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An Interview with Todd McLay

At the 2018 parliamentary hunt in Central Plateau when they each got their first deer. Denise is a vegetarian and took the meat home for her dad, who isn’t. Todd, son Caelen 17, National MP for Maungakiekie Denise Leem and her daughter Makenna 17.

NZRod&Rifle publisher, Phil Caira, talks with Todd McLay elected MP for Rotorua, hunter and family man about his role in the National Party, hunting, gun legislation and game management.

Todd, can you give our readers some background on yourself and include what you’re currently spokesperson for within the National Party?

Todd: I’m married and have four children; when I first went to Parliament, the youngest was 3 and the oldest 10. For me, family’s always been very important and it’s really straightforward: strong families build strong communities.

I’ve been in Parliament for almost 12 years; in that time … I’ve been Minister of Revenue, Minister of State Owned Enterprises, Minister of Trade and Associate Minister of Health and Tourism. I’m currently ranked number five in our line-up and I’m spokesperson for Economic Development, Trade, Tourism, Workplace Relations and Health and Safety.

Although that sounds like a lot, and it is, Simon Bridges was very clear in asking me to take these on. We see these from an economic point of view, meaning if all of those are working well – and we consider how rules in those areas impact on everyday New Zealanders and businesses – if you get that balance right, people are safe in the workplace and there’s good employment law. Essentially, you invest in areas that
help the economy grow – then Kiwis are better off, and they get to do more.

To be responsible for all those portfolios … when do you find time for hunting?

Todd: Not enough – much less now than I used too. It’s now something that I like to do with family – with my growing children.

What’s your earliest memory of hunting; how did you get into it?

Todd: My earliest memory of the outdoors was of my father who was principal of a very small rural one-teacher school in the backblocks of Taumarunui. I can remember vividly, as a 4-year-old, my father driving along the road in an old Zephyr or similar and he pulled over quite angry; he’d set out possum gin traps on all the power poles all the way along this gravel road, and the road workers had collected them all up and dumped them in one place. I later realised that he was trapping possums for extra money for his young family. I also remember him coming back one day and my mother complaining that all his clothes and hair were covered in lice – he’d been out hunting, killed a pig and carried it out of the bush. It was then I decided I wanted to go with him but was too young. I remember thinking why did I have to sit at home while Dad went out and did these amazing things!

It wasn’t until many years later, in my teenage years in Taupō, that I decided to go out with friends who did a bit of duck shooting – and loved it. So, when I was old enough, I got my gun licence. I was studying in Wellington by then, went to a local gun shop and saw a .303 that I liked; I put it on layby and paid it off with my night cleaning job. I started teaching myself
to shoot and hunt, and spent years walking around in the bush not seeing anything, not shooting anything, but really enjoying it.

After working overseas, when I came home, my gun licence had lapsed because the system had changed. I went and sat it again – I was standing for Parliament – and started to get back into hunting and really enjoyed it. So, while I don’t have as much time as I might like to go hunting, I do get out at least a couple of times a year. Each of my four children have had a chance to come with me if they wanted to and shoot a deer. My middle son, Sam, got to shoot his first deer when he was 13 or 14 years old on Hunting Aotearoa.

For the kids, it’s less about shooting the animals – although they’re very proud when they bring one back – I’ve also taught them how to butcher the animals themselves. The family very much enjoys eating venison. For me, it’s as much about being out away from everything – the cell phone doesn’t work, you’ve got a couple of your children with you and it’s really good quality time that far too few New Zealanders are able to enjoy with their family now.

We’ve gone out and seen lots of animals and decided not to shoot them for various reasons. When I first started taking them out, we often wouldn’t take a firearm, only binoculars, and I’d get them to watch and learn about the habits of deer and so on. We often bring deer back, but don’t feel that we have to.

I think that resonates a lot with our readers; it’s not always about taking an animal, it’s about the experiences while you’re out there. What I’m hearing is that hunting is a generational thing for your family. Your father hunted and you learnt to hunt – now your kids are learning from you. Can you tell me about your work in assisting Peter DunnE (United Future Party) to form the Game Animal Council (GAC) and about the parliamentary hunt. How did these come about?

Todd: Peter Dunne, with the previous Labour government, started off moving through the idea of the GAC, and when we came to government, it become a priority of his, but it wasn’t moving forward. I saw real value and merit in it – certainly, species of significance need management, and you can’t just leave deer and pigs to roam freely, but this doesn’t mean you need to do what it sometimes feels DOC and others suggest which is to exterminate them completely. However, they need to be a managed species, because while they’re not pests, they’ll grow very quickly. I’ve been in areas of bush where it’s been decimated because herd numbers are too high, and the animals aren’t as healthy as they should be. I think a Game Animal Council is a really good way to manage the herds, but what’s also really important to me is that hunters would have representation and a say, because they didn’t up until that stage. One of the things we decided we needed to do was a parliamentary hunt, to raise awareness; this worked off and on over a period of time. I decided to get quite involved – mainly, so I could go hunting and call it work! We set up a fairly easy hunt on the southern side of Lake Taupō and invited a whole lot of MPs – some of them had never been in the wilderness before. We’ve had female MPs who brought their daughters with them and went out and shot their first deer, a little sika, and took the meat home to eat.

