One of Damien O’Connor’s favourite expressions is, “you’re a long time laying down”.

It’s fitting for someone who at 65 seems to be at the height of his career with more energy and enthusiasm than half of his younger and less experienced colleagues.

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The minister for trade, agriculture, biosecurity, and land information says it’s taken time to get to where he is, so he’s grabbing the opportunity with both hands.

“Politics is a tough game as we see, you have to put in the groundwork. Some people are fortunate to come in, spend a short amount of time in politics and move into a Cabinet position.

“Others, particularly when I started, you had to do your apprenticeship and work your way through it,” O’Connor tells Newsroom.

“You hang around for quite a while, particularly in opposition, contributing where you can but obviously focusing on the opportunity to have real input into a Cabinet, and when that opportunity comes along you have to grab it with both hands and go for it with every ounce of energy you have – otherwise get out.”

Everyone approaches the endless weeks of jet lag and living out of a suitcase differently, O’Connor says.

His biggest tip is to get into the time zone you’re landing in from the minute you get on the plane.

“You set a destination time in your mind, whether you’re going to arrive in the middle of the day or the end of the day.

“While I never take my wristwatch off New Zealand time, I hardly ever refer to it, and I have asked in my briefings they [officials] don’t include, as they often do, New Zealand time,” he says.

People will always end up contacting him at odd hours if they have to, but O’Connor does everything he can to be working in the time zone of whatever country he’s in, and that includes never shutting curtains at night.

“It means I wake up with the daylight, which in spite of the number of hours you might or might not have had, it’s still the way to operate and get on with it.”

O’Connor confesses to never using curtains ever and then immediately realises how that might be interpreted.

“I’m lucky, when I’m back home they’re not needed and in most places you can stay there’s not that many people watching,” he says in his defence.

Exercise has always been a big part of O’Connor’s life, but he tells Newsroom he’s the most unfit he’s ever been.

Though he sneaks to the gym if he has 30 minutes free, it doesn’t happen often, so when he returns home, he makes sure he gets out on his bike as soon as he can.

“It’s been erratic, but it does help when you can do it.”

He used to run while overseas which was a good way of seeing a city, but he’s a walker now so doesn’t see the point as he never has enough time to commit to it.

It means many of the cities and countries he has visited, of which there are a lot, he feels like he hasn’t really been to at all.

“Many places I’ve been to you go from the airport in a car to a hotel or convention centre and then turn around and come back,” he says.

Rome is a city he’d love to go back to and visit properly and though some places he knows well from all his travel, such as New York, others he’s slowly getting to know better, such as London.

“People offshore aspire to the type of lifestyle we have in our country, the open freedom we have and the opportunity to get a bit of insight into it, even if just through my Twitter account.” – Trade Minister Damien O’Connor

On his return from travel, he might get home to his farm on the West Coast for one night.

“Sometimes when I come back, I will have stock I’ve got to go check up on and, if I can, I just get out and get some fresh air. I think the one thing that having lived a life outdoors for a lot of my life, just getting some fresh air is so necessary given you spend all your time in aircraft, hotel rooms and convention centres.”

Though no MP finds the time away from family and friends easy or normal, O’Connor says the role of trade minister is “quite a lonely life”.

“You’re on your own or sitting on your own in an aircraft – beyond the engagements the gaps in-between are sometimes quite large. You just have to be pretty self-reliant and resilient,” he says.

Trade and travel changed during the Covid-19 pandemic, which means some meetings can continue to be done online but the harder negotiations are always done in person, and O’Connor says you can’t overestimate the power of face-to-face relationships.

“The only reason we travel, given the emergence of Zoom meetings, is to build personal relationships and trust with individuals who represent their country, knowing that like you they’re doing their very best in the time they have in the role,” he says.

Those he meets abroad have often come from a rural background themselves and relate to his social media content, which is devoted to his trade work, his animals, and his motorbike rides.

“I’m no social media junkie, but I run into people offshore who follow me on Twitter, who know I’m on the bike or out with the stock, and they can relate to coming from rural backgrounds but now have city jobs,” he tells Newsroom.

“People offshore aspire to the type of lifestyle we have in our country, the open freedom we have and the opportunity to get a bit of insight into it, even if just through my Twitter account.”

When New Zealand hosts meetings and events it’s also a chance for ministerial counterparts to travel to the southern hemisphere and get an understanding of just how far away it is and how gruelling the trip can be.

O’Connor has only held the trade portfolio since the 2020 election; before that David Parker had the job.

“It’s a whole new complex area of challenge – if we don’t trade, we don’t survive. It’s right at the forefront of economic prosperity.”

It’s a huge privilege and responsibility, O’Connor says.

“We’re a long time laying down so while you can stand up, while you can talk and walk, you have got to go for it.”

With just four weeks until Parliament rises, and the official campaign period begins, O’Connor is making the most of that time by squeezing in visits to India and the Middle East.

“There won’t be an FTA [free trade agreement] out of it, but every bit of connection will be contributing towards building those more formal agreements.”

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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