This has landed her in a position she never thought she’d be in – trying to keep weight on. But seeing how ecstatic she looks in her Carla Zampatti suit, you can understand why.
“People will love it or hate it,” she laughs. “But I like clothes like that.”
It’s a bit of a theme for the polarising 49-year-old. She had the same attitude towards letting her hair go grey last year, in spite of her friends’ reservations.
“They just thought if I’d done it in my 30s I might have looked trendy, whereas in my 40s it could age me. But the maintenance was just getting so time-consuming. It got to the stage where I was needing the roots touched up every four weeks and I just thought no, you’re all in or you’re all out.”
They’re words she’s lived her political career by, carving since day one a brash, ballsy and often controversial figure (social welfare reform, here’s looking at you). But after eight years in government and, in some senses, on the leash, it would appear that being the deputy leader of the opposition is a different ballgame.
“I frequently write tweets and delete them before pressing send,” she reveals on the subject of self-censorship.
“But at the same time,” she adds, “when you’re advocating for something, you can’t overthink the consequences, otherwise you’re not going to take risks and do your job and be as good as you could be in your professional life. You’d be frozen by fear and achieve nothing.”
She says she’s gotten better at striking the right balance.
“I like to think I’m pretty fearless. I also like to think I take responsibility when I’ve stuffed up, I’ll put my hands up and go, ‘Yup, I’m not perfect.’ But at the end of the day, I’d rather be making the odd small mistake than not doing anything at all.”
There’s no denying Bennett is a doer. We’re all well-versed in her back story – of Tainui descent, the teen single mum and former welfare beneficiary who went on to land a seat in parliament in 2005 as a National List MP, then beat Labour to the electorate seat of Waitakere in 2008.
An MP for Upper Harbour since 2014, Bennett has held a number of hefty portfolios, but is perhaps best known for her controversial 2012 social welfare reforms as Minister of Social Development.
Under the changes, sole parents on the DPB would be expected to do part-time work when their youngest child turned five, prompting accusations of ‘pulling up the ladder behind her’ – having benefited from social welfare herself, but now denying it to others in a similar situation. But whether or not you agree with her detractors, there’s no denying Bennett has achieved a remarkable amount in her 13 years in politics.
“Since December 2016, I’ve been the deputy leader of the biggest political party in the country and I think, to be in that position and to have the confidence of my colleagues and a good percentage of New Zealand shows that I must be doing something right. And I’m going to own it and be proud of it.”
Confidence for Bennett has come with age.
“I didn’t get to where I am by luck. I did think that for a while – that I was the right person in the right place at the right time. But as you get older, you go no, actually, I have a particular set of skills. I’ve worked incredibly hard and I’ve grabbed opportunities, and I’ve made more of them. That’s really been the key to the many successes I’ve had.”
She feels that she and other female MPs have a responsibility to not only set an example to women for owning their achievements, but for combating workplace sexism.
“Irrespective of our politics, I know there’s strength in us binding together to try and make it better for other women. I think we have a genuine role to play there. Having said that, so many of our male MPs would have zero tolerance now for things that might have happened in the past. Simon [Bridges] is a really different leader. He’s younger and he doesn’t even consciously need to ensure that I’m getting a fair go as a woman, because it just wouldn’t occur to him to be any other way.”
Bennett says she’s seen Parliament change dramatically over the past 14 years.
“In the first three or four years, if there was an inappropriate comment directed at me, most of the time I’d think, ‘It’s just not worth it. I know what I’m doing and I’m not going to bite back.’ I wouldn’t put up with it now. Not any part.”
At the same time, she’s aware that some mudslinging is par for the course when Parliament is in session.
“It is a really robust environment and on some level, you do look for weaknesses in others, and go with that. Certainly, I’ve said things I regret but it’s happening less and less [in the House].”
She even has some words of praise for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“I admire her as a mum with a big job, juggling family and lots of people’s expectations. I imagine there are many times she wishes she could go and have another cuddle with that gorgeous little girl. Professionally, I also admire her communication skills, and I think the way she’s able to portray modern New Zealand is pretty cool.”