Prime Minister Bill English for an on-camera interview, just as we had with Jacinda Ardern—it was, with the old journalistic maxim of balance in mind, only fair. But the office of the Prime Minister rebuffed our approaches. Okay, said VICE, how about Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett? No? We considered Judith Collins. Nope. After more of the back-and-forths that are inevitable when dealing with a political party—and now, obviously, with the election at its terminal stage, when most minds have been made up and hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders have already voted—I sat down for an interview with the golden-haired Minister of Education Nikki Kaye, the VICE-appropriate youthful face of the National Party, the un-Jacinda, the anti-Ardern.
Kaye is the same age, 37, as Ardern. The two used to be neighbours, with offices in adjacent villas on Auckland's College Hill. And Kaye, of course, knows how to beat Ardern, having done it twice in the Auckland Central electorate, in 2011 and 2014. But does her party share that same talent? The polls don't seem to be able to tell us, oscillating wildly from week to week.
I asked if there was nervousness in the National camp, given the party was facing pressure it hadn't felt in a decade. "I don't think I'd describe it as nervousness. I'd describe it as—I mean people are worried," here she listed off the worries, a litany of Labour's perceived faults—lack of policy detail, surfeit of taxation, lower immigration meaning fewer people to build the sorely needed houses. But Kaye was sanguine, citing her recent fight with breast cancer for her outlook. "From my perspective it's about what you do and who you are and if we lose on the night, I am very confident that we have the best economic and social policies for the next three years, so I'll be comfortable in who I am."
But would English continue as leader if National lost, the second time English would've helmed his party to such a fate? Kaye said she hoped so. "I really, really rate him." At times it felt, talking to Kaye, that VICE had got its original wish to speak to English, so large did he—and his signature social investment policies—loom in the conversation: "one of the greatest social reformers our country has ever seen", Kaye called him.
Labour, Kaye said, would just throw money at the 100,000 children both parties have promised to lift out of poverty, while National "have built a data machine" that will identify where money could be spent most efficiently—like the "400 families in Rotorua for which there are pretty severe issues". This intervention would be a "combination of lifting education standards, a combination of wraparound intensive support—we're prepared to spend hundreds of thousands dollars on these families, particularly early… tackling big hard reform like family and sexual violence."
How does the so-called boot-camp policy, where serious young offenders would be sent to a military-style camp, fit into the socially liberal structure of social investment? Wasn't this policy just political expediency—a tough-on-crime missive sent out to percolate among middle New Zealand, but a policy that had proven ineffective, or worse, in the past? Kaye told me I needed to look beyond media headlines. I said I had. I asked if she disagreed with the term "boot camp". "I don't think it's helpful to kind of get involved in what the term is." Call them whatever, will they help? "I think if you sat down with some of the young people that I have, then you would find that many of them would say, 'We just wished someone actually cared about us.' Sometimes that has to be the State, and sometimes that has to be tougher."
Similarly with drugs, and particularly with the synthetic scourge that has, so far, killed some 20 people around the country—National has increased the maximum sentence for supplying the drug from two to eight years. But National's reign has, of course, also coincided with the rise of this drug, perhaps the most harmful to ever hit the streets of this country. I put it to Kaye that her government had mismanaged the response, and that this spate of deaths was the consequence. "My experience of being in government is: can you prevent 100 percent of the things that are occurring, given the nature of what some people are doing in terms of supply for our most vulnerable? These people… are the lowest of the low."
The answer, she said, was to properly resource Police—earlier this year the Government announced half a billion dollars to boost police numbers—and Customs. English has also previously spoken of the importance of "personal responsibility". I asked if this was good enough, and if we would see more of a governmental approach had it been 20 middle-class kids who had died. Her face flashed with anger at the suggestion. "No, no, I don't agree with that at all. For any person being harmed, the response would be exactly the same."
She's also certain that decriminalising marijuana has no part to play in the answer, citing "personal experiences in my family" and her experiences with young people. She says marijuana has a demotivational effect. But also a potential painkilling one. "I've had breast cancer, so from my perspective I think it's really important to help people who are in pain… if people are in pain, they should get access to what they need."
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Kaye describes herself an environmentalist, and doesn't hesitate to describe climate change as the biggest threat to the world and the country. Was New Zealand still the "clean-green" country our marketing claimed, I asked. "I think we have to continue to lift environmental standards… If you met the number of tourists that I do, they definitely don't think we're perfect. At all. And we're not, actually. I've always considered myself a 'blue-green'… Look, I'm going to be much further 'green', if you like, than some of my colleagues." She touted Auckland's public transport as on the cusp of being potentially word-class, and said a diversified economy—not so reliant on dairy—was key to decreasing emissions.
She positions herself on the liberal end of the National Party spectrum. I asked if Labour would be just as natural a home for her as was National. "No way," she said. "They think happiness is redistribution for sake of it. I believe that's not real life. In real life some people work harder and they should be rewarded for their effort."
Our coffees were long finished, our allotted time had drawn to a close, and Kaye's press secretary had lost interest in his phone and was starting to bristle. She thanked the cafe staff with the professional, deliberate eye-contact-making politeness of a politician days out from an election, and stepped out onto the footpath, off to her next media appointment.
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