Indigenous | Politics

Former Labour minister Kiri Allan on her night of shame after Wellington car crash ended her political career

Former cabinet minister Kiri Allan talks to Claire Trevett about the night that led to her resignation from politics and how she has set about rebuilding her life.

Former Labour MP Kiri Allan has spoken about the guilt and shame she felt after the night that led to her quitting politics, saying it was an “intense evening” and she made decisions she will regret for a lifetime.

It has been six months since the night Allan crashed into a parked car on Evans Bay Parade and ended up at the police station charged with careless driving and refusing to accompany police. Her resignation as minister of justice and then as an MP followed.

The case is still before the courts, but for the first time she has spoken to the Herald about the events of that night, what led up to it and how she has been doing since then.

It was soon after she had returned to work to deal with a change in Labour’s justice policies after a mental health break.

“I found myself back at the Beehive. I remember being there and asking myself what the heck I was doing there. There had been some areas at work that I just couldn’t reconcile with myself. I think maybe that was the straw that broke the camel’s back but I couldn’t understand what I was doing back at work and there were so many areas of life that were unravelling.

‘Erratic state of mind’

“I got to that point where I had decided I wanted to take my life that evening and had a very clear plan, and went to execute that plan and commenced that process.

“And after I’d started that process, I’d had a few beers, I was in quite an erratic state of mind and I made that decision to drive. And it’s one I’ll regret forever.”

She was heading to somebody’s house. “I was seeking probably solace in just some people ... just given the state I was in. But I made that decision to drive.”

She said it was raining, she crashed, and people immediately recognised her, some media getting alerted to it.

“It was a pretty intense evening. You make a series of decisions — I made a series of decisions. You regret them for a lifetime.”

Next month she will be in court on charges of careless use of a motor vehicle and refusing to accompany police. She was also given an infringement notice for excess breath alcohol between 250-400 micrograms (mcg) of alcohol per litre of breath.

‘Grey area’

That looming court case means she cannot yet talk too much about the specifics of that night after the crash.

The charges she faces are relatively minor — she says a guilty plea would have been a lot easier, a matter of fines and with no court appearance required.

However, she has already said that the refusal to accompany police was because she had insisted on being able to seek legal counsel before doing so. She believed her experience had shown there was a grey area around the right to legal counsel when somebody was arrested, and at what point that should be available.

Allan does not try to blame either her mental health struggles or other people for what happened that night or leading up to it. She says she made the decisions and they were not good ones.

“Do I recognise the Kiri Allan that was in that state then? Yes, I do. Is it necessarily the person that I am now? No. A large percentage of the population have mental health issues and it’s about managing those.

Guilt and shame

“If I look at how my mental health may have impacted on the way I operated, well, it was my responsibility to manage that aspect of my life and I didn’t do that very well.

“As a consequence, in part that led to a whole range of decisions and decision-making that I made that was poor, and things I deeply regret if I’m frank. That’s been a big part of the last however-many months, just coming to terms with what happens when you don’t take care of yourself.”

She starts to tear up and says, “Geez, I didn’t think I’d get emotional. The impacts those decisions had on a whole range of people and issues. And you feel a lot of guilt for that, you feel a lot of shame. And it’s a process you have to work through and realising when you get to that position in your life there’s nobody else that can take responsibility but you. I regret not doing that in the way that I should have.”

We are sitting in a bay in Whakamārama, north of Tauranga. It is where Allan came after that night to start to try to heal again.

It looks out over her maunga, Mauao (Mt Maunganui) and her family’s island, Motuhoa.

Her ūkaipō

Each day Allan would sit on a small jetty at high tide and watch the maunga and the sea. It is her ūkaipō: Her home place, the place that nurtures her.

“I stayed with family, spent time with family, in those environments that just allowed me to take a pause, be quiet and reflect.”

She does not remember much of the days immediately afterwards. “They say that’s a trauma response, I don’t know. I do remember a lot of the internal emotional response, if you will but I don’t remember necessarily the things that happened.

“But there was an incredible amount of shame and guilt. I think those were the overarching emotions I really had to work through and it wasn’t a quick journey. But I made the intentional decision to just take the time. Take the time to reflect on what had led to those circumstances, take the time to work out how to come back to yourself.”

She has also made the apologies she thought she owed. “[To] many people, if I’m frank. There were those that were in your team, in your crew. Those things have a massive impact and we were very close to an election.

