Some of the safest parliamentary seats in the country are about to be taken over by newbies. They’re sure things, anointed by their parties, waiting for the public’s stamp of approval. In the third of an occasional series, Sam Sachdeva talks to Tracey McLellan, a former psychologist turned Labour Party vice president who is set to replace the long-serving Ruth Dyson in her Banks Peninsula seat.

Most political origin stories have a familiar opening chapter: rigorous debates with parents around the dinner table, being dragged along to street corner rallies as a child, and following on from – or defining yourself in opposition to – your parents’ politics.

With Labour’s Banks Peninsula candidate Tracey McLellan, the tale is a little less orthodox. It was actually her son Jake McLellan (a newly elected Christchurch City Council member) who in 2011 pushed his mother into joining the Labour Party.

“We’d always talked about politics and Labour and stuff like that. I didn’t know you really could necessarily join, and got home from work one day and he announced that he’d joined us to the Labour Party, to which I immediately thought, ‘God, I wonder how much that cost?’”

That’s not to say McLellan was politically ignorant beforehand: she had always followed parliamentary machinations and found the process interesting, while a number of family members had pinned their (red) colours to the mast.

Growing up in a state house in Southland, with a mother who was in a wheelchair and unable to work, McLellan always felt grateful the family had the support it needed, while later on the challenges of life as a solo mother also guided her political beliefs.

“It was really hard to make ends meet, and to work and have a family and to sort of balance everything and not have the money go as far as it needed to…

“But it made me really aware of the fact that we really did have to look out for people – the worst thing you can do is make people feel like they’re not part of society.”

It was that interest in people, and a desire to do meaningful work, that drove her towards psychology, although not before a flirtation with the idea of social work.

“I worked at Presbyterian Support Child and Family for a while and watched social workers do a really good job, but it wasn’t until the psych came in once a week sometimes that you could kick off that help that was actually needed.”

‘Head knock’ a no-no

Her plans to enter clinical work were knocked off course when she developed an affinity for academic research, eventually settling into a role as a research scientist at the University of Canterbury.

A significant portion of McLellan’s research focused on the impact of traumatic brain injuries, as well as concussions in rugby league.

The avid sports fan has expressed her frustration on social media with commentators and journalists labelling such injuries as “head knocks” – a term she argues underplays the potential severity for players.

“It makes it sounds like you’ve just banged your head and that’s not what we’re talking about. A concussion’s a brain injury, so I don’t think we take it seriously enough.”

Some sports have made good progress, she says, but there is still some way to go, with better education and rules that don’t penalise concussion-related withdrawals a must.

“Get people off the field – it’s a collision sport, and injuries are always going to happen, but it’s how we deal with it afterwards that makes a difference.”

“[In the lab] there were times when I might not have spoken to more than half a dozen people all week if I was writing or doing analysis. Then all of a sudden it seemed more important to be doing things right now, right here.”

There is another piece of work that catches the eye: a piece of research co-authored by McLellan and titled: “(Perceived) size really does matter: Male dissatisfaction with penis size”.

Might that help her to deal with some of the egos on display in Parliament?

“I’ve always dreaded that Google search,” she laughs, clarifying it was in fact research carried out by a student that she merely helped across the finish line.

McLellan was finishing up her work at the university in late 2010 when the first of the city’s major earthquakes hit. She and her colleagues got by “teaching in tents”, but picking up some part-time work for first Dyson, then Megan Woods made her realise it was time for a change.

“[In the lab] there were times when I might not have spoken to more than half a dozen people all week if I was writing or doing analysis. Then all of a sudden it seemed more important to be doing things right now, right here.”

Labour MP Ruth Dyson, centre, has represented Port Hills (and before that, Banks Peninsula) since 1999. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In vying to replace the retiring Ruth Dyson, an MP for the last 26 years, McLellan knows she has “incredibly big shoes to fill” – a fact her potential constituents have been sure to let her know of, albeit in a well-intentioned manner.

“She’s [Dyson] much more action rather than advice. One of the things that always impressed me about her was she was incredibly staunch about making sure she was always out in the electorate – not just for the sake of it, not just whipping around to be seen, but genuinely doing her shopping in the electorate, meeting people everywhere, catching up with all the different schools and stuff like that.”

Dyson has held the Port Hills seat since its establishment in 2008, and before that had represented the area from 1999 in its former guise as Banks Peninsula.

It will be back to the future for 2020: the Representation Commission has recommended the Banks Peninsula electorate be re-established at the expense of Port Hills, adding in 6500 voters from the true-blue Selwyn seat.

The changes, which are still subject to a consultation process, would make the electorate less of a sure thing than McLellan would have hoped – although Dyson’s track record under the new (old) boundaries means she is not too concerned.

“I know we’ve won on these types of boundaries before, so I’m not disheartened by it. It’s good to have Banks Peninsula back to be honest.”

She may be helped by National’s choice of candidate, 23-year-old Christchurch City councillor Catherine Chu, who only won her council seat in October and while clearly a rising talent, would seem to lack the profile for a full-throated challenge.

“You talk about boundary changes, but the boundary changes that freak those people out are the natural ones that are going to occur if we don’t do anything.”

McLellan says the needs of the electorate are as diverse as its boundaries. Water is a major issue throughout, while Labour’s “core, bread and butter” issues like housing, health and education frequently come up.

Climate change and environmental concerns are also to the fore in seaside suburbs like Sumner and Lyttelton, badly hit by the 2011 earthquake and now threatened by coastal erosion.

“You talk about boundary changes, but the boundary changes that freak those people out are the natural ones that are going to occur if we don’t do anything.”

McLellan doesn’t live in the electorate – her old property was redrawn out of Port Hills, then she moved into an inner-city apartment a year ago. But she says she will move within the boundaries if she is elected.

Another potential obstacle is her involvement in investigating claims of sexual assault levelled against a Labour staffer: McLellan was on a three-person panel tasked with investigating formal complaints, a process which is now being reviewed after the complainants expressed their unease with the way they were treated.

She chooses her words carefully, and acknowledges she considered the potential ramifications of her candidacy, and of the scandal on it: “I wouldn’t have continued with my nomination if I thought it would be a point of negativity or it would cause any damage.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Labour Party president Claire Szabo speak about the findings of the first of several investigations into Labour’s handling of sexual assault allegations, which Tracey McLellan oversaw as part of a three-person panel. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

McLellan argues Labour does have “pretty robust policies in place”,  but the party has to continually evolve to meet its supporters’ and employees’ needs.

“There’s always going to be cultural problems. I don’t know if Labour is different to any organisation, but that doesn’t mean we should have the very highest expectations that we’re better at handling it, and not just average.”

(Newsroom spoke to McLellan before the first of several investigations into the allegations came out, finding no instances of sexual assault or harassment to be proven. Via text, she said: “I think the report speaks for itself and as the Prime Minister said, no-one has been well served by what happened and it’s time to draw a line.”)

But between her choice of seat and the decent list position she seems likely to occupy, it seems almost certain McLellan will make her way into the 53rd Parliament.

She sticks to the script when asked about her ambitions: “It’s first and foremost about being a good team player.” But when pushed, she cites health and ACC as areas where she could focus her efforts.

“I used to get incredibly frustrated that for a paediatric brain injury, a young person had an injury and couldn’t work, they would only ever get 80 percent of minimum wage – that’s an oxymoron, you can’t have 80 percent of a minimum.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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