Kiri Allan on the 2020 campaign trail. (Photo supplied)

Now with her first term as a Labour MP under her belt, Kiri Allan has a fair chance of making a mark after next month’s general election. Here she tells Dale about her background as a political intern, as a scraper of bee glue, as a lawyer — and sundry other experiences on her way to becoming a politician.


Kia ora, Kiri. I note that you had a taste of politics as an intern for Helen Clark when she was our prime minister — and that you had some contact with Jacinda early on as well. But you didn’t start off right at the centre of political power, did you?

No. I grew up in Paengaroa — spent the first six or so years there — and in Te Karaka southwest of Gisborne. Then back to Paengaroa again. And a couple of years at Auckland Girls’ Grammar. 

I don’t know much about Paengaroa. What’s the drill there? What were you guys doing?

Ah, yes. The metropolis of Paengaroa. My father, David Allan, was a meat-worker at Affco, Rangiuru, not far from Te Puke. And when the neoliberal reforms in the 1980s put an end to jobs like that, Dad went on to do a whole range of things in horticulture, apiculture, and agriculture.

Then he became the first general manager of Comvita, a health-food company based on honey products — mānuka, in particular, and propolis (bee glue). That was right in Paengaroa, and many of the people in the company were part of a very strong church community. 

Dad worked there for a good few years, and Mum, Gail Allan, was a cook and a cleaner at a rest home on the outskirts of Te Puke. Much of my upbringing was in the church. That formed a big part of my life. It was like a Pentecostal Christian church.

On the farm in Kanakanaia. (Photo supplied)

How did your mum and dad get together originally?

They met when they were missionaries going around the Pacific Islands for YWAM (Youth With A Mission) on a ship called the Anastasis. My whānau also have a strong hononga (connection) to Rātana, and that type of hāhi tended to resonate more with me as I matured. 

You’re from a family of 10?

Yeah. I’m the ninth of 10! I thought I was going to get away with being the youngest until my bloody brother came along when I was 13. But we were made up of multiple family constructions. My biological parents had five children between them, and my biological father had four children to his first wife. 

And I was raised by my mother’s older sister, my mum, Gail. She’d had a child who passed away early on, so I was a whāngai, and she and my dad, David, brought me up. 

So the 10 of us were all sort of raised by different aunties and uncles. You know how it goes.

Kiri (left) with her mother, Gail, and sister. (Photo supplied)

You mentioned doing a couple of years at AGGS.

Yeah. I was a proud student of Kahurangi, the reo-Māori unit, at Auckland Girls’ Grammar. But I got homesick for the Bay, so I found myself back at home in Tauranga. 

I left school in my sixth form year, which was a pretty common practice, and I ended up doing all sorts of jobs. I worked at KFC. I worked at Rebel Sport. I did six months as a hammer-hand — a pre-building apprentice on a construction site. I hitched all over the country, I worked in horticulture, and I scraped propolis off blimmin’ beehives up and down the country. 

But I always had a job. The values we were raised with were to work hard and serve others. So you had to have a job. I think Dad made sure I had an IRD number when I was six and I was packing propolis boxes. I don’t know if you’re allowed to do that now.

Anyway, I kind of took a year and a half off — like a gap year — and then started university when I was 18. I did a quick stint in reo and tikanga at Unitec in Auckland through a programme called Rangatahi Maia, which was awesome. Then, at 19, I moved down to Wellington and started law and politics at Vic.

No doubt, Kiri, you came into contact there with some influential Māori.

I was fortunate to have some incredible mentors. Moana Jackson took me under his wing and I learned a lot from him. So, too, with Annette Sykes. And I met others who became peers and lifelong friends and who’ve all gone on to do exceptionally well. 

From my year, there’s David Jones (who went to Kensington Swan), Horiana Irwin-Easthope (who I worked with at Kahui Legal and who went off to Harvard), Maia Wikaira (who I worked with at Kahui Legal and went off to Stanford), Peata Williams (in-house legal and strategy general manager at Waikato-Tainui), and Natalie Coates, who came back to Kahui after studying at Harvard.

