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Introducing Paul Foster-Bell MP

Posted in: Our Communities, Features
By Jay Bennie - 10th December 2016

Paul Foster-Bell, the National back-bencher MP who came out last weekend to take a public stance of opposition to Destiny Church's Brian Tamaki's once again encouraging hatred of gay people, grew up in a farming family just outside Whangarei.

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“It was a small farm,” he recalls. “It was hard to make a living off it, especially in the 1980s. Dad used to do hard physical work off the farm including at the Marsden Point refinery, mum worked in catering and as a teacher. She studied to be a teacher through distance learning.”

Through his parents' hard work the family had a “comfortable” but not luxurious life. His father, Bob, “has a Maori background” and his mother, Alyse, was raised Catholic though was not a practicing member of the church, he says.

“It was an inherently conservative environment,” Foster-Bell points out, adding that what he feels are conflicted views on homosexuality in Maori culture and society helped shaped his father's expectations of his sons. “I think dad would have rather I'd been a first-fifteen kind of kid,” he says, "... or been more mechanically-minded, or would grow up to be an airline pilot.”

None of those were to happen, although Foster-Bell did develop a teenage passion for cricket, something which remains with him to this day. Other interests which he developed as a teen and which likewise colour his adult life were the arts, reading, music and cuisine.

In his maiden speech to Parliament Foster-Bell acknowledged his mum and dad. “A child could not have had a better start in life than I got, thanks to you,” he said. “The example set by you, Dad, of putting your family above all other concerns, and working every hour of the day to provide for them, was an outstanding one.”

His first awareness of homosexuality came, as it still does for many people, through the media. For instance “characters on 1980s TV, not always positive ones, like Mr Humphries on Are You being Served... although in a strange way he was positive... endearing, always his own man.” Teachers were role-models too. “At Whangarei Boys' High there were two openly gay teachers who were strong and inspirational.”

In his teens he was “seeing both men and women and it didn't seem confusing” but there was that issue of his father's expectations. “I was the eldest child of three, I began to wonder if I was letting him down somehow.”

“My dad's a good man, a hard worker, even now in his 70s. His top priority has always been his family,” Foster-Bell says. “But we are incredibly different people which gets in the way of us being particularly close. The pair don't see other very much. “Due to work I don't get back to Whangarei very much, in fact I haven't been back for Christmas several years though I try to be there once or twice a year.”

If Foster-Bell, now aged 40, and his father are chalk and cheese, how is his relationship with his mother? “Of course I'm very proud of them both but mum and I are much more similar, we're very alike.” Certainly his mother has a strong intellect, having recently completed a PhD as a mature student, and she has also been politically active. “She was for a long time an active member of the National party, as were her parents who were also farmers. She was a strong influence on me politically.”

Foster-Bell was too young to be impacted by the polarising mid-1980s fight for Homosexual Law reform and, while he was in his teens, the level of acceptance of homosexuality increasingly evident in much of today's New Zealand was yet to happen. “But, he says, “society was rapidly changing.”

Given his conservative background he acknowledges that it would have been easier to suppress his feelings for other men but elected not to. He attended university in Dunedin, gaining a degree in archeology and a diploma in business, and he discovered the freedom to publicly be himself.

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Foster-Bell meets then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.
The public service then beckoned, in particular the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was posted to quite senior roles in NZ embassies and consulates in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, where he was deputy head of mission, Pakistan and Iraq. These were countries where “being gay was criminalised and being identified as gay could lead to the death penalty.” As a foreign diplomat exposure would have been less deadly: “Probably you would be expelled but if I had had any sort of relationship with a local he would have been fully exposed to Sharia law so it was best just to keep my head down.”

Ironically, there are thriving gay communities in parts of the Middle East such as Iran, Foster-Bell says. “They exist in the same ways that other minorities exist such as women, ethnic and religious groupings... being discrete, closeted, avoiding persecution. It's not like New Zealand, it';s a very different lifestyle.”

His change from diplomacy to politics came out a desire to influence at a political level the kinds of policies he had, as a diplomat, been tasked with carrying out. “At those smaller embassies everyone does a bit of everything,” he says. “Even senior staffers find themselves doing the basic work like helping NZ tourists in tricky situations... it's a lot like grass roots electorate work and I enjoyed it. I like helping people.”

His road to Parliament wasn't an easy one, but had its genesis in his membership of the Young Nats. In 2002 he contested the Dunedin South electorate, but lost out to Labour's David Benson-Pope. In 2011 he stood for Wellington Central, ironically against out gay Labour candidate Grant Robertson. He polled well but Robertson won easily. In the 2014 general election he missed out on the party's nomination for the Whangarei electorate.

But he became a National list MP in 2013, openly-gay to friends and associates but not to the general public, when Jackie Blue stood down. Ironically he made his maiden speech on the same day as National's openly-lesbian list MP Claudette Hauiti - who was to last only a year before resigning from the House in disgrace.

In 2014 Foster-Bell stood against Robertson in Wellington Central again but once again Robertson took the seat. However, he remains a list MP, currently serving on the Government Administration and the Local Government and Environment select committees, and he is a member of the Parliamentary Service Commission's Arts committee.


In part two of this interview Foster-Bell talks about being one of the few, ever, openly gay MPs in the National party and how he sees his role vis a vis contentious glbti issues such as HIV, transgender rights and glbti youth safety.


Jay Bennie - 10th December 2016

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