Julie Anne Genter: Wheels within wheels

by Guyon Espiner / 10 December, 2015
Pedal power: four bikes won’t do for Julie Anne Genter, who plans to buy a fifth – electric – one. Photo/Simon Young

For high-flying Green MP Julie Anne Genter, sorting out our transport system is one of the keys to solving New Zealand’s problems.

Julie Anne Genter owns four bicycles and she’s on the lookout for another. Today she’s ridden the purple one with the brown basket to lunch at her favourite cafe, tucked away just off Auckland’s Ponsonby Rd. That all fits. As does the choice of venue, a hip, experimental joint with unpronounceable entrées and indigestible quinoa.

After entering Parliament in 2011, Genter was branded its most edgy MP, thanks to a cool Californian accent and a large bamboo tattoo on her calf. Now in her second term, promoted from 13th to eighth in the Green Party rankings and given the crucial finance portfolio, the 35-year-old is touted as a future co-leader, once Metiria Turei moves on. But there is a reticence about her. Genter doesn’t have the cockiness of a young poli­tician who’s going places. She’s surprisingly candid about whether the Greens can make it into government this decade let alone in 2017. She even expresses doubts about how long she’ll stick around. She seems more animated talking about tramping in Abel Tasman National Park, weekends in the Waitakere Ranges and hanging out with Man Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton in Mt Eden than tearing down her opponents or promoting herself. Oh, she cares, all right. She is passionate about, and clearly expert in, transport policy and she’s only slightly exaggerating when she says any moves not aimed at reducing climate change are a waste of time.

Genter has just been in Paris, where as a fluent French speaker she was a valuable addition to the Green team at the UN Climate Change conference. Speaking about the Draft Paris Agreement she said: “It’s exciting that we’ve reached this point, but the text is still riddled with unresolved issues and a huge divide remains between deve­loped and developing countries in terms of who should do what.”

And sure, that all fits, too. But there is something missing. You get the sense that the MP with the stellar CV wonders whether she’s in the right place and whether politics is her true calling. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, perfecting her French in Toulouse and studying politics in Paris, she moved to New Zealand. In her eyes, this liberal democracy led by a woman, where a Green party was actually in Parliament, was something of a nirvana.

Within six years of being in the country, she was an MP. Now she seems genuinely perplexed at National’s ongoing popularity and the lack of cut-through for the Greens. She seems to find Parliament something of a charade and the life of an MP cosseted and even a little shallow. So, what’s eating Julie Anne Genter?

Genter with her parents and brothers in the mid-1980s.

All roads lead to climate change

Surprise greeted the announcement that Genter would take the finance portfolio. The assumption was that co-leader James Shaw, with his business background, would take over both the roles Russel Norman vacated. “I have an advantage of being a little bit different to your usual finance spokesperson,” Genter says. How so, I ask, missing the obvious. “There haven’t been many female finance spokespeople in any party.” Well, there was Ruth Richardson. And Rahui Katene from the Maori Party. So, two? She has a one-word response: “Shocking.”

The finance role is critical for the Greens. Shaw told the Listener recently the biggest issue the party faced was convincing voters it could be trusted on the economy. Genter says that is a significant challenge. “It is difficult from Opposition. People say, ‘You haven’t been in government, therefore we don’t trust you being in government.’”

She also sees a problem with the messenger. “In the media in New Zealand right now we don’t have as many opportunities to dig into issues, so a lot of the elections are fought on slogans,” she says.

“There isn’t a lot of room in a 24-hour news cycle for an in-depth debate about which policy is going to get you the outcome for a more prosperous New Zealand.”

Genter treads cautiously on economic matters. She says the party already has a lot of policy in this area and, aside from tax reform, she seems mainly focused on better communicating the policies. She demonstrates an understanding and interest in the portfolio, although she often brings it back to climate change. In fact, with Genter, all roads seem to lead back to climate change.

Genter in 2015. Photo/Simon Young

“The key to solving our economic and environmental and social problems is ensuring we put a price on pollution and enable everyone to have the same opportunities.”

But let’s face it. Genter won’t be finance minister in any Labour-Green administration. Labour will always reserve that role for itself in government. Genter doesn’t concede this directly. “I’d certainly be very interested in being Transport Minister for a while. I feel like I could add a lot of value.”

We’ll come back to her choice of words here – the qualifier “for a while” captures the reticence that pervades the interview – but it’s her transport portfolio that gets her fired up. “What we’ve been doing for the past 50 or 60 years isn’t working,” she says. “Even the problems we are setting out to solve, like congestion, aren’t necessarily the real problems. We have an incredibly costly transport system. We import all our vehicles and all the fuel we use to run them.”

And she’s off. Infrastructure investment. Rail. Coastal shipping for freight. Safe walking and cycling. Electric cars. Transport is her thing. “It’s pretty easy. I only focused on transport and specialised in it because it is easy and it just seems like an easy win.”

We’re onto the price of oil, geopolitics and the ethics of long-haul travel. Yes, she did pay a carbon offset to go to Paris. In fact, she spends about $2000 of her own money each year buying carbon credits to offset her air travel.

But cycling is her favoured mode of travel. She has two bikes in Wellington and two in Auckland. “Two touring bikes and two city bikes – one is a folding one and my next one is going to be an electric bike.”