Taking non-hunting MPs on a hunt and for some a first time into the outdoors … what a great experience for them! And it sounds like something that was instrumental in getting the GAC legislation passed. Does the parliamentary hunt still continue today?

Todd: Yes, that tradition has continued – we did a parliamentary hunt last year and another was planned for this year in the South Island to see if there were any tahr left, but we didn’t quite get there. Some of the new MPs who’ve never been [hunting] before … when they come back, some want to hunt again, others won’t. It gives them an appreciation of a way of life for hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who haven’t had a loud enough voice and possibly still don’t, but the approach is to convince one person at a time to support outdoor recreation and hunting through experiencing it for themselves. I’m of the opinion that if someone goes out and hunts once and they come back and they still don’t like it, at least they’ve informed themselves, and I respect them for doing that rather than sitting in a city and making up their mind about what 100,000+ New Zealanders do.

Like you say, informed decisions should be priority on something that a lot of New Zealanders value and are passionate about. It must be quite rewarding for you also as a hunter, seeing some of the enjoyment a non-hunter gets from those experiences.

Todd: When my son and I did the TV programme [Hunting Aotearoa], I said I was only willing to do it if I could bring the kids and make it about firearm safety. That’s always been very important to me with them all the way through from when they were very young. It’s the best way to be safe – to teach it from quite a young age; so, we did it about very young men going out hunting. The absolute look of joy on my son’s face when he shot his first deer …. The next one down, who was too young to shoot, got to carry a big smelly goat out of the bush, and although he complained about it, now when we show the video, it was really enjoyable.

You mentioned earlier about meat for the freezer; actually, I think I’ve only ever shot two stags in my life. Often when we go out, it’ll be for meat, so we choose the animal we think will taste the best. While you get a good charge out of shooting a stag, often they don’t actually taste that good, so it’s more about being out and having meat for the table than a head on the wall.

I think a lot of our readers will resonate with that; there are a lot of hunters out there that, if they had a choice to only take either the meat or the head if it was a stag they’d shot, I think the majority would choose to take the meat and leave the head behind.

Todd: Well, you see that with wapiti in the South Island … if you ever need an example of the government and the hunting community working successfully together, just look at what’s happened with wapiti. I know people who’ve hunted those blocks and they’ve left heads alone, even though they may not get another animal, as they can see it’s superb and it’ll continue to grow and help to improve the bloodline. And that’s hunters being responsible and taking pride.

It concerns me that the current Minister of Conservation has asked to get a study done on a number of sika and wapiti; you’d only ask for a report on numbers of what was there if you were thinking of doing something about them.

The government could work closer with groups such as – deerstalkers, GAC and action groups – and coming up with a workable plan where the hunters can have their say; a lot of hunters feel sometimes they don’t necessarily get to have a say, and it’s just a communication thing.

Todd: If you take the debate over the management of tahr … of course, you need to manage numbers – if there are too many tahr, it’s not good for them or anything else. And tahr – like any other alpine goat – breed very quickly. There are really only two herds of any magnitude of tahr left in the world: in the Himalayas and NZ. If you’re going to go out and shoot everything, it makes no sense; if you’re going out to exterminate the bulls from a helicopter, it really doesn’t make sense. And in the end, through quite an aggressive campaign, I stood up day after day and asked questions in Parliament of the minister, and we’ve ended up in a better space where there’s common sense. But the point is, actually, politics doesn’t always have to be confrontational; every election it will be, but when you think about this tahr herd which is of significance … I’ll never get to go and shoot a tahr in my life because I’m too lazy to walk up the mountain; but I want to know that I can if I choose to or my kids can if they choose to. If you’re going to shoot them all on the idea – like the minister said – that only Americans with lots of money come here, she’s very wrong. I’m yet to meet a hunter in NZ who doesn’t aspire to hunt a magnificent tahr. But where we’ve ended up through force is much better than where it was going to be; it’s a shame it took that fight.

I agree, and for a lot of the hunters, like you say, it’s something aspirational to go on a hunt in the Southern Alps chasing a tahr – the king of the mountain. In the future, what role do you see the government playing in balancing conservation and recreational opportunities for hunters and fishermen?

