‘It’s unforgivable’: The real reason Louisa Wall quit politics

Louisa Wall is grieving, there is no mistaking that.

Beneath the excited exterior about the challenge of a fresh start after she leaves Parliament is a weeping wound about how she comes to be leaving.

We are sitting on the expansive deck of the busy Auckland home she shares with her wife, Prue Kapua, looking out at giant pou in the semi-rural bush garden and talking about the future and the past.

The distant past is a source of pride, particularly the relatively smooth passage of the marriage equality bill that has defined her political career.

The recent past and her effective deselection as an electorate MP is raw. She frequently chokes back tears — which she says are for others.

But few would begrudge her some for herself as her 14 years in Parliament draws to a close.

“I can’t not say it affected me and I can’t say it wasn’t traumatic,” Wall tells Canvas.
“But it didn’t just affect me. It actually affected the lives of a whole lot of other people.”

Wall had been the MP for Manurewa for two terms in 2020 when she was challenged by two people, including young Māori lawyer Arena Williams who had the quiet support of the Labour leadership — we’ll get to the why later.

Wall took legal action, but it was not just any old lawyer. She brought out a political bazooka by hiring ex-National Attorney-General Chris Finlayson and challenged on the basis that Williams submitted her nomination form late.

Most people were more interested in the Covid-19 pandemic at the time but, with relationships severely strained, it had the potential to get very messy and negotiations began with Wall.

Wall withdrew in a deal that would give her a winnable place on Labour’s list for an understanding she would retire during the current term when a suitable job came up.
That suitable job just came up: a role with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as a New Zealand-based ambassador trying to improve the empowerment of women in the Pacific and focusing more broadly on LGBTQI+ rights.

But leaving politics will be a wrench.

“I can say I’ve been grieving. I love the job. I’m gonna miss it but I do have another opportunity to contribute.

“I step into that space not as a foreigner, because I believe New Zealand is a Pacific country and I believe because I am indigenous to Moana-nui-a Kiwa, I’ll go with some credibility.

“Obviously it helps when I have got a Māori woman Minister of Foreign Affairs who is very focused on the Pacific and where our whanaungatanga relationships matter,” says Wall.
The said minister, Nanaia Mahuta, was also one of those who helped to broker the Manurewa deal in 2020 in what Wall calls a “heartbreaking time”.

Wall gets tearful when she talks about an electorate volunteer, Raewyn, aged 82, who had been a party stalwart through the Roger Douglas years when he was with Labour, the George Hawkins years and her own years.

“She was there for me and when they took away the rights of my [electorate committee] and did what they did to deselect me, Raewyn has never gone back. That was her life,” says Wall.

Others have suggested that Wall was challenged because she was a polarising figure without enough loyal supporters to fend off a challenge. But Wall clearly feels she was muscled out and her supporters disrespected.

“I might have been the target but there was a lot of collateral damage,” says Wall.
“I really do think it is unforgivable.”

Since news of her pending resignation from Parliament was announced, she has been lying low, thinking about her valedictory speech on April 14 and taking care of her extra special 20-month-old niece, Snowy-Rose Te Ruinga Te Rina, who visits often from Taupō, where Wall grew up.

“We are lucky to have her in our lives,” Wall says. “She has been very good for me this week. It is nice to just spend time with this little bundle of innocence, exploring the world.”

Wall’s legal challenge to Labour over the Manurewa nomination was possibly the first time in a long time she did not use her wife, otherwise known as her “in-house” lawyer.
Usually, the help was in the form of Wall asking Kapua to draft a bill — she drafted the marriage equality bill and plenty of others — but she also represented Wall in an unsuccessful case against Fairfax (now Stuff) alleging that two particular cartoons it published breached the Human Rights Act.

Kapua did a lot of environmental law early in her career, having worked in Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s office when he was Environment Minister in the fourth Labour Government and developing the Resource Management Act.

She is on the Waitangi Tribunal and is due to step down as president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League at the AGM later this month, having been in the job for eight years.

Kapua is pottering around the house during the interview, seeing to Snowy-Rose and the relatives who are staying and greeting the pool man who visits regularly to maintain their pool.

Wall and Kapua met in 2004 over a committee table in Freeman’s Bay: Dame Georgina Kirby, a former president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, commanded their presence at a meeting of the Waiatarau branch of the league.

Love blossomed over the following year.

“We are very similar, very focused, very committed to the advancement and representation of Māori women.”

For Wall, a former New Zealand representative at netball and rugby, it helped that Kapua played tennis and appreciated sport.

“For us, having a beer and watching sport is something we both love to do.

“We are also very in tune in terms of commitment to our people. I’m really proud of what she has achieved as president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League,” says Wall.

Much has been written about Wall during her political career, focused on whether she is abrasive or constructive, a team player or divisive, whether she was picked on or picked on others — and all of the above are true to some extent.

Wall herself engaged in fairly robust debate, particularly as it became clear that a challenge was about to be mounted in Manurewa with the tacit support of the leadership.
Wall raised the issue at the Māori caucus in March 2020 and had a real go at deputy Labour leader Kelvin Davis. Party president Claire Szabo heard about it and mistakenly sent a message about Wall’s “meltdown” involving Davis to the whole caucus instead of to the leadership.

But what is clear from hearing Wall’s side of events is that she had some fractious relationships in the caucus from day one and was willing to be confrontational when she thought it necessary.

