Politics

The Sure Things: Erica Stanford

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 fourth in an occasional series, Tim Murphy talks to Erica Stanford, the 38-year-old who has been handed the chance to replace former foreign minister Murray McCully in the safe National seat of East Coast Bays.

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"Everyone keeps saying: 'You're that new, young candidate. But I'm 38. I've got grey hairs that I'm dyeing. Maybe I'm not as old as I feel ..."

Meet Erica Stanford, heir to the seat of McCully and a woman who would only ever want to stand for this, one parliamentary seat of East Coast Bays.

She is East Coast Bays to her dyed roots. Lived in the electorate for 35 years. Schooled at the country's biggest secondary school Rangitoto College, where she met her future husband Kane, has played hockey at East Coast Bays for 20 years, is chair of the Browns Bay Business Association and a fulltime devotee of the northern bays of Auckland's North Shore.

"I really am the local girl. I always said I'm standing here or nowhere. I have a vested interest in this remaining the best place to live in all of New Zealand. You have to have that love for where you're living."

So, Stanford is no political carpetbagger. She has also not stood, as the candidates in all three previous The Sure Things interviews in this series, in an unwinnable seat in the past, to show her commitment to the party cause. Given her ECB-or-nothing attitude, that's no surprise.

For the past four years, she has been Senior MP Support to Murray McCully, who is calling it a day after 30 years in the seat. One of McCully's past such electorate staff is Paula Bennett, who went on to become Deputy Prime Minister.

Stanford has two children, Holly, aged 9 and Alex, 5. Between having them she became an accidental television producer. "One of the girls in my antenatal class worked for a TV production company here in East Coast Bays. It was making a new show and needed a field director at night - which was the only time I had available to work."

It was a reality show called Noise Control -"yeah, it was pretty low-brow". Stanford approached it with attitude. "It doesn't matter what you are doing but you do the best job you possibly can. I gave it everything and the guy who ran the company was pretty impressed. He said: 'Do you want to learn how to edit?' and I said 'Of course I do.'

Next thing, she is producing a show called Last Chance Dog, writing scripts and helping out on Piha Rescue.

After having her son, a sister who had begun working in McCully's office but was heading to Dunedin suggested she take over the job. She did, first for two days a week and eventually to the fulltime role she stepped down from this week.

Her job was to help constituents - something like the job performed by Glenys Dickson, the woman who worked for, and was secretly recorded by, disgraced National Party MP Todd Barclay.

Unlike Dickson, Stanford has not stood in for the MP at public meetings if he could not make it due to ministerial duties. "Murray runs things differently. He goes to events himself. We don't tend to."

McCully is correctly considered one of New Zealand's best political operators - in the game of politics, party and power rather than straight-out ministerial performance. Stanford is a big fan.

"He is a political master. I guess what he taught me was always to say the right things. He's very careful what he says, he does not over-promise and gives people a realistic indication of what he can and cannot do. Relationship-wise he has such good relations in Wellington it just gets things done if a constituent needs help down there. I have been very careful to start building the relationships with senior ministers."

He bequeaths Stanford a majority of a cool 15,034 votes.

She is no lifelong Nat, having joined only when she joined McCully's office.  

Her early work career, having been turned down for a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade after graduating with a BA in politics from the University of Auckland, involved two export companies, Jason's (placemats) and Autex (acoustic products). She became a market manager for Europe for the latter, travelling about half the year to trade fairs and client meetings. 

She has no interest in following McCully into diplomacy and travel. "It would not be in the area's interests to have another foreign minister from this electorate."

Her political focus might instead be on the environment. Her father campaigned in the electorate against a dump at Okura, and Stanford is involved in planting around the big residential development above Long Bay. "Because of my family history I'm a member of the Blue Greens. I look at the Green Party and say if they could just relax a little bit ... and could work with National they could do so much good. I see National picking up some of that green focus and running with it."

But Stanford claims not to be tribal and would work across party lines to achieve policy gains. "Maybe I'm young and idealistic. We should be able to talk to each other."

Another interest is immigration. Her Dutch father arrived in New Zealand with little and worked up to becoming an Air New Zealand jumbo pilot, instilling in his children the need to work hard and to give something back to the community. "I've done a lot of immigration grassroots work in the office and because I'm the daughter of an immigrant and 50 percent of the East Coast Bays electorate was born outside New Zealand and half have come here in the past 10 years, I'm relatively interested in it."

Stanford labels the Labour Party's immigration policy "like a balloon they are attacking with a knife rather than just letting a little bit of air out of it gradually".

She reckons she is not in a Tory political bubble. "Most of my friends are not National Party people, actually. They are all over the place. I mix with people from all walks of life and some of them are pretty staunch but they are happy for me about what I am doing."

Politics for her was brought to life at university. Politics 101 with Dr Raymond Miller. "I was just completely inspired. He was the reason."

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