Elizabeth Tennet: Championing change

by NZ Lawyer23 Mar 2016
Former Labour MP and Community Law Centres o Aotearoa CEO Elizabeth Tennet grew up on a farm in Fielding. Her thirst for politics came as a result of being “radicalised and infuriated” by the crimes against humanity and scaremongering by the USA during the Vietnam War.
“My parents were always barking about politics at the dinner table. It’s no wonder I had an interest. I was the first in my family to go to university and I thank my mother greatly because she pushed me off there at 17 years of age.”
After completing her studies in economics, politics and geography, Tennet began her career working as a researcher for the industrial commission. Her research focused on the implementation of The Equal Pay Act, and it fell at that time during the Muldoon years when wage freezes also had to be policed.
“I absolutely loved it and I’ve always felt an affinity for working people, especially people who were struggling for decent wages.”
Before long, Tennet took up a role as a factory inspector for what was then the Labour Department. There, in the late 1970s, she brought the very first case before the Industrial Court (what is now the Employment Court) concerning pay equity among a group of female office workers.
“The case was thrown out, and very wrongly in my view. The judge at the time looked me straight in the eye and said it was a case of Alice in Wonderland. I was naturally furious.”
After years of ensuring people were being paid correctly and policing The Equal Pay Act, Tennet became the secretary for the Clerical Workers Union and stayed in the role for 10 years. 
Tennet advocated and won cases that ensured female office workers were entitled to sick leave, holiday pay, wage increases and protection against sexual harassment.
Political career
It was only a matter of time before Tennet fell into the political arena, winning the Island Bay seat for the Labour Party in 1987. 
“It was during the period of the David Lange government, which was very exciting, with great advances made such as New Zealand becoming nuclear free. There were huge economic changes, however, which caused tensions within the party and which ultimately led to the government’s demise.”
Despite Rogernomics, Tennet, together with a strong group of female MPs, achieved early childcare funding, which is still enjoyed today, she says.
Tennet was the first to raise the issue of parental leave in the Parliamentary Chamber, which “was so radical and off the wall in those days”.
What’s more, Tennet recalls storming into caucus demanding that if the Government didn’t put in a childcare centre instead of a “sauna for the blokes”, she was “going to blow it out of the water and take it to the papers”.
She said the nursery, titled The Playhouse, is still running today.
“It’s also said there’s more order in The Playhouse than in the Parliamentary Chamber,” she chuckled.
But, being only the third MP to have a child while in parliament, and with the long hours and limited support, Tennet decided her priorities had changed and she retired from politics in 1996 to spend more time with her six-year-old boy.
“Parental leave is pathetic in this country - even after it’s been extended from 14 to 16 weeks.
“It comes down to many women having to make a choice [over] whether they want to have a career or a family. What’s more, it seems horribly inefficient - we’ve got thousands of highly educated, productive women coming through who, if they decide to have children, leave the workforce. All that brainpower, training and labour gets lost.
“It’s only once these infrastructural barriers are overcome that we can start thinking about equality on a social level.”
Following her political career, Tennet and her husband opted to buy in the Wairarapa and renovate a 16-acre property that housed an 1880 homestead.
Community law
Between being a shepherdess, a bed and breakfast owner and tourism operator, serving as a board member on Tourism New Zealand and later working for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise before serving as CEO of Textiles New Zealand, Tennet finally landed the job as CEO of Community Law Centres o Aotearoa.
Despite not having any legal training, her whole life has been around the law, she says.
“I’ve always been interested in the law, promoting social justice and working with and advocating for vulnerable people. I’ve spent my career working and coming up against lawyers in various courts and I’ve had the fortune of beating them on many occasions to do with employment law”.
Tennet was attracted to community law because the movement aims to protect and advocate for the most vulnerable in society, and much of her work - whether it be labour rights and pay equity, or the promotion of women and children, for example - fits within that model, she says.
Take pay equity, for example, which deals with poverty statistics that predominantly affect single parent households headed by women.
If the decisions around the TerraNova case are upheld, and the government doesn’t try to legislate against the Court of Appeal decision that gives women the right to bring pay equity claims, it means tens of thousands of households across the country will get a pay increase, she says.
“Pay equity is a basic right. The legislation [The Equal Pay Act 1972] hasn’t changed, it’s just that now the courts are interpreting it correctly. Most New Zealanders think we have achieved equal pay but we’ve never had the opportunity to truly value the occupations that are filled predominantly by women, such as rest home and disability workers, teacher aides, midwives, etc. The right for women to make pay equity claims must be preserved.”
Day in the life
A typical day for the national community law advocate involves working with the Ministry of Justice, and other government departments, negotiating with funding providers and the private sector to promote corporate responsibility towards low income families, meeting with community groups and justice panels and overall delivering a legal service that is a fundamental human right to low income clients, she says. 
With 24 centres around the country delivering legal services to more than 58,000 clients annually who could otherwise not afford access to justice, Tennet says community law is a hugely valuable part of New Zealand’s justice system.
“There’s a misconception that community law takes work from lawyers, but this is not the case. These clients most often would never have the financial means to afford legal services generally. In fact, we enjoy a very productive relationship with the legal fraternity, with 1200 lawyers a year volunteering at community law centres.”