New Ilam MP on beating cancer and her road to the Beehive

Sarah Pallett. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Sarah Pallett. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Labour’s Sarah Pallett made headlines on election night when she beat National Party stalwart Gerry Brownlee in the race for the Ilam electorate, a seat he had held for the past 24 years. Louis Day speaks to the new MP

Where did life begin for you?
I was born in Jersey in the Channel Islands which is a very long way away from here.

What was it like growing up in Jersey?
It is a very beautiful place, there is no denying that. It is a small island that is only nine miles by five, it is absolutely beautiful. My father’s family are from there and my mother’s family was from the United Kingdom. It was a really lovely place to grow up.

Talk to me about your family growing up.
My mum was a nurse and she was also a midwife as well. My mum was probably the most important most influential person in my life and continues to be so even though she passed away when I was 21. As a nurse and a midwife, she was actually one of the midwives who cycled round on a bike in the east end of London like Call The Midwife, that was basically her. She was part of that group of amazing women that cycled around. She basically was an extraordinary person, very loving and really sort of instilled in me from a very early age the importance of service to others and the importance of using a position of privilege whatever that looks like to support people with less. One of my driving influences was having from an early age that sense of your role in life is to use what benefit you have in life to help other people, doesn’t stop you from having a wonderful life yourself of course. My dad was a manager of a shop and so we had a pretty normal upbringing I suppose, give or take, until when I got to eight when my mum was diagnosed with cancer.

Sarah Pallett and Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel. Photo: Supplied
Sarah Pallett and Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel. Photo: Supplied
Tell me about your schooling.
I went to a convent school in Jersey, so that was interesting. I was very fortunate because the convent school I went to was basically run by nuns who believed that women were capable of doing anything. Even though you think it could have been restricted and limiting it was actually directly the opposite. We had a group of
very strong women who were leading us and I look back on it and think we had a very strong moral direction, the school had a very strong commitment to ensuring that we are the best we can be.

How long were you at the school for?
I think I started quite young when I was four and was there until I left school at about 17 or 18.

What was next for you when you left school?
I had a variety of jobs like many people. I went to university and started doing a degree there. Actually, it was a polytechnic, it is a university now. I studied philosophy, psychology and religious studies, which was amazing, but I had to leave just towards the end of my second year when my mother became terminally ill. The cancer had come back. I just looked after her until she died. Then I moved to Sussex, had my two kids, got cancer myself and then moved to New Zealand.

Are you able to tell me a bit about your own battle with cancer?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the same cancer as my mum, when I was 36. My girls were very young at the time. I have got two daughters. I was one of the lucky ones to have the cancer detected very early by mammogram and was treated very successfully. I have been 17 years cancer-free this month now.

What was it like suffering from the same illness your mum had?
I was very conscious that my children were very young, my eldest was the same age when I was diagnosed that I was when my mum was initially diagnosed. So I was very conscious that I wanted to be well and present for them growing up. I was one of the lucky ones who got diagnosed very early, but I don’t take it for granted. It does reset your views and I think you become very, I became even more conscious to not take life for granted. For example, I know it sounds silly, but I have really been enjoying going grey. It is because for me it means I am getting older and that is an enormous privilege as I wasn’t necessarily expecting to get old, so being 53, my mum was the same age when she died, I am grateful to still be here.

What do you like to do in your free time?
Free time, what’s that? Yeah, no. I really like to do yoga actually and get out and about as much as I can. This is the most incredible and beautiful country and Canterbury is stunning. I also crochet badly as well. You will probably see me doing that in the debating chamber.

Sarah Pallett and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Riverside Market. Photo: Supplied
Sarah Pallett and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Riverside Market. Photo: Supplied
What is your connection with the electorate?
When we first moved to New Zealand in 2004 we moved into the Ilam electorate. Then both the girls went to school at Ilam primary which was great for them, really appreciated the multicultural, that was just fantastic for us to be a part of, that had not been part of their education much elsewhere. I moved, without going into two much detail about the separation and stuff, to North Canterbury and was a midwife in the community in Ilam. I worked as a midwife after graduating, I did my midwifery degree at what was Christchurch Polytech in 2010. Then I took a job at Christchurch women’s hospital after a few years and worked there just before taking on a teaching job, midwifery job at Ara lecturing, about six years ago.

Tell me about your partner Andy.
I currently live with Andy in Ilam, we have been living together for six years. My two daughters have moved out. My eldest Alex is at the University of Canterbury doing post-grad in psychology and Bea is studying to be a vet at the Massey. Andy’s two live in shared custody, so they live with their Mum a lot of the time in Queenstown.

How did you and Andy meet?
Oh, um. We had coffee. And then we went, ‘oh, you’re alright.’ I am very fortunate, he is my biggest cheerleader and he is just one of those every precious people who just celebrate their partner’s success rather than trying to limit it. He and I just have that relationship with each other by celebrating each other and wanting to support each other to achieve whatever goals and ambitions that we have. It is very much a team thing.