‘A lot of apologies’

“There were the constituents and the people you work closely with, we were in the middle of a cyclone recovery. There’s your broader family and those people that carry you through, even your hapū and your iwi.

“You’ve let a lot of people down, people that had faith in you, eh? So there’s been a lot of apologies.”

Allan has since based herself in Whakatāne to be with her daughter and start to build a new life for herself.

Allan has often put her personal life out in public — warts and all. They have included her battle with cervical cancer (last week she celebrated being two years cancer-free) to her recent diagnosis of ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder and dysregulated emotions.

In 2022, she also spoke publicly about her experience with conversion therapy and her religious upbringing, famously talking about the attempts to “pray away the gay”.

She was also open about her struggles with mental health long before it all came to a head on that day six months ago and has posted raw posts on social media about the loneliness and hopelessness she had felt.

Obligation to share

She does not regret being as open as she has been.

“My whole ethos is that if my life can serve as an example, or people can take away from my mistakes or anything, then I kind of feel like I’ve got an obligation to share those things.

“Particularly because there aren’t a lot of people who look like me, sound like me, that have these profiles. So therefore, use them for good, not evil, mistakes included.”

Allan’s own struggle with mental health had come to a head after a turbulent time in both her personal and working life. She is not willing to talk about the personal.

But she does talk about the work pressures at the same time — both in her electorate after the devastation of Cyclone Gabrielle and in the Beehive as the Labour ministers tried to adjust to life after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s resignation.

Allan continues to say allegations of a bad work environment in her office, and claims she shouted at some public servants, had nothing to do with her mental health leave.

She still denies shouting.

‘Too hard, too fast for some’

“One of the challenges I had was there were so many barriers put up to why you couldn’t implement policies, and I think that’s a real challenge that is long-standing in politics.

“You have the executive that makes very clear policy decisions and you’re still sometimes managed by the bureaucracy. There are excellent public servants. But there can be some real challenges with getting things done. I had high expectations of myself and of the public service to be able to deliver.”

She says she was not perfect, and did “drive hard and drive fast” to get her policy programme up and running.

“In saying all that, probably it was too hard, too fast for some people.”

The departure of Ardern in January of that year also had an impact on her.

Different policy directions

Allan was not the only minister unsettled by the PM’s exit and the differences under Chris Hipkins as Labour struggled in the polls leading into an election. Allan does not want it to be taken as a criticism of Hipkins, who she was also close to, and she knew the political necessity behind Hipkins’ decision making. But it was a big change nonetheless.

“I guess I’d been lucky for the entire duration of my political career, I’d had one leader and you get to know how they work, how they operate. I also had a really strong values alignment with Jacinda, I understood how she worked, how she operated.

“Yes, things did change when new leadership took over, but that wasn’t just because of the leadership. There were pressures on us to take different policy directions.

“With every leader there are different directions they take.

“I think Chris Hipkins did a really good job in the period of time he had, so this is no comment on his ability, but there was just so much change that was required in such a short period of time.”

Politics got in the way

Allan said one of her reasons for going into law and then politics was to try to address the question of why so many Māori ended up in prison.

She had been “ecstatic” when Ardern had given her the justice portfolio.

However, politics got in the way. Labour was struggling in the polls and law and order was a big part of Hipkins’ reset. Allan did recognise Hipkins had to try to address the perception Labour was “soft” on law and order. However, it meant scrapping a lot of the work Allan was doing and she now makes it obvious she was not comfortable with what replaced it: Especially the tougher stand on youth offenders.

“In politics, we all have to suck a few dead rats, that’s part of being a team. But some things are fundamental to you, to your identity, to your principles. I think, had I had the time again, particularly on some of those criminal justice policies, perhaps I would have made some different decisions about my personal role in those directions.”

‘It doesn’t excuse’

Asked what that meant, she indicates she could have stepped down instead. “Nobody has to do something they don’t want to do. But I made the active decision to go through with those policy decisions that didn’t necessarily align with my own personal values or my ‘why’ for being in politics.”

She had hidden that discomfort well at the time: just days before she crashed her car, she had returned from mental health leave and convincingly fronted the press conference to set out the new measures for ram raiders. When that is pointed out, Allan gives a wry grin. “Well, I don’t think I was too shabby at some aspects of the job.”

Her decision to do the interview now was partly prompted by former Green MP Golriz Ghahraman’s resignation from politics after being charged with shoplifting.

