New Zealand Law Society - Submarine driver launches bid to replace John Key

Submarine driver launches bid to replace John Key

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Chris Penk
Chris Penk

Inspired by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea science fiction adventure, naval officer Chris Penk drove a submarine in the Australian Navy, while swotting law during quiet moments on manoeuvres.

Now, after serving in both the New Zealand and Australian navies, property lawyer Penk has ventured into the deep end again as National Party candidate for former Prime Minister John Key’s safe Helensville seat.

Christopher Aidan (Chris) Penk
Entry to law
Graduated BA from Auckland University in 1999 and LLB (Hons) in 2010. Admitted in 2010.
Ong and Penk Lawyers, Auckland. 
Speciality area
Property law.

“I always wanted to drive submarines,” says Chris, who was an officer of the watch for about four years on board HMNZS frigate Te Kaha, before being accepted into the Australian Navy for another four years – including a year as navigating officer on a submarine.

“I was driven by having read 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and it appealed to me as something exciting.

“In military terms being on a submarine puts a different perspective on operations. You are trying hard to be undetected and stealthy and all those exciting things.

“It was great to do that and something I was always keen on doing. It’s a different world down there … a challenge as a navigating officer and a mental challenge. I had some great times on the sub.”

Not allowed to say exactly where and when his submarine operated other than around South-east Asia, his military career took him to the Middle East where he helped protect an Iraqi government-owned oil rig in the Arabian Gulf as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007-08.

He can’t talk about the detail of his military operations, but says “you do get to see some interesting things through a periscope which you wouldn’t be close enough to do otherwise.”

In the thick of it

In the year between navies, Chris served as Aide de Camp to then Governor-General and former High Court judge Dame Silvia Cartwright.

“That was great fun. Yes, there is a certain amount of handbag carrying – I would have called it ceremonial. There is an element of being a PA. I got to meet a lot of interesting New Zealanders and as someone interested in constitutional law, it was exciting to be part of observing laws being signed, being in the thick of it.”

Chris joined the New Zealand Navy in 1999, after finishing his BA and starting, before putting on hold, a law degree. “The navy seemed a good idea for a young man.”

Between service in both navies he did a bit more law study and towards the end of his four-year service with the Australians took his law books to sea in anticipation of coming back home and finishing his degree – describing the 12 years it took him to get his law degree as “heavy weather”.

“Law gave me an opportunity to work alongside people in sometimes pretty important situations in their life and I enjoy the problem-solving aspect of law.”

With law running in the family – his father Stephen is an associate professor of law at Auckland University and older brother Alex, formerly a lawyer with Chapman Tripp, is chief executive of the Maxim Institute.

Aiming to replace the former PM

Interested in politics from his student days, he didn’t join the National Party until 2008 partly because, as a member of the Defence Force, it was regarded as inappropriate to get involved in politics.

After rejoining, he was Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett’s electorate chairman in Waitakere.

“I enjoy being a lawyer because I can help people get individual transactions or matters settled at a micro level. But I have always been interested in the problem-solving element of politics.

Chris Penk and John Key sitting together
Chris Penk with John Key

“Politics is a great opportunity to help people in their daily lives at policy level. The political realm would allow me to be much more strategic and have a wider influence, albeit in a less direct way.

“My alternative career is to get elected to Parliament. Helensville is a strong National seat which was held by John Key, but first things first and I am not taking anything for granted.

“Returning to law is something that would be available to me post a parliamentary career. It’s an option at the back of my head.”

Chris is currently discussing transitional details of what he describes as a sinking lid policy with his legal partner Adelina Ong.

“I will continue to work through existing files and because being principally in the property area typically things have a life span of about two months. But I am not taking new work from here on as I transition out of the firm.

“If given the political opportunity I would interested in something with a defence or law and justice flavour. But that’s more crystal ball gazing, I haven’t been elected yet.”

In Helensville, he will face Labour’s Kurt Taogaga, an ESOL teacher, and a high-profile Green Party candidate, sportswoman and broadcaster Hayley Holt. In the 2014 election, John Key had a a 18,287 majority.

Lover of cricket and league

A cricket follower who hasn’t played for some years, he’s a keen fan of rugby league side the Warriors with high hopes for them this season. “They have a good player roster and hope springs eternal.”

Chris is on the board of trustees of his old school Kelston Boys’ High, where he is trying to build up an old boys network.

Outside his military travels, he enjoys visiting the United States and watched last year’s election night at the Rockefeller Centre in New York.

“I wish I’d been at the New Zealand embassy’s inauguration party in Washington – it sounds like a helluva bash.”

Chris Penk at Kumeu Show with an alpaca
Chris Penk at the Kumeu Show

A regular visitor to the United Kingdom, where his mother’s family is from and where a brother and sister-in-law live, his favourite spot in New Zealand is Helensville. “But I would have to say that. It’s a special place.”

Married to Mediaworks online editor Kim Choe – whom he met at law school while she was doing a law degree – the couple have a dog, a King Charles spaniel-cross-cavoodle named Barkley.

A former piano player, he has varied musical tastes and favours musicals such as Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

“I read news and current affairs, and for pleasure I like Agatha Christie and Jeffrey Archer. We watch Netflix – Suits and The West Wing – but I have no favourite actors.

“I drive a Mazda Axela, and am working through getting a campaign vehicle – something big and blue for clocking up a few miles around the electorate.

“I’m going to avoid the insufferable correct answers for dinner guests, so let’s go for WG Grace, the famous English cricketer from the past and leave it at him.”

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