Sep 12, 2023 Politics
It’s always fascinating coming across politicians with unbridled tenacity and determination to succeed — attributes that can be both a blessing and a curse. Simeon Brown is one of those politicians. He has a laser-focus on success. For the MP for Pakuranga, failure is not an option.
When we meet in his electorate office he was on a real high, as his wife had given birth to their third child the previous day. Brown is obviously pleased with himself and with the role he plays as National’s enfant terrible — a good posture for artists who want attention and for politicians on the way up. Capturing the imagination with shock and a bit of horror can be an effective vote-puller, and as a calculated strategy, it beats raw talent any day.
My leftist friends, knowing I was going to interview Brown, all told me what a shocker he is. They felt he deliberately made outlandish statements to capture the attention of the media, and was far more successful at this than other right-wing politicians. But I found him disarmingly honest, with a zeal and commitment — a man who has clearly positioned himself as the obvious Minister of Transport in the next National government.
The Pakuranga electorate — affluent and predominantly Pākehā — is a perfect place for Brown. One of its main centres is the precise and precious township of Howick. Brown tells me that when he walks the main thoroughfare there he is constantly approached by constituents wanting to shake his hand. No doubt they also complain about rampant crime and the woes of the always-worried upper-middle class.
But to give credit where it is due, Brown has climbed the slippery ladder to success by sheer will and perseverance. I join him in Maurice Williamson’s old office and meet two adoring staff members who clearly consider him a boy wonder. On a good day Brown could pass for 18. Alert and clean cut, he looks as if he has just escaped from a prep class at nearby Saint Kent’s.
All this dovetails with his devout Christian beliefs — something I can only assume links him strongly with Christopher Luxon. Their politics and thinking are in alignment, like Mars and Jupiter. Brown acts as if he stands for everything clean, good and right in the world, and that it will all somehow materialise under a National government after the election in October. There is no talking Brown out of this philosophy; he’s been working a long time on getting things right.
Brown came out of the Clendon Residents Group and also made his mark on a newly established Manurewa Youth Council, which he used as a springboard to the Manurewa Local Board. Within six months he was the deputy chair. In 2014 he decided to try for Parliament, standing in Manurewa, but was defeated by Labour’s popular incumbent, Louisa Wall. He didn’t sulk, he says, but got back on the campaign trail three years later. At the 2017 election, aged 25, he took over the safe seat vacated by Maurice Williamson. Brown was a perfect fit for Williamson’s stomping ground, winning a majority with nearly 15,000 votes.
Brown has continued to burnish the electorate as a safe seat for National, and has also been admitted to the inner sanctum of the current party leadership — no mean feat. He is hard-working, holding the shadow portfolios of Public Service, Auckland and Transport, as well as being Deputy Shadow Leader of the House. He has previously worked on police, youth and corrections issues. Certainly he has a passion for transport and recently he made a big deal of his opposition to road signs in both English and Māori.
With all this background, there were more than a few questions I wanted to ask the wunderkinder about his future plans. Where to now?
BOB What inspires you?
SIMEON I was born and grew up in Rotorua before we moved to Auckland and I’ve been a politician for six years. What inspires me are the values that I grew up with — hard work, personal responsibility and a country where people who work hard can get ahead.
BOB And who inspires you?
SIMEON My grandfather has been an incredible inspiration in my life. He lives in Eketāhuna and was on the Eketahuna Borough Council. He has given me a sense of political insight; he’s a community-minded person. It’s a big part of what drives me as a politician — serving the community. A community who, when I wake up in the morning, the issues that matter to them matter to me. His work ethic and the values he upheld.
BOB Do you like being liked?
SIMEON I like being liked by the people of Howick and Pakuranga, but that’s based on a foundation of working hard and a community who believe you can get things done, are approachable and will take action when action is required.
BOB You seem not to care about being popular?
SIMEON Not everyone is going to agree with me, but I’ve always said I will respect everyone else’s views and opinions. Just because someone holds a different opinion to me it would never stop me having a relationship with them.
BOB Are you easily wounded?