How long have you been a member of the Labour Party and what made you want to join?
I been a member of the Labour Party since the day of the United States elections in 2016.

The Ilam electorate had been held by Gerry Brownlee since it was formed in 1996 for the first MMP...
The Ilam electorate had been held by Gerry Brownlee since it was formed in 1996 for the first MMP election.
Was it the election of Donald Trump as president that spurred this on?
Yes. I can’t be disrespectful, but I felt that as soon as you understand that it is possible to lose all the gains that have been really hard to win, things like universal healthcare, social welfare structures all of the things that make our society in New Zealand, that make it not perfect but in comparison to some other countries in the world, we have a lot to lose, a lot of benefits that we could lose. I think one of the things that really is important is that none of us are complacent about our position. If all of us stand up to make sure that we are working really hard to create the society that we want to live in then we are going to be living in a really good society. If we lose our gains, it won’t be because I didn’t try to stop it.

When you were selected as Labour’s candidate for Ilam did you think you ever stood a chance against National Party stalwart Gerry Brownlee who has held the seat for 24 years?
We worked very hard for every single vote. We basically tried as hard as we could but we didn’t have an expectation that we would win. In terms of Parliament I thought I stood a potential chance of being in Parliament on the list. I didn’t think my greatest chance in Parliament would be being the MP for Ilam but I am completely delighted that is the case. We were working very hard for it, did we think we would achieve it? We hoped we would. But we didn’t expect it. And we never will, never, I think that you always need to never take your votes for granted and to work for them and show the people you are deserving of them and that is what we tried to do.

What was going through your mind on election night when the early results showed you were ahead by a sizeable margin?
I will tell you something funny. Right at the very beginning, very early on when I think we had two per cent of the vote. The TV had a little thing at the bottom of the screen that said ‘Pallett leads Ilam’ and I said to Andy, quick take a picture because we are not going to see this again.

Sarah Pallett on the campaign trail. Photo: Supplied
Sarah Pallett on the campaign trail. Photo: Supplied
When did it start to sink in on election night that you could be Ilam’s MP?
I thought on the night there would be a late National surge so I wasn’t thinking that we would continue in that position. Probably until 80 per cent of the vote had been counted and then I thought ahh, right looks like we have done it. Obviously, we were really thrilled but I was really struck by that sense of responsibility and thought okay great, here we go, awesome, in that kind of job to do kind of way. Getting the call from Mr Brownlee congratulating me was obviously the moment we went yep, that’s it, we did it.

What was said in that phone call?
He was very respectful, he was very gracious, he congratulated me and I thanked him for all his service to the community and that was pretty much it.

What do you think the key drivers behind your victory were?
I think that Ilam like the country has shown they have appreciated the leadership that Jacinda has shown through this three years of this Labour-led coalition. In Ilam, I think they are ready for a change in leadership in Parliament, and representation rather than leadership.

How did you celebrate that night?
After we left the election day party where we were really more enjoying other people’s happiness which as just really overwhelming and really lovely, the women’s branch had just a quiet glass of wine, which was literally just the one glass as it was one in the morning and that was it, I went to bed! It was very late. I had an RNZ interview lined up for first thing in the morning, I was going to talk to Susie [Ferguson] in the morning so I wanted to be awake. When I woke up I picked up a voicemail saying pack a bag you need to get to Wellington on Sunday and I thought “crikey I haven’t got any clean clothes.” So it was very much like that, running around the whole of Sunday trying to get everything sorted, so that was very fun. It was sort of just bouncing between interviews and laundry and packing, it was a bit mad actually but in the nicest possible way.

Sarah Pallett with newly-elected Banks Peninsula MP Tracey McLellan (left) and Wigram MP Megan...
Sarah Pallett with newly-elected Banks Peninsula MP Tracey McLellan (left) and Wigram MP Megan Woods on election night. Photo: File
How has it been in the Beehive so far?
It has actually been really really terrific, everyone has been so supportive. I keep having those moments of looking up and going, I am in the debating chamber, I am sitting in the debating chamber, it is all very exciting.

What are the priorities for your electorate?
My initial work is going to be listening to people really hard and finding out what they want from me. I obviously have a clear idea of what I think needs to be done but I really want to start conferring what they want from me first. So we are going to be setting up public meetings so we can do that very soon. In terms of priorities, I said throughout the campaign and I don’t think that has changed, my three main priorities are in increasing the support and services available for mental health support. So basically building on the work that the Labour Party has done in coalition government over the past three years. Housing is always a key issue for all electorates but definitely one I’m going to be focusing on. We also obviously have the largest student population in the south island and you can imagine with my history in tertiary education that is something close to my heart, I want to make sure our students are well supported and look at what we can do to support alleviating student debt.
 

 

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