Green Party MP Lan Pham on putting family first

The dedicated environmentalist opens up about prioritising her young family as she enters Parliament
Hagen Hopkins

Lan Pham has just one regret about the whirlwind final few months of 2023, when she started her new life as a Green Party MP and somehow also coordinated her young family’s move from Christchurch to Wellington – amid all the chaos, she never made it to the cinema to see Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.

“I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it justice during election crazy-times,” she says sadly.

A devoted Swiftie – “always and forever”, she affirms – Lan parodied Taylor’s Bad Blood in a 2017 video drawing attention to freshwater pollution in Canterbury, where she was a regional councillor.

The Beehive might require slightly more gravitas, but the 37-year-old still believes in having fun while fighting the good fight. “This work is important, but we’re only on Earth for so long. We’re human beings and it’s OK to enjoy life!”

And whenever she feels discouraged, her husband Emerson, their five-year-old son and their three-year-old daughter are there to cheer her up. “I couldn’t do the job without them.”

Lan was the Green candidate for Banks Peninsula and although she didn’t win the electorate, she easily made it into Parliament at number six on the list, despite having joined the party only a year earlier. She will still spend plenty of time down south, supporting Te Waipounamu’s other Green MPs, but she and Emerson decided a home base in the capital would be best for their family.

“With little kids, it’s the micro life,” she explains. “It’s having breakfast, bathtimes and bedtime stories. I didn’t want to miss any of that.”

With her Green Party caucus.

Lan’s feeling her way with the new-found public attention on her family, keeping her children’s names and faces out of the media for now. “They can make their own decisions when they’re older.”

Lan reports the kids are loving Wellington, in particular the fact their new home has – wait for it – both a staircase and a bathtub. “They’re in heaven,” she laughs.

Emerson, a former politics student who loves the outdoors and worked as a transport planner, has been a stay-at-home dad since their son was born. “He loves taking our kids on adventures. He’s probably going to be devastated when our eldest starts school this year.”

The couple met soon after Lan finished her bachelor’s degree at Massey University, having moved from Wellington to Palmerston North to study science. On graduating, she joined a conservation group in Dunedin to learn “real-world skills – chainsaw-ing, driving tractors, and pest and predator control”.

Emerson was a supervisor and she fell hard for him. But he was set to leave for Canada when the five-month course ended. “So I had to do a last-minute declaration of love.”

It paid off. He’s been by her side ever since, supporting her as she got her master’s in freshwater ecology, worked with the Department of Conservation, started the Working Waters Trust charity with some uni friends and served two terms on Environment Canterbury.

Being with her kids is Lan’s top priority. “I’m going to give this job everything, but I’m not going to give it everything.”

It was during those ECan days that Lan was taught a hard lesson in pacing herself. In 2019, when she was campaigning for her second term on the council, she was so swept up in her mission that even getting hit by a car, when she was on her bike, didn’t slow her down.

Sick and exhausted, she kept going, and it was only a bad case of laryngitis that forced her to stop and rest. It’s hard to chat up voters with no voice!

These days, Lan knows not to let things get to that point.

“I’m going to give this job everything, but I’m not going to give it everything, you know? I’m absolutely going to prioritise being with my kids as they grow up.”

She regularly turns off her phone so she can be more present – something she says will make her a better politician in the long run. “If you prioritise your health and your family’s, I really believe trying to change anything is possible.”

She thinks a lot about her mum Rosalie, who passed away when Lan was 19, just three months after a skin cancer diagnosis. “Life has its challenges and they bring into focus how precious life is and the beauty of it. Life, death and change… They’re all mixed up in the same thing.”

She tells her kids about Grandma Rosalie, a teacher, social worker and “incredible giver”, who passed her love for nature on to her daughter. Meanwhile, Lan inherited her boundless energy and appetite for hard work from her dad, Anh-Tuan, a computer programmer who emigrated from Vietnam in the ’70s.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick convinced Lan to run for Parliament.

When Rosalie passed away, Anh-Tuan became a solo father to six children, the youngest of whom was just 11. “It definitely brought us closer together,” Lan shares.

Now with Lan moving back to Wellington, the six siblings and their dad all live in the same city for the first time in 20 years. It meant everything to her that Anh-Tuan was there when she was sworn into Parliament as New Zealand’s first MP of Vietnamese heritage, saying her oath in his native language as well as te reo Māori.

She admits her Vietnamese is a work in progress – she grew up speaking English with her Pākehā mum – and she was scared to let her dad hear it. Luckily, he forgot to bring his hearing aids to Parliament that day!

It’s been a strange entry into national politics, with Lan feeling both ecstatic about the Green Party’s best-ever election result with 15 MPs and deeply concerned about a “pretty bleak” few years under the new right-leaning government, which quickly rolled back smoke-free legislation, Clean Car Discounts and Fair Pay Agreements, among other things.

“I want a liveable future for our kids and grandkids, and what the government has put on the table so far feels like a real setback. But I have a platform for voicing an alternative future, which is positive, and prioritises the health of people and the planet, and that’s why I’m here.”

Related stories