Born and raised in Wellington in a family involved with many social justice issues as well as the arts, Catherine became an MP in 2008.
Her work in Parliament has ranged across environment and social justice issues. She is active in promoting the clean up of toxic sites around Aotearoa and supporting a sustainable forestry industry both here in New Zealand and abroad.
She is also as an advocate for New Zealanders with disabilities, supports the rights of beneficiaries, and champions pay equity for women.
A political activist since her teens, Catherine has worked for change in the areas of social justice, Te Tiriti and environmental issues.
She has previously worked as a community liaison for the Department of Conservation and as a toxics campaigner for Greenpeace.
She also spent many years co-ordinating Coromandel Watchdog, a community group defending the Coromandel Peninsula from mining.
Catherine Delahunty was brought up within a strongly politicised family, and she’s met her fair share of fundamentalists and visionaries along the way. Today she brings a lifetime of community and environmental activism to Parliament where she’s met a few more characters from both camps. Understanding the variety of ideologies and ideas in the House is just part of the challenge for the first term MP who admits there’s no limit to what needs to be done.
Date of birth: 1 November 1953
Family: Partner Gordon Jackman, daughter and grandson
Hobbies: Fiction writing, yoga, gardening, MC, singing
Favourite NZ animal or bird: Kotare (NZ kingfisher)
Favourite movie: Rain of the Children, Vincent Ward
Favourite novel: Dogside Story by Patricia Grace
Music I play on Saturday mornings: Marvyn Gaye and Gillian Welch
My never-fail recipe: Aunt Daisy fruitcake
Greatest sporting achievement: Green belt at karate
Year entered Parliament: 2008
Green Spokesperson for: Environment (Terrestrial Mining, Toxics), Education, Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Päkehä perspective)
First political action: Ban the Bomb march, 2 years old
Most embarrassing political moment: On national TV, yelling at a group of anti-mining activists to climb on a mining drill rig while a colleague was yelling at them to get off
Proudest political moment: Arriving at Parliament with the Foreshore Hikoi and seeing our ‘Honour Te Tiriti’ banner on the front steps
Hero: Frida Kahlo
“Being a new MP I feel the need to be worthy of all the privileges I’ve been handed, to ignore the negatives and honour those people who worked to give me this opportunity.”
“I’ve already been called a mental health case by certain right wingers in the blogosphere, but I take the personal insults as an indicator of progress more than anything else,” she says in typically energetic style.
Catherine’s father was an organiser for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War. She says she embarked on her first march at the age of two (“It was all singing songs and shouting which I enjoy”), and well recalls being rewarded with chocolate for folding and delivering vast numbers of pamphlets!
“You have a choice about how much you adopt in terms of your parents’ points of view, and I am the one in my family who has embraced politics!” she says.
By the time she was a senior at Onslow College, Catherine was busy creating waves of her own, forming the Secondary School Students Association. “We wanted equal control of schools and we wanted to negotiate the curriculum,” she says. “Everything is so black and white when you’re young and of course I knew it all, but surprisingly I still agree with many of those views!”
University life would not keep Catherine’s attention and she left Victoria half way through her BA.
“Left-wing Wellington in the 70s was full of schisms and isms and frankly it made more sense to me to become a hippie,” she recalls. “We had aspirations that we could completely drop out, and we lived in a fairly fractious state of collective confusion but we grew great vegetables!”
The Coromandel would soon become the focus of Catherine’s rejuvenated political stance and from 1980 to 1995 she fought tirelessly with others to ensure open cast mining was outlawed. At the time, the entire Peninsula was under numerous mining licences and she says there was simply no way she could avoid involvement.
“Our group, Coromandel Watchdog, represented every community and we were very effective at non-violent confrontation,” she says. “I remember hundreds of people attending sit-ins on drilling rigs day and night and we organised ourselves without internet or cellphones. It was a great way to learn about effective organising and building strong coalitions.”
“I take the personal insults as an indicator of progress more than anything else.”
By the mid-1990s Catherine had moved to Wellington where she took up a position with the Department of Conservation and from there she went on to work for Greenpeace. She even found time for some typically Catherine Delahunty romance: “I met my partner on a toxic tour of the country,” she says. “And I’ve been passionate about toxics ever since.” Quite!
While working for an education trust Catherine shared office space with the Green Party and in 1999 she put her skills to good use as a campaign manager for Auckland.
“Sue Bradford and Nandor Tanczos both became MPs that year — it was an incredibly exciting time,” she says. “I hadn’t thought about standing myself, but Rod [the late Rod Donald] convinced me to have a go, and third time lucky!”
After working at all levels of the Party, Catherine entered Parliament as a list MP in 2008 and says, with a little bit of hindsight, she should have been scared! The challenges of the job are certainly not lost on her but her commitment to the cause is never in doubt.
“In order to be effective you have to reflect, not just act. I think an extensive background in community politics allows me to do this because in both community activism and Parliament it’s important to be both critical and analytical,” she says.
With nine portfolios, including education, Catherine believes one of the most daunting tasks is prioritising on a daily basis. She says it’s not uncommon to work on five portfolios at once in a day, with a blog on forestry at 9am and a speech on women’s affairs drafted by 10am. Add to this the array of laptops and BlackBerries and things can definitely get hectic!
It would take a bit more than a heavy workload and a couple of gadgets to scare Catherine Delahunty off though, and she continues to push for justice in the community and for environmental issues to be given credence in an increasingly polarised and fragile world.
“I am deeply motivated by a sense of justice and there is no other party I would belong to,” she says. “We test everything against sound principles, have a commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and ultimately try to make responsible choices.”
“Sure, there’s no blueprint for a perfect society. But at least we’re working on it.”
Sounds like there’s plenty to work on too.