The similarities sparked further media calls to Allan and once again raised questions about the pressures on MPs and mental health, and whether it was a particularly fraught place for Māori, people of colour and women.

“One of the things I’ve always been clear about ... is whatever our particular state of mind, mental health issues, whatever is going on, it doesn’t excuse any particular decisions that we make. It can help provide context as to why you made those particular decisions perhaps, but for myself ... I made those choices and took those subsequent decisions.”

Wāhine targeted more

However, she does think women — and Māori women in particular — get targeted more than others might, saying a senior public servant once told Allan she had never seen a minister who had been probed so much by opposition parties on such a range of issues, such as through Official Information Act requests.

Allan said women, especially Māori women, tended to be described as “far too intimidating, far too aggressive, far too this, far too that”.

“I think that’s an experience many women in leadership positions particularly experience ... Females who are often brown, who are in leadership positions. We are received differently if you’re of a different demographic, that’s how the world operates.

“You can’t change the world or people’s perceptions and it’s things we, people who fit those particular profiles, have to navigate or manage.”

She said she would never have admitted that in politics, but thought it should be voiced now.

She points to the number of takatāpui (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) Māori women who have gone into Parliament and how many had left under challenging circumstances.

Challenging for takatāpui

“Almost every wāhine Māori takatāpui has exited in not particularly good circumstances.”

In recent history, they include herself, former Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere, and former Labour MPs Meka Whaitiri and Louisa Wall.

“Either (a), we’re inherently bad and unable to fulfil the roles and obligations, or (b) there’s something else at play. And I think the latter needs some deeper thought by all of us, really.”

She had spoken to Ghahraman. “Yeah, I’ve reached out to Golriz. The circumstances under which I left politics were of my own making and pretty horrendous and things I regret. There’s probably not too many people in the country that have a real understanding of what it’s like to exit politics in that way, and in the public eye. So I have reached out.”

Life, she says, is a lot more peaceful now.

Her book is well under way, canvassing both her own life and her politics. “If you can help one person out there by sharing your story, and knowing there are a lot of other avenues, that you’re not alone. Because that’s where you get to, eh? I did. Felt so alone, and just nowhere to go. So if sharing my story can help just one other person, then that’s the purpose of that.”

She’s set up a consultancy business and is doing some work with her iwi. “That brings a lot of fulfilment, a lot of joy.”

Spoke at hui-a-motu

She does not completely rule out a return to politics one day but “absolutely not” is her first response to the question.

It was a place she described early in her career as “very uncomfortable” for people such as herself.

“It’s not something I want but I don’t know. Life changes and takes different directions.”

She is still very interested in the people and the politics.

She went to the recent hui called by the Kīngitanga at Turangawaewae. She will also head up to Waitangi, to speak alongside Green MP Chloe Swarbrick in a political panel.

But she is learning the art of slowing down, helped by her daughter Hiwaiterangi. Allan does the school pick-up, coaches sport at school and hangs out.

“One of the things she always says to me and us is, ‘What’s the rush? Why are we going so fast?’

‘Slows me down’

“And sometimes you have to ask yourself, ‘Yeah, what is the rush?’ So, yeah, she teaches me a lot.

“She was two weeks old when I went into Parliament. Perhaps one of my regrets is I’m a kind of go hard or go home kind of person. There are those people in your life or aspects of your life that you forego. I think my daughter was one of those. So re-establishing, or establishing, a relationship with her has been really important for me, and I think it’s been important for her.

“The old saying is when you get a glass and it shatters into 1000 shards and you’re trying to pick them all up. It’s been a process of trying to pull those shards back together, whilst also knowing that what was is not what will be.

“I love our country, I love our people, I want to continue to be of service in whatever way that looks like.”

There are still ups and downs but she has medication to help with the ADHD diagnosis and her mental health is more managed.

“None of us are a perfect project, right? Self-improvement is a lifelong journey. But I hadn’t had my proper diagnosis and I’ve had time to go and go through those things and take appropriate steps so it’s a lot more managed.”

She also turned 40 at the end of the year, and celebrated that with family in Hawaii, spending quality time swimming with turtles.

She’s a lot fitter, too. This has amused her. “Turns out I like kickboxing and yoga and those are things I haven’t done in goodness knows how long.

“Turns out hanging out with kid is really good for me and slows me down. It’s just different things that I had not taken the time to appreciate. I’m kind of excited about this year. Yeah, I am.”

- New Zealand Herald