Like most political parties, Labour backbench MP Dan Rosewarne says Labour’s “reason for being” has zig-zagged over time and the make-up of the caucus has changed with it.
Rosewarne came into Parliament in July after former minister Kris Faafoi left, opening up a spot on the list. Before then he’d unsuccessfully contested the safe National seat of Waimakariri at the past two elections.
He had hoped to win the nomination for Christchurch East after former minister Poto Williams announced she was retiring at the election, but last month Labour’s local electoral committee picked the chair of People’s Choice, Reuben Davidson.
Having trained as a mechanic before joining the military, he says his values and ethos are very working class, which is increasingly rare amongst his colleagues.
He agrees the caucus has a few people who have spent their entire career in Parliament in way one or another, and notes there are quite a few legal minds too.
“We do have a lot of lawyers in the caucus at the moment, but then a lot of them have a union background, and started out advocating for workers, so those values are entrenched in those individuals as well,” he told Newsroom.
Before his leukaemia diagnosis in 2013 the half-Samoan husband and father of two had no ambitions to be a politician whatsoever.
“I’d just got back from Afghanistan about a year earlier – my daughter was born two weeks after I got back. I was feeling tired and irritable and thought it was just a case of getting back into the swing of things and having a young baby in the house.
“But then I saw the doctor and they said, you’re sick and need to start treatment right away.”
“In the military you know there’s a chance of getting bayoneted, but it’s only going to be from the front. Here you don’t know where it’s going to come from.” – Dan Rosewarne
Arriving in hospital and being dependent on somebody else having spent so much of his career surrounded by fit and healthy people was a real change of mindset, Rosewarne tells Newsroom.
“I thought to myself in hospital that we could do better with the health system and make a difference.”
While Rosewarne accepts health is an area you can never throw enough money at, he’s proud that Labour has prioritised more funding for Pharmac.
“There are an extra two immunotherapy drugs I can take now that didn’t exist when I was first diagnosed. If I built up a resistance, then chances are there’s another fully funded one I can jump onto and still participate in society.”
Every four months he returns to hospital in Christchurch, where there is a state-of-the-art hematology unit, and blood testing is turned around within a couple of days as opposed to the month it used to take.
“When I go back, I realise everyone there is on a different journey and some people aren’t recovering or getting better. It’s a reset for me and the busyness of this place – going into that hematology department resets my clock and makes me realise why I’m here.”
Prior to his health scare Rosewarne did three tours of duty for the military – two in Afghanistan and one in the Solomon Islands.
In 2005, only a few years after signing up, he headed to Afghanistan under what was then the George Bush ‘Enduring Freedom’ administration.
“The Ukrainian conflict is probably the first one we’re seeing on our cellphones and it’s in people’s faces. So New Zealanders are beginning to realise that geographical isolation doesn’t provide the same protection it once did.” – Dan Rosewarne
In 2012 he returned on the final rotation and says the contrast from one tour to the next was huge.
“There were buildings and infrastructure that wasn’t there in 2005, the roads were a lot better.
“By 2012 there were paved roads and it was a lot easier to get around but one thing that was worse was the security situation,” he said.
“It was a lot more hostile on the second tour than the first so that brought with it other challenges.”
He laughs at the suggestion that he’s replaced one form of combat with another.
“In the military you know there’s a chance of getting bayoneted, but it’s only going to be from the front. Here you don’t know where it’s going to come from.”
Reflecting on the military’s role, Rosewarne noted that the atrocities of war haven’t been as front and centre for New Zealanders since the 90s.
“Politicians back in the 70s, 80s and 90s had parents who were in the military, and they were round the dinner table reminding family members of the atrocities of war.
“Now we don’t have that, so when you’ve got Treasury looking at military spending alongside every other agency they go, what makes these guys any different? They haven’t been exposed to the stories or reminded of the atrocities that preserve the meaning and worth of military service.”
Rosewarne believes that is changing as the “international order is unpicked in one part of the world, there’s a risk it will cascade into other parts of the world and that’s what we’re seeing now”.
“The Ukrainian conflict is probably the first one we’re seeing on our cellphones and it’s in people’s faces. So New Zealanders are beginning to realise that geographical isolation doesn’t provide the same protection it once did.”
Rosewarne expects that will have an impact on funding and “will come with a greater degree of inter-operability with our allies, particularly Australia”.
In coming years, he expects the multilateralism strategic culture that has always been there will be reinforced as New Zealand’s 20 years of “irregular warfare” changes.
“We’re seeing in eastern Europe a return to conventional warfare, so Western militaries around the world are shifting focus. I think it’s only natural New Zealand will re-posture as well back with our allies to what it used to be.”
Rosewarne says joining the military is “effectively signing the Government a blank cheque for them to cash in whenever they need it”.
After three tours Rosewarne is surprised when Newsroom asks if he ever had to kill anyone while serving.
“I’ve never really been asked that.”
He confirms he hasn’t but says it’s something you “have to be prepared to do if you needed to”.
During the Covid-19 pandemic Rosewarne had a senior management role overseeing the Canterbury MIQ centres and says soldiers have had to adapt to different jobs.
“My job was to set the tone and culture and my position was that it could always be worse. They could have been in a dug-in position in Waiouru in the snow, but I’d say, now you’re in an air-conditioned hotel getting fed three meals a day and giving back to the community, and it’s not that bad.”