Celebrity News

Politically correct

Our Minister for Women started her own company at 19, became a solo mum at 26, studied, and is now the voice of Kiwi women in parliament. We get to know the woman behind the portfolio.
Lousie Upston - a solo mum and her journey to becoming our Minister for Women

Louise Upston was so nervous she felt nauseous.

It was March 10, 2015, and New Zealand’s Minister for Women was in New York to present the government’s national statement to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Quite a daunting task for her first international visit as a minister.

Sitting behind the New Zealand placard in the hallowed General Assembly hall, the mum-of-three (Hamish, 17, Mac, 13, and Jessica, 11) texted her eldest, saying she was about to start.

“I’d told the kids what I was doing and that it would be streamed live on the internet. Afterwards, still on an adrenaline high, I texted Hamish and said I’d finished. He texted back, asking ‘What were you doing?’ I just burst out laughing till I had tears running down my face. If you ever think you’re doing something important, you can rely on your teenagers to bring you back to earth.”

Now 44, Upston was 26 when she got pregnant with Hamish. “I’d previously been told I wouldn’t be able to have children so it was very surprising to be expecting.” When she saw that pink line, Upston was no longer in a relationship. “It was a really difficult time of my life. Being a solo mum was never part of the plan.” Did the father help out with parent-ing or finances? “No, and I didn’t force him to.”

She went on the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) for six months before starting part-time work and enrolling Hamish in childcare.

“I know how incredibly hard it is as a solo mum. It’s not much of an existence on the DPB and I knew I had to go back to work to provide that quality of life and a better future. There was no such thing as a social life, and time with my extended family was really restricted. Everything became about being a parent and providing an income. But it was worth it.”

Planning is key

That’s because she’s turned her dream of a political career into a reality. The National MP for Taupō since 2008, last year Upston was appointed Minister for Women and Minister of Land Information, also becoming Associate Minister of Local Government, and Associate Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment.

“When I became a minister, the kids were surprised I was still MP for Taupō. They said, ‘Haven’t you got a new job now, Mum?’”. She explained she had a few new jobs, as well as her old one.

It’s quite a workload, but Upston relishes hard graft. “I’m a planner. My previous career was in project management so I’m used to juggling and organising.”

But she couldn’t do it without her staff: seven in Wellington, one in each of her three electorate offices. And she’d be lost without her diary.

Lost and found

There’s no such thing as a typical day, but she guesses the time split between Wellington and her electorate is 60/40, even 70/30. “Some people go into the electorate office any day of the week and expect me to be there. But Parliament sits 32 weeks of the year and when it sits I’m in Wellington.”

Other priorities are weekly meetings with officials from her ministerial portfolios, and monthly clinics for constituents at her electorate offices in Taupō, Tokoroa, and Cambridge (though she tries to get to each fortnightly).

When we visit her Wellington office on a Monday morning, Upston is prepping for a ministerial meeting at her desk, having flown into Wellington first thing. This week is a parliamentary recess, and she’s off to Dunedin, Auckland, Christchurch, Otago, Tokoroa and Cambridge before returning to her Karapiro home for the weekend. She has perfected the art of reading reports on planes and repacking her small suitcase on wheels, which is parked up in her corner office overlooking the Beehive, next to the somewhat contradictory titles Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office and Work Hard. Be Nice.

Nice or not – and I suspect she is – that’s not what got her where she is today. Growing up as the youngest of four on Auckland’s North Shore, she’s always had drive and determination. “My older sisters would say I was spoilt, but I’d say I was always trying hard to get noticed.”

A work ethic was ingrained early. “My parents believed firstly in education and secondly in hard work, that if you work hard you’re rewarded for your efforts, and that you’re responsible for your decisions and their consequences.”

With that in mind, she decided to be a politician at age 10. “I remember thinking about being a nurse or a teacher or a lawyer, all jobs helping people. And I thought I could help more people as a politician.”

Ever the planner, she plotted her path to Parliament. “I had it all worked out. I’d go to law school, get engaged at 20, married at 21, have four children by 30, be a lawyer, get a Masters’ degree, and be an MP by 40.” Though she entered politics three years before that self-imposed deadline, her path was much more circuitous than expected. After her first year at university, she just missed out on the A- needed for second-year law. Then, when her mother died unexpectedly, she dropped out of university altogether, to her father’s horror.

“I was quite lost to be honest. Without my plan, there was no next step. Where do I go?” Few 19-year-olds would have the self-belief to start their own company without university qualifications, but Upston did.

What began as bookkeeping and secretarial work soon became event planning, project management and management consulting, with clients including Air New Zealand, law firm Russell McVeagh and IT company Datacom. For years she moved between self-employment and various jobs – including local government – that would help equip her for politics, while also studying on and off and raising three children (she married management consultant Craig Upston when Hamish was three).

