Deborah Russell is a dead-cert to fill David Cunliffe's shoes this election. Photo: Supplied

All the hullabaloo lately about new, young, ethnically-diverse candidates likely to enter Parliament on the Green Party or Labour Party lists ignores another group of candidates who are all but certain to become MPs – by inheriting safe electorate seats.  People who will compete in the same parliamentary votes, for the same roles in Opposition and Government and influence public policy just as much as the darlings of the list.

In the first in an occasional series, Tim Murphy talks to Deborah Russell, who has been handed the chance to fill the size 11 shoes of former Labour leader David Cunliffe in the rock-red Labour seat of New Lynn. 

Talk to Deborah Russell and, one way or another, you are going to end up talking about tax.  Even the prospects of the verboten Capital Gains Tax which her Labour Party in 2017 has deemed best handled with a barge pole.

She is a former accountant, Treasury and IRD staffer and lecturer in taxation at Massey University.  She’s just writen a book, with Terry Baucher, on Tax and Fairness which aims to “give general readers a better understanding of the tax system and some tools for discussing and evaluating it.”

The 51 year-old married mother of three is highly likely, almost certain, to be the MP for New Lynn after September 23. She is on Labour’s policy council and has contributed to its thinking on tax.

Asked about what we can expect, and how Labour will make taxes fairer, she says the first aspect announced has been the promised tax on housing speculation.  “The big thing we want is a thorough-going review of taxation. We are aware of the issues around the differentials in taxation of savings and of property and we are concerned about that.  We are particularly concerned at the over-taxation of investment and savings in comparison with property.”

The latest big review of the tax system was National’s Tax Working Group in 2010, which, she says, made a strong case for a Capital Gains Tax.

Labour went to the past election, in 2014, with a partial CGT (not on primary homes), but new leader Andrew Little has thrown that policy overboard as one of the issues which suppressed Labour’s support in those two polls.

Ask the tax expert whether she wants a CGT and she offers:  “The party says we need to review taxes. We are not campaigning on it [CGT]. I think something as substantial as a capital gains tax is possibly best introduced from within government. So, do a review, take it out and look at how we might design the tax and then perhaps we take it to the country at another election.”

So, Labour hasn’t ruled out a CGT for good, and possibly only as long as one term in office.

Russell is not impressed with National’s budget ‘family package’ of changes to the tax thresholds and movements in the Working for Families and Accommodation Benefit payments.

“Give on one hand, take away on the other,” she said.  “They certainly shifted things around and some families will be better off and some will be worse off.”  She found the accommodation supplement payment problematic because it can end up as an subsidy for landlords.

Russell has only lived in Auckland for her New Lynn bid since January, her first time resident in the city.  She grew up in Whangamomona in “backblocks Taranaki” where her father was a shepherd before shifting the family to New Plymouth where he took up accounting and Deborah attended convent schools.  “I can pray in Latin,” she says, “a useful life skill”.

She became an accountant after graduating from Otago University, where she met her husband, Malcolm; joined Deloitte in Wellington then for a short time the Treasury and running her own consulting firm before going back to study – a BA in history and philosophy then a doctorate in political philosophy. That PhD earned her the right to describe herself in her new book as a “political theorist” – something she now laughs off as “I’m full of fancy-pants ideas.”

She worked on tax policy for the Inland Revenue Department for a while before the family moved to Adelaide for Malcolm’s work – he is a university professor. They returned to New Zealand in 2011 and Russell stood for Labour in the unwinnable seat of Rangitikei, where she’d moved to work in Palmerston North for Massey University.

It is quite a CV.  And that last line – standing for Labour in a hopeless seat – is perhaps the most politically pertinent.  She has done her policy council work and won the New Lynn nomination once Cunliffe stood aside and is now doing the obligatory festival of door-knocking, despite his healthy 2014 majority of 4500.

She is ready for the talk about being a carpet-bagger. “I’m actually following a fine tradition of people moving into seats – Helen Clark, Annette King, and David Cunliffe. In terms of understanding New Lynn, I have been going out on the doors.”

The difference between the reaction three years ago at the doorsteps, admittedly in a blue and largely rural electorate and New Lynn, is telling. “People are pretty open for change.” Last time “they were pretty happy with John Key.”

She’s interested in things the door knocking tells her. On immigration, she reckons people are not too concerned by the diverse races or ethnic groups coming in – “but they are concerned about infrastructure. I think that is a real change in New Zealand society. We are much more used to having a diverse society.”

She is careful not to assume her time as an MP just begins automatically after September 23.  “It is not a done deal. I regard it as a Labour-held seat and I need to work hard to hold it.  It will not happen by me sitting and doing nothing. Seats do not get gifted.” Besides, Labour wants her to mine New Lynn for party votes, too.  

If she does succeed, Russell aims for a future in the economic portfolios. “I obviously have some particular expertise in tax. I also want to be working across economic issues – we do not often see women doing that.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

Leave a comment