Tova O’Brien is one of Aotearoa’s most recognisable, respected and, in fringe circles at least, reviled political journalists. She talks to Karl Puschmann about why the 2023 election is far from boring, why she respects politicians and details her own political ambitions…
“I hate it!” Tova O’Brien laughs. “I lose my…”
She trails off, struggling to complete her sentence before suddenly plucking the missing thought out of the air.
“… my words,” she says.
It’s the only time during our interview that Tova appears flustered. During our 45-minute chat, she effortlessly handles whatever questions I throw at her with grace, poise and a professionalism that you’d expect from one of our most prominent, awarded and respected political journalists.
She laughs off any baited statements that I make (me: “I just feel Luxon is an embarrassment to the bald community,”. Tova: “if you can be so bold for the bald?”), bats away anything she doesn’t want to speak about (“I’ve probably said all I’m gonna say on Today FM stuff now. I’ll just leave that in the past.”) and manages to talk a lot about politics without nailing her colours to any particular mast (“That was a very long-winded answer to a very straightforward question. I apologise.”).
But the question that’s left her quite literally grasping for words was a relatively simple one; How does one of Aotearoa’s most fearless and at times brutal interviewers feel being on the other side of the questions?
Well, like she says, she hates it.
“It’s a difficult setting for me,” she admits. “But I’m also really excited to be able to share what we’re doing.”
What she’s doing is a lot. After the sensational, board-mandated, on-air closure of Today FM in March that led to Tova dropping one of the most memorable and infamous F-bombs in New Zealand media history, she kept a mostly low profile.
In July she resurfaced, ditching the mic and cameras of her previous careers on radio and television to join news org Stuff as their new Chief Political Reporter. Since then she’s started a political column, which has become a regular attraction on Stuff’s homepage, and has just launched a new weekly political podcast simply titled Tova.
Landing each Thursday on Stuff, as well as all the usual suspects like Apple Podcasts and Spotify, each episode of Tova is around 30-40 minutes long and anchored around a key interview on a major topic or topics that are driving the election campaign. She’s been working away the concept and the details feverishly since starting at Stuff all those months ago.
“It’s really cool. It’s everything I love about politics; long-form interviews, analysis and wonderful contributors,” she gushes. “We’re having a lot of fun as well. I’m pumped. I am fizzing. It’s so exciting.”
With election day looming and the political campaigns roaring along at full volume, Tova couldn’t have picked a better time to launch Tova. This is the period that political journalists live for.
“It’s kind of like Christmas, birthdays, an Easter treasure hunt, just all of the things rolled into one,” she smiles. “There’s a lot of joy to be had when you get into campaign proper. That’s the best fun because you get to see politicians out of their natural habitat. And we [political journalists] get to get out of the beltway as well and talk to people and see how politicians interact with them. It’s magnificent.”
As Tova’s a bit of a veteran of the election cycle now, I’m curious to know how she thinks this year’s election is shaping up and how she rates it in comparison to others she’s covered.
“They’re all so different,” she says looking back. She reckons 2014 was the “craziest election” with Kim Dotcom’s ‘Moment of Truth’ and all that. 2017 saw her watching ‘Jacinda-mania’ swoop across the nation from London where Newshub had stationed her. 2020 had the global pandemic, lockdown fatigue and a vicious coup in the opposition party.
“That will probably be the most incredible year in politics that I’ll ever cover,” she says.
These memorable events all highlight the big problem with 2023’s election and the campaigns thus far. It’s lacking excitement, charisma, energy. It’s just, well, a bit dull.
“The feedback that I’m getting from people out there is there’s a bit of apathy towards it. There isn’t a John Key or Jacinda Arden X-Factor major party leader who’s going to really sweep up and inspire people with a grand vision for the future. It’s a battle of two Chris’s. It boils down to two blokes with the same name, who aren’t entirely dissimilar, and who are both fighting so keenly for the centre but are almost virtually interchangeable. I think the public the public isn’t quite on board in the same way. Yet.”
Despite this, she’s not ready to write 2023 off as boring at this point. It’s still early days and, as any observer of politics knows, fortunes and fates can change in an instant.
“With every election campaign, and particularly with MMP in New Zealand, there are so many variables. Winston Peters is one of them. The rise of the Act party is another. There’s quite a strong Green party at the moment and Te Pāti Māori is a very different Te Pāti Māori than what we saw in in 2017 or the years previous.”
She takes stock for a second and then grins.