In 2005 Upston decided to get the National Party’s attention. When she wasn’t selected as a candidate that year, she realised she was too light on qualifications. So in 2006 she did a Masters of Business Administration, a 25-hour-a-week commitment on top of working mostly full-time. With a thesis in political leadership, academia was plan B, but she was selected as a National candidate for the 2008 election. In quite a coup, she trounced Mark Burton, a Labour minister who’d held the Taupō seat for 15 years.

You could put that down to her warmth, capability and relatability, but she puts it down to door-knocking – and, of course, a plan. “At breakfast the morning after the election, I was writing my re-election plan. I don’t take anything for granted in life. You have a plan and you work hard. The first three years was about being a really good local MP.” She did that, doubling her majority in 2011. “The next three years I wanted to take on a bit more responsibility, as junior whip then senior whip.”

The official who ensures members of a party vote as one and otherwise toe the line, a whip must master political processes, relationships and tactics. Just the right training ground for a minister-in-waiting. After the 2014 election, when she increased her majority again, Upston was confident about a promotion – and the Minister for Women portfolio was top of her wish-list.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to impact 50% of the population.” Sure, but what about the other 50%? Should there be a minister for men? Having doubtless heard this question one too many times, Upston has an answer ready. “Other people would answer ‘every other minister’ [is minister for men].”

Yes, politics is all she imagined. “It’s the most amazing job on the planet because you get to do things that improve people’s lives.” As an MP, she’s particularly proud of the 100km Waikato River Trails cycleway, which has brought the region not just a scenic exercise area but tourism, new businesses and jobs. And in February, Cambridge and Tokoroa were two of the first towns to connect to the ultra-fast broadband network, enabling local businesses to operate internationally; Taupō followed in May.

Though Upston hasn’t had much time yet as a minister, she does, of course, have lots of plans. Her priorities as Minister for Women are preventing violence against women, supporting women in the workplace, boosting women’s lifelong participation in education and training, encouraging female employment in non-traditional roles, reducing the gender pay gap, and developing female leaders at all levels.

She struggles to think of downsides to her job, but admits the long hours and constant travel come at a cost. Juggling work and family is, she says, “quite a struggle. But when I went into this job I knew that would be challenging.” She shares custody of the kids after splitting from her husband three years ago. Recently she started seeing a builder called Hamish, whose cooking outshines hers.

Family time

Though the teen years bring new challenges, she says the juggling act is easier as the kids get older. They are usually at their father’s house during the week and with her on weekends. When they’re with her and she’s out of town, a family friend comes to help as needed with cooking, cleaning and the children.

And when Upston gets time with her kids, it’s precious. “These school holidays I have four days off and I said to my team ‘if it’s life or death, yes, but anything else, not now’.” She’s teaching her son Hamish to drive, and often practises sport with Mac.

“Saturday is housework day and my kids have chores and responsibilities. The dishwasher is broken right now but I like the chats you have washing and drying the dishes – the simple things, moments you don’t get back again. I’ve learned to make the most of every single moment.”

Being away so much, the hardest thing is missing out on little things that are big for her kids, like school camps or sports matches. “Like any working mother, you do feel incredibly torn. The worst moments are when your child is sick. It’s all challenging but I think the fact my experiences are very real and normal helps me as Minister for Women. I don’t see myself as any different from any other Kiwi mum. Whatever paid job I have, my most important job is as a mum.”

One particularly trying time was when her husband was made redundant a month before Mac was born. “Whoever got a job first had to start work, and unfortunately it was me. I was back at work when Mac was eight weeks old, which was very, very tough.”

Being with her family grounds her. “At times I do get stressed but I know the warning signals now. For me it’s about balance: making sure I eat well, exercise and get some fresh air.” Co-captain of the parliamentary netball team with Labour’s Louisa Wall (other core players are Jo Hayes, Nanaia Mahuta, Potu Williams and Meka Whaitiri), she also signs up for events to motivate herself to exercise.

Each year since becoming an MP, she’s joined a relay team for the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge. “But I never train enough.” She’s also done a series of three half-marathons two years in a row and, in 2013, registered for the New York marathon. “Then I decided to put that ball down, otherwise I might drop several.”

The next step

So what’s the plan now? Prime minister? She laughs. “When I was in primary school I wanted that role but I definitely don’t now,” she says, but I spy a glint in her eye. “I honestly haven’t thought past being a minister. I’m a real believer in doing the job you have as well as you possibly can. Right now, that’s my plan.”

Words by: Sarah Lang

Photos: Nicola Edmonds

Hair and Makeup by: Karen Winefield

Related stories