Sep 28, 2023 Politics
The West has always found outstanding politicians to represent it. Michael Joseph Savage, the legendary first Labour prime minister, called it his electorate, and he set the tone there for strong, charismatic leadership in local politics and government. Tim Shadbolt, Pita Sharples, Paula Bennett and John Tamihere followed (plus we also claim Simon Bridges as a son of the West). And now Carmel Sepuloni, the first Pasifika deputy prime minister and only the third woman to hold that role.
Larger than life at six foot two (and over two metres in heels), she carries herself with presence. But don’t be fooled by her calm elegance — she’s a powerhouse of energy and determination. When I went to Sepuloni’s electorate AGM not long ago, I noted the crowd’s adoration when she entered the room. She doesn’t walk; she strides. She is encompassing, charming, uplifting.
In January, before Chris Hipkins became prime minister, he quietly told Sepuloni that if he got the job he wanted her as his deputy. He was true to his word. Not only did he get a fully charged and loyal backstop, but also someone who is difficult to dislike. Together they quietly and quickly reoriented Labour, pulling it out of a downward spiral towards a decent shot at the election this October.
Sepuloni was born in 1977 and raised in Waitara, Taranaki, by her Pālagi mother Beverley and Tongan/Sāmoan father Kamisi, affectionately known as CC. Kamisi Sepuloni came to New Zealand unable to speak English, seeking a better life, and found that life at the local freezing works until it closed down in the 1990s. He was a staunch advocate for unions and workers’ rights and the young Carmel caught left-wing ideals from her dad. Now retired, CC lives with Sepuloni and her husband Daren in Auckland.
At school, Sepuloni tells me, she wasn’t a great student but she had promise. When Carmel was in seventh form and skipping a lot of school, her school principal, Jain Gaudin, called her in and gave her a lecture about staying on track. She asked Carmel if she would come and live with her for the rest of the school year and work to get university entrance. Sepuloni credits this as the beginning of her future life.
After studying education, Sepuloni became a teacher and then worked in academia focusing on Pacific health. In 2008 she entered Parliament as a list MP, ranked 35, and heralded by Labour as one of its “fresh faces” (alongside the likes of Stuart Nash, Kelvin Davis and Jacinda Ardern). At the next election, in November 2011, Sepuloni initially seemed to have won the Waitakere seat on specials, defeating incumbent Paula Bennett by just 11 votes. Bennett, a tough Westie and not one to go down without a fight, demanded a judicial recount. In the end, she successfully retained the seat with a slim nine-vote majority.
The loss was tough for Sepuloni but she bounced back. In the 2014 general election she carried the new Kelston electorate by a majority, receiving 15,091 votes. Since then she had been on a roll. Her portfolios have included Social Justice, Disability Issues and Arts, Culture and Heritage. Previously a solo parent to two sons, Sepuloni in 2017 married the love of her life, Fiji-born Daren Kamali. He also had two children, so they blended up to form a family of four boys. Sepuloni’s family life featured in an amusing incident in 2021 — she was being interviewed via Zoom when her son burst into her home office with a deformed carrot. A clip of the incident went viral. The whole thing showed that this politician is capable of keeping her composure during a live interview even with a root vegetable being waved in her face. Still, she remains a bit of a mystery, and I wanted to ask her a few personal questions.
BOB New Zealand got to see you at your best in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle, deep in people’s anguish at the Kelston evacuation centre. What a devastating and traumatic time that must have been.
CARMEL You are right — after the deluge came the anguish of our communities. Houses flooded, people displaced, our Rānui and Henderson communities under water. I just had to be there and start working with [Sir] Michael Jones and the other Pacific volunteers … We simply got to work. I remember the mayor arriving looking bewildered and overwhelmed with the families turning up drenched with only the clothes they were standing up in.
BOB Did you stay on right through the days that followed — the setting up in the West of the community support units?
CARMEL We had never seen anything like it, even though a lot of the Pacific communities had known cyclones in the Islands. Many said at least in the islands you had high points to get to and the water found its own way out to sea. But here in the West it just built up so quickly, with no exit. We were stunned at the speed that houses were engulfed with water. I just couldn’t stop being a part of the rescue and clean-up.
BOB The role of deputy prime minister is something you embraced from day one. But first you were a supporter of Jacinda Ardern’s prime ministership — you appeared in many photos and TV clips and you always seemed to be kindly guarding her.
CARMEL Well, my height helps! And I did feel protective of her. She was astonishing in her energy and leadership throughout the Covid crisis. She just had such a touch, and as we all know the world would have done anything for her as their leader — whether it be as prime minister or president. But when she left — and she did it for her reasons, which I believe were right — Chippy asked me the day before, Would I be his deputy? I was flattered and honoured.
BOB How do you manage to get through so much work? Everyone I’ve talked to tells me how visible you are out here in the West. You have taken on enormous portfolios, and with a young family this must be a difficult juggling act.
CARMEL I have great energy and good health and I know that the role of a politician is never easy. You have to remember I have been a whip in Parliament, so I know the hard answers, and I’m not frightened of process or policy. I’m pretty unshockable. I simply do it in a calm and steady manner, and I’m pleased to say I have great support around my whānau and I’m stress-free — if all this makes sense. I realise that the role is not easy but when you are in government and you know that you have a hand in the way policy matters, you simply have to stay on track and on target. And I do.
BOB Government, whether local or central, comes down to leadership. And leadership is what I feel was missing after the devastating floods in Auckland.
CARMEL It’s been an extraordinarily difficult time for Auckland — here in the West we have suffered so badly. What still needs to be done is to clean up our communities, but my God, we have got to work together and do it. I think when you talk of leadership it’s on the ground, it’s daily, weekly and your presence is what is needed. A personal hand at people’s time of need.
BOB It’s easy to feel pecked to death by ducks in politics and increasingly, with social media, we have small groups of people inventing the ‘truth’ about politicians. In an election year I assume this will only get worse …
CARMEL I thrive on challenges. All of my portfolios have hope and can only deliver a better society, a better New Zealand — there are moments when I feel deeply for the youth and young people, but I know that being here matters. You have to take a big breath, look in the mirror and cheer yourself on.