News People NZ’s new deputy PM Paula Bennett is a roughie in leopard print

NZ’s new deputy PM Paula Bennett is a roughie in leopard print

Paula Bennett Bill English
Chalk and cheese – Paul Bennett is the polar opposite of Bill English. Photo: Facebook (Paula Bennett)
Twitter Facebook Reddit Pinterest Email

New Zealand has swapped one sure hand on the tiller for another, with former Deputy Prime Minister Bill English now sworn in as the country’s leader.

But the man who steered a solid ship as National Party’s finance minister, and who prides himself as being “boring”, could not be more different to his new deputy.

Paula Bennett, 47, dances to her own tune, and it’s probably a disco hit.

Paula Bennett
Paula Bennett’s Westie car – proud and loud. Photo: Twitter

Where Mr English is a Catholic father of six from the rural deep south, Ms Bennett was a teen solo mum whose electorate in west Auckland is one of the fastest-growing areas of the country.

She’s proud to be a battling ‘Westie’, to the extent that she had her electorate car painted in leopard spots. You can often pick her out of a line-up of suited MPs by the hot pink high heels. And she has no hesitation in wading in.

Her instruction to opposition MP Jacinda Ardern during a combative Parliamentary debate to “zip it, sweetie” made the New Zealand Herald’s top quote of 2012.

She gained notoriety in 2009 for breaking up a fight among brawling teenagers in her local mall.

Ms Bennett also hit the news in 2009 when it was discovered she had written letters of support to a judge and parole board for her jailed daughter’s boyfriend – the gang member father of her granddaughter.

She has been a hairdresser and a dishwasher, and nurses aid at a rest home.

Her romantic life is just as colourful. In 2012 she announced she had married her old flame, former truck driver Alan Philps, who she had met two decades before when she was a waitress at a diner.

They sealed their rekindled romance with a wedding on Piha Beach’s black sands, with guests dining on fish and chips from a local takeaway.

She’s an urban Maori with no ties to the language, and grew up in a Pakeha (European) world.

In 2010 she accepted an Eisenhower fellowship to the United States, an award handed out to just 20 women worldwide identified as outstanding leaders.

But as much as she is admired for her chutzpah, she is disliked for the way she used the state system of benefits to get her own life on the right track – and then as a minister, pulled the ladder up behind her.

Welfare allowances that she took advantage of were cut, including adult education funding – something that would have made her own education impossible. Compounding that controversy she went on to release private information about two beneficiaries who criticised the policy.

A 2012 report from the Children’s Commissioner recommended a universal child benefit, which the then-welfare minister rejected as being too costly.

She has a tough exterior, a backbone of steel and a bulldozing approach to go with it – traits that have been recognised by the National government.

She was put in charge of social housing by a government that refused to admit the country had a housing crisis, recently announcing a $300 million emergency housing package that felt like too little, too late.

John Key trusted her enough to hand her the tricky climate change portfolio – a political hot potato for a government whose traditional support comes from the farming community.

There is to be a major Cabinet reshuffle before Christmas and it will be interesting to see what this feisty woman puts her mind to next.

View Comments