Politics

The Sure Things: Chris Penk

List candidates for Parliament have won plenty of attention lately. But another group who are all but certain to become MPs - by inheriting safe electorate seats - will compete in the same parliamentary votes, for the same roles in Opposition and Government and influence public policy just as much as the darlings of the list.

In the third in an occasional series, Tim Murphy talks to Chris Penk, the 37-year-old who has been handed the chance to replace former Prime Minister John Key in Helensville.

At the end of the day Chris Penk is pretty relaxed about following John Key as National MP for the blue jewel that is Helensville.

It is a unique challenge for a candidacy, following one of the most popular Prime Ministers the country has seen. And Penk has been told so many times he has big shoes to fill that he's started saying it himself just to get it out there first when he meets people. "If you can't beat them, join them."

At 37, he's young but not Todd Barclay young. He's had two careers and made a previous attempt at winning an electorate, the Labour territory of Kelston. 

Key has not felt the need to get out on the stump for the new guy - "I think you will find he is still a very busy man", Penk says - but he has given the former Navy officer advice.

"The key advice was really to make sure you connect with people as much as possible early on in your Parliamentary career. As one could get more responsibility later, then they would be more forgiving if you can't be around as much." 

The other tip from Key, he says, was: "People will want to know that you are a decent person." 

Penk is a lifelong Westie, the second of five boys in a family from Glen Eden, where he still lives with his wife, MediaWorks journalist Kim Choe, with whom he is expecting a baby just after the September election. While his home is outside Helensville's boundaries, "just a few kilometres out at the Oratia end", that shouldn't be a problem as his predecessor slummed it 25 km away in St Stephen's Ave, Parnell.

As well as following an undefeated Prime Minister into a seat, the other standout elements of Penk's CV are his time with the Royal Australian Navy driving submarines, based out of Western Australia, and before that, as a New Zealand Navy member working at Government House in Wellington as one of two aides-de-camp to Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright.

"The ADC role is a bit ceremonial but is a sort of day-to-day aide, almost a personal assistant and with a slight security element as well."

He liked the year serving the GG. "It is very much in the diplomatic environment and I was a bit of a public law geek even before then."

When he finished there he decided he "wanted to drive submarines so I concluded the best way to do that was to join the Australian Navy". He didn't command the HMAS Sheean but was a navigation officer on its journeys around Australia and up into Southeast Asian waters. A stint followed in the Middle East, based on an oil terminal in the northern Arabian Gulf as part of Australia's commitment to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

When he returned to finish his law degree, he walked into the Glen Eden office for the National Party and met one Paula Bennett, signing on and working from then to stand in 2014 against Labour's Carmel Sepuloni, who beat him by 5367 votes. Like all electorate warriors, Penk talks up his tally for National in the party vote, which was a respectable 9900.

He worked in the law, eventually setting up with a business partner a commercial and property practice, always with a political career in mind. Then the great man shocked the party and the nation by deciding to step aside from Helensville, where he had an eye-watering 18,000 vote majority at the last election.

Penk is on the trail now, hearing the same sorts of things he heard on doorsteps and meetings three years ago. Asked if there's more negativity to a third-term government than back then, he answers wryly: "People are less likely to discuss something in the context of 'You've done a bloody good job'."

Transport is a big issue at the top of the north-western and northern motorways, often in the context of housing developments. "People are pleased there are some exciting developments but they are also keen to ensure that it does not mean that infrastructure and transport are unable to cope."

Any young and ambitious newbie Nat will have watched askance at the demise this week of Barclay, aged 27, inside his first term in the safe seat of Clutha-Southland. Penk is all aide-de-camp diplomatic when asked if he'll be able to get along well with the Key team he will inherit in the electorate. "I'm just focusing on working well with anyone who is prepared to be involved at any level. In the military you have to be a team player, but then again you also have to display leadership.

"I like to think of myself as tending towards the harmonious side of things when dealing with people. I think that's an effective way of getting things done."

Should he win the seat, as is almost certain, he would be keen to be involved in work on equality of opportunity in education. "We believe in personal responsibility and therefore we need to equip people so they have a decent chance to make their own way in the world."

Defence Minister Mark Mitchell needn't worry about Penk wading into defence portfolio issues. "I certainly have an interest, given my background and the fact that Whenuapai air base is in the electorate. But it has not occurred to me to be outspoken on defence issues."

Penk describes himself as socially moderate - "within the broad church of the National Party I'm probably more towards the conservative end but I'm always prepared to think about issues as they arise."

Well, arising at some early point of his prospective parliamentary career will be the conscience vote on Act leader David Seymour's end-of-life or euthanasia bill. "I would consult the electorate ... to me my starting point would be concern at how the euthanasia legislation would fit with our already terrible record on suicide and elder abuse - which is a really big issue we don't talk about much. So my starting point would probably be anti."

Economically he sees himself as "a pragmatist as much as anything" in a party of the free market.

He is talking up the positives of following Key's glory. "Because I will not have so much responsibility I will be able to be visible at the local level. I'm not setting myself up to be some lesser version of a great man."

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