Phil cares passionately about New Zealand; the place and its people. His lifetime in politics has been driven by an innate sense of social justice & the desire to see 'fair play' for all. Listening to Phil, it is quite obvious how much he cares & in the video you get a good sense of his down-to-earth beliefs. He reminds me of an English politician I met years ago, John Major, who became prime minister briefly. He was not the most media charismatic man, in fact they labelled him the 'grey man'. But meeting him face to face you got a powerful sense of the strength of his personality. Some people are simply better off-camera. Phil has much stronger media skills, but in the news the message that sometimes gets lost is what a 'good guy' he is. And I really do mean that in a respectful not pejorative sense.
Phil has spent most of his life in the community in Mt Roskill where he grew up, retreating to his farm in the rural Auckland suburb of Clevedon when he needed a break. From a strong working class background - his grandfather was a tram driver & his father a fitter & turner, he broke the mould somewhat by being the first member of his family to go to university. Studying politics (what else!) he was lucky enough to be part of the student community in the 70's, the era of protests on just about anything! A lot of his further education was spent on the streets with placards, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Helen Clark, then returning to his flat to discuss the future of the world with flat mate Mike Moore, both future prime ministers.
His father - still going strong at 95 - wanted Phil to be a carpenter, but with his mother's support he chose the educational route. However, working with his hands is in his blood because he likes nothing more than tackling tasks. That could be fixing the lawnmower, which he did shortly after I arrived to see him, or feeding the cows, or erecting a wooden gazebo for a family wedding. He obviously has a practical bent, but it's also in large part because he simply doesn't know how to sit still. Sitting on a beach is not his style. His relaxation is when he's doing something, whether it's horse riding on a beach, or fixing something on the farm, or riding his beloved Triumph Bonneville around the country roads near his home.
He started riding when he was 15 & has only given up twice. Once when his sons were teenagers & he didn't want to give them an excuse to take up a potentially dangerous activity just because 'Dad does it', & again when his previous Bonneville was stolen. He is now the proud owner of a new T100 & his youngest son stables his Triumph right next to Dad's on the farm. So much for taking that break! Motorbike riding is perfect for Phil; perfect for absorbing some of that boundless energy. Retirement? Hah! "60 is new 40," he says with a grin. While he is still fit, energetic & has enormous enthusiasm for his political life, why would he consider retiring? It must be quite tiring being around Phil a lot, because he doesn't stop. It has nothing to do with his job, it is deeply embedded. Sure he has passion for his calling, but I'd say he simply has passion. Whatever he does he throws himself into it. He bought his farm in 1990 after losing his seat & for 3 years before he was re-elected he poured his energy into it. The scenery around there is fabulous - take a look at the photo gallery to appreciate some of it.
He has enormous respect for our armed forces. I have had occasion in the past to photograph him at memorial events & the connection between him and the veterans in attendance is palpable. He is not shallow. Sure, he has to try & please everyone as a politician, but in many areas, like this, he is genuine & truly interested. His grandfather was gassed & was a POW in WW1, and although survived to move to New Zealand, never really recovered. More recently, his nephew was killed in Afghanistan, and Phil more than many appreciates the valour & sacrifice of men at arms.
He met his wife, Mary in 1971. As Phil would tell it, his motorbike played a major role in impressing Mary, but I suspect that may just be just a bit of fantasy. Their ongoing happiness & commitment to each other is not. Theirs is a 'normal' happy household, where you can just drop in & feel at ease. They are expecting their first grandchild soon & although he is vocal in his belief that Mary will adore the role of grandparent, I think that is pure deflection because I'm certain he can't wait himself. Deflection comes naturally to a politician, but Phil does not deflect the hard questions, just the personal ones. An anecdote here, a joke there, is simply a man who is not entirely comfortable talking about himself. Give him a crisis issue & he's in his element!
Phil made me welcome on his farm & my overall impression when I left was that he really is a 'good guy' as I said at the start. He truly wants good for all, especially those without the power to make it so themselves. He has a good, strong supportive family (except his sons did choose not to follow him into politics because they could earn much more as tradesmen!) and as a fellow motorbike rider, I wouldn't hesitate to join him for a ride... there's not much higher praise than that!
The video is Phil talking about his life & some of the personal highlights.
Auckland - August 2016