List candidates for Parliament have won plenty of attention lately. But another group who are all but certain to become MPs – by inheriting safe electorate seats – will compete in the same parliamentary votes, for the same roles in Opposition and Government and influence public policy just as much as those on the list. In the fifth in an occasional series, Tim Murphy talks to Paul Eagle, the 45-year-old Wellington deputy mayor who is looking to take over from Her Majesty Annette King in Rongotai.

Paul Eagle is no timid newbie. Oh no. Ask him, before he is even elected to be a Labour Party backbencher, if he wants to be a cabinet minister and he shoots back: “Absolutely. Yeah. If you are not up to being a cabinet minister then you shouldn’t be going in there.”

When told the politically correct – or correct political – answer would normally be: “I’m happy to be the candidate for Rongotai,” he laughs.  

“I’ve served a pretty good apprenticeship already, I’ve been a [council] committee chair, I’ve taken on the deputy mayoral role. I want to ensure these skills are carried on. People want people who are ready. People who can be straight up and say: ‘This is bullshit, this is wrong, we have got to put it right and this is how we are going to do it.”

So, New Zealand, meet Paul Eagle. Once elected, which should happen on September 23, he is going to be hard to miss.

Long-serving Labour MP, cabinet minister and deputy leader Annette King won the seat in 2014 with a 9617 vote majority from National’s challenger Chris Finlayson, who is standing again. King used to say of her opponent: “Chris says if he wins Rongotai, he’ll ask for a recount.”

So Eagle is in the box seat. He has been the Wellington councillor for a big chunk of the Rongotai electorate for seven years. “This is mine to lose,” he says. “I will be the first Māori male in the Labour Party’s 100 years to win a general seat. The first Māori person was Louisa Wall. Then you’ve got me, the first Māori male.”

Despite his confidence, Eagle says he takes nothing for granted. “I’m doing the big 20,000 – 20,000 phone calls and 20,000 door knocks. We are just chipping away at it. I’ll paint the town red with my signs and I’ll probably run my biggest campaign yet.”

Rongotai is an electorate in which the party vote has been closely contested, basically divided three ways. Labour lost it last time, when Eagle was campaign organiser for King. He’s intent on righting that failure.

He never wanted to be a list MP, although he is politic enough to say Labour has some good candidates offering themselves through that channel. “I want to continue her [King’s] legacy. I want to see the electorate office open and I want to see those constituents in those half-hour slots. They think I’m the right guy for that type of work.”

Eagle has been Labour since he was a kid. His father Brian was a Methodist minister whose move to Wellington from Auckland when Paul was 12 turned the lad into a yellow and black – and red – Wellingtonian. His mother Judith worked at the hospital and both parents were socially and politically active, agitating against the 1981 Springbok tour and for social justice generally. “It would have been his dream to become a Labour MP, and I think he would have been bloody great.”

The couple adopted Paul as a baby. His birth mother, who he has been in contact with throughout, told him she couldn’t keep him as there was no domestic purposes benefit. “Strictly speaking I was ‘Whangai’d’ and looking back now I was probably fortunate. I was brought up in a Pākehā household (with two sisters and one brother) and I knew no better but as I got old I thought ‘wow’. We were all ‘white’ and all assimilated.

“I was of that era. I’ve since learned there were 40,000 Māori children adopted over the years.”

His Māori heritage is Waikato-Tainui and he has retained links with his whānau.

At secondary school, St Pat’s College in Wellington, his aptitude for art was encouraged by a talented teacher, leading Eagle to study at Elam Fine Arts school at Auckland University and into basic desktop publishing design jobs. He then took a job at Wellington City Council in the mid 1990s, which inspired him to further roles at Auckland and Manukau councils over a decade. “It made me think I could make a real difference at the political level.”

“Now, in 2000-and-bloody-17 and we are still seeing all this poverty.”

Eagle had jobs in the sport and recreation sector, major events at the then Ministry for Economic Development, then at police headquarters as a civilian in the Māori, Pacific and Ethnic team attached to Commissioner Howard Broad’s office. Years earlier, when he had contemplated becoming a sworn police officer, Eagle had anticipated opposition from his parents, still suspicious after 1981, and had given the idea away. “By the time of this job, Mum and Dad had said ‘okay, the police are not too bad’.”

The team he was on liaised with communities on crime prevention. “It was the first time I had had a role very similar to a councillor – all about building relationships.”

When Celia Wade-Brown contested the mayoralty in 2010, Eagle stood for, and won, her ward seat on the council, winning again in 2013 and last year. He doesn’t hold back about the level of in-fighting and dysfunction among the elected councillors under Wade-Brown. “It was messy times.”

Perfect experience then for entering a Labour parliamentary caucus? Eagle laughs. “It did give me first-hand experience of working in an environment where there is absolute division. It was a hostile internal environment and it did teach me the need to have a strong leader and leadership, and having a plan to get agreement.”

He claims it is all different under the Labour mayor, Justin Lester, and with him, Eagle, as deputy. “We decided: We are not pissing around. We are going to get to grips with what’s happening with Wellington in housing and we had a Mayoral Housing Taskforce, which I chaired.”

One of the recommendations perhaps shows Eagle is in that John Key-style ‘whatever it takes’ school of politics. “We are prepared to build some affordable housing. We will incentivise, if you own buildings, if you refurbish them for social housing, we will give you some guaranteed rent and get some runs on the board.”

The son of the minister still attends “the Wesley in town” but rates himself “ecumenical now” – also intending to go to a PIC church in a few weeks, and to “all sorts of denominations”.

He’s married to Miriam, an environmental scientist (“she keeps me green”) and the couple adopted a wee boy, Tama, two years ago. “We were one of three regionally who managed to successfully adopt a child. We got a phone call on a Thursday to say that on Monday you have got a kid. We had three nights to find about a million things.”

Tama is from the Chatham Islands, which just happens to be the farthest-flung part of the Rongotai electorate, and Eagle had the opportunity to go there with King about a month ago. “Half the island said: ‘You’ve got one of our boys.’ It was a bit emotional.”

The boy who himself had been adopted into a loving, community-focused family is now eyeing up the election and beyond, wanting to keep the family flames of social activism alive. When his father was running foodbanks and soup kitchens it left a lasting impression. “I thought I would never see that around in 30 years’ time. Now, in 2000-and-bloody-17 and we are still seeing all this poverty.”

Eagle is taken aback by one reaction on the doorsteps as he seeks votes in Rongotai’s heavy social housing areas of Strathmore, Newtown and Berhampore. The key issues of homelessness, rental accommodation and poverty do not seem to be being blamed directly on National. “They do not link poverty with the Nats. They don’t say it is their inequitable policies or that they don’t even have a housing minister. It astounds me that people in Wellington do not say: ‘That’s because of National’.”

The candidate in a hurry aims to change all that.

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

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