With the general election just three months away, whose are the fresh faces in politics? In the second of a series of profiles of the major parties’ new candidates under 35, The Wireless producer Elle Hunt talks to Todd Barclay, National’s candidate for Clutha-Southland.
Todd Barclay and I speak days after his 24th birthday. It’s a relief to be a year older, he admits: “You’ve got no idea.”
National’s youngest candidate is poised to become its youngest MP in decades. Bill English has held the Clutha-Southland seat for the past 24 years, and Barclay – who, before being selected by National to stand, worked as a big tobacco lobbyist – is aspiring to follow in his footsteps.
Barclay grew up in Gore and the small Southland township of Dipton, which is about an hour’s drive away from Gore. “Everyone knew the Englishes in Dipton,” says Barclay, though his only personal connection was having attended playgroup with English’s second-oldest son. “I was like, three or four years old. I was struggling to string a sentence together.”
The story of how Barclay got his foot in the door of the National Party – and of one of its most powerful offices, at that – is by now well-known: in 2009, Barclay, then a first-year commerce student at Victoria University living at a hall of residence, emailed Bill English asking for a job.
“I went along to a couple of Parliament house sittings and I thought it seemed pretty interesting. I sent Bill a direct email saying ‘You remember me from Dipton, I’ve seen you at Parliament a few times, it looks really interesting – how do you go about getting an internship?’”
He readily admits that he was naïve to email the Deputy Prime Minister direct, but says he didn’t know what the typical route to an internship was – knowledge, he speculates, that might prevent political science students from making the same ballsy move.
Far from diverting him to the proper channels, English invited Barclay to spend the day with him in Parliament for a look behind the scenes. “At the end of the day, he just said, ‘What did you think of that?” I said it was awesome. He said, ‘Right, so do you want an internship? And I said yes.”
Barclay started working for English three days a week – and, it’s worth noting, at such an early stage of student life it was by no means the norm to be politically involved.
From there, he moved onto full-time roles in the Prime Minister’s office and with Gerry Brownlee – short-term contracts that he juggled with study. He ended up reducing his university workload to take on a permanent position in Hekia Parata’s office, which he teed up with another cold email pitch.
After graduating, he moved to Auckland to work at the public relations firm SweeneyVesty. But after about six months, he missed being at the centre of the action at Parliament.
Then a job in corporate affairs at tobacco giant Philip Morris came up.
“To get into government relations, there’s not many jobs that are available, and those that are, are hardly ever advertised,” he says of his decision to apply. “I wanted to get experience in a multi-national [company], and in government relations in a complex industry.”
He stops short of describing it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, though his explanation seemed very much headed that way. He saw big tobacco as a “challenge”, he says: “For government relations experience, nothing would beat that.”
Barclay says he saw a stint at Philip Morris as a “stepping stone” to a government relations or corporate affairs role “in a company such as Fonterra or Air New Zealand”, that he could then use as a launching pad for his career in politics.
“I wouldn’t have had a shit show in hell –” he stops, apologises, corrects himself. “I wouldn’t have had a chance of getting that sort of level of job in one of those companies having just worked in Parliament, with no actual experience.”
“At the end of the day, I’m not a smoker. I wasn’t involved in the sale of tobacco, but even so, it’s a legal product the company is providing in a legal and highly regulated industry, with education and information if you want to give up smoking; nobody can say they don’t know how.”
WATCH politics student Peter Grace interview Todd Barclay as part of Otago University’s Vote Chat series
For Barclay, the end goal was – had always been – to stand in Clutha-Southland after English retired. And since he didn’t see that happening for at least another couple of elections, he was playing the long game. Then English announced that he was stepping down at the end of last year, and the whole plan was fast-tracked. “It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” he explains.
Barclay foresaw and has accepted interest in – and questions about, and disapproval of – his career in big tobacco. “I’ve always been upfront and forthcoming about that part of my background,” he says, pointing out that he identified himself as a current employee of Philip Morris in his pre-selection campaign material.
And moments after he was announced as the successful candidate, he snuck out of the room, called his boss, and tendered his resignation.
He says he did so voluntarily, to make the point that he’s serious about gaining the trust and backing of the electorate – one of the largest in the country. “I knew the only way I could do that was to give 100 per cent of my time to getting around as many places as possible to get that support.”
Somewhat fortuitously for Barclay – and mind-bogglingly for others – he’s not National’s only candidate born of big tobacco. Chris Bishop, a former Philip Morris employee and now adviser to Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce, is standing in Hutt South.
But where Bishop is going head-to-head with incumbent Labour MP Trevor Mallard, Barclay’s winning Clutha-Southland is as close to a safe bet as you can have before Election Day. It’s one of the safest seats for National in the country; in 1990, the Southland Times said that a gumboot could win the seat, as long it was a blue gumboot.
“To get the nomination is to really become the new MP for the electorate, such is the historical dominance of the National Party in this part of the country, so all the best Todd” wrote ‘Pete’s Patch’ blogger on Dipton.co.nz.
Barclay is at pains to make clear he’s taking nothing for granted, and that just because the seat has been safe for English doesn’t mean it is for him – which is of course true. But when you’re being described as a “shoo-in” (even if it is prefaced with “clueless”, perhaps unfairly), and blogger David Farrar has a nickname ready for you in the next National caucus (FWIW: “Baby Todd”), it seems a bit disingenuous to play coy.
That’s not to second-guess Barclay’s commitment to the job, and apparent love of the South. He was asked in his pre-selection interview if he’d consider standing for any other electorate, and he said no. The effort he’s made to sign up new party members and meet with delegates (he met with 95 out of 144; “I was busting my arse”) in the lead-up to his selection hasn’t gone unnoticed. He is already living full-time in Gore, a sacrifice few ambitious twenty-somethings would be prepared to make in order to further their careers.
As was somewhat begrudgingly acknowledged in a Fairfax profile last month: “Whatever can be made of Todd Barclay’s selection … no one can accuse him of being a carpetbagger.”
You can accuse him of being young, naïve, lacking in real-life experience – and plenty of people have. But, he says, he’s got four and a half years at Parliament under his belt, and there’s no better preparation for a career in politics.
“It doesn’t matter what you do in any other field, it doesn’t prepare you for the parliamentary environment. I think age is just a number. … I think it’s about proving that you’re dedicated to your area, you can do the job, you’re passionate about the people you’re trying to represent.”
He rattles off a list of prominent National Ministers who were in their 20s when they entered into Parliament: Nick Smith, Simon Upton, Tony Ryall, and, of course, Bill English.
But all of them will have had a few years on Barclay if he enters Parliament in September. Even Jami-Lee Ross, currently the youngest member of the House, was 25 when he won the Botany by-election three years ago.
Asked what support measures are in place for a first-time MP, he points to his campaign chairman, former National MP and senior whip Jeff Grant; the southern network of National MPs and candidates and volunteers; “the party infrastructure that Bill’s brought up over the last 24 years in the electorate – I don’t think most electorates could match that.”
Plus, though English himself might be standing down from Clutha-Southland, “he’s not going anywhere. So if I am lucky enough to win the seat and I do make it into Parliament, I can’t think of a better mentor.”
Disclaimer: Elle Hunt and Todd Barclay lived together at a Victoria University hall of residence for a year in 2009, but were not friends.