She laid a complaint against colleague and list MP Clayton Cosgrove, for example.
He took exception to a radio interview she had given in which she said any list MP should be voting for marriage equality because it was in the party manifesto — such issues are traditionally conscience votes.

He is said to have fumed at her: “Who the f*** do you think you are?”

She complained to leader David Shearer and deputy Grant Robertson.

“I thought what he said to me was unacceptable and they did nothing and I ended up being ‘terrible’ for wanting to formally report him for speaking to me like that.

“I stood up to him and I wasn’t going to put up with that.”

[Cosgrove voted against civil unions but in favour of the same-sex marriage bill].
She also revealed that her promotion of the marriage equality bill was not a sure thing. There was a caucus debate when she sought approval to put it in the members’ ballot because some people thought it might be a distraction.

“And my saviour and the person who stood up and made it happen was Parekura [Horomia].

“He did, he did. Before the bill was even put in the ballot. He silenced everybody. He got to his feet. He was formidable and everybody listened to him.”

Wall’s bill had been only in two ballots in 2012 before it was drawn out and subsequently passed in 2013. But she says there was also disagreement within the caucus about the way the bill was promoted.

She says she wanted a simple message about discrimination and to seek cross-party support and to talk to all opponents, including churches.

“If I’m really honest, I think there were some Labour colleagues who were really upset I didn’t leverage off civil unions, for example. I didn’t emphasise it, I didn’t highlight it, I didn’t promote the work.”

Wall says civil unions had been a compromise and she was selling equality and taking the time to build coalitions had been important.

“It wasn’t just about achieving the law reform, it was how we did it. It was also about cementing it so that a political party in the future wasn’t ever going to change it.

“I think I have challenged what Labour wanted me to do and it was right at the beginning.
“They tried to tell me how I should narrate it, what are the lines. I wasn’t interested.

“In the end, the leader’s office said, ‘You either do it our way or you’re on your own.’ That’s exactly what happened and I said ‘Okay, I’m on my own.'”

While all this was happening, there was also another element that sat behind it — the caucus was deeply divided over the leadership while in Opposition.

In Wall’s view, her support of David Cunliffe had a profound and lasting effect on her relationship with Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson — they were staunch members of the Anyone-But-Cunliffe tribe in the caucus.

She says the reality was that MPs had to pick a team sometimes early and she went with the one that Horomia supported, as had Lianne Dalziel, Charles Chauvel, Nanaia Mahuta, most of the Māori caucus and the unions.

“Sometimes you make a decision really early and then that’s it,” says Wall.

“I’ve always tried to just get on with my job and be part of the team but it’s very hard to be part of somebody’s team if they don’t want you to be part of their team or if they exclude you.”

Asked if she had ever gone to Ardern and Robertson to ask what their issue was about her, she says she hadn’t directly asked them.

After Shearer resigned, Cunliffe beat Robertson for the top job and led the party to its third successive defeat in 2014. Andrew Little followed Cunliffe and Ardern took over shortly before the 2017 election, now in her second term as Prime Minister.

How much of Wall’s view of her Labour relationships will make her valedictory speech is not yet decided. But she says she is still committed to the party.

“I love my party. I love our principles. I love what we stand for. I just think that some of the behaviour of the people in leadership at the moment is completely incongruent with who we are.”

She certainly has an exciting new job to look forward to.

“I think it is a great stepping-stone from everything I have learned at Parliament.
“I want to continue to contribute. I’m a patriot. I love my country. I’m proud of New Zealand and I do think we’ve got more to contribute to the world. And it just made sense, to be honest.”

She says she has good networks in the Pacific already for the work on women’s empowerment.

The work on LGBTQI+ rights would be wider than the region — there are 70 countries in the world where same-sex relationships are illegal — including the Cook Islands, which will soon be facing a decriminalisation bill.

But given some of her experience in New Zealand politics, is she diplomatic enough to be a diplomat?

“I think what people would say about me is that I play politics like I played sport.
“I mean when I got the ball in rugby, I ran it up the guts. That’s the truth. Because for me if you want to achieve something you look at the best route possible and for me it has always been from A to B.”

That may have to change.

“I think I will actually have to employ new skills which possibly I will have to learn and sometimes it may be A, B, C, D, E, F, G before I get to the try line.

“I turned 50 in February and I do think I’m of an age where all of the training I have had in Parliament will set me up in terms of this next career move.

“This new phase of my life, I think, is a logical next step.”

LOUISA WALL'S BILLS – AN INVENTORY

• Legalising marriage for same-sex couples, passed in 2013.

• Allowing regulation-making power to set up protest-free zones for women entering abortion clinics on a case by case basis, passed in 2022.

• Allowing the late Katherine Harris to be named on the birth certificate of her daughter, Paige Harris, who was carried by a surrogate, passed in 2022.

• Making it unlawful to post intimate digital recordings of another person, passed in 2022.

• Extending protection of journalists’ sources to investigative journalists. At select committee and will be taken over by Ingrid Leary.

• Setting out legal rights for various parties in surrogacy arrangements. Given to Tamati Coffey and is at select committee.

• Requiring that renewal of liquor licences under Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 must not be inconsistent with local alcohol policy. Awaiting second reading.

• Recognising the status of Māori in New Zealand. Not approved by caucus in Opposition.

• Stipulating that housing is a human right. Not approved by caucus in Opposition.

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