“We’ve got everything’ to play for. It’s going to be great.”
She’s fascinated to see how it all plays out, how the policies coming out of the major parties and the demands of any needed coalition partner gel together and how these alliances will shape the next few years of the nation.
“A lot of power, I think, is going to be wielded by the minor parties after October 14th,” she says. “What does that mean, in terms of some of the more extreme ACT Party policies? Or the more extreme Green Party policies? What does it mean for a wealth tax? What does it mean for Treaty principles on the right? There’s going to be a lot of very interesting conversations to be had. And hopefully, if voters are not so interested in the people, they’ll really hone in on the policies. Which is fundamentally what we should be voting for.”
Get her started on politics and you’ll have a hard time getting her to stop. Something she freely acknowledges –and apologises for – throughout our chat. She’s an evangelist, not for any political party as her mad detractors may claim, but rather for the game of politics.
“Politics might not seem that exciting from the outside. But, it’s so absurd. And so wild. And so intelligent. And so powerful. It’s just everything,” she enthuses. “It’s so trite to say, but it affects us all and I like to show all of those facets to get them hopefully as interested as I am.”
After so many years in the gallery and having collected her fair share of scalps along the way, you’d think Tova would be tarred with cynicism. This is not the case. She’s hopeful. Optimistic even. She answers a question about the growing prevalence of MAGA-style divisive politics here in New Zealand with fairness, balance and empathy and says we need to have conversations about the things that matter; the cost of living, climate change, paying the mortgage and putting food on the table rather than worrying about who can use what toilets or obsessing over pronouns.
I wonder if we, as a country, are mature enough to have those conversations and she answers before I even finish my thought.
“Yep. Absolutely, we are,” she states without hesitation. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can have some of those more difficult conversations.”
Her lack of cynicism even extends towards the politicians she covers.
“I have enormous, enormous, enormous respect for politicians. I know how hard they work. I know how fiercely intelligent they are. I think all of them to a degree have gone into that place and into those roles because they want to make a difference and they want to make things better for people. I think they are they are in there for the right reasons.”
Is a career change into politics something she would ever consider?
She laughs loud and hard and then says, “Absolutely not.”.
Unusually for a journalist, especially a political one, Tova has become somewhat of a local celebrity winning as many fans with her hard-hitting style as detractors who imagine bias and conspiracy in all of her news dispatches. Because of this, she’s found herself becoming the news story on more than one occasion, mostly centred around her sartorial style such as when she rocked a stylishly beatnik beret paired with matching shades or a bright yellow coat that contrasted brightly against the dull, grey of winter in Wellington.
“It’s really awkward. It’s not a natural setting for any journalist,” she sighs. “I blocked a lot of that stuff out.”
Whether on television or the wireless, interviewing a local candidate or an international world leader, Tova has always appeared supremely confident, self-assured, and bulletproof. Even talking with her now those qualities are all on display. But she says this is something she’s worked at.
“I have moments of doubt and stress every single day,” she says. “If I’ve got an interview with the Prime Minister coming up, or any minister or MP for that matter, I do worry, and I do want to do a good job. The way I overcome that is by being as researched and prepared as I can be. No one’s bulletproof. We’re all human, and journalists are no exception. But I do feel slightly protected by the cloak of the job and I fundamentally believe in what we do. There’s a power that you get when you’re working in these environments, which are very robust, and frankly, quite bonkers. But you go in there, and you can be myopically focused on doing your job. That helps cancel out what is really just white noise when it comes to actually getting the job done.”
But that’s enough about the job. And about politics. What about Tova O’Brien? What kind of person is she?
“I always ridicule politicians when I ask them that question and they can’t answer,” she laughs, while, I notice, not answering the question. She thinks for a bit and then says, “Um… I mean, yeah. Me, the journalist is…”
But I cut her off, which is a little rude, but we’ve covered her the journalist. What is she the person like?
“Oh, me the person?” she says, completely failing to hide her disappointment. “Okay.”
Silence hangs for a second and then she says, “I think I’m probably quite defined in a lot of ways by what I do. You know, outside of work, I still love people. I love my friends and family. I spend a great deal of time with them and that keeps me centred and human.”
And then Tova O’Brien pauses for a moment before giving the best answer to that question I’ve ever heard in my life when she smiles and says, “I’m just a chilled-out operator loving life.”.
* New episodes of Tova are released on Thursdays at stuff.co.nz and on all major podcast platforms.