SIMEON It depends — if it’s someone on Twitter, I don’t care. If it’s someone I love and respect I would reflect upon that. And if it’s colleagues and friends who want to give me honest feedback, or even people in my electorate, I’m open to learning and listening.
BOB Do you have any mentors?
SIMEON I have a number of people who I consider mentors and go to for advice. I spend a lot of time listening to and taking advice from Maurice Williamson. We have a mutual respect. I think it’s important to have people to check in with when you’ve had a tough week.
BOB Tell me about the school crossing situation — so many people feel you are against them on that issue. With three kids of your own, how can that be?
SIMEON It was a big issue when Auckland Transport wanted to put a raised crossing just up the road from my office [on Pakuranga Rd]. Across six lanes of traffic, carrying 40,000 cars a day! I said it was a crazy idea. It’s not outside a school, so it’s effectively a speed bump. I’m certainly not against crossings outside of schools, but crossing Pakuranga Highway was just simply not viable. [Auckland Transport later scrapped the Pakuranga Rd plan, but a new proposal to put raised safety platforms and a raised pedestrian crossing on Ti Rakau Drive is also opposed by Brown.]
BOB What about walking and cycling? There’s a feeling you’re against those, too.
SIMEON I’m very happy with walking and cycling and supportive of people making those choices, but the majority of people in Auckland use cars to get around. We need to keep the traffic moving. It needs to be a balanced approach. I don’t bike frequently now but I used to cycle to school and I do own a bike. I’m not anti-bikes but, again, the vast majority of Aucklanders get around in cars so it’s critically important to keep our roads moving. We need to reduce congestion and reduce travel time.
BOB Chances are you will be the next Minister of Transport.
SIMEON I hope so. It’s a challenging portfolio, but I feel there are many things that can be done to improve the lives of New Zealanders on our roads and to make our economy more productive. I think we have made some big improvements over the years, like the electrification of the city rail and the Waterview Tunnel — these are all important in creating a more resilient Auckland. But the last six years have been, in my opinion, a difficult and unprogressive time for Auckland and transport. It’s a concern.
BOB Do you believe in climate change?
SIMEON The Emissions Trading Scheme needs to do the heavy lifting. It’s all about price. Corporate subsidies are not the answer — like the New Zealand Steel deal, which I don’t agree with.
BOB You must be happy with the way the farmers have received the first instalments of National’s climate policy. Is that the answer I’m looking for with your position on climate change?
SIMEON I couldn’t be more happy with how our policy on climate has been received. This week is Fieldays at Mystery Creek. Watch how well we do.
BOB Do you read history?
SIMEON Yes, I like to read a lot of autobiographies from former prime ministers and ministers throughout New Zealand history — people like Muldoon, Lange, Clark. You get a sense of history through their experience. You learn a lot around the decisions they made and the reasons they made them. I don’t compare myself to others, but I certainly look back through history and get a sense for how New Zealand has changed. My most recent read has been Margaret Thatcher. I admire Ronald Reagan, he was a man of principle and he had to make tough decisions to get things done in America. I think he was the best American president in our lifetime.
BOB You’ve been called Parliament’s most abused and threatened MP. Tell me about the death threats you’ve had.
SIMEON During 2021, when I was the police spokesperson for National, I took a clear stance against some issues that related to gangs and the increased gang presence in this country. I remember Marama Davidson had met with the gangs at a tangi and I felt that a minister of the Crown should not get involved with gang members. It sent all the wrong messages. These people are responsible for harm, drugs and brutality in our communities. I received a death threat from a gang member.
Then there was the situation where I opposed a gang procession through Hawke’s Bay — a tangi where the gangs would take over the highway, closing a local school to use for the tangi. I called that out and said, ‘That’s not the New Zealand we should be living in.’ We shouldn’t be shutting down our schools for gangs. I received a number of death threats from various gang members for that. I was shocked and concerned for my family and their wellbeing. Police got involved, and those people were charged and prosecuted. From my perspective I felt concerned for me and my family’s safety. On reflection, it shows the growing influence of gangs in New Zealand, which is incredibly concerning.