Todd: First, we need to make sure what we have is working well. With the Game Animal Council, we never worked out how to fund it properly; they must get their funding from DOC and from the minister, and that means they don’t have the ability we need them to have. I’m not an advocate of the Fish and Game model for funding, although if that was the way it went, I probably wouldn’t jump up and down about it. And the reason for that is to be able to go and catch a trout or shoot a game bird in NZ, you must have a licence; I don’t think you should have to have a licence to go onto public land and shoot a deer. If we do that, I think we’ve lost something in NZ which is, if you want to go and buy the oldest .303 you can find and walk out into the bush and shoot an animal, you should be allowed to. We need to find a way to fund the GAC to do the job we need it to without too much government interference.

There are probably upwards of 1 million New Zealanders who enjoy fishing and hunting either occasionally or all the time. When you extrapolate to husbands, wives and children – it’s a big number! I’d like to see a Minister for Recreational Hunting and Fishing. I don’t know if you’d call it that, but the reason is that when it comes to the enjoyment of up to a million New Zealander’s hunting and fishing, their voice is currently not clear at the cabinet table. If you had a minister who had the sole responsibility for representing them, then actually their voice would be heard the same as others and they would have to argue policy out and come to a position that is good for all of NZ.

As far as NZRod&Rifle is concerned, it’s extremely important to have role models within the hunting community from all walks of life who are able to advocate for our pastime and what we enjoy. The relationship between hunters and non-hunters and the public’s perceptions of firearms and hunting has never been so important. How do you think the hunting community can improve this relationship with non-hunters?

Todd: That’s a really good question, and it’s really important; it’s through demystifying and engaging. Wherever firearms are involved, people who’ve never been around them will be concerned. I can understand if you’ve never been around them, never hunted or don’t know someone who’s hunted, then it seems so very distant to what you’re used to in your town or city and where you get your meat from. So we need to find ways to engage with people who hunt and fish as well as people who don’t do that regularly.

National had a stand for the past two years at the Sika Show in Taupō. One thing that was remarkable about the Sika Show was the response we got having a stand. The National MPs that came along and worked at the stand are hunters and fishermen themselves and enjoy it. It wasn’t all about politics, they all went to have a look and spent some money. I had people come along who were very critical of the government. We got to talk about the issues that affect hunters and fishermen and listen to thousands of passionate New Zealanders who cherish the outdoors. The other thing that was so good to see was that there were so many families there – they may not all hunt, but they were bringing the kids along to look and enjoy it and tasting some of the food and so on.

What’s the National party’s stance on the proposed Arms Legislation Bill?

Todd: We’ll set out our hunting, fishing and firearms policy before the next election. We’re taking the time to work through it very carefully; there needs to be balance. We also need to wait and see what the government finally does; if I set the policy now, the framework could change, as I think the current government could go much further on their restrictions on legitimate law-abiding firearms users. We want to find a reasonable balance between the rights of the legitimate user and the concern and protection of the public. I can give you one absolute guarantee today: if we do nothing else, we’ll make sure the law is rebalanced to target the criminals.

And to wrap things up, what is your favourite game animal to hunt and why?

Todd: I like sika the most because they taste better than reds. I’ve always wanted to go out and shoot a big sambar and whilst I’ve seen a few with my mate Alec McIver, there’s never been one close enough to the truck. I have a very nice red stag head that I shot some years ago – it’s a 21-pointer. It was at the back of a farm and had probably run off years before and lived in and out of the bush. I won the opportunity to have a go at it in an auction in a rural area in my electorate; the auction was to raise money for a young family who had a very ill young child who had to go to Starship Hospital. My wife let me spend a lot of money on a very good cause and there was no guarantee I’d get a shot.

I headed out late one afternoon and saw a stag that we though was it; I took the shot with my 7mm Rem Mag, but it wasn’t the right stag – it was a smaller one. I actually knew it wasn’t the right one, but just couldn’t help myself. I decided to mounted it anyway, because I’d probably never shoot one again. So we took the head off and I took it to someone in Taupō.

About a week later, the guys on the farm phoned me and said, “The big deer’s back”, and I could come and have another crack. So, I dropped everything; it was a 21-pointer, and I got him after a lot of walking, some stalking and a long shot. I was going overseas that evening on ministerial business so I had to chuck the head on the floor of a chiller, and when I came back from overseas, it wasn’t too flash. The taxidermist put the antlers from the 21-pointer on the smaller deer and the antlers from the first deer on a euro mount.

I came home one day to find that my wife had had hung the 21-pointer head so you’d see it as soon as you walked into the house, which is pretty good for a city girl.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is stick a boar. As a teenager growing up around the pine forests of Taupō, I’ve always felt the the drag of pig hunting. One day when there’s more time, or if one of your readers wants to take an ageing MP out for a hunt, I’m up for it.

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