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Growing up in politics

Wednesday 28th February 2018


he children of politicians tell their stories.


Penny’s mum Heather Roy became an MP when she was just 12. She is pictured here with her mother and older sister, Barbara.
Penny’s mum Heather Roy became an MP when she was just 12. She is pictured here with her mother and older sister, Barbara.

Photo: Supplied

In her second year at Otago University, Penny Roy distinctly remembers students tearing up posters of her mother’s face.

Heather Roy was deputy leader of the Act Party, and at the time was pushing a controversial bill to end compulsory student union membership. 

Heather responded to the protestors by politely asking the leader if she could send him a more flattering photo to rip to pieces. It was thick-skinned politics in action.

Penny was horrified by the protests, but even more alarmed by her mother’s response.


In June this year, New Zealand will welcome Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s first child to the ninth floor of the Beehive. Until then, speculation about the first baby’s gender and whether Winston Peters will be the godfather is rife. 

Throughout their careers, politicians face a high level of scrutiny from media and the public - it comes with the territory. 

But what’s it like for a daughter to watch as posters of her mother’s face are ripped to shreds, or to see her father cry on national television? How does it feel having to sneak down your neighbours’ driveway after school because journalists are staking out your home? 


Penny was just 12 when her mum entered politics in 2002. 

She’s now 26 years old and a New Zealand Defence Force lieutenant based at Burnham Military Camp. She’s remarkably honest about the downfalls of growing up with a parent in politics and says she wishes her mum was around more during her teenage years. 

“Mum always jokes that she used to ‘parent-via-text’ but I don’t find it that funny.”

Her father is a psychiatrist and also works incredibly long hours, which meant Penny and her four siblings had nannies from a young age, until she left home at 18.

“I used to despise mum’s job. I hated politics. She was gone by the time I got up and got home after I went to bed.”

Penny says it was only really her siblings who understood how tough it was.

“I told my friend what it was like but they didn’t really get it.”

Heather Roy’s choice to join the New Zealand Army influenced Penny’s career.
Heather Roy’s choice to join the New Zealand Army influenced Penny’s career.

Photo: Supplied

On reflection, she’s proud of her mother’s achievements, especially her involvement with the Defence Force. In 2006 Roy completed basic training as a Reserves Forces field engineer with the New Zealand Army.

“Mum wanted to be the Defence spokesperson for ACT, and decided joining the forces was the best way to to gain a real understanding of how the Army works.”

Penny says watching her mum move up the military ranks is something she held onto, and at the age of 19 she joined the Reserve Forces, and made the Army her full time career last year.

From 2008 to 2010, Roy was the Minister of Consumer Affairs, as well as Associate Minister of Defence and Associate Minister of Education. During this time she pushed for student union membership to become voluntary. The controversial bill saw nearly 5000 submissions, and protests from Student Union representatives who claimed Roy’s Bill would threaten New Zealand students’ voices.

The last two years of Roy’s political career were less than idyllic.

In 2010 ACT leader Rodney Hide stripped Roy of her portfolios and status as deputy leader – opting to replace her with John Boscawen, who had put his hand up for the job. Allegations of bullying and chaos inside the ACT Party caucus were rife. 

Penny remembers it as an incredibly stressful time for her family. Her mum stayed with  friends to avoid the media camped outside their Karori home, provoking media reports that she was having an affair. Despite the turmoil, Penny says her mum was determined to stay on as a Member of Parliament for ACT, which she did until she announced retirement before the 2011 election.

“She left on her own terms with her head held high, and I’m proud of that,” Penny says.
“I think it was actually a really big loss for the ACT Party in the end.”

Penny says she shares similar political views to her mum (shared most recently on her mum’s blog), and that she’s thought about a career in politics.

“I think it would be a job I would enjoy, but I’ve always said I’d never enter politics until my kids had left home.”

Asked her advice for Jacinda’s baby, Penny says she’s not too worried – the newborn won’t remember the height of her mother’s political career.

“If [the baby] was a teenager my advice would be quite different. There’s not a lot you can do when your parent is a politician, except just make sure they know how you feel.”


Miria, 28, says it broke her heart to see her father carry the weight of the Māori Party’s loss at the election last year.
Miria, 28, says it broke her heart to see her father carry the weight of the Māori Party’s loss at the election last year.

Photo: Supplied

No matter what side of the political divide you sit, footage of Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell visibly teary-eyed on Election Night last year was enough to make anyone feel sorry for the man who had devoted his energy to a party that was seemingly swept from Parliament over a matter of hours. 

His 28-year-old daughter Miria Flavell, who stood with her father on that night, had never seen him so upset. 

“If I’m honest, it broke my heart,” she says. “I know he put all the blame on himself, and that was the toughest part.”

Flavell first entered Parliament when Miria was 14, an age where having mum and dad at her sports games and kapa haka performances mattered immensely to her.

When Flavell became Minister for Māori Development in 2014, Miria and her siblings were lucky if they saw their dad one or two days a week.

“It was the coolest thing in the world if our dad could make it to even one event – I would show off and make sure I put on a good show for him.”