Politics isn’t a healthy profession, so cycling is important to her lifestyle, although it nearly ended her life in 2007 when she was hit by a bus in Auckland. “I remember feeling the bus hit me from the side and looking and thinking I can’t go to the left,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I am going to die, this sucks’, and I just sort of shut my eyes. The bus pulled away and I fell over to the right and I threw myself to the sidewalk really fast. If another bus had been behind me, I might have been dead.”

Genter with actress Emma Thompson at the London People’s Climate March in November.

Oil, the enemy

Genter wasn’t born into politics. Her mother is a dietitian and her father a cardiologist. But she soon found plenty to be political about. Born in Minnesota, she grew up in Southern California and figured out early that oil was the enemy. Oil lurked behind the smog, the congestion and even war.

“One of the first political actions I remember taking was putting up a sign in our window. We went to war with Iraq over Kuwait in 1991. I was about 11,” she recalls. “I heard about protesters with signs that said ‘No Blood for Oil’. And I was like, yeah! So I made a sign and put it in the window. My parents got really upset. They told me that wasn’t what it was about and that it was embarrassing.” She laughs at her 11-year-old self. She doesn’t like slogans now.

Genter left home at 18 to live in the mountains in Northern California, doing odd jobs and mixing with people who didn’t share what she describes as her privileged background. She studied philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and picked up French partly out of a love of Voltaire. She spent two years working on her French in Toulouse, then studied economics and political history in Paris. Another war with Iraq kept her from returning home. “I could not bear to return to a country engaged in the futile and destructive wars championed by George W Bush,” she told Parliament in her maiden speech.

In 2006, she came to New Zealand. Why? “I had a few friends from New Zealand over the years and I always really hit it off with them. And from what I understood of New Zealand, it was a small, pretty progressive democracy. I thought it was really great the Green Party was in Parliament here and Helen Clark was the Prime Minister.”

Back then, she never dreamed she’d be an MP. She completed a Master of Planning Practice at the University of Auckland, then worked as a transport and planning consultant. The political connections were forged when she became a political and media adviser for the Greens in 2010. “I thought I’d give New Zealand a go. And then I felt really at home. I didn’t intend to be elected to Parliament. I never had political ambitions. It was surprising. Even a couple of months before the election I didn’t expect it.”

You get the sense she still can’t quite believe her life has turned out this way. “I feel like it’s been quite charmed since I came to New Zealand, it was easy.” So is it the progressive, liberal country of her dreams? “Yeah, compared to some of my colleagues, I’d say I think I have a lot of hope for what New Zealand can achieve. I love it. I love the people of New Zealand. I love the natural environment. I think the cities have a lot of potential.” She’s even relatively optimistic about Auckland transport. With electric trains, the City Rail Link and possibly light rail, it has “come a long way” in the 10 years she’s been here.

Even when she’s invited to put the boot into National, she does so with sandals rather than steel-caps. She describes National’s reign as one of wasted opportunity. “I feel like we didn’t make much progress in terms of getting ready for climate change and reducing our pollution, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. They didn’t privatise ACC and take us down the road of cops having guns.”

Genter making her point to then Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee in 2014, her bicycle in the background at the TV studio.

Three worst things

So, what would she tell her liberal friends overseas were the three worst things the ghastly neoliberal government was doing here? She struggles a little. “Oil and gas exploration as an economic-development strategy, spending billions of dollars on a few motorways that aren’t going to solve any problems, umm, and what was the most recent one? The quality of the debate is getting worse and worse, like with John Key accusing the Opposition of backing rapists.”

She’s just not a killer opposition politician. She doesn’t hate her opponents. In fact, she has “a lot of respect” for National’s Bill English and even counts other National MPs – Chris Bishop, Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye – as friends. Nor does she care much for the MP lifestyle. “I don’t think it is normal and I worry that we get special treatment and that could end up changing your perspective on things. I can easily see how people get out of touch if they spend too long in Parliament or as a minister.” She doesn’t intend falling into that trap.

“I don’t think I want to be doing this forever,” she says. “I have definitely said to people I don’t want to be a career politician. I’m here. I feel I can add some value now. I might not be the best person to do that in 10 or 15 years.”

So, what else does she want from life? A family one day? “Yeah, I think so.” How achievable is that in Parliament? “I don’t know. It has been for men, so I don’t see how it shouldn’t be for women. Russel Norman had children while being co-leader and Gareth [Hughes] has kids.”

Whatever she does, her goals won’t change: to work for a more sustainable world and to reduce climate change. “Anything we are doing which is not that is a bit of a distraction and a bit of a waste of time because it is an incredibly urgent challenge that we need to be putting all of our resources into. It’s almost like World War II and everybody pulled together and they had the Victory Gardens and the women went to work in the factories. We just have to pull together to do what we need to do to avert catastrophe.”

She’s so passionate and all consumed by it that I figure she must want to get into power and do something about it. But my readiness to hear her to say she wants the power of government is greater than her urge to grab it. “I’d like to if it was possible, but it may not happen. I didn’t expect to be here in the first place,” she says. I press on and try to quantify it. What are the chances? What are the odds of a Labour-Green government? “They’re very good,” she says. Better than 50-50? “Yeah. By 2020,” she laughs. “Eventually, National will lose and we need to be ready with a plan.”

It’s hardly a great slogan, I think as I walk back to where I’ve parked the station wagon, passing the purple bike with the brown basket and briefly contemplating life with five bikes and no car. Then again, Genter doesn’t care much for slogans. Her sights are set somewhat higher than that.

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