BY LYNDA PAPESCH
A lifelong interest in politics made running for Parliament a logical next step for second-term Nelson City Councillor Matt Lawrey. Standing as the Green Party candidate for Nelson isalso a logical move for a man dedicated to saving the environment for future generations. WildTomato talks to him about life, loves and politics.
“In 30 years’ time we will look back and some of the things we’re doing now will ll us with horror.” – MATT LAWREY
From battling to save stranded whales in Golden Bay to fighting his way to Parliament to save the environment, Matt Lawrey is a dedicated greenie, judged by his actions rather than just his words. As the Green Party candidate for Nelson in the upcoming General Election on September 23, Matt is no stranger to politics, the media and the limelight.
Many people know him from his early days in broadcasting and journalism, from being a Lotto presenter, and throwing his hat into Nelson local body politics in 2013. Others know him as the creator of The Little Things, a successful cartoon on family life, while yet others are part of his family and recreational life.
Matt admits knowing an incredibly wide range of people, thanks largely to a variety of roles over the last three decades, and also to his gregarious nature. “I’m really lucky having met so many characters, from business people, captains of industry and the like through to former refugees. I love that I have those connections; knowing that I can pick up the phone or jump on my bike and find out what people think about things or get their advice.”
Politics has been an integral part of his psyche since he was a child, coming to the fore initially in 1981 when aged 12 he took to the streets and marched against the Springbok Tour. “Even then I understood the cynicism of what was going down. New Zealand had signed the Commonwealth’s Gleneagles Agreement, which was a stand against apartheid that opposed sporting contact with South Africa.
“A huge number of New Zealanders were strongly opposed to the tour and the police didn’t want it to happen but the National Government of the day gave it the green light because they knew it would play well in rural New Zealand and help them win that year’s election. It was politics at its worst and it did a huge amount of harm to our country.”
He’s always struggled with people’s aversion to politics as a topic of conversation and their apathy towards it. “I think sometimes it’s a sign that they’re content with their own lot in life but often I suspect that it’s a result of them suffering from a sense of helplessness. It’s like they don’t want to invest themselves in politics because they don’t believe that anything will change.
“That sense of hopelessness leads to cynicism and, seriously, cynicism is crap. It doesn’t change anything. To paraphrase Barak Obama, cynicism doesn’t improve our schools or our hospitals, it doesn’t build communities, it doesn’t protect the weak, it doesn’t clean up our rivers and it certainly doesn’t launch great businesses. It doesn’t lead to greater tolerance and understanding. It’s basically cancer and right now, with the way things are going in the U.S. and Europe, we have to do everything we can to guard against it or we risk falling into the same hole.”
Matt believes that while people are fond of saying politics doesn’t change anything, the fact is it does lead to change, and in most cases it’s the most effective way of making change happen.
“Over the last 20 years we’ve seen a lot of positive change, including marriage equality, paid parental leave, the launch of Kiwibank and KiwiSaver, a ban on people whacking their kids, the legalisation of prostitution and our glorious Smokefree legislation. It’s probably worth noting that none of those came out of the National Party.
“The reason I’m not a Conservative is that history teaches us there is always room for improvement.”
For Matt Lawrey, that improvement is based around the Green Party mandate to create a country where every child can thrive and where our beautiful natural environment is treasured and protected. “That’s the kind of country I want too, and I think many Nelsonians feel the same,” he says, adding: “I believe most Kiwis think a fairer, smarter, greener New Zealand would be better for everyone and I want to be a part of making that happen.”
The timing is right for a run for central government politics, he says. Aged 47, Matt remembers well the 1980s when people thought that in many ways society was pretty enlightened. “We all know now that, actually, for a whole lot of people life in the ’80s was pretty crap. It was far from an Age of Enlightenment. The same applies now; in 30 years’ time we will look back and some of the things we’re doing now will fill us with horror.
“I suspect the way we treat the environment and animals will be up there in the horror stakes. This is the story of human development and it’s the story of progress. That’s why we have to keep moving forward. It’s why we have to keep looking for ways to make society a better place. We can’t afford to rest on our laurels and say, ‘Well, things are better than they were 30 years ago and I’m alright so don’t make a fuss’.”
While primarily aiming to secure party votes for the Greens, Matt also hopes to liven up politics and make it more relevant.
He was encouraged to aim higher by many people “who think I’d do a good job”. He’s already right at home in Wellington, having been born there, educated there and worked there, although now he calls Nelson home. “It’s been my home for the last 20 years after I was lured here by a great character named Kevin Ihaia, the co-founder of Fifeshire FM.”
Working in Wellington at the time, Matt took a call from Kevin inviting him to ‘come to Nelson and I’ll buy you lunch’. “We got on like a house on fire; I loved Nelson and have done ever since.”
Spending his formative years in Wellington, and his 20s travelling widely, Matt always envisaged living in the nation’s capital … “until I saw Nelson”. The region’s diversity is just one aspect of that. “In Nelson I have friends who are business-owners, artists, brewers, bakers and you name it. It’s a fascinating diversity and I love it. I’ve never felt like I am missing out on anything by living in Nelson.”