It was on election night in 2005 that Miria first realised her father was an important person.

“The night he got elected was when I truly realised how huge it was - that my dad had been chosen to represent our rohe of Waiariki.

“I never saw him as someone that was into politics, he had always worked in education so I never ever thought he would become a politician… But that moment when he won, I looked around the packed room and everyone was cheering and crying. I realised how important and significant that moment was.”

“He’s my superman”. A Young Miria Flavell with her father, Māori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell.
“He’s my superman”. A Young Miria Flavell with her father, Māori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell.

Photo: Supplied

Miria’s proudest moment was when Flavell delivered his maiden speech in Parliament.

“It’s like we could feel the wairua of all our ancestors there with us that day standing right behind him with their hands on his shoulders. It’s hard to explain but it just felt so special.”

Asked whether her father’s political beliefs had shaped her own, Miria tells me she certainly believed in the kaupapa of the Māori party.

Miria vividly remembers marching down the main street of Rotorua to protest against the Foreshore and Seabed Bill.

“I can still remember the sound of all the nannies and aunties crying and wailing for their hurt of our people.”

Taking a different path to fer father, Miria is now a beauty influencer and YouTube celebrity with over 14,000 followers, who watch her explain the intricacies of makeup in Te Reo Māori.

While she does not have any specific advice for Jacinda’s child growing up in politics, she does have some advice for the mother herself.

“Get plenty of sleep.”


Vetya and David Shearer.

Photo: supplied

In a classic teenage move, Vetya Shearer opened his bedroom window, closed the blinds and cranked up his electric guitar as loud as he could to get back at reporters standing outside his Auckland home.

“It was worth it.”

It was 2013, and Vetya’s father David Shearer had just announced his resignation as leader of the Labour Party, sensing he no longer had the full confidence of his colleagues. 

Vetya was just 16 at the time, and remembers receiving a call from his mum when he was walking home from school.

“She told me that there were a few reporters outside our house and that I should go down the neighbour’s driveway to avoid talking to them. I was confused. Is the media so interested in my dad that they have to lurk outside his home and possibly harass his family?”

Hence Vetya’s idea to blast reporters with his electric guitar. 

Now 21, it is evident Vetya is proud of his father, who he says has always “stood up for the little guy”.

Vetya was 12 when David Shearer entered politics after winning the 2009 Mt Albert by-election and replacing former Prime Minister Helen Clark as the electorate’s new MP. 

Vetya knew his father had become an important person, and his parents briefed both he and his sister Anastasia about the job, warning them there could be attention from both the media and kids at school.

Vetya and his sister were adopted from Russia as toddlers, about a year apart.

Vetya was adopted just before his third birthday at the end of 1999, and one of his first memories in New Zealand was watching the sunset in Mt Eden on New Years Eve.

He says his parents have always been open about their adoption, but it was something he didn’t tell people openly.

“Not because it was a secret, but just because I thought it was private information that people had to earn my trust to know. I was especially weary not to tell people when Dad was a politician because I thought that somehow it would have a negative impact.”

However, it has since become common knowledge and Vetya learned that politician John Banks also has an adopted child from Russia. 

In 2011, following the disappointing election results for Labour and the resignation of party leader Phil Goff, Shearer was voted in as the new leader.

But rumours of party factions and leadership challenges clouded his time at the helm and he resigned after just two years, in 2013.

“Unfortunately, Dad’s role as leader didn’t last long, as he decided to leave the position when it became apparent that his party didn’t support him, despite having a large amount of support from the public,” says Vetya.

Shearer stayed on to represent his Mt Albert electorate for another three years until he received an offer from the United Nations to head their mission in South Sudan.

Vetya Shearer with his dad David.

Photo: Supplied

This was a familiar move for Shearer. He’d previously worked for overseas missions as the head of Save the Children Fund, and was named New Zealander of the Year with his wife in 1992 after operating one of the largest aid camps in Somalia. 

It is clear Vetya is most proud of the difference his father has made on the world stage.

“To see him back in that work where you can see the changes happening before your eyes is the best thing for him,” says Vetya.

“In politics you have to dance around issues to make sure you keep the right number of people happy so that you can get your way and it just takes so much time. When you’re in the middle of an anarchic society or a civil war where guns get shoved in your face every day, you just don’t have time for any of that political nonsense.”

In fact, Shearer was recently applauded for leading a mission to free more than 300 child soldiers in South Sudan.

“Tell me, when could he have done that as an MP or leader of the opposition?”

Now studying towards a double degree in business and communications at AUT, Vetya says his father’s career choices have not influenced his own, but his political views have. 

“I would align myself with the Labour party as well, however, I am not a blind follower. I lost faith in the party after Dad stepped down as leader and several leadership changes followed and nobody seemed to have an idea of what to do or a vision to follow. 

“I also believe in choosing what’s best for New Zealand as a whole, so if National has a better plan for the economy then I would vote for them.”

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Phillipa is a freelance journalist currently working for a not-for-profit in Christchurch. She writes about politics and issues impacting Pasifika people.
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