Steven Joyce, National’s “Mr Fix-It”, bids farewell to Parliament after almost a decade in politics. His valedictory speech covers his career highlights, viral fame, and the personal toll of the job. Sam Sachdeva reports.
If there is any doubt about the hardships that politicians face in a gruelling, high-pressure job, Steven Joyce’s cracking voice and teary eyes should dispel them.
Addressing Parliament on his last day in the building, Joyce diverted from his usual good-natured stoicism as he spoke about the impact nine years as a minister had on his family and his young children in particular.
“They know me as leaving at 5.20 every Monday morning before they wake up, and coming back every Thursday night after they’ve gone to sleep, or on Friday, or on Saturday.
“Then on Saturday and Sunday afternoon they were used to me sequestering myself outside and reading papers for four or five hours each afternoon.”
During the Rena oil spill, his daughter Amelia pointed at images of the disaster on the television, telling her friends, “That’s where my daddy lives.”
It was when speaking about his son that Joyce, briefly, was choked with emotion.
“Tommy doesn’t say anything, literally. He’s what they call non-verbally autistic.
“He’s eight years old, he doesn’t have any vocabulary at all, but I know he likes having his dad around – he tells me with his laugh and with his eyes, and now he’s going to have dad around some more.”
A swift rise
The toll of ministerial life came swiftly for Joyce: after reluctantly giving up “the ultimate in work-life balance” at the behest of John Key ahead of the 2008 election, he was given his warrant before even crossing the threshold of the House.
“I was named in the ministry, I was given my office in the Beehive, then somebody said to me, ‘Oh there’s this place called Parliament where they ask you annoying questions and you have to be able to answer them’. I said gosh, that seems a bit inconvenient.”
Inconveniences aside, Joyce swiftly rose to the top of the National government, becoming known as “Mr Fix-It” for his crisis management on a range of issues such as Novopay.
That sense of being driven by pragmatism and projects, rather than any powerful ideological urges, perhaps shone through in Joyce’s self-described highlights.
“Most of the regions don’t actually want a huge amount from Wellington; they actually also don’t want to be told too often they’re struggling by people who never go there.”
There was the Waterview tunnel, which became a lane wider and $1 billion cheaper after Joyce assumed control, as well as the Ultra-Fast Broadband network.
With RocketLab’s chief executive Peter Beck watching on from the public gallery, Joyce also highlighted his work trying to develop a regulatory regime for the Kiwi aerospace company within six months.
“We didn’t quite meet Peter’s deadline, but then neither did he.”
There was work in regional development – “the new black, as Shane Jones knows” – with Joyce warning MPs against a patronising approach those outside of the capital.
“I will tell you this, most of the regions don’t actually want a huge amount from Wellington, they actually also don’t want to be told too often they’re struggling by people who never go there.”
No dodging Dildogate
Of course, there was no dodging Dildogate, when Joyce copped a sex toy in the chops from a protester at Waitangi in 2016.
“It was a beautiful sunny peaceful day…I wandered out with the team for what was going to be a very quiet, low-key interview – there was nobody around, a couple of police officers, a
bit of security, not as much as you’d hope.”
Chatting away merrily, he felt something hit his face, ricocheting off a reporter and onto the ground.
“I still didn’t know what it was, so we all looked down together: journalists, ministers pretty much everybody, except for Josie Butler [the protestor].
“I thought to myself, what do you say in these situations, so I said ‘Good-oh’, and then I looked at my colleagues and said, ‘Well let’s head off then’.
“As I walked away I said to Nathan Guy standing next to me under my breath, ‘Well do you think the cameras picked that up?’. He said ‘Yeah, I think so – keep walking’.”
It was an encounter he managed with his cheery disposition, even encouraging American television host John Oliver to make sport of it.
Family time awaits
With his former bosses John Key and Bill English both present, Joyce paid tribute to Key’s “powerful intellect” and English’s engine room work – “the quintessential compassionate conservative”, he remarked of the latter.
While his last election campaign as chairman didn’t go to plan, Joyce said he took pride in the fact that he had managed the four highest vote shares by any party under MMP.
Joyce’s departure was earlier than hoped: he made a bid for National’s leadership after Bill English resigned, but fell short, with some keen to blame him for the party’s failure to form government.
But if spending more time with Tommy and Amelia is the consolation prize, Joyce may find it more valuable than first place.