Jan Tinetti could be going through a big grief period.
From running a school of 140 needy kids, she now plays a hand in running the country. And it’s come at a personal cost.
“I was at an event recently when one of my children launched herself at me and gave me a big hug.”
She calls them ‘her children’ - that’s the nurturing regard she has for her former pupils. And the spontaneous embrace was a measure of their regard for her.
“I thought ‘that’s what I am missing’, because at Merivale Primary I was getting that sort of interaction on a daily basis. You don’t get that so much in Parliament. Funny that.”
But the Labour list MP concedes there’s a greater good. “I am in the right place in Parliament. I see how I can influence things and make things better.” Make them better for ‘her children’ in Merivale, for all kids, and for everyone.
There was another significant hug recently. It was delivered at the Labour Party Council meeting and was an eight or nine pointer on the political richter scale. “She just comes up and gives me a big hug.” ‘She’ being Jacinda.
“There’s something surreal about the fact the Prime Minister is there, knows who you are and gives you a hug and starts chatting to you. I am thinking ‘wow, my life has changed in the last wee while’.”
Tinetti says it’s also testament to Ardern – down to earth, extremely smart and not to be underestimated.
All of this may sound a bit fluffy and fawning, but Tinetti also has a well-honed cutting edge.
She has spent many years steering an unfashionable, decile one school through a minefield of deficit budgets. She was a union exec – a member of the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa Education Union dedicated to advancing the interests of teachers and principals.
Her experience has been recognised with responsibilities not normally handed down to new MPs. “It probably means they have stereotypes about teachers.“ They think teacher, they think organiser. “That’s probably what it says,” laughs Tinetti.
She’s caucus secretary, responsible for the secretarial duties for the entire caucus, and caucus representative to the Labour Party Council, the party’s governing body. And the role she’s most pleased about, deputy chair of the education and workforce select committee. The engine room of anything to do with education and the workforce which includes immigration and industrial matters.
And there are a few of those sensitive issues smouldering away.
Hand her a loaded gun to fire at the opposition and she lays the gun down – she doesn’t do confrontation or toxicity.
“I step aside from that – education, being a principal and my union work were political beasts and I could have been like that. But I wouldn’t let it – I would shut it down smartly.”
But she has yet to experience any toxicity or confrontation in Wellington.
“I can only be positive about it,” she says.
And she embraces positivity.
Like when the opposition slammed the government’s plan for a commission to examine homelessness, the state of the rentals market and the decline of home ownership. “Firstly, we absolutely need the commission,” says Tinetti. And she politely explained it away as an opposition probably finding its way – learning to be an effective opposition.
When Bill English attacked the government’s $1 billion regional development, Tinetti riposted: “That probably tells us how exciting it is.”
Then 6254 written questions from the opposition in a month – was that trivial and vexatious? “They probably think it’s democracy at work.” But she did look at some of those questions and wondered if asking ministers where they were on particular days was helpful in any way?
“But the written question process is an absolutely critical part of democracy because it does hold the government to account.” Tinetti will find good in everyone and everything.
An eyebrow is raised at the suggestion of “Santa-cinda” – as some wag, or cynic, referred to government “handouts.”
“Look, there are some major issues in this country – areas where there hasn’t been enough spending. Yeah, we are taking tax cuts off the table but rebuilding services like health and education.”
And now seems a good time.
Cabinet wasted little time in fast-tracking free tertiary education for new students - university, apprenticeships, anything that’s post-secondary school training – and boost student allowances.
“I struggle with why people struggle with this, because I came through a system that didn’t have student loans. In fact, I was paid to go to university and teachers’ college, and I was able to buy my first house at 24-25 because I was able to save for my mortgage.”
On the other hand, her son, aged 22, has a debt of about $60,000. “That’s a terrible way to start your adult life, having such a debt.” Her youngest son lives in Auckland. “I am having to pay his rent. He is fortunate I can do that, but a lot of people can’t.”
She says it’s better for the economy, better for individuals and better for everyone to get people into training rather than scare them off with debt fears. She has moved on from Merivale but her heart is still there.
“I think of the young people who I have worked with in Merivale – not many of them go through to post-secondary education because they simply can’t afford it. They are desperate to get into jobs so they can pay their way. There’s no back up.”
Jan Tinetti will be talking to and listening to everyone – from Priority One to the Merivale Community Centre, from councils to Maori education and health groups. “Their priorities will become my priorities,” she says.
She understands not everyone loves what she thinks or says. “But I love the challenge of that. I absolutely love the debate and being held to account.”
She missed out on vistas of Wellington Harbour from her 11th floor Bowen House parliamentary office, but she does have doorways – access to powerbrokers – and a couple of cabinet ministers are her immediate neighbours. That’s handy.
“I have come out of a job where I am the one who’s in control of everything. I made the decisions and things would happen according to me. It’s not like that anymore.” She’s always told her kids that it’s about lifelong learning, and now it’s her turn to take her own advice on board.
“It would be easy to let your ego take over. But the reason I am in parliament is not about me.
“I know there are people who see parliament as their personal pathway. It is not mine, it is for a greater good that I am there. I am there because I know I can make things better for people, and I am loving it.”