Jennifer Curtin: The feminist political scientist mixing rugby with politics

by Clare de Lore / 18 September, 2018
Jennifer Curtin. Photo/Clare de Lore

Jennifer Curtin. Photo/Clare de Lore

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Australian-New Zealander Jennifer Curtin, who recently became the first female professor of politics at the University of Auckland, says the lopsided nature of the Bledisloe Cup pales in comparison to the slump in transtasman relations.

Whether on the rugby field or in the corridors of power, recent weeks have been a bruising time for Australians. The governing Liberal Party’s internal warfare came to a head, taking down yet another prime minister, and the Wallabies are licking their wounds from yet another Bledisloe Cup defeat by the All Blacks.

Watching from the sidelines, Jennifer Curtin, political scientist and rugby fan, has skin in both games. Waikato-born and bred, Curtin holds both New Zealand and Australian citizenship, and has studied and worked in both countries. She describes herself as an “empirical girl” in her academic role and as commentator on TVNZ’s political programme Q+A. In a climate where “alternative facts” has entered the political lexicon, she is careful to stick to what is verifiable and reference political theory. Off camera, her bubbly personality surfaces and Curtin proves a brave optimist, confidently navigating through Auckland’s often hair-raising traffic on a step-through scooter.

Her parents – father Frank was born in Australia while his Kiwi parents were on a bank transfer and mother Kay is Australian – raised Jennifer and her three siblings in Hamilton. Curtin left school before completing seventh form, having “run out of puff”, and worked for the then Bank of New South Wales for two years before hitting a glass ceiling. Told she would not be promoted because she would “probably just get married and have kids”, the 19-year-old bought a one-way ticket to the UK. She spent two years nannying, working on a kibbutz, and travelling in Europe and Africa before returning home.

Eventually you made it back to New Zealand – did you tire of the travel?

No, I thought I would work for a couple of months and go back to Europe again, but I went to the University of Waikato, started an arts degree and never really left. Politics took over in the end, not surprisingly, given Dad was a highly political animal in the National Party during the Muldoon period. He was Mike Minogue’s campaign manager for 10 years, so we grew up with blue rosettes. Mum was a Bruce Beetham [Social Credit] fan, but I think she would now call herself a swing voter.

Jennifer Curtin, back left, and family at Pukehina Beach in 1983. Photo/Curtin family collection

Jennifer Curtin, back left, and family at Pukehina Beach in 1983. Photo/Curtin family collection

What attracted you to the academic side of politics?

Politics was more alive than history, which I was also studying, and I quite liked numbers – results coming in on election night and comparing them to previous elections, for example. I was trying to understand power – who had it and why. I was very influenced by Marilyn Waring, who taught me in third year, and I also took papers on Māori politics and industrial relations politics. I would call myself a feminist political scientist.

What is your own experience of progressing as a woman through the ranks of academia?

In February this year, I became the first female professor of political science at the University of Auckland. My inaugural address is on September 18, the evening before the 125th anniversary of New Zealand women’s suffrage. It will be on sex, power and democracy in New Zealand and beyond. There hasn’t been a truckload of professors of political science, but I feel honoured that this is happening in this year. I got my PhD 21 years ago, had two babies and moved jobs five or six times to get here, so it has been a dogged journey. It can be a chilly climate, having babies and trying to keep up the research, because although universities will always ensure you do your teaching, you can’t be promoted just on that. You have to write your journal articles and books.

Graduating with a PhD in Canberra in 1997.

How did you juggle the babies and research?

When I finished my PhD, I wanted to be in the labour market for two years before I had a baby – otherwise I would have gone from being a PhD student to being a mother, and I wasn’t sure how things would progress after that. We were living in Australia then. When I was offered a job teaching gender, I took it and didn’t tell them I was four months pregnant. When I told them, at six months, I arranged to take unpaid leave for six weeks over summer and was back teaching on March 1, like everyone else. My husband, Craig, who was a public servant, stayed home for the second three months. When we came back to New Zealand in 2006, by then with two boys, Craig stayed at home, so they have had mashed-up role models.

How do you view the deterioration in relations between New Zealand and Australia?

I am really disappointed with what is happening. In 1991, I was in Australia when Paul Keating won the unwinnable election. I then watched, over three years, as Keating regularly dissed New Zealand for domestic political consumption. Then there was the 2001 decision between John Howard and Helen Clark; I don’t think anyone was aware that could lead to reducing the ways in which New Zealanders have access and pathways to citizenship in Australia.

Helen Clark and  John Howard sealed a deal that disadvantaged New Zealanders. Photo/Getty Images

Helen Clark and John Howard sealed a deal that disadvantaged New Zealanders. Photo/Getty Images

Is Scott Morrison better news for New Zealand than other recent Australian prime ministers?

Morrison was the instigator of the Coalition’s tough border-protection policy in 2013, so it is unlikely he will respond positively to New Zealand’s offer to take refugees. He is a social conservative and was a tough social security minister, so it seems unlikely that, as Prime Minister, he would change Australia’s policy stance on deportations of Kiwis or citizenship issues. I think it is sad – there are families on both sides of the Tasman who go back generations.

Rugby unites, or divides, our two countries but contests are now pretty one-sided. Should Wallabies coach Michael Cheika be the next leader thrown overboard?

I think Cheika will see out the year.  Although they may not be able to beat the ABs, his players are loyal to him and there is no clear replacement there. The bigger issue last week was hearing that the Australian Rugby Union had not let the women’s teams warm up on the main ground for the Sydney test but the men’s teams were allowed. This raised questions in the media about whether Australia would win the bid to host the women’s world cup in 2021. We are crossing our fingers that New Zealand gets it, of course.

With husband Craig. Photo/Curtin family collection

With husband Craig. Photo/Curtin family collection

You’re writing a book about rugby in your spare time. What’s your angle?

When you grow up in the Waikato, everyone in your life plays rugby or watches it, including your grandmas and aunties; you become a rugby fan. We didn’t play it back then, as girls, but I was a supporter and when I lived in Australia, I still supported the All Blacks. But every book on rugby was written only about men, for men, with a focus on players. Yet this became the national game only because women helped – you can’t just impose something as big as rugby on a whole nation. It has taken a while to write this book – it is not standard political science, it is a history going back to the 1800s. It is exciting that the NZRU is putting in a bid for the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2021 and that is my target to finish the book.

And what do you read for enjoyment?

Crime fiction – I got onto Henning Mankell’s Wallander series before Stieg Larsson [The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo] made Nordic noir sexy. I was fascinated by Swedish social democracy but Mankell’s books are couched in social realism: not everything is always perfect in the social democratic state. French academic Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, an archaeologist and historian, is fabulous. Her pen name is Fred Vargas and her [Commissaire Adamsberg] series is awesome. I have expanded my repertoire beyond the Nordic, including Irish writer Tana French and Giles Blunt from Canada. In bad weather, my downtime is spent marathon Netflix watching with my nana rug.

With sons Reuben, left, and Isaac in 2017.

After all your academic work, is there a novel in you?

In retirement, I would like to write a historical crime novel set in New Zealand. Australian Shane Maloney writes crime fiction set in Melbourne and his novels are quite political. Some sort of mash-up of Fred Vargas and Shane Maloney would be cool. I also imagine, once out of academia, I might become one of those op-ed writers, perhaps even a grumpy old woman who writes exactly what she thinks. I won’t have to worry so much about evidence – I’ll just be able to have an opinion.

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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