His love affair with Nelson sprouted during his broadcasting career. “About my second year at uni [Victoria University], I decided on journalism. At the time I was studying political science for my BA.”
Matt’s father was an accountant, his mother a professional opera singer, and sister Sarah had a keen interest in ballet, eventually joining the Royal New Zealand Ballet and gaining international recognition. All had a keen interest in politics, which made for interesting family and friends’ discussions.
“Classical music, ballet, football and politics all helped shape me.”
Matt also caught the travel bug at a young age. “I was very fortunate that I travelled with my family as a child. We went around Europe in a Ford Cortina and I spent my 11th birthday in Spain, for instance. At that age I saw lots of interesting stuff.”
When he was 18 the family travelled again, spending three months in Europe travelling by train, and visiting all manner of places. “We went to Berlin eight months before the wall came down.”
Seeing the world helped to form Matt’s interests and ideas about how things should or should not be. At 19 he took himself off to the United States, working that summer as a ski-lift operator in Colorado before travelling down the western coastline. Two years later he headed for Japan and lived there for ‘three amazing years’, before a 12-month trip back to New Zealand via South-East Asia.
Matt then completed his Diploma in Journalism at AUT and initially worked for veteran broadcaster Lindsay Perigo as a producer in Auckland, before a year with RNZ in Wellington.
By then he’d spoken to a lot of people nationwide as part of the job. “I always felt that when I spoke to someone in the South Island, and Nelson, that the people sounded more relaxed, more comfortable with themselves, less stressed and genuinely happier, warmer, friendlier than many other callers.
“That’s when I started to think how nice it would be to live somewhere outside a big city; somewhere smaller and more genuine New Zealand heartland.”
His stars aligned and Nelson, along with Fifeshire FM, became part of his destiny. He ‘threw’ himself into his new job and met a tonne of people, including future wife Tania Norfolk.
“I’d seen her around and she took my breath away,” he recalls. “To me she was Isabella Rossellini meets Audrey Hepburn. I had no idea who she was.” He eventually discovered her name when delivering a radio voucher she’d won.
“I went to the address and was about to put it in the letterbox when I heard someone say ‘Hi’. I turned around and there she was. It is one of the only times in my life that I was literally lost for words.” Totally flummoxed, he handed over the voucher, declined a cup of tea, jumped in his car and took off. Having learnt his mystery woman’s name, Matt then invited her via a mutual friend to a party and “we’ve been together ever since”.
They married 18 months later, and a year after that became parents. Nowadays their family comprises Darcy (11) and Miro (8), plus Staffordshire bull terrier Monty. Tania, a librarian at NMIT, is a clever woman, says her proud husband. A keen supporter of his move into the wider political arena, she published her first children’s book, Grasshoppers Week, 18 months ago (illustrated by her husband), and is now working on other stories.
As for Matt’s ambitions, why now and why Green? He says the timing is right. “I’ve always been green at heart. At university I was really impressed with Germany’s Green Party. Its philosophy was ‘Think globally, act locally’ and that made a strong [and lasting] impression on me.”
Having found local body politics a worthwhile experience, and with his broadcasting and journalism background, he decided the next act was to put his hand up for the environment. “The children are more independent now, and the timing is right as a family. And I’ve had a lot of encouragement from various people.”
Those people form a major part of his decision, and his motivation. “It’s the same as being a journalist; my motivation is connecting with people and trying to make New Zealand a better place. So many people have said to me that it is a combination of having the right person and the right policies, and I feel that’s me.”
Technically he can be an elected councillor and MP at the same time, but has decided that if elected, he will stand down from the Nelson City Council. “Being an MP is a big job and I want to do it well. I believe that as an MP I can do even more for Nelson than as a councillor, which is a big part of why I am running.”
He accepts that in the election he’s very much the underdog, running against a strong MP in Nick Smith. Making it on the Green Party List will also be a challenge because he only joined the party in April last year. Party members (about 6500 of them) vote on the list ranking order, which means that as a new and relatively unknown member he’ll be at a considerable disadvantage.
In the meantime, he’s working hard to get his message out there, so come September he can do his bit to raise the level of the Greens’ vote and hopefully be elected. The aim this year is to raise the Green Party vote above 11 percent, he says, adding that since putting his name into the hat, he has met many people who are ‘closet greens’. “A lot of New Zealanders are moving closer to voting Green because some of the real issues for us as a country are the obvious detrimental impacts on our environment and waterways, plus the growing inequality here.”
On his environmental hit list is ensuring that all the land doesn’t get gobbled up by infill housing; more protective environmental legislation; warrants of fitness for all rental properties; and a taonga levy on international visitors to help fund conservation and local tourism infrastructure.
Closer to home, he says Nelson is about quality not quantity. “People come here so they can live a fantastic quality of life, regardless of their income tax bracket. Nelson is going to grow and how that growth is managed is critical to the future quality of life here.
“We can build on all the great things we have here and make them better, or we can end up being just like anywhere else, but with better weather.”