There have been many occasions throughout the pandemic when Carmel Sepuloni has been grateful she isn’t Jacinda Ardern. The Social Development Minister sat down with political editor Jo Moir to talk lockdown life and dealing with interruptions during live interviews at home.

Carmel Sepuloni doesn’t do any work at home, apart from a bit of Cabinet paper reading.

She says there’s just too many distractions.

So when Auckland lockdown hit and her home became the office there were all sorts of ground rules that had to be set.

“Sometimes family forget you are actually working – that you’re not there to fix door handles and window latches and cook and prepare lunch for children,’’ she told Newsroom from the safety of her Beehive office.

“Working from home is absolutely foreign…so you’re accessible to your family, and particularly the kids, and they think you’re there for them. There were lots of ‘get outs’.’’

The ultimate working from home faux pas came when Sepuloni’s son burst into her office waving around a carrot while she was doing a live interview on Zoom.

“I couldn’t believe it was Radio Samoa as well, so quite a conservative base, to then have a carrot shaped like a penis waving around in the background in that interview online. I couldn’t believe it was happening,’’ Sepuloni recalls with laughter.

“He’s famous in Titirangi now….he’s very proud of himself.

“When I went off air that carrot went flying – not at him – at the wall.’’

“It’s a global pandemic – that is frustrating and annoying to people.” – Carmel Sepuloni

Sepuloni says she had words with her husband about not letting him in the room when she’s on Zoom calls and then she said she held up the carrot laughing while saying, “look at this!!”.

The senior Cabinet Minister is an extrovert and says she’s used to travelling and not being home a lot.

“It was psychologically hard.’’

“At Level 3 I went to my office a little bit near the end just to get away from home. But really it was just consistent Zoom and phone calls.’’

And then there’s the issue of lots of people having her phone number and recognising her on daily walks.

“It was mostly positive but there were a few negative nellies. One, on a busy day, wanted to hit me up on my driveway while I was outside with my son, about electric vehicles – of all things in lockdown.’’

She also watched her colleagues in Wellington holding down the fort doing daily media interviews and 1pm press conferences.

“Even though we were all feeling sorry for ourselves stuck in lockdown, I was also feeling quite empathetic towards my colleagues holding down the fort, particularly the Prime Minister, Grant, Chris and Ayesha and Peeni as well.’’

There were lots of times when Sepuloni found herself thinking “I’m so glad I’m not Jacinda’’.

“We were busy, but they were in the public eye being scrutinised the whole way through this process, and we weren’t to the same extent.

“That sustained pressure – I don’t know if people recognise how huge that is,’’ she said.

The beneficiary who made it to the top

Sepuloni knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of beneficiary-bashing and asking for help.

She was a single Mum who used the training incentive allowance to get educated and pave a career.

“You touch something, and it has this flow-on effect, this interaction, then this cost associated with it. If you don’t take the time to think that through carefully you end up in a position where you’ve fixed something and broken ten other things. That’s the truth.’’ – Carmel Sepuloni

Now the Minister-in-charge of welfare, Sepuloni says something she’s very aware of is how polarising welfare can be and how important it is to bring those receiving help along with you in politics.

“So, what I take relief in is generally we’ve taken the public with us. It doesn’t feel like we have the level of beneficiary-bashing that we’ve had in previous years before we took office.

“Some people put that down to Covid and the fact so many more people were in a position where they were contemplating having to be on a benefit, and then realising how difficult that might be,’’ she told Newsroom.

Alongside that, Sepuloni thinks attitudes are changing.

“It doesn’t feel like people are stigmatising beneficiaries in the way they used to be.’’

Life in government

Sepuloni’s been a minister for four years now and says for the most part things don’t surprise her about politics and Parliament.

As for being a minister, she says the amount of work that goes into effecting change still makes her ask “why?’’.

“You touch something, and it has this flow-on effect, this interaction, then this cost associated with it. If you don’t take the time to think that through carefully you end up in a position where you’ve fixed something and broken 10 other things. That’s the truth.’’