Then there’s Matanuku Mahuika, who I met at university and who employed me at Kahui Legal. When I left university, I was a judge’s clerk for a couple of years, and then I went to Chen Palmer for two years. Then Matanuku said I should come and work for him, which I did, and we’ve been good friends ever since. 

A dreadlocked Kiri on her travels. (Photo supplied)

But, so I understand, you’d already linked up with the Labour Party.

Yes, I got involved with Labour when I was 18 — and then I was asked to become an intern in Helen Clark’s office in 2002. That came about through Jacinda Ardern, who was a young staffer at that time, and through my contact with Moana Mackey and Nanaia Mahuta, who were both young Labour MPs.

They thought it might be good for me to see how parliament worked and what happens in those halls of power. So I went and worked there for quite a while. A year or so after, there was the foreshore and seabed case arising out of a situation in the Marlborough Sounds. And that was a really challenging time for me as a young, dreadlocked Māori trying to understand how law and power and all these types of things worked.

I remember running from my public law lectures and up to the eighth floor of the Beehive. I sat squeezed next to the photocopier in a shared fancy office, doing very fancy work like licking envelopes and whatever.

That experience helped me decide that political party machinery wasn’t something I really wanted to pursue at that time. So I turned to Annette Sykes and told her how I could make good coffee for her if she took me on as an intern. She (eventually) said: “All right then.” 

So, over my summer break, I hiked up and down the Urewera range with her and Jason Pou and a number of other Māori lawyers. I’m glad I chose to go and do something different at that time. Get some dirt under the fingernails — and decide that I really wanted to be a black-letter lawyer, which is the path that I then pursued.

We all have great respect for Moana Jackson’s style and his intellect. And Annette Sykes has always impressed as a feisty wahine with a razor sharp mind. Both of them working for social justice and both of then standout thinkers in te ao Māori. But what special gifts do they both have?

I’ll touch on Annette first. One of her greatest skills is her ability to construct a compelling argument that hits you at the heart level, as much as it hits you at the mind. She’s an incredibly smart and articulate woman who has dedicated her life to the service of our people. 

Not everybody agrees with her methods, but she’s had an unwavering dedication and passion for justice for our whānau — and a relentless capacity to keep pushing the envelope a little further. 

I remember when I was at law school, about 15 years ago, seeing that many of the transformative legal cases for whānau Māori had been fought by Annette. And I bet she barely got a dime for fighting those cases. She’s just been relentless in the pursuit of justice.

And Moana? Well, one of the greatest things about him has been his ability to bring people around to an understanding of his point of view. He’s had this beautiful, gentle style of conveying radical and challenging concepts in a non-threatening way — and to do so in a way that anyone could understand. 

Professor Jane Kelsey at Auckland University is another one of their mates, and at that level in fighting for justice for Māori and doing so without compromise. 

And from your reading, do you have some writers in mind who you’d recommend as authors who can help shape our thinking on some of the issues that our people are grappling with?

There’s a Canadian author I really like. He’s an Indigenous academic, Taiaiake Alfred, and he wrote this book Wasáse. He reminds me of Moana in the way that he deals with radical constitutional change, and he’s one of those international scholars working on issues aligned with what’s happening here in Aotearoa. 

Then there’s Winona Laduke, an incredible activist and freedom fighter for the Lakota peoples in the USA. I had the opportunity to work on and visit many Native American reservations in my 20s where her work was very influential. She’s probably more equivalent to Annette, or maybe Ani Mikaere. There’s a whole range of her books that are worth reading. She takes a critical analysis on environmental justice being critical to Indigenous sovereignty as well as economic and social wellbeing. 

These are just two names, but I could rattle off a list. 

