Meet the Minister: Jan Tinetti reveals life working in a panda suit

Jan Tinetti
Minister of Internal Affairs, Women, Associate Minister of Education
List MP, Labour
Aged 52, former school principal, first elected 2017
Referendums: For the End of Life Choice Act, for legalising recreational cannabis
Fascinating fact: Dressed in a panda
suit for two years while working as a student.

Q: What has been your work history?
A: I started work in 1990 as a primary school teacher and then I spent seven years teaching in different classrooms and during that time had two children as well but kept on working.

And then in 1997, I became a school principal in Southland. So I was principal of three schools in Southland and principal of one school in Merivale and Tauranga.

Q: What is an example of something that you were proud of pre-politics?
AI’m very proud of being principal at Merivale School, a decile one school, and it was a school that there were lots of issues at. When I left there we had children and whanau who were really proud of who they were. They were predominantly Māori and really had a sense of identity of being Māori and [were] proud of it.

Q: Did you ever work as a student?
A: I absolutely did. I had several jobs. I was a cleaner, a hospital cleaner working in hospital kitchens.

But my probably most unusual one was that I was a panda. I worked in a Chinese restaurant called The Panda and I dressed up as the panda. I welcomed people that came into the restaurant and I danced around like a panda.

Q: Any horror stories from inside that suit?
It was pretty revolting. There were about three of us that were pandas and back then you didn’t have health and safety guidelines around wearing those sorts of suits.

So I would get in it and it would still be wet from the last person and it did stink quite a lot. But you know, it was a student job, I had no money, and I was happy to dance around and be the panda.

I did it for about two years. I probably worked about three or four shifts in a week.

This was back in Christchurch in the 80s so I think there’ll be people that remember The Panda restaurant and they’ll remember the panda coming and dancing around. Well, I was one of the pandas.

Q: What sort of upbringing did you have?
I grew up in Christchurch, in the grounds of Templeton Hospital which was a psychiatric institution. My father was the secretary of the hospital and we had the only staff house on the grounds.

It was an unusual upbringing because I didn’t really understand that people with cognitive disabilities were not out in society at that stage. It was only in later years that I worked out that it was so unique that I had people who had Down’s Syndrome who were good friends of mine because I lived amongst them – I didn’t realise that other people didn’t have that interaction.

So it was a pretty amazing upbringing because it taught me about diversity without even knowing that I was learning about diversity.

Q: Tell me about your family now.
I live in Tauranga with my husband, Dave, and I also have two sons who both live in Auckland. I have Liam who’s coming-up 26 and Zak who’s 24. Liam works as a teacher aide at a school [and] Zak is an international sailor.

Q: How did you get into politics?
I was a little bit of a reluctant politician. I was the principal of a decile one school and was quite outspoken about the social injustice of what was happening for my families at that time.

Labour approached me and asked if I would stand for them. I said no – five times I said no.

Then I had an ex-pupil who unfortunately took his own life and that probably tipped me over the edge because I thought, ‘I could be doing this all I like but I’m not actually making those significant differences and where I can make those significant differences is here in Wellington’.

So I said yes and here I am.

Q: Is there someone you admire in another party and why?
I have to say that probably the person that I’ve admired most has been [former National MP] Nikki Kaye.

Nikki was passionate about education and I have a lot of respect about her views on education. We’ve had a lot of argy-bargy but we’ve also had a lot of really good conversations about where we see education heading and I still keep in contact with her.

Q: Did you ever have a private member’s bill?
Yes, I did. In the 52nd Parliament mine was the second bill that was drawn out on the first draw ballot. I took that the whole way through.

It was around the national education learning priorities and ensuring that the minister will actually consult with certain groups. Prior to that the [Education Act 1989] had said that the minister could consult with the groups that the minister felt needed to be consulted with.

My bill actually made certain that the minister consulted with people with disabilities, consulted with the sector, consulted with families, consulted with students – so ensured that consultation was happening and being widespread.

Q: And how will you measure success in your portfolios?
One of the things that I’m probably going to be doing a little bit over the summer is writing myself a work plan.

At the moment I’m spending time with briefings and I’m going to write my own work plan, I’m going to measure myself against that work plan that I want to see – very similar to what I used to do in education.

Q: What are the most pressing issues in each of your sectors?
Of course the most pressing issue is going to be Covid. Covid is impacting a lot across every single sector. So we’ve got to look at it around what that means for women, what its meaning in my internal affairs portfolios in the different areas and of course in education.

Having said that I don’t know my education delegations at the time of this interview but I know that Covid impacts across everything.

Q: What are your top three priorities as a minister?
A: To find out as much information as I can, that’s number one. It has to be that I have to find out what those portfolios are, to look at our manifesto and I’ve already said make sure that the manifesto and those priorities that I’m finding out about from my briefings are marrying up. And then to write my work plan to make sure that I’m going to make a difference and be successful over the next three years.

Q: What makes a good minister?
Someone who listens, I think is really important [and] someone who can make decisions and take the information that they’ve heard about, not just from officials, but also listening to the sector as well.

But then make decisions that they know are going to be for the betterment of the country.

Q: And what makes a good public servant?
Someone who can support the minister to be able to make the decisions – so giving them all the information that they need and the different perspectives as well is really important.

Q: How did you vote on the End of Life Choice Act and the recreational cannabis referendums?
I voted yes on both.

On the End of Life Choice Act, that was obvious because it went the whole way through Parliament and I had voted yes the whole way through.

I have to say that on the cannabis referendum I was ‘no’ right up until about the last week so a quite a soft ‘no’. But I did a lot of research in this space because I took that vote really seriously.

I think looking at the overseas research and what was happening in the jurisdictions overseas was a big, big aspect for me. And talking to different people – I had many, many, many conversations with different people.

Q: What is your favourite beach and why?
It has to be the Mount’s main because it’s in Tauranga and I love going there and I can get there on the bus so it doesn’t take me long. I don’t even have to navigate the traffic. Love it – beautiful beach.

Q: What was your best overseas holiday?
It was actually supporting my son when he went to Poland on his first trip sailing. I loved it over there. We went to a part of Poland called Kamień Pomorski which not many people would have seen outside of Poland. It’s a summer retreat for Polish people. It was fabulous. I absolutely loved it – but the beach was a little bit different to the main beach at the Mount.

Q: If you could take an actor to dinner who would it be and why?
Oh my goodness. You know the actor that I would love to meet one day would be Julia Roberts because I’ve always thought [she] was such a strong, amazing woman.

I’d have to take her somewhere in Tauranga – let’s say Oscar and Otto [cafe] because it’s a pretty neat place to go right on the waterfront.

Q: Some quick-fire questions … KFC or Macca’s?
Q: Sauvignon or Chardonnay?
A: I don’t drink alcohol but I do like the Giesen zero alcohol sauvignon blanc.
Q: Tea or coffee?
A: I don’t drink coffee so a cup of tea.
Q: Tramping or skiing?
A: Tramping.
Q: Dogs or cats?
A: Dogs.
Q: Tennis or cricket?
A: Cricket. I played cricket – I’m a cricketer.

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