Sepuloni didn’t come from a public service or political background when she entered Parliament in 2008.

Until 2007 when she joined Labour and looked to the election the next year, she’d never had any involvement with the party at all.

She described coming into Parliament as an “outsider’’.

“I didn’t understand how the inside worked. It was like starting secondary school but you’re only standard 1. You’ve got this whole catch-up to do alongside the others who have amazing experience and knowledge of this place and the systems.’’

Sepuloni is good friends with Ardern, Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins – all of whom have been involved in party politics and the public service for a large chunk of their careers.

“I started far behind them,’’ she admits.

But she also says Cabinet and political parties need a mixture of both, and she sees value in her outside perspective.

Being a minister means there are always MPs from other political parties saying you’re not doing a good enough job.

Sepuloni meets regularly with the Green Party, which has a cooperation agreement with Labour, to discuss issues in her social development and ACC portfolios.

She expects their MPs to criticise her, and says that’s just the Green Party and their role in Parliament.

“I respect that. I meet with them semi-regularly and they get to ask me questions. I tell them what’s on the horizon and where I won’t be going, so I’m very free and frank with them.

“When you’ve got the Greens telling you you’re not doing enough and you’ve got ACT telling you you’re doing far too much then I feel like I’m in the right place to be honest.’’

While her ACC portfolio has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons lately – misuse of private information and a backload of case files – Sepuloni is adamant it’s a portfolio she not only enjoys but asked for.

Carmel Sepuloni says it’s wrong to think Pacific and Māori voices weren’t heard at the Cabinet table during lockdowns. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Back when Andrew Little was leader in Labour’s time in Opposition, she asked for the portfolio when it came up for grabs.

Somewhat awkwardly, Little forgot when he did the reshuffle and afterwards admitted it had completely slipped his mind.

“We laugh about it now. So, when Jacinda rung me up to take it temporarily…I was really stoked.’’

She then got given the portfolio permanently after the election and says while the legislation is 50 years old and no longer fit for purpose she sees the potential it has.

“Even getting birthing injuries legislation over the line…that’s huge that 18,000 women potentially will now get cover from ACC when they have a birth injury.

“That’s a really big achievement,’’ she said.

Newsroom questions whether Sepuloni’s being honest about her enthusiasm for the role.

“I’m not lying…I’d be much more delayed and considered if I had to lie about my response,’’ she throws back, jokingly.

Having a voice at the table

Sepuloni is a proud Pacific woman and says she pushes back on any allegations or suggestions that Pacific and Māori ministers’ voices aren’t heard at the Cabinet table.

She accepts there is criticism of the way the pandemic has been dealt with, in particular the vaccination rollout.

“I think it’s expected that some people’s outlet for that frustration will be the Government and the Government’s decisions.’’ – Carmel Sepuloni

That has been reflected in recent polls with Labour dropping consistently from its record election result.

Sepuloni says nobody expected Labour to sustain those levels and in general many people have just had enough of Covid and in some ways the Government takes the blame for that.

“They’re feeling frustrated, we understand that, we all are and we all put the blame in different places.

“It’s a global pandemic – that is frustrating and annoying to people.

“They want certainty and they can’t have it and they’re over Covid as opposed to the Government I think.

“I think it’s expected that some people’s outlet for that frustration will be the Government and the Government’s decisions.’’

Sepuloni says Pacific and Māori voices have always been welcomed and prompted within the caucus and Cabinet and “very fulsome discussions around the equity considerations for the vaccination rollout’’ have taken place right from the beginning.

Sepuloni says other factors had to be considered when decisions were made around alert levels and steps and traffic lights.

While the health advice for the most part has been followed, Sepuloni says her experience from being in Auckland during lockdown is that sociological factors also play a huge part in the decisions that are made.

“How people are impacted and whether they’re adhering to restrictions is also important.

To not take those factors into consideration would have been “narrow-minded in a way that would lead to irresponsible decision-making’’.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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