At a kōhanga reo in Te Teko, with Labour colleagues Willie Jackson and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. (Photo supplied)

Talking of names, who comes to your mind as worth special respect among the current crop of MPs? Across the parties. They don’t have to be Labour because we can learn from all sorts. Even from an old warhorse like Winston.

Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with my boss, Jacinda. She has a special ability to make decisions that are guided by instinct and then to explain her point of view clearly and effectively. 

And there’s the way she delves into detail. That’s something that most people don’t see. But I get to see how she works through layers of detail in order to inform her decision making. She’s not led by others to get to a decision, and I respect that. 

Something else that I admire about her is the way she treats people — the way she recognises the mana of every person, whether that’s a young child she’s meeting or a world leader. People from all walks of life. That’s a very admirable trait in a leader. 

Another colleague who’s been impressive is Willie Jackson. I’ve got to know him well over these last three years, and although he may not realise this himself, I feel that he’s provided this massive korowai of protection for younger Māori like me coming into politics. 

He’s a values-based man. He’s a fearless advocate. He’s relentless. And he’s somebody who I find to have very little ego — which is important because it means that he’s guided by his principles when he’s approaching issues. I admire him for the role that he plays for all of our people in that place.

Kiri and Hiwa. (Photo supplied)

Okay. But you’ve managed something beyond Willie. You’ve taken your baby to parliament. Congratulations. How old is bubba now?

Well, she was three weeks old when I entered parliament, so she’s just become a three-year-old. But yeah, Hiwaiterangi is often with me, so she’s seen a bit of the political world.

Going back a while, did you get any backlash when you came out as gay — and when you and Natalie married? Were there eyebrows raised?

Oh, yes. I come from a deeply religious Māori whānau, so of course there were eyebrows raised. But times have changed. I mean, they have and they haven’t. 

But I’ve never seen being gay as a separate and distinct part of my identity. It’s not something I talk about. I don’t have “Kiri is a gay” on my website. But, yeah, I’m sure that colours the way I see the world.

The only thing, though, that’s relevant for me from all of that, is that we’re trying to foster a world in which any of our young people can live a life where they’re able to be who they really are. Ahakoa te aha. But that’s never been a big part of things I’ve worried about too much. I’m always raising eyebrows. If it’s not for that, it’s for something else.

You’re heading into the election campaign with a high spot (number 25) on the Labour list. So there’s a fair chance of you being back in parliament. You’ve had one term to find your feet. So no doubt over the next three years, you’ll have more confidence to focus on your priorities.

I’ve always prioritised regional development — regional economic development in particular. Creating jobs, getting people into decent mahi. It’s training the workforce. It’s providing support and resource. And it’s being able to go down to Wellington as an advocate and get those things over the line. I’ve always enjoyed that. 

The primary sector and trade are the other areas that I’ve focused on. Before my political life, I was a lawyer, but I also focused on horticulture, agriculture, and beekeeping. Primary production has always been a big part of my life.

Then there’s fisheries. Iwi Maori hāve some major issues to grapple with as quota holders. That’s a Treaty asset that was obtained as part of Treaty rights and it’s been a subject of litigation for a long time. So now we need to see whether, 30 years on, the QMS (quota management system) is fit for purpose. Is it doing what we intended? And is it aligned with our tikanga?

Okay. That’s the serious stuff. But what do you do for amusement?

I fish, mate. I play golf. I mountain-bike. No, I don’t really any more, though I used to. You ask any politician, they’ll say these things. But you don’t really do them because you don’t get any time.

But I do spend time with my whānau. They’re a huge part of my life and they keep me grounded. My daughter does, anyway. And we’ve made a whānau commitment to speak to her only in te reo. That includes her grandparents and my in-laws. 

And we’re teaching her how to live off the whenua. How to eel and whitebait. She can’t quite catch a real fish yet, but we’re working on that.

Kiri and wife Natalie Coates with their daughter Hiwa in Te Teko. (Photo supplied)

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2020

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