First-term MPs: Deborah Russell on MPs across the aisle, work-life balance, and support networks

With the 52nd Parliament wrapped up after nearly three years, Newshub spoke to four MPs who have just finished their first term about their experience as a politician. The interviews will be released throughout the week.

Deborah Russell entered Parliament in 2017 after taking out the safe Labour seat of New Lynn in Auckland. 

She grew up in Taranaki and studied accounting and finance at university. After working for several years as an accountant, Russell completed a PhD in political philosophy with a thesis on multiculturalism and how governments can respond to diverse communities. 

Russell has also been a lecturer on taxation and co-authored a 2017 book about the lack of significant change to New Zealand's since tax system since the 1980s. 

She is standing again for Labour at the 2020 election in New Lynn. 

Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What motivated you to become an MP and why for the Labour Party?

I am just aligned with Labour values. It's to do with, I suppose, the social justice teachings of the Catholic church where I grew up. I think they align with the Labour Party values really well. In terms of becoming an MP, I like talking, I like ideas, I like arguing, I like getting to know people. It really fits quite well.

When you entered Parliament, was there adequate support or did you feel thrown in the deep end?

There was plenty of support there. Great support from Parliamentary Services. I think the thing that helped the most was the class of 2017. There were 17 new MPs in the Labour Party and we formed a really tight group and have really looked after each other. So, that's been brilliant.

How important is it to have a group of MPs for support?

Incredibly important. With the class of 2017, I can ask any dorky question I like and no one is going to judge me for it. That is a really safe space. That really helps. The cross-Parliamentary groups are really good too for learning from other, more senior MPs. They are an integral part of the support network there. 

I have got MPs that I really admire on the other side of the House, she says.
I have got MPs that I really admire on the other side of the House, she says. Photo credit: Newshub.

Were you able to build relationships with MPs across the aisle, such as in Select Committees?

I have had a really great time on Select Committees. I started out chairing the Environment Committee and on there I worked pretty closely with Todd Muller on getting some work done and I have formed, I think, a good friendship with Todd. Later on, I have been chairing the Finance and Expenditure Committee. I have really enjoyed working with Andrew Bayly. Andrew's great as he really gets into the nuts and bolts of an issue.

What was the most rewarding moment of the term or your biggest achievement? 

The thing I have enjoyed most is helping people in my electorate. Getting immigration cases sort, helping someone to find a home, maybe advocating for them with WINZ and getting some wins. I think those are the bits I have enjoyed the most.

What was the biggest challenge?

There are plenty of those. For me, one of the difficult ones was working on some of the firearms legislation because a lot of people had very strong views on that. I found it really important to listen carefully to lots of people, even if I didn't agree with them. So, challenging? I suppose difficult, but certainly really worth doing.

I found it really important to listen carefully to lots of people, even if I didn't agree with them.

What did you learn about yourself?

I have always been a quick talker but one of the things I have learnt is that talking is great, but you need that long reflection as well and the conversation, it is not just my ideas, but the ideas that get developed much better in conversation and debate with other MPs.

Overall, how different was your experience in Parliament to what you expected going in?

I had some fairly good knowledge about how it operated because I had previously been a public servant and in the run-up to being elected, I had been a candidate and I had been in and out of Parliament. I think what I didn't really understand was the intensity of the work. When Parliament is sitting we cram 40 hours of work into three days. It takes a lot of effort and concentration. I hadn't anticipated that.

Russell at a Select Committee.
Russell at a Select Committee. Photo credit: Facebook.

Did you have any exercise routines during your term?

I do try to go walking, which I enjoy. I find walking really good because it is meditative. I enjoy gardening and its partly because it's outside, its fresh air, I have to think a bit, but not too much. It's really calming and relaxing. I love my garden.

What's your favourite food at Copperfield's Cafe at Parliament?

Coffees and lots of it. Hot chips are always good. Lasagne, they do a great lasagne.

When you first entered Parliament, was there anyone you were starstruck by?

Pretty starstruck by our leader [Jacinda Ardern], but she is such a down-to-earth person that the starstruck didn't last and we just became part of a team that worked together. I have got MPs that I really admire on the other side of the House. I mentioned Todd Muller previously. I have always had a soft spot for Ian McKelvie from Rangitīkei. I ran against him in 2014. He is a truly kind and gentlemanly man.

Would McKelvie be someone from the other side of politics you'd like to take out for lunch?

I would take Ian out for lunch, probably at the Taumarunui Cossie Club.

What would be your advice for any new MPs?

Expect to be challenged. To expect it to be different from anything else they'd ever done before. Find friends and support networks because that is what will carry you.